Sarah Paulson is an Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning actor, known for appearances across screens big and small. She's played 11 separate characters in the anthology series American Horror Story (so far), and stars in films like Ocean's 8, Carol, and Glass.
Her latest projects — in the Hulu film Run (out Nov. 20) and the Netflix series Ratched, based on the infamous nurse from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, add to her list of intense, disturbing roles. On NPR's Ask Me Another, she told host Ophira Eisenberg it's ironic to find herself playing these types of parts, joking that she's afraid of her own shadow.
Paulson said, when she was a child, her parents loved watching movies like Nightmare on Elm Street. The films scared her so much, she'd leave her bedroom door open at night. Meanwhile, "my sister would be in the bed next to me, like, 'Freddy's gonna get you.'"
While Paulson said she prefers not to watch her own acting, she broke her own rule for the Netflix series Ratched, where she's an executive producer. "I felt it would be really unfair of me to be shouting about what I thought should be different or other, having not seen it."
Paulson is also a big music fan. For her Ask Me Another challenge, Coulton sang R&B songs re-written to be about other things with an ampersand, like M&Ms, A&P & A&W.
On having a devoted cult following grow out of her iconic American Horror Story lines:
The only time it gets supremely weird is when you go to some of these fan events, and they will roll up their arm and show you a tattoo of the phrase. Or, they will ask you to sign that phrase on a piece of paper, and you will see them later at a fan event and they have tattooed that exact, your handwriting on their body. And, it's a lot of dedication. I'm grateful for them, but wow.
On being a bad speller:
I am the worst speller. I am a terrible speller. I had a job at Circle's Pizza, in Brooklyn. Circle's Pizza up there on 15th? I think I worked there for an afternoon, because I got a phone call for an order to be delivered, and they asked me to spell "chicken parmesan," and I didn't know how to spell "parmesan." And I panicked, it never occured to me I could write "chicken parm." I just didn't have the skill. And I remember calling my mother and saying, "How do you spell parmesan?"
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Now let's say hello to the second of two very famous Sarahs on today's show. She's an Emmy Award-winning actor from "American Crime Story" and "American Horror Story," and now she's on American Trivia Story. Sarah Paulson, hello.
SARAH PAULSON: Hi.
EISENBERG: You're obviously a regular fixture on Ryan Murphy's long-running TV anthology, "American Horror Story." You've played 11 characters...
EISENBERG: ...In eight seasons. And the roles - I mean, to - for me, to look at them - I'm very scared of this stuff, so I don't consume a lot of it. Do you like horror? Do you watch horror yourself?
PAULSON: No. But, see; I had really young parents. My parents were 21 and almost 23 when I was born. And so they wanted to watch what they wanted to watch, and so they did. And so I was a 9-year-old watching "Nightmare On Elm Street," you know, begging my father to leave the door wide open while I fell - you know? It just - and my sister would...
PAULSON: ...Lie in the bed next to me and be like, Freddy's going to get you, you know? I'd be like, (vocalizing). Yeah. And so they watched all those scary movies because they really liked them, and they were young, and they wanted to. So I was certainly seeing them way before I should have. I'm a person...
PAULSON: ...Who is scared for my own shadow. So how I found myself working in this genre is really a kind of confounding situation.
EISENBERG: Yeah. And some of the - I mean, your characters - they're unbelievably doing gruesome things.
EISENBERG: So I don't know what goes through your mind when you are doing this stuff, but I just wonder if it's, like, just kind of fun and there's a detachment.
PAULSON: I - if I were more talented, I think the answer would be yes.
PAULSON: But I don't know how to do it without really - like, I don't know how to do - I don't know how to fake it. So if I'm hyperventilating, I'm hyperventilating. And that's just, you know, the consequence of my - you know, the havoc I've wreaked on my health, I'm sure, doing these shows because I think in Season 6 or something, which was the "Cult" season, which was sort of dealing with the inauguration of President Trump and that whole story, my character was supposed to be completely undone by all of this. And, you know, that was sort of easy for me to replicate...
