The film Carol is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 semi-autobiographical novel The Price of Salt. The story follows two women from very different worlds as they start an unexpected love affair in 1950s New York. Sarah Paulson plays Abby Gerhard, the main character Carol’s best friend and ex-lover. Though the role is fairly small, the loyalty Abby exhibits to the friend she clearly still harbors deeper feelings for makes her a compelling and complicated character. The film was directed by Todd Haynes, the screenplay was written by Phyllis Nagy, and it stars Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, and Sarah Paulson.
In anticipation of the film’s release on Nov. 20, I sat down with Sarah Paulson to talk about her role as Abby, her work on American Horror Story, and what it’s like to be a woman in Hollywood today.
Carol was really about women’s experiences, which is unfortunately not something we see in Hollywood a lot. How important is it to you to seek out roles in pieces that tell women’s stories?
Sarah Paulson: Well, I’m just an actress for hire. I auditioned for this movie, I wanted it desperately because of Todd Haynes, and because of Cate Blanchett, and because of Rooney Mara, and because the script was so beautiful, but I am not an architect of my career yet. Certainly not in film. But in television a little bit more. So I don’t really approach anything I’m doing in terms of any kind of sociopolitical choice. It’s mostly like I want to work with the director, or I’d be desperate to work with this actor, or this part is so beautiful and just want to do it no matter what. The fact that it is all that you say, only to me makes not only my experience on the movie but my pride in terms of feeling very lucky to be a part of it. And maybe it will mean that I’ll have more opportunities to pick and choose things in the future. I wish I could say that was something that went into my choices, but I think when you are still competing against 10 other girls, all of your same sort of level, whatever that means in terms of recognizability, you don’t have the luxury of choosing things with that leading the charge.
What drew you to the part of Abby?
SP: The role of Abby drew me to the role of Abby. It was really the prospect of working with Todd, and with Cate, and with Rooney. I hadn’t read the book prior to getting it because I sort of felt like I didn’t want to get my hopes up. Of course once I got the part, I devoured the book. Abby being gay is sort of the least interesting thing about her. She’s an incredibly sensible, compassionate, completely devoted to her friend even though, I think she still has feelings for Carol. And so it speaks volumes about her personal integrity and her commitment to friendship that she would be willing to help Carol with her new love.
Did you take inspiration any from Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Price of Salt?
SP: There is a lot more Abby in the book so it was very informative for me to read what Patricia Highsmith’s intentions were for Abby. Phyllis did such a beautiful job with the adaptation so a lot of it was in the text of the screenplay, and I didn’t have to search that far into the book although I loved the book. It had sort of that Highsmith tension. It was a very romantic but very real love story. The friendship between Carol and Abby is very powerful in the book as well.
The film was in development for more than 11 years. What was it like to be part of something that so many people spent so much time trying to produce?
SP: I think it was very clear that everyone’s level of passion was at a peak because of that. Everyone had been working so hard. Cate was attached for a very long time. Rooney wasn’t originally, I think she had been offered it early on, and then I think she couldn’t do it because of some reason, and another actress was going to do it and that didn’t happen and they went back to Rooney, thank God. So yeah, I sort of feel like they probably wouldn’t have been able to make the movie the way they did now not for any other reason other than sometimes from an artistic standpoint filmmaker, screenwriter, costumer, I mean it doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody would have been able to come together in the way that they did if it had been made years ago. Sometimes you just have to trust that it’s happening exactly when it’s meant to happen.
Is there something especially exciting or appealing about playing roles from different time periods?
SP: I think what’s exciting about it is it’s so unknown to us in actuality. Like someone asked me a question recently, “What was it like to go back to the ’50s?” and I was like, “Well I’m not going back to the ’50s because I wasn’t alive in the ’50s.” But to go back in time from an acting standpoint, the clothes are basically what snap you into that reality. You are literally wearing a bra with a cup inside that’s pointed with that very attractive pointy boob look. All the undergarments, the girdles, all that stuff makes you really aware that you are shooting something from another time period. I also had to learn how to drive a 1949 Packard stick shift, which was really hard, and really scary because I had to drive Cate Blanchett around in it. She’d just won the Academy Award, and I was like “I’m going to murder you.”
One of my all-time favorite characters that I’ve ever seen on television was Lana Winters from American Horror Story season two, “Asylum.” What drew you to her character?
