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Sarah Paulson Talks Working With Todd Haynes, Period Acting, and ‘Carol’

Written by on January 4, 2016 

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With Far from HeavenMildred Pierce, and I’m Not There, Todd Haynes has often depicted the dark, authentic underbelly of the perfect family that lives down the lane. In his latest film, Carol, he returns to the 1950s, with a titular character (Cate Blanchett) who’s lavish on top — impeccably dressed and elegant — but is aching underneath out of love for both her daughter and her new lover, Therese (Rooney Mara).

The woman Carol can always expect to stand by her is Abby, played by Sarah Paulson. Everything we need to know about their friendship isn’t from when their romantic past is mentioned, but when the two simply walk together, holding onto each other. Carol is a film in which actions often speak louder than words — one of the reasons why Paulson was drawn to the project.

The actress was kind enough to make time to discuss Haynes’ newest picture with us. Here’s what she had to say:

The Film Stage: You rarely see movies like this, which are more about what characters don’t say.

Sarah Paulson: I think that’s true in life, too. Don’t you?

It’s often what we don’t say that says a lot.

It’s what we don’t say. People over-write things, they over-act them. You know this is movie where none of that happens. And I think that’s why people are probably so, “What is it about this movie? It’s hypnotic. There’s something so otherworldly about it.”

Is it rare to find a script that doesn’t vocalize everything?

I think it is rare, because it starts to feel like it’s not been written by an American. It’s funny because, when I did Martha Marcy May Marlene, I remember thinking the same thing. I thought that the script was written by… I don’t know why I didn’t think it was American, but maybe because it wasn’t overly full of dialogue. It was so spare. I think that’s part of why the movie was so good. It was completely suspenseful and so chilling. Because you couldn’t figure out what was reality and what wasn’t. It was very clear on the page. Even though you’d be like, “What’s happening in this scene?” And in Carol, I feel like… did you talk to Phyllis [Nagy, the screenwriter]?

No. I’m talking to her on Monday, though.

I think she did such an incredible job. It is all about the subterranean story. Which everything really is.

Is that common, where you read a script and are surprised it’s written by an American?

Oh, no, but it’s just… In the world, I just feel like we’re so used to in television and movies, as viewers, I think we need more and more and more to be stimulated by. So no longer does the simple thing sort of seems like it’s enough for us until you see something like this movie and you kind of go, “This story is so simple and so pure.” And I think that is part of the reason it resonates: that it’s other than what we have been seeing lately. We are not being inundated by, you know, explosions and rapid-fire dialogue and crazy cutting. Just telling a story, simply and honestly, and with actors who are telling the truth.

Todd Haynes also visualizes the drama through camerawork. There’s a scene where Abby closes the door on Harge, and that image says so much about them.

Yes, totally.

Did you have conversations with Mr. Haynes about how he’d frame certain scenes?

No. It’s interesting because, on American Horror Story, I do that all the time. I’ll ask [cinematographer] Micheal Goi, “Where is the camera?” or how tight he’s going. I ask all kinds of questions, but, with Todd, I… It’s not that I don’t trust Micheal Goi; I trust Micheal Goi with my life on that show. But, somehow, Todd’s camerawork and his collaboration with Ed Lachman, the DP, is something I just trusted visually. It was just something that was going to be exactly where it needed to be and I should probably not make it any of my business to play the scene.

Do you think it’s important to be technically minded as an actor?

I think sometimes it is. I learned that slowly as I started working. You’d be doing a scene and the camera is right here and you’re shouting, and you’re going, “Jesus, you look like an animated…” What’s the cartoon where the eyes go bugging out of their face?

I feel like that’s a lot of cartoons.

Yes, it’s a lot of cartoons. So I was like, “Whoa, you need to calm down where the camera is. You can do a lot less.” But the instinct with actresses is we always want to act. We want to act a lot. And writers want to write a lot. And everybody wants to do a lot of directing and a lot of acting and a lot of costumes and I feel like, when you do it really right in this way, you don’t need it. The story is enough. The actors are enough. Everything feels authentic. So you don’t have to push; you just let the audience lean in.

I don’t think we let the audience do enough work anymore. We just give them every single thing that they’re supposed to be thinking and feeling. By a music cue, by a line of dialogue, and in this movie I feel like we have to kind of lean in a little bit.

