Television

Sarah Paulson on Playing a Housewife Who—Well, We Won’t Spoil It

Mrs. America’s latest episode takes an unexpected turn.

Sarah Paulson as Alice sitting on a sofa, clutching a book to her chest, looking conflicted.
Sarah Paulson in Mrs. America. FX on Hulu

This article contains spoilers for Mrs. America.

Although it doesn’t end until next week, Mrs. America climaxes in many ways with its penultimate episode, “Houston,” which brings both supporters and opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment together at the National Women’s Conference of 1977. The series’s central figure, Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), stays away, but her disciples are out in full force, including Alice Macray (Sarah Paulson), whose dedication to her longtime friend has been strained by the anti-ERA movement’s increasingly rightward turn. Over the course of the episode, Alice, a composite character invented for the show, is exposed to people she’s only seen from afar, and finds—with the help of a few cocktails and some off-label drugs—that they’re not the demonic figures Schlafly’s painted them as.

It’s a key moment for the series, which, while its true sympathies are never in doubt, has worked to empathize with Schlafly and her followers, and for Paulson, who plays Alice’s broadening understanding in fits and starts rather than as a sudden consciousness-raising epiphany. Paulson talked to Slate about Alice’s journey, the upcoming election, and just what was in that drink. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Slate: “Houston” is a big episode for your character, and it’s a big episode for Mrs. America. The opposing sides of the ERA movement have encountered each other on televised debates, but this is really the first time they’re all under the same roof—which meant that it was also the only chance for some of the actors playing on opposite sides to work with one another. Was it something you were looking forward to all through the shoot?

Sarah Paulson: Cate [Blanchett] and Melanie [Lynskey] and I just kept looking at each other and saying, “Do you think they’re having more fun on the other set?” Because we never got to see them. Many of us knew each other from working on other things or from doing theater in New York, and it was this wonderful opportunity to be together, but we could never really see each other because any time we had a night off on the old countermovement side, the feminists were working, and so they couldn’t hang out and drink with us because they had to be up early, and vice versa. So [“Houston”] was a wonderful opportunity. The eighth episode we actually shot last, so it was the last time a lot of us were all together, and it was the endgame for some of the characters, too.

Alice is a character who was invented for the show, but she has one of its most interesting character arcs. She’s a true believer, and she’s been there from the beginning—she keeps reminding people she was the one to tell Phyllis about the ERA—but she’s not a zealot. There are things that make her uncomfortable, like accepting support from the Ku Klux Klan, and lines she won’t cross. There’s a moment in the episode where she tells a reporter that most women in the U.S. don’t want equal rights, and when the reporter cites a poll that overwhelmingly says the opposite, Alice has no idea what to say. It’s not just that she doesn’t have a talking point ready; it’s as if she’s never considered that a position she thinks of as the lunatic fringe is actually solidly mainstream. Is Alice that sheltered? Who was she to you?

It’s very important to me. I had less to do in the beginning of the series, but I knew there was going to be an episode about Alice’s journey, so I tried to lay as much track as I could that preceded it, so you would believe and understand where I end up at the end of that episode—and then, once people see Episode 9, why that ending happens the way that it does. I didn’t want her to be an extremist in any sense. She absolutely is devoted to Phyllis and thinks that Phyllis is the smartest person in the room, and it’s true. When Phyllis shines her light on Alice, she feels that she is of value in the world in a way that is very, very special to her and makes her feel like she matters. She’s always had a bit of anxiety about her intellect and feeling a little bit subpar in that arena, and at the same time, Phyllis’ interest made her feel like maybe she was capable to go out and represent the countermovement. She would give the speech and she would be the face of it and she could do this. But to me, Alice represents hope personified, or openness personified. Even in the beginning, she doesn’t want to go too far. To be extreme, for Alice, is just incongruous with what she really believes. I think goodness is her engine.

It was very interesting to me, and I think very important to everybody creatively involved, that this episode was not going to be an opportunity to show how being a liberal is the way to be, and that you can take a person who had a very narrow view of the world and put her in an environment that is expansive. She was able to really be present and bear witness to all of that. And she is different because of it. But it’s not an opportunity to say, “Oh, I see the light, and now I reject everything I have ever been taught, told, or believed in.” It’s just more of an assimilation or an integration of what she’s seen, because these women were only, in her mind, the enemy. They were trying to take something away from her that she valued, which was her place in the home. And that’s what she felt this [ERA] movement was about. And she had a limited understanding of it because oftentimes we only feed our brains and our hearts the things that support the things that we already think. I think she was absolutely a victim of that, at her own hand. But once she has seen for herself that the women on the feminist side are human beings with their own wants and desires and feelings that are as integral to their sense of self as hers are, it is impossible for her to go forward and not remember that. But it’s not a big jump to Alice having her eyes opened and now she’s a liberal. I don’t think that’s what happens there.

