Sarah Paulson’s career-defining collaboration with Ryan Murphy has resulted in seven Emmy nominations and a win for her performance in “American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson.” Their acclaimed partnership is set to continue this fall with the Netflix series “Ratched,” a prequel to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” that traces the origins of the villainous Nurse Mildred Ratched. The character was created by author Ken Kesey and then brought to life by Louise Fletcher in an Oscar-winning performance in Miloš Forman’s 1975 “Cuckoo’s Nest” film adaptation. Now Paulson takes on the role, and expectations are sky high.
“Ratched” is set in 1947 after World War II and follows Mildred (Paulson) as she arrives in Northern California to seek employment at a leading psychiatric hospital. The medical facility is where unsettling experiments have begun on the human mind. Mildred presents herself as the perfect image of what a dedicated nurse should be, but a darkness inside of her grows as she begins to infiltrate the mental health care system and those within it. Starring opposite Paulson is Cynthia Nixon, Sharon Stone, Finn Wittrock, Jon Jon Briones, Judy Davis, and Charlie Carver.
“I feel like Nurse Ratched is sort of a shorthand for barbarism,” Ryan Murphy told Vanity Fair about the series last month. “She became almost like a catchphrase for any sort of institutional abuse of power. What was interesting was trying to create an emotional character from a reputation that’s very cold…trying to figure out every little detail about her childhood, her relationships, her sexuality. Because when people think of Ratched, they think of her as shutoff and cruel and uncaring.”
Paulson told Vanity Fair she agreed to take on the iconic character because she “identified very deeply with her loneliness,” adding, “I think ultimately at the end of the day, that is sort of what drives Mildred. A pursuit of survival and of finding some sense of home. Even though the methods that she chooses to achieve that internal security are somewhat questionable, I would argue that she’s doing them with a potentially selfish need, but a survival need nevertheless.”
Netflix featured a panel for the upcoming series at the virtual version of the Television Critics Assn. Summer Press Tour, during which Paulson spoke about stepping into a role made larger than life by Fletcher.
“One of the enormous plusses was that I had the great fortune of watching one of, I think, the most masterful performances in cinematic history,” Paulson said, before joking about the pressure of following in Fletcher’s footsteps. “It gave me an opportunity to have a real spine of the character built-in, at least in terms of knowing where I was going with it.”
“So much of the story obviously predates [the film] and it’s an imagined idea of what Mildred’s life might have been before she found her way to that hospital. It’s a both a blessing and a curse, because I do recognize that some people will be looking for Louise Fletcher, but they’re not going to find her, and I don’t want them to be disappointed.”
Though her co-stars didn’t face the same challenges with regards to cinematic legacy, many did turn to real life inspirations to formulate their characters.
“I thought that because we were working in that period that it’s really interesting to reference some of the acting of that period,” Stone remarked. “There were great performances by actresses like Barbara Stanwyck in that period that were interesting to me and that I wanted to have a few affectations of the acting period in my performance.”
“I know for me there were some references to like early Brando, mostly in the look, so that that helped guide me in a weird way,” recurring Murphy player Wittrock said.
For Briones, Hitchcock felt like the right energy for his role as a doctor at the psychiatric hospital, name-checking both “Rope” and “Psycho” in his response.
As Gwendolyn Briggs, a politically-active woman in an era even more patriarchal than now, Cynthia Nixon had a very specific real life inspiration in mind when it came to embodying her role.
“I shared with the costume department some photos of a woman named Lorena Hickok, who was a gay woman who was an important journalist, but was most known for being Eleanor Roosevelt’s lover in the run up to the White House and beyond,” Nixon said of how she formulated how Gwendolyn carried herself and how she looked. “I got a lot of inspiration from reading about her life and some of her letters, but also particularly the way in which she tried to pass as straight in this very mainstream world and yet had love affairs on the side and was a queer woman.”
“Ratched” will debut September 18 on Netflix. Watch the official trailer for the series in the video below.