“In terms of the public response to me or awareness of me, it became very different,” Paulson says during a recent video chat from her Los Angeles home.
But with a career-defining role comes the concern that the part could, well, remain career-defining. “You always worry,” she says. “Will people say, ‘She’s good — but she’ll never be as good as she was as Marcia Clark?’ ”
Paulson’s “Post-M.C.” era has included appearances in high-profile films such as “The Post,” “Glass” and “Ocean’s 8.” She also has carried on as a malleable member of the recurring “American Horror Story” ensemble, playing a dozen characters — an all-powerful witch and conjoined twins, among them — over eight seasons of the Murphy-helmed anthology.
Long the co-lead or sturdy supporting player, Paulson is now the driving force behind a star vehicle of her own. In “Ratched,” Murphy’s Netflix series that releases its first season Friday, Paulson cracks open the mind of psychiatric nurse Mildred Ratched, a character created by Ken Kesey for his 1962 novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and immortalized by Louise Fletcher’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1975 film of the same name.
As Paulson processes her most daunting “Post-M.C.” undertaking yet — top billing, the titular character, an iconic cinematic villain — she grimaces, mouths an exaggerated “wow” and buries her head in her shirt.
“It makes me start to sweat,” she says through nervous laughter, cradling herself. “That really is what it is, isn’t it?”
Murphy was still developing Evan Romansky’s spec script for a Nurse Ratched origin story into a full-fledged series when Paulson got word of the project and asked her agent to inquire. But while Murphy saw his longtime collaborator as a natural fit, he asked Paulson to think long and hard about what the part would mean for her career.
Playing the lead role on a serialized show, potentially over the course of several seasons, was more of a commitment than the anthology work Murphy and Paulson had done together. Murphy also wanted her to take on executive producer responsibilities for the first time. And he felt the steely character was somewhat against type for Paulson.
“In many ways, this is the hardest part that she’s ever had to play because she couldn’t resort to the thing that she loves to do,” Murphy says. “Sarah always says, ‘Give me a black tooth and an accent and I’m in heaven.’ But I was interested in what happens if she is required to do something that she’s never done, which is absolute feral stillness and lethalness.”
Accepting and embracing the challenge, Paulson signed on.
“No one could deny the multifaceted, multidimensional aspects of this role,” Paulson says, “and that there are not a ton of them just hanging off trees that are for women my age, that are this complicated and this nuanced and this rich.”
Set in 1947, a decade before the events of “Cuckoo’s Nest,” the first season follows Ratched as she schemes her way onto the nursing staff of a top California psychiatric hospital, which has been tasked with evaluating a notorious priest killer (Finn Wittrock). The series cites both Kesey’s novel and Milos Forman’s film as source material, though before “Ratched,” the character’s only canonical backstory was that she served as a nurse in World War II.
Although Paulson only read passages of the book, fearing that too much research would undercut her own instincts, she did want to revisit the “Cuckoo’s Nest” film and form her own diagnosis for the source of Ratched’s cruelty.
“I mean, there is no way to improve upon perfection,” Paulson says. “Louise Fletcher’s performance is so extraordinary that I thought, ‘Oh, this might be really scary.’ When I was younger, I found her terrifying. Of course, on second viewing . . . I had to find a way that I could get inside it.”
In 2003, the American Film Institute ranked Ratched as the No. 5 villain in cinematic history. Yet Paulson saw humanity in the film’s version of the character — whose gaslighting combats any flames of rebellion at an all-male psychiatric ward in Oregon — calling her a “real victim of a patriarchal system.”
Paulson says the “spine” of her take on Ratched is all Fletcher, as she went to great pains to re-create her predecessor’s starchy uprightness. (“I don’t have very good posture,” Paulson says, “so that was an acting feat.”) But the show also imbues Ratched with previously unexplored empathy by examining past traumas and setting up future hardships. Both plotwise, within the story’s psychiatric facility, and thematically, “Ratched” proves to be about unlocking a troubled mind.
The role “was something I had to shed, and I hate using sort of actor-y terminology that way, but it is what it is,” Paulson says. “It probably speaks to me not having a particularly finely honed craft or skill that I’m not able to just slide into something, vomit it all out and then say, ‘See you later, I’m on my way home for a cocktail and to read a Cosmopolitan.’ That’s just not how it is for me.”
The show’s sprawling story lines also weave in government machinations, workplace politics, revenge fantasies, sexual intrigue and no small amount of body horror. With its lush sets, monochrome period costumes and candy-colored lighting, “Ratched” is visually audacious as well.
Steadying the ship during production was Paulson, who, having made her directorial debut on a 2018 episode of “American Horror Story: Apocalypse,” was asked by Murphy to be a full creative partner in the endeavor. As an executive producer on “Ratched,” Paulson helped curate directors for the season’s eight episodes, worked with castmates to dissect scenes she wasn’t in, and made decisions on prop, set and costume choices.
“I wanted the crew to know that she had the power if I wasn’t there,” Murphy says. “She kind of has a photographic memory because she can read a script and then know everybody’s parts. At this point, she’s so technically proficient — she knows every lens, what every crew member does, sometimes even better than they do — that it just felt natural.”
“She’s an incredible leader as a producer,” adds Sharon Stone, who is part of a “Ratched” supporting cast that also features Cynthia Nixon, Judy Davis and Jon Jon Briones. “To be able to watch a woman that I respect and admire have these opportunities is so heartwarming and so emotionally satisfying that I could burst into tears telling you how proud and excited I am for her. She’s a very kind, very gentle, very reasonable, lovely, talented person.”
Paulson had just two days to decompress after wrapping work on “Ratched” before flying to Toronto to shoot her role as an anti-Equal Rights Amendment activist in the limited series “Mrs. America,” which aired earlier this year on FX on Hulu. She then gained about 20 pounds to play divisive whistleblower Linda Tripp in “American Crime Story: Impeachment,” only to see the coronavirus pandemic postpone production this past spring.
But she hasn’t been dormant: Over the summer, Paulson filmed a monologue for “Coastal Elites,” a recently released HBO special about liberals grappling with life in 2020. That project involved welcoming a seven-person crew (all with negative coronavirus tests) to her backyard, with a portable toilet out front, craft services on her deck and director Jay Roach beamed in on a monitor.
Next month, Paulson will return to set as “Impeachment” finally launches production. This time, she is skipping the physical transformation after seeing during a costume and prosthetic fitting that the weight change was “probably all a bit of a fool’s errand.”
After “Ratched,” audiences can next see Paulson as a mother harboring a sinister secret in the Aneesh Chaganty thriller “Run,” which is set for a November release on Hulu. Musing on her penchant for playing morally questionable or abhorrent characters, dating to her role as an enslaver’s wife in 2013’s “12 Years a Slave,” Paulson says she’s “never been interested in playing people for whom nobility is their chief defining characteristic.”
That certainly goes for Ratched, whose darkness Paulson hopes to further deconstruct. She says the show’s producers are tentatively envisioning a four-season run, which would usher the character into the “Cuckoo’s Nest” era.
It’s with some irony that Paulson finds herself locked into another horror-fueled franchise, considering that as a viewer, she tends to anxiously watch the genre through her fingers. (“I’m, like, afraid of my own shadows,” she says.) But for someone with a heightened sense of dread, there’s no denying Paulson gravitates toward fear.
“That’s a pretty heady thing to think about undertaking,” Paulson says of playing Ratched. “But, oddly enough, the scaredy cat of the Wild Wild West likes to do the thing that scares her the most.”