That comes to a head in the extraordinary scene you have with Julie White, where the two of you have drinks at the convention. Alice feels like she’s found a kindred spirit, another Christian woman who’s come to Houston to express her political convictions, and looks positively snakebit when she realizes that Julie White’s character is there because she’s a member of NOW. For you, what’s going through Alice’s head at that moment?

I think it’s pure fear. A lot of times when we are most afraid, the thing that comes up first is anger. And it’s in righteousness and the horror of being misled—even though, in fact, she wasn’t misleading me. She was just being both things: She is a woman of great faith, and she also wants equal rights for women.

How can these things coexist? How can she be both of these things? That has never occurred to Alice. There is a very black-and-white way of thinking that she has subscribed to for most of her life. Now it is about, for Alice, seeing the gray and being comfortable with it and accepting it and relishing it, as opposed to being so, so frightened of it.

Did you decide what the “Christian pill” that Julie White gives Alice is?

I can’t remember what Dahvi [Waller, Mrs. America’s showrunner] said. I’m such a square. I was asking her, “Is it a Percocet? Or a Vicodin? Or a Quaalude?” And she said no, no. I think it was something that one takes to relax. Like a Xanax type of thing? A relaxant. Alice had, of course, been drinking more than she usually drinks, and the combination of the Xanax and the booze sent her down the proverbial rabbit hole.

One too many pink ladies.

Exactly. Believe me, when I looked that up, I was like, “What is she drinking? There is milk in it? Milk? Who drinks a cocktail with milk in it?” It’s absurd. I mean, I’m all for a Kahlua and cream, but that makes sense ’cause it’s also a Häagen-Dazs flavor. And of course they couldn’t make a real one. I don’t even remember what was in that cup, but it was vile. It was a great acting challenge. If it looked like I was enjoying that cocktail, I was doing my job well.

Speaking of ingredients, there’s a moment in “Houston” where your character has an emotional breakdown, but the only dialogue is a recipe for stuffing that she’s giving out over the phone. What was shooting that scene like?

Well, the thing about this episode in general—Janicza Bravo, who directed it, is so wonderful—is that Episode 8 was always its own thing. The production was coming to a close. People were so tired. It may have even been 2 in the morning when we were shooting that scene, and I remember thinking, How am I going to do this? I don’t know how I’m going to do this. How am I going to have this breakdown while talking about the recipe for pecan stuffing? But, at the same time, given where we were in Alice’s story, I just could relate to feeling so out of your depth and being so frightened of all the newness being thrown at you and sort of having to question everything that you built your house on. Everything that your foundation is made of has all of a sudden been taken away, brick by brick. And it was late enough and I was tired enough and I was frightened that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off, so I could absolutely relate to it.

I thought it was pretty clever and wonderful the way that Dahvi allowed Alice to have a moment that would be really, really honest to her—and to not have some kind of emotional breakdown with a stranger, but to have it with her mother, talking about something that really brings her a great deal of joy, which is making a big Thanksgiving dinner. To have that be the moment, with the sound of her mother’s voice and the call of home, that was so moving to me. Even when I read it, I cried. When we were shooting, I kept thinking to myself, Remember when you read it and you cried? Just do that! Cry now!

After wandering the convention hall, stealing food from a lesbian rights gathering, and stumbling into a screening of Jeanne Dielman, Alice finally gets back to her hotel room, only to come face to face with Gloria Steinem. She’s too spent to do much more than stare, so it’s a tiny moment, but there’s so much packed into it. How do you convey that much importance in such a simple encounter?

I think it was such an extraordinarily clear juxtaposition between watching the way Phyllis handles a meeting with a group of people who are so devoted to her and to a movement versus watching Gloria do the same thing with a group of women right in front of her eyes, with such generosity of spirit and such genuine interest in other people’s thoughts and concerns and worries.

And any time you’re in a room with someone like Rose Byrne, where they did such an incredible job—it’s very easy for me to watch her and think, Is that Gloria Steinem? And there was an element of I can’t believe I’m in the same room with you. We’ve been shooting the thing for five months, and I haven’t seen you at all. So life was imitating art.

The story of Mrs. America takes place more than four decades ago, but it’s a work that was designed to be released now, several months before an election in which the issues it deals with are very much in play. And a lot of hopes are pinned on the existence of women like Alice Macray, conservative voters with a conscience who decide that the movement has gone too far. Do you think those voters exist?

I do think they’re out there. I hope they’re out there. I hope people are able to not only focus on where they align politically in terms of parties, and really think about where they align morally, from a civic-minded perspective, from a justice perspective. If those things are guiding you, I don’t know how there can’t be a potential restructure in your mind and your heart about what one would do when it comes time to put pen to paper in November. If we’re allowed to vote by mail in November.

For more of Slate’s culture coverage, listen to the latest episode of Working, an interview with actor Alison Wright.