For the first seven episodes of “Mrs. America,” FX on Hulu’s searing limited series about women fighting on either side of the battle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, Sarah Paulson laid in wait. Within the narrative, Paulson played a composite everywoman named Alice Macray, an empath concerned about the threat that feminists and the ERA might play to housewives and homemakers like herself, who brought her fears to her good friend and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly (seemingly channeled from beyond the grave by Cate Blanchett). The rest, as they say, was (inspired by) history.
So Paulson waited. Macray was hip-checked to the sidelines by Schlafly and for several episodes the audience watched Macray watch and wait and absorb Schafly’s micro-aggressions and macro-aggressions, her single-minded quest for power, and her increasingly vindictive spirit. We watched Macray — we watched Paulson — think. And nothing could have been more fascinating.
Except, perhaps, for the payoff. But we’ll get to that.
It’s the mark of a tremendous actor, this ability to not be the character in motion, but to still invoke the attention and investment of viewers. But Paulson faced additional challenges for the role, including trying to shape a meaningful and real character, while working amongst women playing icons and luminaries.
To prepare, the Emmy-winning actress tackled Alice the way that she tackled any character, from Marcia Clark (“The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”) to Cordelia Foxx (“American Horror Story: Coven”): She tried to find the truth in it.
“Every person that walks into the room was more famous than the next,” Paulson said in a recent phone interview with IndieWire. “I don’t just mean the actors playing them, but I mean the characters they’re playing. You want to make sure that the person you’re playing feels as embodied and as full and, as you say, like a real person because she is there. She is a composite character, but she is representing the many women who were devoted to Phyllis and the movement, and a lot of it is just being motivated by fear.”
For Alice, Paulson struggled. She turned to her personal life, her network of family and friends and associates, but nothing immediately clicked. Her own mother was a radical liberal, born of an extremely conservative family, who fled Florida, moved to Manhattan, got a job as a waitress at Sardi’s, and at the age of 27, was raising a five-year-old and a three-year-old.
Sabrina Lantos / FX
“I had to go a generation further,” Paulson explained. “And I went to my grandmother, whom is alive and who I love totally, and who raised, in a lot of ways, me and my sister. She married my grandfather right out of college and she never worked a day in her life outside of the home.”
“And she’s a Christian and a real woman of faith,” Paulson continued, “And a dedicated, committed wife and mother. So, I thought about her. This is a person whose feet I would sit at and listen to her talk and we’d go to church. She’s just a person of extraordinary character and I thought, ‘That’s who Alice is. She’s my grandmother.'”
But the actress’ grandmother wasn’t the only real-life connection that kept her tethered throughout “Mrs. America.” There was also Blanchett.
At the first Academy Awards that Paulson attended, she recalled meeting Blanchett on the red carpet and being in awe that the latter knew who she was and was excited to work with her — Blanchett would win her second Oscar for “Blue Jasmine” that night and the pair began shooting on “Carol” days later.
“We had to have a kind of instant intimacy in that movie and a belief of a shared path that we both were able to drop into because the work dictated that, and it was easy for us to do,” Paulson said. “It was a very easy working relationship.”
The pair reunited as colleagues in the 2018 heist film “Ocean’s 8,” a profoundly different environment than their previous film, which only served to deepen their friendship. So when she spoke to the producers about “Mrs. America” early in the process, she was immediately intrigued, both by the subject matter and by the opportunity to work with Blanchett again. As for the role of Alice, Paulson admitted that it’s possible the role felt safest to her because she knew she knew how to play Cate’s best friend. After all, she’d done it before. The two share a wicked sense of humor that often boils down to them lovingly mocking each other, something that apparently resulted in a lot of blown takes.
“I begged Dahvi [Waller, series creator] to send me a compilation of takes that I ruined by making Cate laugh or Cate making me laugh or those scenes from four in the morning where we’re not able to continue to speak because we’re delirious and punchy,” Paulson recounted. “She said, ‘There’s so much footage, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.’ I said, ‘I know. I need it. I need it desperately.'”
But working with Blanchett wasn’t just about having a great scene partner or someone to share a laugh. Paulson was amazed at how bone-level concerned Blanchett was that Alice was a meaty and meaningful role. “It was of paramount importance to her that the story of Alice had a full arc. She was like, ‘You cannot come here and do this and not take advantage of having this character be fully realized,'” Paulson said.
As an executive producer on the series, Blanchett was deeply invested in all aspects of production. Paulson reported getting 2 a.m. texts from the actress — this after Blanchett had been filming all day, as Schlafly was the unequivocal lead of the series — asking for Paulson’s thoughts on scenes and character shades.
“It was really, really important to her. And it wasn’t about serving her. It was about serving my character for the greater good of the series. She was hoping that having this point of view and this perspective would absolutely enhance the story or give us a really multi-dimensional reality to it all,” Paulson said.
Which brings us to “Houston.”
The eighth episode of the nine-episode series, “Houston” sees many of the characters (but not Schlafly) on either side of the ERA aisle congregate to Houston for the 1977 National Women’s Conference to make a stand for their beliefs, regardless of what they may be.
It centers on Alice, who has grown increasingly disillusioned with Schlafly, whose ambition fully outstrips her empathy and leaves little common ground for the friendship between the two to thrive. In Houston, Alice stumbles when it comes to representing her cause and feels increasingly alienated, finally finding meaningful connection in an unexpected source who turned to be one of those blasted feminists.
And then things got weird. While grabbing a drink with her new friend, Alice took what the friend called a “Christian pill” to calm her nerves which, in combination with the alcohol, sends Alice (and the audience) on a trippy ride for the rest of the episode.
“Houston” serves as the turning point of “Mrs. America,” without which the series wouldn’t work half as well. Throughout the episode, Alice finds herself in a world turned upside down (she thinks). Feminists are kind and welcoming, LGBTQ individuals are all just humans looking to be supported and loved like anyone else, and everyone is just looking for a way to exist in the world with as much kindness and peace as possible.
It’s a glass-shattering episode that doesn’t work without Paulson’s delicate (yet hilarious) performance and without the seven episodes worth of watching and waiting that both Alice and the audience do in the meantime. It’s no wonder, then, that the producers only determined they could definitely do the episode once Paulson had signed on.
In recent months, it has seemed as though many progressives have had an experience not unlike that of Alice. In the wake of a global pandemic and civil uprising in protest of police violence and systemic racism, it feels as though much of the country is seeing the actual state of the union for the first time with clear eyes. But what now? How do we collectively move forward? “I think we’re in the process now of doing a lot of unlearning. Or we should be,” Paulson said, “to recalibrate the way we move through the world and to make a real adjustment, an actionable adjustment.”
“So much of this, the protesting and the people speaking out and saying things that have been said millions of times but without people taking the fucking stuffing out of their ears and being willing to look at themselves,” she said. “If you’re not in a constant state of learning, then I don’t know what we’re all doing here.”