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Sarah Paulson on the Terror of Improvising, the Value of Quiet Movies, and What Her New Film Blue Jay Owes to Amanda Peet

When an actor’s just won an Emmy, their next project is typically not a mostly improvised small-town indie shot in seven days. But most actors aren’t Sarah Paulson, who, despite her recent period as Ryan Murphy’s muse, has always had a diverse and adventurous approach to her job. Paulson’s latest, Blue Jay, couldn’t be further from the shows she stars in on FX. She plays Amanda, a woman who runs into her high-school boyfriend Jim (Mark Duplass) when they both return to their hometown. Funny and wrenching in equal turns, Blue Jay was conceived by Duplass as part of his and his brother’s Netflix deal and marks the directorial debut of Alex Lehmann, but the movie stands out as a showcase for Paulson’s warmth and versatility. Vulture caught up with Paulson to talk about the value of improvising, her chemistry with Mark Duplass, and how inhabiting Amanda differed from playing Marcia Clark.

I’ve heard that Amanda Peet plays a significant role in how you ended up doing Blue Jay.
Here’s the story: Mark called me directly — he sent me an email first and said, “I have an idea, do you want to talk on the phone, do you even have time?” I believe the subject line of the email was, “A movie?” [Laughs.] We got on the phone and he pitched it to me — it was very loose. His thought was to follow two people who haven’t seen each other in 20 years, who were very romantic and were very in love in high school, who see each other for the first time in a very long time. The idea would be to shoot in seven days, and have a couple sessions where he and I and our three producers — female producers — and director Alex sat in a room for a couple hours before we went out to shoot it. Just talk and see what we came up with.

I said, “Okay, great,” and before I said yes, fully, I called Amanda, who’s my best friend, and said, “What do you think about him?” I knew that she had the time of her life working on Togetherness, and that it had been a very rewarding creative experience for her, and so I didn’t need to know much more than that, but I wanted to say, “Here’s what he wants to do, should I do it?” I’ve never worked without a script. I’ve never improvised like that. It seemed nerve-racking to me, and a little outside of my comfort zone, and she’d been doing it for two seasons at that point. And she just said, “You will never have more fun, and if you’re going to do it with anyone, it should be with them.”

For someone who’s worked with writers like Aaron Sorkin and David Milch, what was going through your head at the thought of acting without a script?
Abject terror. [Laughs.] You just named two of the great writers. The fact that I was able to even play with them for a second was so exciting, and it got me hooked on how much I love the words. It informed a lot of what my choices might be, and the prospect of not having any of that to help make me feel bolstered and secure was very scary. But again, I just kept hearing Amanda’s voice in my head saying, if you’re going to do it you need to do it with them. So I did.

It seems like it couldn’t be more different to get into a character like Amanda, who you helped build with Mark and Alex and the producers, versus a character like Marcia Clark, who was a real person and is living within this very precise and stylized and wide-lens world.
I really like the research process. When I was playing Marcia, I could take all of my fear about whether or not I could pull it off and funnel it right into studying her, reading everything I could get my hands on, and watching her. Right up until they yelled action, I was watching video of her and reading her book. That’s a very comfortable place for me, working outside of that was really scary. And yet, improvising did something to me — now I’ve got the bug and I want to do it this way a lot more. There was something incredibly alive about it. You cannot be asleep at the wheel and have anything happen when you’re working this way. Not that I would ever approach anything I’m doing in that way, but everybody’s tired sometimes, everybody’s focus can be a little bit off. But it’s not conducive to this way of working. You really have to be as alert as you possible can be, and being mentally nimble helps, too.

It seems like it activates a part of you that’s not being tapped quite as much when you’re able to work with somebody else’s text.
You end up having an idea or a notion of how you want to play something when you read it — it evokes something for you, it ignites something in you, you get an idea of how something is going to be played. You don’t have that at all when you’re working in this way. You’re really flying blind, which means you really need to have your eyes open as much as possible. It’s a pretty stimulating way to work.

Some of the cultural touchstones between Amanda and Jim are so precise, especially that rap you guys do. How did you arrive at that?
We play very well together, Mark and I. I didn’t know that, and I don’t think he did — he keeps saying that he knew that we would and that I would take to it and enjoy it, but I didn’t know that. I was just trying to follow him. He and Alex were my fearless leaders.

He’s got a real gift for seeing that openness to this kind of performance in people. Every time you see somebody in a Duplass brothers thing, they’re always so good at it.
He said to me something like, “Half of the battle with this is just to want to do it. If you want to do it, you’re already so far ahead of the game.” And I really did want to do it.

This is obviously so different than the work that you do in American Horror Story or American Crime Story, these larger TV shows. What kind of room do you think there is in our current cultural and entertainment landscape for these smaller, more intimate slices of life?
Everything is bigger and better and brighter now. There’s so many platforms to put things out, and we’re all doing so much intake, that it can feel like everything has to be the loudest, brightest, most colorful thing to grab your eyes. But the truth is that much of life goes by in a mundane way, and a lot of the beautiful things, the special things, the intimate moments are not very showy. I think there’s something necessary about movies like this, and ways of telling stories like this. I feel like you need it to balance it out. The scales seem very tipped toward the other side. I think Mark said it best: “Maybe quiet is the new loud.”

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Sarah Paulson on Her New Film Blue Jay