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American Horror Story’s Sarah Paulson on Cordelia’s New Power and Her Sex Scene With Snakes

There’s not much Sarah Paulson won’t do for American Horror Story, between having angry, magical sex with snakes involved and letting serial killers do even worse things to her body. But it’s all in the name of freaking you out good. On Coven, she’s the buttoned-up witch whose mother is just waiting for her to let her freak flag show — and that moment, as Ryan Murphy hinted to Vulture earlier this season, is fast approaching. On her day off, the delightful Paulson, who was nominated for an Emmy (she should have won) last year, rang up Vulture to talk about the season-to-date, and the awkwardness that is having her parents and grandma watch. 

What are you doing with your day off besides this interview?
I’m trying to clean out all my shit in this house. I’m just having like a weird cleaning rampage, which happens to me sometimes. And I just opened a drawer and found 50,000 Coven scripts and I realize I have to take them to the office to be shredded because I can’t just throw them into the garbage here. It makes me nervous, right? And all our names are on the scripts. So I have to take it to the office to be shredded. That’s the kind of stuff I’m doing with my day off.

So, tonight’s episode! Cordelia can now see everyone’s dirty secrets. Worst witchy gift? Or best?
I think it can be really great when you see good shit, but knowing it’s American Horror Story means you’re going to be seeing a lot of shit you wish you never saw. I just love the metaphor of it. I love the idea that Cordelia started as this woman who tried to see the best in people, and who was kind and tried to be the opposite of her mother and never used her magic for anything other than good. And now she’s getting a real fucking wake-up call about way people function in the world and, you know, shit’s about to go down.

[Series boss] Ryan Murphy said Cordelia was his version of what would have happened if Samantha on Bewitched had listened to Endora and gone dark.
Well, I think goodness is in the eye of the beholder, really. I don’t know she becomes a bad witch, but she’s certainly confronted by things about people I think she chose not to see. She chose to keep her head in the sand because it made it easier for her to move through the world the way she wanted to, which is by the book. But now she’s more, “I gotta figure out a way to survive.” The by-the-book days for Cordelia are over.

Vulture made these tarot cards
Oh, they’re the greatest things ever. I tweeted it. They’re my favorite thing that I’ve ever seen in my life.

But we put Cordelia on the peaceful Temperance card. I’m thinking that might change.
Maybe you can do season-end cards. Something cool like maybe have the front and back be different based on what happens with the characters.

Maybe we will! So again, you’re playing someone being terrorized by a serial killer. And this time, you’re blind.
It’s fun to be trapped in a room with a murderer. It reminded me of Lana Winters and if something reminds me of Lana Winters that’s a good day as far as I’m concerned.

Which was scarier: getting chased by the Ax Man or being held by Bloody Face?
I would say Bloody Face because I endured his torture for much longer and ended up bearing his son and having to shoot my son in the head. But Danny Huston’s scary, too. His ax was really scary. When you can’t see what someone’s doing, like you can see them but nothing else in the room, it’s fucking awful. It’s terrifying. But you don’t sign up for American Horror Story to go tiptoeing through tulips. 

The other maybe scary thing you’ve had to do is have sex while snakes writhed around your body. I read that you really bonded with those snakes.
My mother of course wrote to me after she read that and was like, “Are you my child? Is this her?” Because I’m one of those people who is afraid of sharks and bees and everything. I’m a fearful person when it comes to creatures. I’m not real down with them. So the idea that I would spend the day on a set with a bunch of snakes and by the end of it wish I had one was a pretty marked change.

This sounds very actress-y and stupid but it’s true, if you’re committed to doing something in the moment, you’re gonna go balls out. You’re gonna go for it and not be afraid. In that moment, Cordelia was wanting something so desperately. I just decided, How can I be afraid of this thing that I’m trying to use to help fertilize my fucking eggs? I gotta go there. Also, we were filming it on a Saturday and everyone was tired, and I didn’t want to be that girl who’s like [whines], “No! Get that creepy, gross snake away from me.” So I just wrapped that thing around my neck. There were things they didn’t even use. I hope Ryan puts it on the DVD. There were a couple of takes where that snake had its tongue in my mouth. I just let it do it. It was like Sssss … and that tongue came right up in my face. It’s crazy. They’re very beautiful and strong. It was sexy. I just kinda got into it.

