Sarah Paulson is one of the few members of the American Horror Story ensemble to appear in all seven seasons of the FX anthology series, sometimes even playing multiple characters at once. But in the most recent installment, she faced a new sort of challenge: AHS: Cult eschewed supernatural monsters to examine America’s post-Trump political atmosphere and how fearmongering has affected the country.
In Cult, Paulson plays Ally Mayfair-Richards, a lesbian restaurant owner and Jill Stein voter whose phobias come to the forefront alongside her guilt for helping hand the election to Trump. But over the course of the season, she goes from cowering about clowns, blood, and phobias to vengefully killing her wife Ivy (Allison Pill), destroying alt-right cult leader Kai (Evan Peters), and eventually winning a seat in the U.S. Senate in Tuesday night’s season finale. Vulture spoke with Paulson about her interpretation of Cult’s message, unlocking female rage for the good of society, and how a big glass of vodka helped her get through Election Night 2016.
When you first heard the concept for Cult, what did you think?
I thought it sounded terrifying and I worried that it was going to be so close to home that people would be afraid to watch. That it would be beyond the normal fear of watching it — you know, people who are afraid of clowns, or people who don’t like ghosts or vampires or things that go bump in the night. But, you know, this is obviously dealing with a lot of the things that are in our current worldview. I knew for myself, from an acting standpoint, it would be challenging because of that. I worried that it would keep people away, which thankfully it did not.
It was obviously inspired by the frustrations people felt after the election. Going into this season, what state of mind were you in?
The very, very, very first thing we shot of the entire season was the very first scene of the [first] episode, which is Ivy and Ally and their friends waiting for the election returns. It was the very first thing we put on film for the season and it felt very fresh. A lot of people on our set, no matter their political inclination, felt the wild nature of reliving this. They were playing on our character’s television screen the exact moment when Wolf Blitzer or whomever called the election. It was a very wild thing and I think a lot of people were having some post-traumatic stress experiences on the set.
Was Ally’s election-night experience similar to your own?
It was similar to mine in that it was one of shock. I did not wail and fall to my knees. My first thought was not about Merrick Garland or that I was going to be found out for having voted for Jill Stein. I did drink a glass of vodka that night — a straight vodka on ice and it was quite a tall glass.
I had a very early call on the set of Ocean’s 8 the next morning. But thankfully, I was working with a wonderful male director and there were eight fabulous women to process that moment with, so that was good. I didn’t wail and I didn’t fall to my knees. I did cry, but it was much more sort of softly and to myself, then to my family.
How would you describe Ally’s character arc over the season?
I think it’s a very empowering thing to watch someone be pushed to the brink and have them not fall of the edge of the cliff, but rather step back on their own accord and take a different road. I think she was able to do that because of her feelings about her son and the absolute injustice of what had been perpetrated against her by those [cult members], one of whom was the closest person to her.
From an acting standpoint, it was exciting because I had spent many, many, many, months running around and cowering in terror and weeping. As challenging and exciting as those acting moments can be, it’s also hard to sustain that kind of emotion all the time and to not feel that someone was going to get their comeuppance. I wanted to do some knee-breaking. I wanted to take someone out by the knees. That was a very helpful feeling as a performer, because it only could inform how I was gonna try to play this. It was exciting to me and I was grateful that they found a way to come back to that point, where she was stronger than she ever had been in her life.
By the end, she’s almost as diabolical and charismatic as Kai. Do you think that Ally is as dangerous as he is?
I do think so, in just a different way. That’s what so wonderful about the way the season ends. Ally’s ambition, Ally’s need for justice, Ally’s relentless and unstoppable need for revenge — it’s not just for the greater good of her community, but it is to avenge herself, to take her power back. In order to do that, some people had to fall by the wayside and that was a complicated thing, knowing that she’s done those things. But I think she sleeps well at night, given what was done to her. I don’t think it keeps her awake at night too much that she had to say night-night to Ivy.
Ryan Murphy said that the season would critique both the right and the left. Do you think Ally’s behavior is a warning or a rebuke for liberals?
I don’t know that I see it quite that way. I think any action creates an opposite and equal reaction. There are consequences to all behaviors, positive and negative, and Ally may feel she’s doing the right thing because she had been so wronged, but in doing the right thing, she is doing some deplorable things along the way herself. I don’t think you can align that with a necessary message for liberals to hear or reconcile themselves with.
I personally don’t see it that way. I know what we’re saying, I know what we’re positing, I know why you’re asking it. It’s just for me, personally, I don’t categorize it in political terms. I don’t view it with that particular lens.
I think human behavior runs the gamut. Human desire, human will, consciousness and unconsciousness in terms of how it affects behavior is a terrifying world to live in, but it is the world we live in and everybody is affected by it. There is always opportunity to learn from and redirect your own life when you have information that you didn’t have before. Everything that we do and see and read is an opportunity always to have an adjustment to the way you think. But I certainly didn’t, from an acting standpoint, think I was giving a message to the liberals of America.
One of the interesting things about this season was the story line about Valerie Solanas unleashing female rage to create a better world. Do you see that happening now in real life?
Well, I’d have to be a blind, unfeeling dead person to not see the uprising that we are currently experiencing in our culture and our climate. I think anything that’s been muffled is going to find its way out. A lot of women, and rightfully so, struggle with feeling voiceless and I feel those days are behind us. But the pain, the heartbreak, the bravery, and the courage it takes to have all of this happen is something to behold. It’s something to respect and to honor and to give space to. It’s been unleashed. It’s out now.
I want to ask about the final scene. Ally tells Oz she’s meeting a bunch of powerful women, and then she puts a hood on. Where the hell is she going?
I wonder how many people are going to know what that cloak is. Did you recognize what that cloak was?
Throughout the finale, I was waiting for Lana Winters to interview Ally. I was like, “It’s going to be funny when Sarah Paulson is talking to herself.” But is she actually going to see our old friend Cordelia from AHS: Coven?
None of those things happened and obviously they were missed opportunities. I see that clearly now.
Please explain it to me, because I’m clearly an idiot.
Well, you’re not an idiot. I love that there’s a mystery to it and that you walk away from this season going, “Where the hell is she going?” I think that’s great and that’s a good question to have. I think it looks an awful lot like the robes Bebe wore, doesn’t it?
That is a very good point. It also looks a lot like Stevie Nicks.
That too, there’s another missed opportunity. No, but there could be a scene on the DVD that should be between Cordelia and Lana Winters with Ally and then Stevie could play a song in the background.
How will it feel next season to go back to playing some sort of crazy creature, rather than just a lady from Michigan?
[Laughs.] Do you really think I haven’t been doing this for so long on this show that I don’t know what you’re doing? You really think I don’t know what you’re doing?
I just assumed you’d like to go back to the supernatural.
Again, I don’t know who you think you’re talking to, but I don’t have the answer to that question. I can tell you that I have heard rumbling of thoughts and plans and ideas. I’ve heard two separate ideas about what could happen next year and one of them I’m particularly in love with. But I could not possibly give you even one shred of information regarding whether or not I play a creature or a cuckoo bird or a regular gal from Des Moines. They usually will call me at some point and say, “Here’s what it is, lady.” Then Ryan breaks it down and I get very excited and I don’t wanna ruin that for myself by jumping in before I fully know what it is. I can just tell you, I’ve heard rumblings and one of them I really like.