IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Sarah Paulson Talks 'Fairhaven,' 'American Horror Story: Asylum' and 'Twelve Years a Slave'

Friday, 11 January 2013 15:44 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Sarah Paulson Talks 'Fairhaven,' 'American Horror Story: Asylum' and 'Twelve Years a Slave'

Golden Globe-nominated actress Sarah Paulson can do it all! 

She has appeared on Broadway, television, and independent films, as well as big budget studio movies. The actress first gained attention on the small screen for her work on the beloved HBO series Deadwood before moving on to the short-lived series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and most recently FX’s hit anthology series American Horror Story, as well as it’s follow up season American Horror Story: Asylum. She has also appeared in such big screen films as Serenity, The Spirit, New Year’s Eve, and Martha Marcy May Marlene. Not to mention the critically acclaimed HBO film Game Change, which has earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Miniseries or Television Film at this Sunday’s Awards ceremony. But first, the talented actress can be seen once again on the big screen in the new film Fairhaven, which opens in theaters on January 11th and VOD January 15th. 

Fairhaven was written and directed by actor Tom O’Brien (The Next Karate Kid) based on a story written by him and fellow actor Chris Messina (Argo). The film revolves around Dave (Messina), a drifter who returns home to a small Massachusetts fishing village for his father’s funeral. While there, he reunites with his two best friends form high school, Jon (O’Brien) and Sam (Rich Sommer), who are also both having a difficult time adjusting to adult life. He also comes in contact with Sam’s ex-wife, Kate (Paulson), who Dave had secretly had an affair with years before. The reunion brings back old feelings for both Dave and Kate, and forces him to confront everything he had been running away from. 

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Sarah Paulson about Fairhaven, as well as her work on American Horror Story: Asylum, and the upcoming film Twelve Years a Slave, which was directed by Steve McQueen (Shame) and also stars Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. The talented actress discussed her new film, her character, how she got the part, working with writer/director/actor Tom O’Brien, performing opposite Chris Messina, the process of acting, American Horror Story: Asylum, if she will return for season three, becoming friends with legendary actress Jessica Lange, Twelve Years a Slave, and what it was like collaborating with director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender.

Here is what the Golden Globe-nominated actress had to say:

IAR: To begin with, can you talk about how you got involved with Fairhaven? Were you friends with Chris Messina and Tom O’Brien before making the movie, and is that how you got attached to the project?

Sarah Paulson: Tom actually reached out to me over Facebook and sent me a Facebook message. We have a lot of mutual friends. Chris was a friend of mine, but not a close friend. I didn't know him exceedingly well, although I was a huge admirer of his acting. When Tom wrote me the email he said all my scenes would be with Chris. Then he sent me the script, I read it and I was just very anxious to work with Chris Messina because I think he is so gifted. 

What's it like working with an actor who is also the screenwriter and director of the project? Is it intimidating or does it actually make the process easier because he comes from a similar background as you?

Paulson: We were just incredibly collaborative in general. I think because Chris and Tom have such a long-standing friendship that they had a very easygoing report. I think they trusted each other completely and so I just sort of trusted them because they trusted each other. They were just open to anything. You know, a lot of the movie is beautifully written by Tom, but he let us go off book sometimes. Some of the scenes between Chris and myself were improvised, and that was really fun too. Tom just talked about the scenes individually as we were about to work on them and he was very clear about what he wanted, but again as I said, he was incredibly collaborative. He wanted to know what I thought and what my thoughts were about the character. I thought everything needed to be more fleshed out and I really loved the way my character was written on the page. I thought Tom did a really beautiful job. So I just trusted what was there. He really let Chris and I play. We were just able to really play off of each other, which is rare because people sometimes get attached to dialogue and Tom wasn't really like that. He was open to explore and see where we landed. 

I’m glad you brought up improvisation because the dialogue in the movie seemed very natural. How much of the film was scripted and how much were you and the other actors able to improvise on set?

Paulson: They were very open to us improvising, but I think most of what you see on screen was scripted. They were just real moments because Chris and my characters had such a long history with each other. Tom would sometimes just let the camera roll and we would just kind of play with each other to kind of create a report with each other because we had never worked together before, Chris and I. So it was very helpful the improvising. Sometimes we would improvise into the actual scripted dialogue and it was really helpful.

Chris Messina is a fantastic actor, what was your experience like working with him?

Paulson: To me, he's one of the most emotionally available actors that I’ve ever worked with and particularly in that scene that happens up in the bedroom between us. It was very emotional. It was just something that came out of me because he was so present, and alive, and there. It was just one of those beautiful things that doesn't happen a lot and we couldn’t make it happen. You either just speak the same language with another actor or you don't, and Chris and I just did and it was very effortless. We didn't have to talk about it a lot, it just happened naturally between us. It was very lucky.