PAULSON: ...Access in myself. But also, I was being chased by clowns, and it was like - but there's really an actor with a clown head on, you know, with a knife in his hand chasing me, and I don't know how to not run screaming from that. And I don't know how to do it in a way where then I stop and go, OK, so when's second meal?
JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: (Laughter).
PAULSON: I just - I don't know how to do it. I'm in the corner like, OK, can you just give me a minute? I just need a second. You know, it's just like, wow, lady, you've got to find a way to do this without torturing yourself. I don't think acting is supposed to be torturous, but, you know, I don't know how to - I don't know how to fake it. That's the truth about me.
EISENBERG: So - but what do you do in between takes when they're like, all right, cut, and you still have to do it again...
PAULSON: Sob and ask for my mother. I don't know. It's a lot of like - you know, it's a lot of - it's really - it really does beg the question, like, am I sane? Because why would you put yourself in this, you know, position again and again and again? You know, but I do - people seem to really love it. And I kind of love how...
EISENBERG: Oh, very effective.
PAULSON: Yeah. Those fans really - it's kind of wild to have people that are so devoted that way.
EISENBERG: And I have to say, the Internet loves it because you get these lines on "American Horror Story" that are so outrageous. And one that comes to mind is from "Apocalypse," where - I'm just going to take out the curse word, but you basically say, like, I am the supreme...
EISENBERG: ...Right? And...
PAULSON: Yeah. I am the bleeping supreme.
EISENBERG: The bleeping supreme, which just seems so right for, you know, Internet memes and GIFs.
PAULSON: Oh, yeah.
EISENBERG: And, you know, when you see these lines on the script, are you like, oh, yeah, the Internet is just going to gobble this up?
PAULSON: I thought they might be excited about that one because that was a reprisal of a character I played that was very beloved by the fans from Season 3 in "Coven." So - and that witch did not start out the most powerful witch. I became the most powerful witch by the end of the season. So then when I, you know, returned to that character, people were so excited to see how Cordelia had become the most powerful witch of all.
PAULSON: So I knew they were going to like that. But I have a bunch of - you know, there's the I'm tough, but I'm no cookie because somebody calls me a cookie, and I say I'm tough, but I'm no cookie. The only time it gets supremely weird is when you go to some of these fan events and they - you know, fans will roll up their arm and they'll show you a tattoo of the phrase, or they will ask you to sign that phrase on a piece of paper and you will see them later at a fan event and they have tattooed that exact - your handwriting on their body. And it's just a lot of dedication. I'm grateful for them, but wow.
EISENBERG: And I'm sure you've also been like, I have to be really careful that I'm spelling this all correctly and (laughter) my handwriting...
PAULSON: No, I am the worst speller. I am a terrible speller.
PAULSON: I had a job at Circles Pizza in Brooklyn - Circles Pizza up there on 15th - yeah.
PAULSON: I worked there, and I think I worked there for an afternoon because I got a phone call for an - like, an order to be delivered, and they asked me to spell chicken parmesan. And I couldn't - I didn't know how to spell parmesan, and I panicked. I mean, it never occurred to me I could write chicken parm. I just didn't have the skill. And I remember calling my mother and saying, how do you spell parmesan? Like, it just was too horrible for me. I'm a bad speller.
PAULSON: I'm a bad speller now. I've always been a bad speller. When I watch those spelling bee movies and things, I'm like, wow, these kids are so amazing.
EISENBERG: But, you know, can all those good spellers act? Maybe you can ask yourself...
PAULSON: You know, this is a very good point you make. I like this point. I like this point a lot.
EISENBERG: And in your new Hulu film called "Run," you play the single parent of a chronically unwell 17-year-old girl. And as the girl inches towards her 18th birthday, she begins to get a sense that maybe she isn't as sick as her mother makes her out to be.
PAULSON: Yeah. I find myself in another genre - yeah.