SP: I had done a couple of episode of the first season, and Ryan said “Do you want to do season two?” And I was like “Are you insane? Of course I do.” But I had no idea about the story. Originally Lana was going to be blonde. I remember the first conversation we had about it. He said, “You’re a reporter. It’s the 1960s. She’s a lesbian. She’s going to be wrongfully incarcerated and her girlfriend’s going to…” and I was like, “Wait WHAT? That sounds so amazing!” And of course at that point I knew nothing of the Bloody Face of it all, and what that was going to be. I don’t think they knew how far that was going to go. What drew me to it was just the fact that I wanted to be on the show. What happens with Ryan is that you say yes, and you don’t really know what he’s going to come up with. And every role is different. Sometimes you get a role that you cannot believe you’re so lucky to get like Lana, and other times you play parts where you’re like, “I like this, but I don’t feel the same connection that I did with this one.” That’s sort of the fun of it. Sometimes you get a season break, where you’re like “This is a fun character, but I get a few days off, which is nice.” But with the Lana character, I was really, really lucky. The more they developed it, the more it became just this incredibly complicated, flawed character. She was very human. She had a lot of ambition, and her ambition got her in trouble. She’s sort of unapologetic about it, which I like and respect. I just loved playing her. Looooved. I wept like a baby when that one was over.
You’ve starred in American Horror Story, of course, and you also starred in the cult-series American Gothic. Do you find yourself drawn to supernatural stories or the horror genre for any particular reason?
SP: No I just think it’s that funny thing of what comes to you comes to you. Clearly I only like to be in shows with “American” in the title; I have American Crime Story too. Seems to be some kind of theme. I’ll take it. It just means I’m continuing to work, which I like.
You’re newest AHS character, Sally, is kind of a mess and spends most of her time terrorizing the guests at the hotel, yet I still find myself really sympathizing with her and liking her. How do you accomplish that? How do you take a character like that and make her sympathetic?
SP: I thought about this during 12 Years A Slave too because people would ask me, “How could play such a horrible character?” And to me, I’m just doing my job. It was very important in that story. If I had tried to soft peddle it, or make her more likable or sympathetic, it would have not been good for the film. My job is to stand up here and play the part that I was hired to play, and not stand in judgment of it or anything. Same thing with Sally. I don’t ever approach anything I’m doing in terms of “How to make a person likable?” And maybe that’s what makes them likable is that you recognize normal human behavior in the character and you can identify with it. I’m certainly not trying to put on a pretty smile for Sally. I mean Sally is selfish. The other thing about Sally is she’s incredibly drawn to watching people have emotions. Like when she was watching Iris (Kathy Bates) and Donovan (Matt Bomer) when Iris asked me to kill her and Donovan comes in and brings her back to life with his vampiric blood, Sally is so fascinated by it, and it actually makes her cry because she’s watching a mother and a son. She’s just very drawn to people who are going through pain but almost in a sick, selfish way. She’s easily moved, that Sally.
Do you ever find yourself getting disturbed by the things happening on AHS or the things you have to act out?
SP: I always feel like when it’s super disturbing, that means I’m getting to do something really good. On that show, the darker, the better. That’s where all the fun stuff is. This is the first time I’ve ever played someone with like overtly selfish motives, which is really fun because really anything goes. I can do whatever I want as Sally. As the twins, I couldn’t do that and as Cordelia, who was so good, I couldn’t. And Lana was just desperate to get out of that institution so no one really blamed her for doing the shit that she had to do. It’s fun to play someone dark because you have a little more freedom. In AHS, it’s fun to have the dark stuff because that’s when you really feel like you’re on the show. There’s never been a time where they’re like, “Hey do you want to do this?” and I’m like “No.” The more gruesome, the better.
What advice might you give to other women in your male-dominated industry?
SP: I sort of feel funny about giving advice because life is a very personal journey. Everybody has different wants, needs, hungers, longings, sadnesses, and joys so I would really hate to put some sort of blanket statement on what it means to be a woman or what the challenges are because everybody experiences something different. I’m just so glad I’m a woman. I wouldn’t want to be a man. I feel very happy with who I get to be in terms of just being female. I certainly think although the whole pay reality is horrifying – equal pay for equal work should absolutely be the standard reality – but at the same time, I do feel like certainly on television there is a real plethora of roles for women. Strong women. Not just girlfriends and wives. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a girlfriend or a wife, but sometimes on television it was sort of tiresome to see great actresses reduced to just coming on and tending to their man. To see so many shows now that are completely built around women, I feel very, very excited to be working on television. It’s a really great time.
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