Sarah Paulson's "AHS: Asylum" character, Lana Winters, has endured more than almost any other character in the show's second season: forced confinement in a lunatic asylum, a brutal homosexuality "cure," and abduction and impregnation by a serial killer who also slaughtered her girlfriend. Paulson spoke to us before the season finale about how she prepared for her emotionally raw scenes, what she knew about her storylines ahead of time, and how hard it's been to let go of Lana's story.
Lana began the season as something of an innocent, or at least more of an optimist, determined to expose what's going on at Briarcliff -- and now that we're ending the season, she's become a bit more cynical and self-centered. How much did you know about Lana's arc, and about that evolution specifically, at the beginning of the season? Did you have an overview?
At the beginning of the season I did not have an overview, but I did have -- we started shooting on July 17th, and I think in early June, I had the first four scripts. So I knew from the beginning of Lana 'til, through her aversion-conversion with Zach [Quinto], Dr. Thredsen. So I knew nothing about my being taken from Briarcliff by Zach; I knew he was Bloody Face. I knew that at the beginning of the season, because that had been decided long before, but I didn't know that it was gonna involve me in any way, I had no idea about that.
And I certainly didn't know anything about what was gonna happen to Lana past script four ["I Am Anne Frank, Part 1"], which was, you know, obviously a very emotional, horrible episode for her.
He tries to take away her gayness.
Yeah, that was…
Yeah. And I had no idea what was coming. I mean, I thought that was gonna be the darkest thing that happened and the hardest thing I would have to play, and I had no idea what was coming.
And then it's like a four out of 10, and you're like, "Wow."
Exactly, I thought, "That was really hard," and then it's like, "Oh. Wait. I have to eat a grilled-cheese sandwich made for me while I'm tied to a bed." I mean, it's just like, it's -- turning over my lover's body in a frozen state, just -- the whole thing, I could not have even prepared myself for what was coming.
Right. "Just another day at work."
Just another day -- actually, the thing we did on the very first day of shooting was my electroshock treatment. I shot that on the very first day.
Yeah, mm hmm! I think that's the only way to start "American Horror Story," is to just dive right in. Why wait? Why save the hard stuff for later -- just do it.
These stories put the actors in some really dark places, individually and then together. How do you prepare for, for example, a sequence where you're chained up in Bloody Face's basement? With the other actors you're working with, do you guys discuss that first, or do you just sort of put your game faces on?
Well, Zachary Quinto and I are good friends and have been friends for a long time, so there was a tremendous luck that happened in the casting of our two characters, because we have a real big love for each other and a great deal of respect for one another, and trust, and so, all of that stuff that we had to do -- if I had to do that, if I had to do that aversion-conversion scene… I had to put my hand in my pants, you know, I had to, like, really go for something there, and if I had to do that with any other actor, I don't know how that would have been for me, I just don't know, and we were just so, we made it a point to just take good care of each other, because once I was in his lair -- we call it "Thredsen's lair" -- you know, he had to go to kind of dark emotional places, and I was able to kind of be there for [him]. It was just, it was very lucky that, that the bulk of my traumatic stuff was done with Zach. Because we had a very good working relationship as well as a friendship outside, so it was very helpful.
And how, really, do you rehearse something like that? It's like, let's just shoot it.
Some of it we didn't rehearse; some of it we just would go through the motions of like, "Okay, I'm gonna be laying here, you're gonna pull my leg up, you're gonna drag me down the bed," but there were a couple of times where I actually… I think it was episode 7 ["Dark Cousin"]; might have been episode 6 or 7 -- 6 ["The Origins of Monstrosity"] I believe is when he breastfeeds me, on me.
And then 7 was the rape, and I think in between one of those episodes … there was a couple times where I remember, like, I am actually strapped down to this; I've got restraints on my legs and on my arms; and you know, at one point I just decided to stay there. I just felt like, I can't keep getting up, and, like, putting on a robe, and going to my chair, and texting on my phone -- this is not gonna help me stay in the place where I need to stay, right now.
Those days were really hard, to be strapped down to a bed for, you know, you're shooting one scene that's three pages, it takes six, seven hours to shoot that, and so I had to kind of sustain a certain emotional rawness to do those scenes, so I just thought, the only way to prepare for me was to just stay on the bed, and just, like, live as Lana, stay on the bed. There's nowhere else for me to go. I didn't want to have that thing of relieving myself of the pain of the whole thing by going off and, like, going to craft service and eating a donut. This isn't gonna help me. You know?
That must have been a good donut, though, at the end of the day.
The donut was very much deserved.
And as the character was progressing through the season, it's pretty interesting that they went in a sort of unsympathetic direction with her, at least as of the last episode that we saw. Justifiable, but still not a hundred percent likeable -- did you have any input into that, taking it in that unexpected direction?
I didn't -- and at first I remember reading it and being like, "Why are you doing this to Lana Winters? Why are you doing this?" And then I thought about it, and I talked to some of the writers, and it makes so much sense. People have different reactions to things when they've been traumatized, and a person who was always ambitious, and always -- you know, the whole reason she got herself into this mess was that she stuck her nose where it didn't belong, and she got stuck in the, you know, she got attacked at Briarcliff, and kept there, and Sister Jude had her put away and all that. But who knows what would have happened if she hadn't come back the night before, trying to break into the place herself, and so -- what I'm saying is, I don't know if Jude would have gone to Wendy [Peyser, Lana's lover played by Clea DuVall] and said, "We're keeping her," because she didn't know what I had seen there, and if I had never gone back this never would've happened. Lana's ambitions got her in some trouble, you know?
And a lot of it is based on her wanting to get taken seriously, she wants to be taken seriously in a man's world, which, it was a pure intention, but she definitely wanted a little bit of success, and rightfully so. So I think, after what happened to her, as she says to Kit in the coffee shop in that episode that you're referring to, she said, "My life could have ended. It could have gone in a very different direction. And I spun my life from nothing into something." And people can't forget, you know, I did go back to Briarcliff to try to get Jude out! And I was told she was dead. I was shown her death certificate, and I had no reason to believe it was a fake death certificate, and the cops released me and there was nothing I could do! So I went about my life, tried to forget about Briarcliff. And things happen, and people change, and her reaction to wanting to get as far away from it as possible was to dive into being a bit of a fame whore, you know?
But I don't think that's what you will walk away from that finale [with], and a lot has changed and happened until then, and a lot is revealed. But to me, I think it's hard for the audience, because I think they've been really rooting for her and wanting her to come out and be a heroine, but I think this is a more realistic idea about, when you think about what she had endured, and what she may, if it were coming at her all of a sudden, book deal this and book deal that, and [it's] everything she ever wanted. Her lover's dead, she doesn't have -- what is she supposed to do? "Oh no no, I'm gonna join the Peace Corps." I just don't know that that's realistic.
Right. But it's something that we think a lot of other shows might have done anyway.
Might have done, yeah! I agree, and I applaud the writers for doing it, and even though it was scary for me to do, and scary how much people might not have appreciated that side of Lana Winters, the thing I loved about playing her is that she was so multi-dimensional, and she just wasn't one thing. She wasn't just a good person, a good heroine; she's complicated, which I think makes her an even better heroine. She's human, and she failed at something, and she didn't always choose the most righteous path, and I think that's a hell of a lot more compelling and interesting than somebody who just does everything just so.
You mentioned that in the season finale a lot is going to be revealed, and more things happen to Lana, is there anything that the audience is really going be shocked by? It's "American Horror Story," there's going to be shocking stuff, but in terms of how her story ends, do you think it's going to all make sense, or are we going be really surprised? Or both?
I think there's a little surprise in there. I think it's very moving, actually, the episode -- and I think the writers came up with something very brilliant about a way to end the story.
Are you going to miss this character, or are you kind of wrung out?
I never cried so much, I never cried so much at the end of a job. Ever.
I cried like a baby. I was so sad to say goodbye to Lana Winters. It was -- I'd never before played a character who went from her early thirties to her mid-seventies, and it was like telling the full scope of someone's life, and I just didn't want to say goodbye to her, she had become -- I don't know, there was something about the beginning and the middle and the end of the story and playing it all the way through to the end that was, I'd never done that before. You know? And certainly not on television.
And every trauma that Lana went through, I had to go through too, because I had to play it, so to have walked around in all that stuff that happened, you're -- as an actor, your brain knows it's not really happening to you, but your body and your heart don't know; you have to engage so much of it, that is the work, and so, as much as I was consciously able to say to myself, "This isn't real," your body has a memory and will hold onto it, and so by the end of the story it was very, it was hard to let go.
We've read that you're signed on for next season, and that it's a romance, quote unquote? Are you going to be relaxing in a less bleak format, or should we expect that there will be some of the usual twistedness?
Well, it is "American Horror Story" and it will always be "American Horror Story," and I don't know quite what [Ryan Murphy] has planned, because he hasn't told me. He has said somewhere in the press that he knows what I'm playing but he has not told me, and that's true. I do not know what I am doing, and there isn't a person in the world I would do that for other than Ryan Murphy, because it's very scary to say "yes, I'll do that" and just trust that they'll give you something fun to do.
But if I can trust anyone, it's Ryan, because he gave me an enormous gift with this part, because it's the most sort of fully realized thing I've ever been allowed to do on television. And that's not to slight "Game Change" or "Studio 60" or anything else that I've done that I've been so enormously proud to be a part of, but there was something about this story and this character that I will be eternally grateful to him for allowing me to play. So I don't care if he puts me in, I don't know, a weird dog costume and kind of has me stand in the background; I'm happy to do it because he's happy.
Watch a recap of last week's episode:
"American Horror Story" airs Wednesdays at 10 PM on FX.