EISENBERG: Yeah. It reminds me - maybe it does you, too; I'm not sure - it reminds me a little bit of Kathy Bates's character in "Misery."
EISENBERG: And you two have been on the same set.
PAULSON: We worked together on "American Horror Story" for a couple of years. Yeah.
PAULSON: I even got to a direct her in an episode where she was just the most game, delicious, wonderful comrade in arms. She was wonderful. She was just so great.
EISENBERG: Did you talk about your relationship to the genre of horror?
PAULSON: We didn't. It's so funny. We didn't because sometimes, you know, when you're doing the thing, you don't have that perspective. It's like living in New York and not going to see the Statue of Liberty because you live there. It's like - it's just not what you're going to do.
EISENBERG: Right. And then someone comes to town and you're like...
PAULSON: And they're like, the Statue of Liberty. And you're...
EISENBERG: So - and now you are the face of Netflix most-watched original series of 2020 for your role as Nurse Ratched, which is the origin story of one of the most famous villains in novel and film from "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest." First of all, when you are the most-watched series for Netflix, do they send you, like, a fruit basket? Do you get a plaque, anything?
PAULSON: I didn't get a plaque, and I didn't get a basket, either. So anybody listening to this working at Netflix, you might want to send me a goodie bag...
PAULSON: ...Just a little goodie bag. I mean, one could argue that the gift they've given me is, you know...
PAULSON: ...Being on a show that's successful. Money - yeah, exactly.
PAULSON: They paid me to do the gig, so I guess they don't really owe me a plaque, although I'm not - I don't object to it. Give me a plaque any day. I'll take it.
EISENBERG: And you were also not only the star of this, but the executive producer. And you have a general rule, I'll say, where you don't like to watch the final product of what you're in. But you had to break that rule for the series because you were an executive producer.
PAULSON: Yes, because I was an executive producer because I felt it would be really unfair of me to start shouting about what I felt I thought should be different or other having never seen it.
PAULSON: So I thought, that's not going to work for this, so I'm going to have to watch it. It's just - I don't know. Looking at one's own face plus looking at one's own face while you're talking or emoting or just standing there, and everything looks like it's melting to me. I just look like a melting candlestick with a voice box. It's just not - it's not a great experience. It's like listening to your sound of your voice. Well, you guys probably have to do this all the time. Do you enjoy listening to your voice on the radio?
COULTON: No. If I'm in the car and the show comes on, I turn it off right away.
EISENBERG: Sarah, we knew that you love music.
PAULSON: I do.
EISENBERG: So guess what? Jonathan Coulton is going to sing you some clues in your game. Are you ready for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
PAULSON: I'm ready for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge. I'm scared. I feel frightened.
COULTON: Don't be scared.
EISENBERG: Oh, no, no, no.
COULTON: So what we've done is we took classic '90s R&B songs, and we changed the lyrics to make them about other things that have two initials with an ampersand between them.
PAULSON: My brain is already like, what?
EISENBERG: We're here for you.
COULTON: Instead of R&B, M&Ms candy, R&D for research and development, A&P supermarkets. These are all examples of what the answers might be.
PAULSON: OK. Thanks. Thanks for the help there.
COULTON: Sure. All you have to do is tell me the thing I'm singing about, or you can tell me the name of the song that I'm parodying or the artist who made it famous.
PAULSON: Great. Oh, God, please don't fail.
COULTON: Here's the first one.
COULTON: (Singing) "Storage Wars," "Storage Wars," I've been watching "Hoarders," also "Law & Order." I never go outdoors. "Parking Wars," "Parking Wars," it is my intention to watch Intervention" (unintelligible).
PAULSON: OK, well, that's A&E.
COULTON: That's correct - A&E.
PAULSON: OK. And "Say My Name," "Say My Name."
COULTON: That's right.
COULTON: Destiny's Child.
PAULSON: Destiny's Child. OK, I mean, I get one. So now, no matter what, we're just - we can only go downhill from here. But it's possible I could do something. We'll see.