The sexy way they’re trying to choke the life out of your leg ...
Yeah! I was like, “This is fucking hot.” I was so into it. I couldn’t help it. But I’m not gonna lie. Tequila was involved. I had to have some tequila. I mean, not only are you simulating sexual acts, then you add in a bunch of snakes. Jessica Lange also decided to tell me a story that day. This is a very Jessica thing to do. She was leaving the set and I was staying to do the snake stuff and she goes, “Don’t let that snake near your face. I was in a pet store once where someone was holding a quote-unquote nice snake, and the snake reached up and bit the shit out of that person’s face.” I said, “Thanks a lot, mom,” and she goes, “Have fun!” I thinking she was feeling particularly Fiona-ish, like, “Have fun, sucker.”

I love that you call her mom.
Sometimes I do. I went, “Okay, mom. Peace out. See you later! Gonna go have sex with my husband and some snakes!”

And you said the scene was written out over two pages of all description, right?
Yeah. It was the same way with the the voodoo scene. Cordelia’s lifted up, and you see the jizz jar crackling in the fire. There wasn’t any dialogue. It was just two pages of description. Nobody could be confused as to what they wanted to see on camera, that’s for sure.

Fiona’s all about protecting Cordelia now. Is it just guilt over having been a bad mother?
I think both Fiona and Cordelia do a lot of posturing. Deep down you only ever hate someone that much when they affect you so greatly. Fiona loves her child desperately and feels so guilty about what she’s done to her, abandoning her as a child. And at the same time she’s infuriated because Cordelia doesn’t love and worship her the way everybody else does. Down the road, though, you’ll see there are moments where Cordelia and Fiona see eye to eye.

I have to assume they’re going to team up to take down her husband, the witch hunter.
It’s a common cause. What’s going to happen to this coven is pretty extraordinary in how it unites and divides them. It’s going to be very interesting.

Is there some sort of a rule requiring you and Evan Peters to get naked every season? 
I just feel like when your body looks like Evan’s you should want to be running around naked a lot. That boy, he looks good. Everything’s good and tight, you know what I mean? So I feel like you gotta run around naked now, because pretty soon, nobody’s gonna want to see it. I wish I could say that’s in my contract. It’s not. Did I really get naked last [season]? Oh, that’s right, my boobs. “Baby needs colostrum” was last year, I forgot about that. And masturbation station with the aversion-conversion therapy. My poor dad. My dad watched every episode.

He did?
He did. My mom, it was too much for her. She couldn’t watch it. But my dad, after that aversion-conversion therapy scene, he posted on my Facebook, “I was riveted!” Like, Dad, no. Noooo. And he meant, “I’m just so proud of you,” but he wrote it after that episode! I was just like, Oh Dad, no. Creep-o. No, no, no. His heart was in the right place. I don’t think he intended to be like, “That’s my daughter pretending to jack off this young man who’s standing in the room while vomiting in a bucket! Yeah!” 

Did they call you after the snake episode?
Ah, no. They were quiet. My sweet grandmother who lives in Maine, I told her she couldn’t watch last year, but this year she was like, “Can I watch this time?” And I was like, “Ummm, you can try?” and so she started to watch it but her blood pressure started to go up during the opening credits. If I give my grandmother a heart attack from asking her to watch my work on American Horror Story, then I deserve to go to hell. I can’t.

So now that Cordelia’s maybe going dark, is she getting a new wardrobe to match? Because I’m going to miss the high-waisted pants.
Actually, it does change after tonight’s episode. At first, Ryan was like, "I want her to look like Katherine Hepburn/Carole Lombard" – high-waisted pants, 40s, very light and airy compared to Fiona’s structured black stuff. But when I come home from the hospital in tonight’s episode, notice I’m wearing a black dress. Things start changing. Cordelia’s a different kind of woman now, and she probably can’t see a lot of what she’s wearing so Fiona’s probably handing her the clothes she thinks she should be wearing. It’s a lot more black. I remember I called Ryan because I loved those pants but I was getting tired of them. I wore them e-v-e-r-y day. We’d just change the tops. Jessica made a funny joke once when I walked in the trailer wearing pearls one day and she was like, “Jesus, Barbara Bush.” I can tell you the pearls I wear from now on are black.

Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty