Sarah Paulson Talks 12 Years a Slave and Being a Woman in Hollywood

Features
by Kristal Cooper
October 17, 2013 11:00 AM
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Sarah Paulson in "12 Years a Slave." Fox Searchlight

Sarah Paulson is excited about this year's Oscar race. "There are probably 10 women who could be nominated for Best Actress. When do we ever have that?" says the actress. "Usually it's like, 'Hello? Is anybody out there?' and they're picking performances from the beginning of the season that weren't even contenders. There were just an overwhelming number of excellent roles for women this year."

Paulson herself is the recipient of one of those excellent roles, that of Mistress Epps in Steve McQueen's buzzy 12 Years a Slave, a film that has managed to captivate critics during its Festival run. It was a part that the actress fought for, sending an audition tape to McQueen and scoring the role even though he'd already cast another actress ("he won't tell me who it was and believe me, I've asked.").

"It was just a beautifully written role and it was a dangerous character in terms of how I would get inside it." reveals Paulson. "Also, once I knew it was Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor, I just thought, 'what do I have to do to get into this movie. I'll do anything."

The part requires Paulson to transform her very amiable self into a woman who's consumed with jealousy over the feelings her husband (played by Fassbender) has for a slave girl named Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o), resorting to abusive, cruel behaviour to communicate her frustration. "The only way for me to do it as an actress is to find what the real motivation is because people aren't just terrorizing people for no reason. I had to figure out what was motivating her behaviour and it was her terrible embarrassment, her fear. She was being completely usurped by Patsy in her husband's heart and it was more than she could bear."

She continues, "I don't think Mistress Epps is a very complicated woman and I don't think she's very deep so I think her only recourse is to demolish. The only way she has any impact on her husband is to behave this way. When she speaks to him this way, he listens and she gets his attention so she'll do whatever it is to get that and to humiliate Patsy. The only way to play it was to find the desperation underneath."

Although the film focuses on Ejiofor's character, free man-turned-slave Solomon Northup, and his experiences, it also manages to paint a picture of what life would have been like for a certain type of woman in the 19th century. Paulson explains, "I don't think Mistress Epps is the kind of woman who's ever even picked up a bonbon and put it in her mouth. Someone puts it there. She's definitely representative of moneyed women in the South who had their every need met and tended to and just didn't exert a lot of energy. Let's just say, she's not one to clean her own bathroom."

In preparing for the role, Paulson met with Fassbender a few days before the start of filming to create a back story for their characters and relied on McQueen to help her affect the correct physicality for the character ("He wanted me to be like a figurine on top of cake.") but otherwise, opted not to do too much research into who her character might have been. "The more ignorant I could be, the better for the character. I felt like who she was is very specific to Solomon's experience and I didn't want to have some sort of generalized notion about a woman."

Speaking of generalized notions of women on the big screen, Paulson has a lot to say when asked about her experience as a woman working in the entertainment industry. Looking at her acting resume, it's clear she's been fortunate enough to land a long list of impressive roles during her career, yet she admits that she hasn't had the opportunity to work with as many female directors as she would have liked, "I can think of maybe four that I've worked with in my entire career both in television and in film. On American Horror Story we haven't had a single female director on the show."

She adamantly believes that the lack of consistent female-centric output originates from the dearth of women working behind the camera. "I don't know that there are many women telling stories about women. There are a lot of men telling stories about women -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- but it would be nice to see more women given the opportunity."

The actress is confident that things are changing for the better though. "There is no better time than right now to be a female in this business. It does feel like something is happening. I don't know what it is, but something feels like it's on the move in the right direction."

12 Years a Slave opens on October 18, 2013.

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