Mrs. America is filled with famous actors playing recognizable historical figures like Phyllis Schlafly, Shirley Chisholm, and Gloria Steinem. But Sarah Paulson has the distinction of being, as she puts it herself, the rare “non-iconic historical figure in the piece.” She’s Alice Macray, a composite of the type of suburban conservative woman who was radicalized by the STOP ERA movement, and who serves as the second-in-command to Cate Blanchett’s Schlafly for most of the series.
At least she does up until the eighth episode, “Houston,” when Alice heads off to the 1977 National Women’s Conference and ends up on wandering solo in the other side’s territory, under the influence of drugs from a surprisingly feminist Texas homemaker (Julie White). For Paulson, the episode was both a chance to expand her character’s perspective, and to get to see what all the actors on the other half of the FX series were up to. She spoke to Vulture over the phone about how she wanted to avoid telling a story about Alice suddenly realizing that conservatism is bad, where things stand with the upcoming season of American Crime Story, and why she asked Ryan Murphy if she could sit out an American Horror Story season to do this show.
As a theater fan, I love that it’s Tony-winner Julie White who sets Alice off on her drug trip at the convention.
Janicza Bravo, who directed the episode, was like, “There are a couple of people up to play that part and … Julie White?” And I was like, “If we can get Julie to play that part, I would be over the moon!”
In the episode, Alice crosses over from the STOP ERA movement into the feminist world, which means that you got to act around all these other actors on the other half of the show. What was it like to do the scene where Alice is awed by Gloria Steinem, for instance?
Well, it’s very easy to be starstruck by Rose Byrne. But it was a thrilling component of the episode for me because, on both sides, we all kept talking about what they were doing on the other side of town. [Directors] Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were talking about how they were shooting the feminists in a different style than they were shooting our stuff and I was like, “Oh yeah, with their Steadicam and their cigarettes and their loud music and armpit hair.” I remember Cate, Melanie Lynskey, and I going, “Do you think they’re having more fun than we are?” When [creator] Dahvi Waller told me about my episode, the idea that I was going to have this experience — much like what the character was experiencing — and be in a room with Margo Martindale, Tracey Ullman, and Elizabeth Banks was exciting. Not that you can get sick of Cate Blanchett or Melanie Lynskey. You can’t! But it was very nice to be in this other world.
Did you not know what Alice’s arc would be when you signed on?
I didn’t! Cate and I share an agent. I’d gotten a phone call from my agent that said, “Cate’s doing this thing, do you want to sit down with these women?” I sat down with Dahvi and Stacey Sher and Coco Francini, who are the executive producers. It was shooting exactly when American Horror Story was shooting, and I thought there was no way I could do both. At that point, they didn’t know what they were going to be able to offer me, how much I would be in it, and what I would even be doing. There were two roles, Alice being the one that was more interesting to me. I was the second person cast, which was weird since I play the only non-iconic historical figure in the piece.
To be honest, the writing was extraordinary — the time period, the subject matter, and the idea of playing a person so different from where my head and heart live politically. And I can’t deny the fact that Cate being part of it was an incredible draw. This was the third time we’ve had the pleasure of working together [after Carol and Ocean’s 8]. So I went to Ryan Murphy and I said, “Do you mind if I sit this season of American Horror Story out? I want to do this instead,” and he very graciously said yeah.
This episode teases out Alice’s attraction to Phyllis, which isn’t fully defined or even something she might be able to articulate. How did you approach playing that?
Since I did know, once we started shooting, that I would have an episode that was centered around my character, I was trying to plant seeds along the way of the juxtaposition of Alice’s extraordinary openness and the fissures in her connection to Phyllis. By the time that we land in the episode where she has a bit of a personal awakening, the fruit has been seeded.
A thing I kept saying to myself all the time was “try to be open,” because I kept imagining Alice trying to be a person who could manage being there without her North Star. Phyllis has pointed her in all the directions from the beginning, even if Alice is the one who first introduced the movement to Phyllis in the first place, without much information or knowledge. Dahvi kept talking about how this episode was “Alice through the looking glass.” l loved that idea of her taking one step and whoosh, down she goes.
As you said, a lot of your co-stars are playing well-known historical figures, while Alice is a composite of a type of conservative, suburban woman. What was your research process for her like?
Dahvi gave us all research packets, and for people who were playing the historical figures where there is a tremendous amount of research and information, those packets were probably much fatter than my packet was. I didn’t do a tremendous amount of research about people of that time, because I am a person and I can imagine what people might be feeling. But there were a few women in Phyllis’s orbit that had this kind of shift.
What was an important distinction, which was very important to me and Cate fought for this as well: This isn’t an opportunity to show how liberalism is a better place to be. Alice doesn’t drop her conservative mindset completely. She’s fundamentally a homemaker and a wife and a committed Catholic. I don’t think she jumps into the other lane. She’s just had the wool pulled from over her eyes, to see the world more clearly and more broadly. The main thing was the discovery that these women who she perceived to be her enemies were also just also people. Before, they were threatening ideas. That certainly lands us right in the middle of the conversation we’re having today about how much an isolated point of view can only feed one angle. This is an example of Alice venturing very bravely into another world.
It’s interesting because Alice is shaken by the experience, but she still returns to Phyllis by the end of it.
At the end of episode nine, audiences will get an answer to what the shift has been and what it ends up doing to their relationship. It certainly isn’t a eureka, “I’ve been thinking incorrectly this whole time!” It’s just that you see something anew and you can never go back to your old way of thinking.
Were you in the middle of preparing to play Linda Tripp in Impeachment when everything shut down?
It’s been a great blessing, but also a bit of a chaotic brain time for me in the last year or two. I went from playing Mildred Rachet [in Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series] for six months and then got on a plane 36 hours later to go do Mrs. America, only to begin my deep dive into the Linda Tripp world the minute that was done. It was chaotic mentally for me to go from, like, 1946 to the 1970s and then to the 1990s. It was a lot to go from playing a person who was fictionalized to playing a very, very real person. Then, to have her pass away, even though we had no involvement with each other or anything to that effect, I certainly have spent so much time thinking about her.
But yes, I was in the middle of prepping for Linda and I’m still prepping for Linda. We will be doing that when we are able to go back and I don’t want to be caught with my pants down. There does come a point where you go, Wait a minute, do I need to live inside this space for the six months preceding the six months I’m actually going to be doing this? There’s so much we don’t know yet, in terms of how all this will settle, that I’m trying to just be gentle with my brain.