Can you talk about how Kate feels when Dave returns to town and what's going on emotionally with her during the course of the film? 

Paulson: I think she's very apprehensive about him returning because she's newly married and I think happily and having Chris's character come back only makes it complicated because it's obviously a secret that the two of us hooked up together even though I was married to his best friend and even though we're no longer married that story between us is a big secret and it comes out in the movie. So obviously it’s a very difficult time for Kate. She needs to think about what she's going to do when he comes to town because I think she still carries a torch for him. 

You’ve worked on big budget movies, independent films, television, and stage, is the process as an actor the same or are there certain adjustments that you need to make depending on the project?

Paulson: I mean they’re all different. With television, the speed in which everything happens is so lightning fast that I always feel like if someone gives a decent performance on television, they must be awfully good because it's hard to do. You know you're doing upwards of ten pages of dialogue a day, where if you're on a big movie you might do two pages of dialogue a day, if it's a movie with a big budget. If you have an independent movie, you're liable to do as many pages as you do in television. There are just a lot of different things that are required depending on the medium. I'm starting a rehearsal for a play today and that's what I probably respond to the most because you can spend the most time preparing. Then you get to tell the same story every night. You just get to constantly discover it and fine-tune it, and I think that's a very exciting way to work. 

Do you enjoy stage work more than doing television or film? 

Paulson: I wouldn't say more just equally. It just it works out a different acting muscle, which I know sounds really nerdy but I do really feel that way. It requires a different muscle so I really like when I get to use it and I haven't been on stage in two years so this is a nice opportunity. I don't like to go more than two years without doing it because I’m afraid I won't be able to get on stage anymore. I’m excited to work on those muscles again. 

I also wanted to ask you about working on American Horror Story: Asylum, have you finished shooting the season yet?

Paulson: Yeah, we wrapped about ten days ago. 

Now that the series has been picked up for a third season, do you know if you’ll be coming back as part of the ensemble? Has Ryan Murphy discussed his plans for the third season with you yet? 

Paulson: I've heard mumblings, but nothing definitive and until I get a phone call from my agent I'm not saying anything!

What creator Ryan Murphy has done with that show is extremely groundbreaking; using an ensemble group of actors in what has really become an anthology series. Have you enjoyed being a part of it?

Paulson: Well to me its like being a member of a big repertory theater company of great actors. I feel very honored to be in the mix of those people that are all really spectacular actors on that show. I think it really speaks to the quality of Ryan's writing, the quality of his ideas and his story that attracts so many great people. I would stay on that show till I was an old lady if they let me because very rarely do you see a TV show that's a hit, that it's on for several years, where you don't have to play the same person. It's the best job for an actor who wants to continue to keep their options open to playing other characters and not getting pigeon holed into playing one specific kind of thing. That's very appealing, very exciting and very rare. 

Sure, and I have to imagine working with Jessica Lang isn't too shabby either, right?

Paulson: Well yes, and I’m a lucky person because I've been able to work with her a lot. We were on Broadway together in 2005, in The Glass Menagerie, and then last year I did a couple of episodes and all my stuff was with her. She's the reason I wanted to be an actress so it's a pretty thrilling thing that I have been able to act with her and it's even more exciting because she's my friend. So it's pretty amazing. 

Finally, I’m a big fan of director Steve McQueen’s Shame and I’m really looking forward to his next film, Twelve Years a Slave. What was your experience like working with him and being a part of that film?

Paulson: That was pretty extraordinary. Because he's actually a visual artist, he has paintings in museums and he's also a curator. He's visually very talented and inspired by images. He was really interested in the hair and makeup that I had and the way my clothes looked because of visual story he was telling. The movie takes place in the span of over twelve years, obviously and in my time period it's the ‘1800s. It was very exciting because he's incredibly smart and I remember he gave some really amazing direction to Michael Fassbender and I. I play Michael’s wife in the movie. The character was supposed to touch me in a sweet way, and Michael was doing it in a kind of an aggressive way. Steve gave him this great note about how he wanted him to be sort of sweeter to me and because Michael and Steve have such a long relationship, they have this unspoken thing. So Michael took that note that Steve gave him and he turned it into this entirely other thing that was very sexy and kind of amazing. I never could have expected it, which then elicited an entirely different response from me that I otherwise would not have had. So I think Steve’s really special and I think the movie's going to be really special too.       

Fairhaven opens in theaters on January 11th and VOD on January 15th.

American Horror Story: Asylum airs Wednesday nights on FX.

Twelve Years a Slave is scheduled for release on September 6th.

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