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?
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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.
There are a lot of first-hand accounts from this period, but your character isn’t that well understood in Solomon Northup’s book. How did you flesh her out?
I had to give myself a story because in the book are Solomon’s perceptions of Mr. Epps so they are accurate. It’s what he saw. So the behavior was there. What’s written into the movie and in the book probably happened but what that was like for her, inside, might have been something entirely different. In order for me to play it, I had to find a way into what happens when you feel you are losing the only thing you have, which is your standing in your own home and your respect. It manifests itself in different ways for people — and for her, it manifests as indefensible acts.
Were you able to pull yourself out of that in between takes?
I was, because — this is going to sound incredibly “actress-y” and I hope it doesn’t sound stupid, but her own ignorance and her own lack of depth made it possible for me to jump in and jump out. Other things that I have done in the past and things I hope to do is that when it gets into a sort of intricate psychology of the why and the what and it becomes complicated and tangled, it’s harder to extricate yourself from it. You have to stay with a person that just doesn’t go that deep and she’s not self-aware. She’s not a complicated, self-aware woman. You know how you can describe a person as a single story person or a second story person — you either have many floors and an attic in your house or you’re just kind of here. I think that’s how she is. And I think I’m not that way, and in order to do that, the best thing for me to do was leave it. It was also uncomfortable to stay in because she is a person that I found difficult, to say the least. So I had to find a way that I was going to be able to do it, and that was the best way for me.
Did you feel like you had to apologize or recreate a relationship with people?
Chiwetel and I stayed in the same hotel. On the weekends, we would spend time together sometimes before those scenes were taking place. I think I did apologize in the hair and make up trailer before one scene, that I was very sorry that I have to do this. We both sort of looked at each other like, “This is the story.” It’s my job to push this to the limit, because that’s what the story requires for me and for my character. If I try to make it more palatable, I don’t think the story is told as truthfully. I think in order to really know what they were enduring, Michael and I had to commit to going somewhere and not backing off of it or being afraid that someone was going to say, “She’s a bitch. I don’t like her.” Good, don’t like me, you shouldn’t like me, but there’s more than what meets the eye. The movie is not about me, so you don’t have the same scenes of me in my bedroom braiding my hair and crying about how my life is. To do something to redeem her in the audience’s eyes, to make them understand, that’s not my job. That would be a different movie.
What kind of guidance did Steve give you?
He kept saying to me, “It’s what you did during your audition.” The main thing that we would talk about was a carriage, a posture, and her own sort of loftiness, her ideas about herself. He gave me an image which was very helpful — to be a figurine or doll on top of a cake. That sort of physical image. Steve works a lot in terms of imagery and it was a very good note to give me, because then every time I walked out the thing that was most important to me was that I had a kind of statuesque stillness. I was unfussy and…immovable. Those little statues that you pick up and stick somewhere. They just stand. They never lean. It was just a very good image to have in my brain that helped me. Of course, as an actress, you have those moments where you think, “I want to cry here.” In a different movie, I might have cried. My instinct was to be upset, and I can see in the movie that there is humiliation, and there are other things on my face.
Did any of your previous acting experience prepare you for this?
No, and I had yet to do the new season on “American Horror Story,” which I did last year. That, to me, was the most meaty, fully realized character that I ever really played. I had yet to do them but I don’t think anything ever really prepares you. But everything that you’ve done all kind of culminates. It’s all kind of a piece.
Having gone through this experience, has it informed the types of roles you want to take on in the future? It’s not a conventional direction, to say the least.
I know. That is true. What I think about is that I like to work and I like to work with great actors and great directors and great material — and there isn’t a ton of it. It’s not overflowing. My cup doesn’t runneth over in opportunity that way. To me, this was the opportunity to act something that was so the opposite of who I am as a person. It was a enormous challenge and it was exciting. And to work with Steve and Michael — I couldn’t imagine a more exciting working experience. I don’t ever think about it in terms of career moves. Maybe I should, but I don’t. I don’t know if I will succeed, but I want to try. Someone quite famous whose name I won’t mention told me, “I can’t believe you did that part. I couldn’t have done that. She was too horrible. I couldn’t have done it.” And I always thought I didn’t think of her in that way. I know what she is in the movie but it would never occur to me to not take a part because something would be hard or complicated or tough for an audience to watch. Ever. I don’t know why, but that’s not what I do.
With that being said, are you nervous about the way she is perceived? The film still hasn’t opened so you still have that window of time before —
People on the street throw things at me?
It did occur to me when I watched the movie, during vocal response [from the audience] when I throw the glass, the audible gasp of 1400 people — or the laughs I got when I said, “My bed is too holy for you to share,” because it is an absurd thing for a woman like me to say, that I live some sort of holy life. It did occur to me that especially since Lupita [Nyong’o]’s performance is so beautiful and so moving and you feel for her so much that the hatred towards me rises even more. But I feel like I’m an actress who did my job. If it comes out in a mean or negative way, I think I can take it, because that just means I did a good job. I told the story that my character was there to tell.