Sarah Paulson might be most readily associated with her role as journalist Lana Winters on "American Horror Story," the FX show with disturbing visuals to spare. But the frightening aspects of that drama look trivial compared to the monster Paulson portrays in Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave," which Fox Searchlight releases this Friday. In McQueen's adaptation of the 1853 memoir by kidnapped free man Solomon Northup, which takes place during his years forced into slavery, Paulson plays a role that doesn't elicit much in the way of sympathy: She's Mary Epps, wife of psychotic plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who throws a fit each time her husband flirts with beleaguered slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o). While much of the buzz surrounding the film has played up McQueen's direction and the lead performance as Northup by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Paulson provides one of the movie's iciest ingredients, a truly vicious screen presence that deepens the constant sense of dread. Last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, Paulson sat down with Indiewire to discuss her process of inhabiting the character and how she managed to land the challenging role.
A lot of viewers are deeply affected immediately after watching "12 Years a Slave." How did it hit you?
I hadn't seen the movie until the premiere here on Friday, but it would have been nice being able to walk out and away, sort of outside. I really wanted to put my head in a pillow and have a good cry by myself.
What surprised you about it?
Well, I wasn't surprised in the sense that I believe Steve to be a really extraordinary filmmaker. So it wasn't surprising for me that the movie was well done. What surprises me, I guess, is how powerful it is. Because I read the script, I knew about all of the moments that were there -- the scene where he is hanging, and all that whipping, all of these things that I could read on the page -- but what I think is so great and so powerful about the movie is that when you put a real image to it, connect it to a person that you have connected with as the audience, it becomes personal. It takes it to a whole other level of comprehension, and that's why I think it's so effective and why it makes you feel so much. You're seeing things that you could only imagine when reading them. You're really putting a real visual image to it, which is why I think Steve did what he did. He wanted it to be so accurate and so real and to let the camera stay wide on Chiwetel as he is standing on his tip-toes for hours on end and to feel the time passing the way it would feel for him to really get inside what that would be.
And your character had to stand there and watch him suffer.
And I had to be the person watching all that. Yeah.
I'm not an actor myself, but my understanding is that you have these things called "agents" that are suppose to give you some advice about which roles will help your career. What kind of challenges did you have to go through to determine that playing a bitter, racist Southern woman was something you should do?
To me, though, I wanted to do this desperately. I auditioned for it. It wasn't offered to me. There were very fancy actresses who were pursuing the part. Steve McQueen is not interested in the name game and he wanted the right actor for the part. Some fancy people were offering themselves to him and he was about to go with one actress -- he refuses to tell me who it is -- and I made a tape. It was very last minute and he got my tape and he decided it was me.
What scene did you perform on the tape?
The scene where I scratch Chiwetel's skin and turn to Michael [Fassbender] and humiliate him in front of all the slaves by saying he's manless and weak. So I just did an audition on tape in New York with a casting director who is not even affiliated with the project, who just did a favor for my agent by putting me on tape. The great thing about that is that when you are in an audition room you might only have one chance to do it. When you make a tape you can stop, start, try again, watch it, see what's missing. So I made a tape that way and several takes for the casting director. Sometimes, when you make a tape, you just never know if someone's going to see it. It's sort of scary. You think, "I did this and I don't even know if it's going to get anywhere," and then the next day I get a call from Steve, who was very taken with my tape, and it all kind of went from there.
I was never was afraid of the question of whether she could be liked, because I feel as an actress it's none of my business whether you like me or not. It's my job to play this character as authentically and truthfully and with as much commitment as possible -- no matter how horrible she is perceived and how deplorable her actions are -- and they are. Not to justify it but, from an acting standpoint, I had to find a way into all that. The why of the behavior. It's not innocuous, she's really not evil. She behaves deplorably and does terrible, terrible, unspeakable things but in her mind, they are defensible because Patsey is sleeping her husband. It doesn't matter that it is involuntary. Her husband is in love with another woman and is embarrassing her in front of her home. It is my belief that Mrs. Epps is not a particularly deep woman or complicated woman. Some people would deal with their own feelings of jealousy and being threatened and being usurped in a much different way if they were a self-aware person, but she's not. I think she had a horribly mean father. That's something I decided. This is how she knows how to function when she's losing it, and it's impactful, and it works because Michael's character is impacted by what she says and does do what she says. Maybe not in the way that she wants, but he does do it. It is where she knows her power lies, and so in her desperation, she is willing to do it. That was what was going on inside of me, even though I am behaving in the way that I am behaving. I am not saying this as a excuse for her behavior or defending her behavior, I am just saying from an acting standpoint, it's not interesting for me nor is it possible or probable that a person just walks around doing such horrible things without motivation.