You may have been too busy watching Sarah Paulson conquer Peak TV – almost a decade’s worth of American Horror Story seasons, an Emmy-winning performance in The People vs. OJ Simpson – to notice the list of stellar film credits she has racked up, too. Over two decades, Paulson has starred in Certified Fresh works like 12 Years A Slave, Carol, The Post, and Mud, establishing herself as one of the most sought-after actors of her generation. This year, she made her first move into the superhero genre, playing Dr. Ellie Staple in M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass – a fascinating foil to the movie’s trio of superheroes and villains, Mr. Glass, The Horde, and David Dunn. As the film hits DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming, Paulson shared her Five Favorite Films with Rotten Tomatoes.
I think it’s always incredibly difficult to thread that needle between real pathos and comedy. And I think Postcards dances on that knife’s edge, not to go overboard with the metaphors, but it’s just so beautifully calibrated because the script, Carrie Fisher’s. There is no greater writing mind ever; Carrie Fisher had such a particular lens that she looked through the world with, and it just translated incredibly into her writing. I just thought the script was just so funny, but the performances! It’s one of those movies that for me is the whole package. Although I did not grow up with a mother who was in show business, the relationship between them was not dissimilar from mine in a way, and made me feel connected to the material.
But it’s the kind of movie that I actually own still on VHS. I remember buying this movie and wanting it, so I have it for just memory’s sake, but I also have it on DVD, and Cody Fern, who’s an actor on American Horror Story last year, as a wrap present gave me an original poster. That’s how much I love the movie and that’s how much people around me tend to know I love the movie, because I do quote it a lot. And you just don’t want to sit next to me when we’re watching it though, because you won’t hear the movie. I’m just doing the whole thing, line by line.
Did you ever get to work with Carrie Fisher?
I did not ever work with her, no, but I knew her a bit and spent some time at her house and had the great good fortune to work with her daughter Billy Lourd for the last two years on American Horror Story; I first met her when she was a child. And to be working with her as a grown woman and a real, I think, acting presence, and she’s just an extraordinary person, so I’ve had that great good fortune.
Frances, starring Jessica Lange, is one of those movies that for me was quite connected to my wanting to be an actor. I had obviously been to the movies many times as a young person, but I think I was about 14, or 15 when I was at home on a Sunday, and this movie … I turned a channel, and it was on cable, or whatever cable was at that time. And it was midway through the movie, and I just was transfixed and went out, back when we could go to the video store, and I rented it, so I could watch it from the beginning. And to me, it’s just an extraordinary portrait of an actress. Frances Farmer, I didn’t have knowledge about her and her work, but also whatever I knew of her working-wise, I certainly didn’t know anything about her real life, which is really tragic, and a painful movie to watch.
Jessica Lange gives one of the greatest performances, and it was my introduction to Kim Stanley, who is actually the screensaver on one of my cell phones. [The pictures is] from her performance in Bus Stop, not from Frances; it’s just been on my phone for I don’t even know how long. And just again, there’s a thematic thread here [with Frances]: it’s another story about mother and daughter. At its core that’s what it’s about. And I just find it incredibly powerful. It was just like watching two acting titans and thinking, “Oh, if that’s what acting is, I want to do that.” And of course, I’ve come to learn that a lot of times acting doesn’t get to be that, but every once in a while you get to touch on that, and it was really inspiring – and another movie poster I had in house.
What was it like then to get to work so closely and frequently with Jessica Lange?
Well, that was one of those moments that I’ll never forget. I actually first worked with her on Broadway. We did a production in 2005 of Glass Menagerie, which is where we first met when I was about 29 years old. And I’ll never forget sitting in a room waiting, which was part of the process of getting a job, but you had to do your final audition with Jessica. And for someone like me, who is such an enormous fan [of Jessica] – she’s someone who I credit with really igniting the acting fire for me, and someone whose career I would love to have emulated, so it’s a very big scary day for me. I remember hearing her walk down the hallway. And I remember saying out loud – without even realizing it – I said, “Oh, gosh, here she comes.” And I didn’t even realize I said it out loud, and I was in a room full of people: the directors, the casting directors. I’m sure they were just absolutely terrified that I was gonna blow the whole thing by not being able to speak, but… Now, [working with Jessica] has evolved into something where I don’t burst into tears every time I get a phone call from [her]. Do you know what I mean? It’s landed in a place where I recognize that we’re actually people who have a working history together that is based on something real and not just my absolute adoration of her.
Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility! I find it to be one of the most romantic movies, but also for me, so many times it’s about how the performance affects me, in terms of what I ended up taking away from it all – just dreaming and wishing and hoping that someday I could do work of that caliber. But I just found the movie to be sweeping and yet – even though taking place in another era– it was so timeless to me. And I remember that moment clear as a bell with Emma Thompson at the end of that movie when he comes running up, and she realizes that he’s there to see her, and it’s just one of the most beautiful acting moments I’ve ever seen. So I just love that movie, and I think Ang Lee is such a beautiful filmmaker and creates such beautiful cinematic images that are indelible, really.
I remember it was showing in New York City, and I walk over with my friend [to the theater] sort of not knowing what I’m about to see, which is always kind of my favorite thing. I try more and more to not read a review of a movie before I go see it, to not read a review of a play before I go see it, so that I’m not inundated with other people’s opinions about things and I’m able to sort of … It really speaks more to my susceptibility to other people’s opinions than it does about anything that could be playing. I want to have a clean experience that’s just mine.
I didn’t know anything about Edith Piaf. I had, of course, recognized many of her songs and had loved many of her songs, but I had no connection to, nor did I know historically, what had happened to her and what her story was. But I was just bowled over by Marion Cotillard’s performance. And of course then I started Googling her and trying to understand where she came from. And she had been in that Russell Crowe movie, and she was so much younger than Piaf, playing that part, and it was just another acting feat!
The combination of all the beautiful and tragic things you learn about someone who is so gifted, and then also to see it portrayed by someone equally as gifted and once again be transported into a world you knew nothing about – that’s really the power of the movie.
I would probably say A Woman Under the Influence [for my fifth movie], although it’s a deep, deep tie between that and the movie Opening Night. And A Woman Under the Influence was, I think, more celebrated, but Opening Night might resonate more with me. It is a story about an actress coming to terms with aging and her mortality. I think I’m also really drawn to the way those movies were made, and you can kind of feel the hammer and nail that was used to bring the whole thing together in this way that’s sort of extraordinary and that you can just almost feel the effort made by everyone involved – which is what happens when you make any movie. But sometimes [it affects you] when you know that everybody’s friends were there and they’re all making food for people to eat while they’re making this movie, to make this movie, to tell the story, not to serve any bottom line, or anything other than their creative interests. [In Opening Night, writer, director, and co-star John Cassavetes worked with Gena Rowlands, his then wife.] You don’t always have that luxury. And I just am always very moved by the way they made their movies and what a family they were and what places they could go because of it, because of that intimacy, because of that ease and that history between them. They were able to do things that I don’t know that you could achieve or accomplish in any other fashion, you know?
Warning: Spoilers for Glass below…
Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: You get to play a comic-book movie villain in Glass. How did you approach that challenge?
Sarah Paulson: Well, I mean, I know that some people do see it that sort of black and white, but to me, probably because I played her, it doesn’t feel quite that clear in terms of, I had to approach it and then per Night’s wish and suggestion and desire, that I had to approach it from a place of self-interest, or any kind of villainous motivation. It was actually a belief system that is just other. She’s a non-believer, but I think she says in the movie more than once, “I want to believe. I want you to convince me.” I don’t think that’s just a tactic. I think she means it. “If you could convince me, I will leave you all alone, and I will support you and try to get you the mental help that you might need, but work with you again.”
But I think that she actually believes that the balance of power would be disrupted in terms of the way we could actually function in the world if everyone went around believing they were capable of great things. It might not only dilute the water, but also make it a place where there would be no rules. And Ellie Staple operates in a place where rules are her friends and she relies them on them, and I think she thinks there can only be order in the world with them. And I think the unruly component of letting these three people out into the world is too terrifying for her. You could look at it that way, and I think it’s how I tried to look at it, because I wouldn’t have known how to play her otherwise. I had to kind of try to find my way in there without coming at it from the twisting-the-mustache vantage point, yeah.
Glass is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and streaming now.