COULTON: All right. Here's another one.
COULTON: (Singing) Maybe we should have stayed at a hotel. Morning meal's not swell. There's no privacy, floral wallpaper, and the hosts are weird.
PAULSON: A B&B.
COULTON: A B&B. Bed and breakfast - that's correct.
PAULSON: A B&B.
PAULSON: And it's "I'll Make Love To."
COULTON: No. It's...
PAULSON: (Singing) I'll make love to you.
COULTON: It's the same - it's the same band.
PAULSON: So it's Boyz to the Men (ph). Boyz to the Men, I just said (laughter).
COULTON: It's Boyz to the Men.
PAULSON: It's Boyz to the Men.
COULTON: It's Boyz II Men. That's "End Of The Road." That's right.
PAULSON: You're very good at this, Jonathan Coulton.
COULTON: Oh, thank you very much. Thank you.
PAULSON: You're welcome.
COULTON: (Singing) Yeah, we're just a fast, fast-fashion store mainstay. Operate worldwide, straight from the runway. Way, way cheaper clothes don't last through the year, but we're at the mall where you're shopping anyway.
COULTON: H&M is correct.
COULTON: And do you know the song?
COULTON: That is "Fantasy" by Mariah Carey.
PAULSON: Yeah. Oh, sweet, sweet fantasy - that's what it was.
COULTON: That's the one.
COULTON: All right, here's the next one.
COULTON: (Singing) Is it my turn? Is it your turn? Sometimes I'm lawful-evil. Right now chaotic-neutral. The DM says so. I could really use a wizard. Tell me, would you be that wizard?
PAULSON: So Dungeons and Dragons - D&D?
PAULSON: D&D. And who has it?
COULTON: It was Aaliyah.
COULTON: It was called, "Are You That Somebody?"
All right, this is the last one.
PAULSON: OK. Hit me.
COULTON: (Singing) Don't go drinking orange pop. Don't drink Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper or Fanta. Have a drink that tastes like sarsaparilla or sassafras whose mascot is a bear with no pants.
PAULSON: I think I have this one totally. It's "Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls."
PAULSON: OK, and it's A&W root beer.
COULTON: That is correct.
COULTON: Yeah. TLC, you got it.
PAULSON: By TLC.
COULTON: Well done.
PAULSON: So doesn't it sort of mean I won? I just need to win.
COULTON: It absolutely means you won.
PAULSON: Oh, man. I love to win.
PAULSON: I love it. I love it. I like to know I beat them all.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) That's right. Amazing. Thank you so much.
PAULSON: Thank you. I'll come back.
EISENBERG: Yeah, come on...
COULTON: That would be great.
EISENBERG: ...Any time, any time.
COULTON: We'll see you tomorrow.
PAULSON: Yeah, see you tomorrow (laughter). See you tomorrow.
EISENBERG: Thank you so much, Sarah Paulson.
PAULSON: Thank you. Thank you guys so much. I appreciate it.
EISENBERG: Sarah stars in "Ratched" on Netflix and in the Hulu film, "Run."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
EISENBERG: Well, we're fresh out of Sarahs, so that's our show. ASK ME ANOTHER's house musician is Jonathan Coulton.
COULTON: Hey, my name anagrams to thou jolt a cannon.
EISENBERG: Our puzzles were written by our staff, along with senior writers Eric Feinstein, Andrew Kane and Karen Lurie, with additional material by Cara Weinberger. ASK ME ANOTHER is produced by Travis Larchuk, Nancy Saechao, James Farber, Rommel Wood and our intern, Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neel, and our bosses' bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. Thanks to our production partner WNYC.
And before we go, we want to raise a potent potable and express our appreciation for the great Canadian, Alex Trebek. Every time someone on our show answers in the form of a question, we think of you, Alex. Thank you for everything.
I'm her ripe begonias.
COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.
EISENBERG: And this was ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.