Absolutely. What were your initial conversations with Mr. Haynes regarding the role?

I actually auditioned for the role. Not with him in the room. He was scouting locations where he was working on another project, so he couldn’t be in New York when I was able to go. And I flew to New York and read with the casting director and made a 45-minute tape where I did all the scenes for Abby and did different versions of them. Once I got the part I talked with him on the phone and we emailed back and forth a lot about Abby’s hair color. Cate was definitely going to be blonde and Rooney was going to be a kind of mousy brunette, but he wanted me to have a little bit of red in mine. It was a whole thing, and there was a number of pictures that we sent back and forth because he is so just cinematically aware of color and texture and all that.

So, he wanted it to be a very specific color, and so we talked a lot about that. He wrote me a long email, sent me a lot of music that he wanted me to listen too. That he sort of thought of, some of which was for Abby specifically. Some of which was just for a feeling, an overall feeling that provoked a feeling of the movie. He’s economical in his direction. He doesn’t over talk. I think he trusts that he’s cast you for a reason. Everyone there is there for a reason. So he lets you do your thing and, if it’s off story-wise — or there’s something missing, story-wise — he’ll come in and say something. Not intrusive but kind of trusting.

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What music did he send you?

Oh, my God — it was so many things. It was just music of the time, of the fifties. God, it was so many varying things, and he made these disc covers. That were just these patterns that said “Carol” on them. It was just really beautiful.

You mentioned talking about what you wanted Abby’s hair and costume to be. Does a director usually have that conversation with you?

Well, I haven’t had many conversations like that with a director. Michael Mann I did on Luck. I was going to do that show right before it got canceled because of the horse stuff. He was so focused on it. He wanted to cover up my freckles; he had a very specific color of blonde he wanted my hair to be. It was very, very detail-oriented in that way. But other than that, very few people have come in contact with.

I’ve done an interview with Micheal Man before and I don’t think I’ve ever talked to someone who is so detailed-oriented. 

He sees everything.

Some actors like to listen to music to prepare for a role, to get into the mood. On set, were you listening to some of the music Mr. Haynes sent you?

I had it in my trailer and I listened to it a lot. Yeah, before I got to set. Usually on my iPod or my phone, once I was on set. The movie was not made for a lot of money, so a lot of our dressing rooms were in Carol’s house and we were shooting stuff in the house. Like, Cate had one bedroom, I had one bedroom, and Rooney had another one. There were no fancy trailers. We were all kind of together in a room and it was kind of cool.

With Abby, you don’t see inside her house and you don’t know too much about her life outside of her relationship with Carol. Is that something you need to know for yourself or are you just responding to what’s on the page?

I think I was just responding to what was on the page. I thought Phyllis’s script was incredibly beautiful and detailed and I had read the book. There was a lot more of Abby in the book, so I was able to get my history and my back story from the book. I could sort of fill in the blanks where it wasn’t in the script.

What were some details from the book that really suck with you?

Oh, there was a scene in a restaurant. Not the diner scene, but a scene early on, where Abby makes Therese come and meet her at the restaurant, where Abby has too much to drink and Abby is being very sort of provocative with Therese and pushing her to sort of say what it is that she claims I’m doing here. But also sort of dressing her down a little bit for her age, just being sort of dismissive. But she was also the one who asked her to come to lunch. She also walks her home and tries to drive her, and Therese wants to walk, and it was just a lot of personality things in the book that made things very clear to me about what was on the page in the script.

One scene I want to ask you about is the scene of you driving Carol around. It’s one of the few big exterior moments. Do you recall any details about shooting that scene?

That took place over a couple of days. There’s the first time when I see Therese and I turn around and Carol is waving at her. I think on one day, the longest portion of it, Todd was shooting between the windows of another taxi cab or something. There were a bunch of things going on. That was my last day of shooting and it was freezing cold. And it was snowing and raining and we had to wait out the rain and wait out all those things.

I was just making Cate laugh because I was just having to drive this Packard. I had to drive a 1949 Packard stick shift. I don’t even drive a stick shift now, so I had to learn to drive it because Todd was obsessed with the color of this car. I got a call where he was like, “Do you drive a stick?” And I said no, and apparently they were like, “Well, Todd really wants to use this car as your car. He loves the color of this car. Do you think you could learn to drive it?” I was like, “I can try.” Cate was taking driving lessons, too, but hers I don’t think was a stick. But those cars are very different to maneuver because of all the time they spent on the road; they were doing a lot of real driving and I did my own driving too.

So I was in the parking lot every day, practicing my turns and stopping and gear shifts, and I’m sure I could not do it today if I tried. But it was something I was able to do because Ed Lachman was like, “If you hit your mark every time, I’ll give you a dollar.” And I did. I hit my mark every time. I think I made about ten bucks.

Congratulations. You’re an actor that seems really comfortable in period pieces, with American Horror Story and 12 Years a Slave. Does period acting come naturally to you?

I always think it’s because my nose turns up at the end. I think I have a period profile. I’m not kidding. Something about it seems old-timey.

Right. Now I’m just looking at your nose because you said that.

I know it sounds stupid, but it’s like what I think it looks like, the profile of a person from another time. I think it’s just because a camera guy told me that once, and I’m just repeating it back to you because I don’t know. I certainly think I don’t have maybe a particularly modern quality. And so therefore you know there are just some actors where, if you put them in a corset, you would just not buy it. There is just something about them that is just too modern. And I think I don’t have that. So, it lends itself to me. Just put me in some time period other than now and it would probably work. I think I’m able to do it. I don’t know why.

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Once a director calls cut, can you start chatting in-between takes, or do you usually need to stay in the mood of the scene?

It depends on the materiel. Season two of Horror Story, where I was doing all that stuff where Lana was trapped in the lair, I just wouldn’t leave the room for a long time, because it was too hard for me to be in that state of being so terrified and upset and then go hang out by my chair and text message on my cell phone. It just felt really weird.

But then there were other times, like, with 12 Years a Slave, there was a lot of quiet and respect in-between takes. And other times there was total levity, and it just depends on the day, the scene you’re shooting. I don’t really have one set of things I do. It’s very project-specific. See what the story is, then I go from there. I mean, people were doing paint ball competitions during 12 Years a Slave on the weekends. You know what I mean: you don’t really think that that is what people would be doing. But you know.

One period piece I have to bring up is Down with Love. That’s a great movie.

Oh, you’re a real filmie. It came out at just the wrong time; it was like counter-programming to the Matrix or something. They were, like, “Let’s put this movie out for the people who don’t want to see the Matrix,” and you’re like, “Well, nobody doesn’t want to see the Matrix. So that’s probably a bad idea.” There’s no counter-programming. You just don’t do that now.

It’s gained a following over the years.

It has because it’s on cable. I think people appreciate what it is now.

Reading past interviews with you, it sounds like one of your favorite experiences.

That was one of the more fun experiences ever. Peyton was so much fun on that movie. And Renee [Zellweger] had just come off Chicago and Ewan had just come off of Moulin Rouge! and David Hyde Pierce was ending Frasier, so everyone was really firing on all cylinders and it was just a really fun, light-hearted movie to make. That was, like, a joyous thing; it was not arduous at all. And we had this thing where we had no trailers on that movie. We were shooting in a lot, and we had all our dressing rooms on a sound stage, just like they did back in that day when they were shooting movies like that. So we all kind of felt like, “Look, we’re making a movie in the sixties, and there are no trailers. This is so exciting.” It was very cool.

You became interested in acting in the fourth grade. Doing it as a job now, does it feel completely different from when you started?

It certainly feels the same way, in a sense that I can’t believe I get to do it and that people are asking me to do it. More than once. I get to live my life from my acting career. I get to pay my rent because I get paid to act, which, as a child, I didn’t really know that the two could go together. That’s a kind of remarkable thing, that I get to actually do it. It’s one thing to dream about it; it’s another thing to find yourself doing it and I get to do it and keep doing it. It’s pretty rare to do what you love.

Has your career in acting matched your expectations?

I’m sure when I started off I had an unquenchable desire to act, but I didn’t really know what acting was. But I knew I wanted to do it. And I’m sure the idea of fame was some kind of interesting component when I was really young. Because that’s what it sort of looked like. Then it became about the act of doing– which, to me, is what acting is.

Carol

Carol is now playing in limited release.


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