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‘American Horror Story’s’ Sarah Paulson on That Fall, Lady Gaga and Sally’s True Addiction

In the past four seasons of FX’s “American Horror Story” franchise, Emmy nominee Sarah Paulson has played a psychic, a journalist, a witch, and conjoined twins. This season on “American Horror Story: Hotel,” she stars as Hypodermic Sally — a drug addict who (spoiler alert) was pushed from a window at the end of the season premiere.

It’s always difficult to pry plot details from the “American Horror Story” cast, who’ve been sworn to secrecy by executive producer Ryan Murphy. But Paulson took a break between filming her roles on “AHS” and the highly anticipated “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” (in which she plays district attorney Marcia Clark) to offer Variety a few clues about her character.

Are you alive?

(Laughs) Well, I had a bit of a fall! So the answer would be no.

Does that make you a ghost?

I am trapped at the hotel. So yes, I guess I would be a ghost. No one has ever defined that for me. It’s one of the things about “American Horror Story” that I like. I don’t really have the answer. I know I definitely fell. I know I definitely didn’t survive the fall. And I know I’m definitely still on the show. You can deduce what you will from that.

Your characters are famously the only ones who’ve survived all the past “AHS” seasons. So is this Ryan’s revenge?

I think he had to do something, because he can’t stand it when there is something the fans come to expect. If you come to expect that my character is always the survivor or becomes the heroine of the season, that is something that becomes boring for the viewer. So part of the wonderful magic of having a repertory company [is] we get to respond to the audience’s desires in a funny way. They were wanting to see me play someone more villainous. Ryan was interested in seeing me play that, and I wanted to play that, too.

What did he tell you about this season?

He just told me that this it was going to be very different, and it is. I think it’s a very beautifully woven, amalgamation of all the seasons preceding it, rolled into one.

How does it compare to the other seasons for you?

This year, I’m having a lot of fun. On “Freak Show,” it was hard work, mentally and physically, to play those twins. We were in New Orleans shooting, so it was very hot and the conditions were not conducive to doing anything other than lying with an ice pack on your head. Season Three (“Coven”) was fun for me as Cordelia, but I spent a lot of time blind so it was hard to know where the bathroom is. This year for me, I can make really crazy choices in my scenes because Sally just doesn’t give a bleep. She’s incredibly selfish, so I can make selfish choices. That’s really fun, because that’s not really how I work as an actor. I haven’t really had an opportunity to portray any of it.

Will she ever get to leave the hotel?

I can’t tell you. But she is staying close to home.

Will we get to see more of her backstory?

Yes, but that will be later in the season. I’m doing double duty. I’m playing Marcia Clark on “American Crime Story,” which is luckily shooting on the same lot. But it’s meant that my time in “Horror Story” is not as full as it will be later.

How are you dealing with juggling both roles?

I do feel like playing the double-headed girls (last season) got me in tip-top shape (laughs). This is actually harder. Those women were twin sisters and shared a body. These women — Sally and Marcia Clark — they have one thing, and that’s an animal instinct. They’re instinctual, very different creatures. Not to mention when I come into the trailer and I’ve played Sally the day before, I have to scrub off my track marks and my bruises. I have black eyeliner practically in my ears. We have to flatten my hair and get it under the wig that I wear as Marcia. The de-Sallying of me as Marcia is a traumatic day on “Crime Story.” Inevitably, we’ll find track marks behind my fingers, and I’ll be in the courtroom going, “Dammit!”

Which role do you prefer?

I have a special connection to the role of Marcia Clark because I did a lot of research about it. I feel an enormous responsibility to a living, breathing person who’s still living and breathing. When you’re portraying a traumatic time or one that’s imagined, scrutinized beyond anything they’ve ever experienced, and what that does to a person, that’s an incredible challenge. With Sally, I’m just having more fun than I’ve ever had on “American Horror Story.” That’s really saying something, because it’s really been a true home for me from an acting standpoint for the last four years. I’ve always had a wonderful time on “American Horror Story,” but anything goes with Sally, and there’s such freedom in that. She’s boundary-free. It’s like asking me to pick a favorite child.

What is it like working with Lady Gaga?

I haven’t had any scenes with her, which I’m dying for. She’s an incredible addition to the company. There’s no part of it that feels like she’s the star and the rest of us are just orbiting around her. I didn’t know that that’s what everyone expected, but it’s absolutely been the case. She energized the writers. The whole show has been energized by having her around.

I know you and Kathy Bates are close. How much is it fun for you to be feuding with her on-screen?

So much fun! Because we have such a delightful relationship in life, we actually just go for it. We both get the giggles, and she’s much better than I am at keeping it together. I’m the first person to laugh — always have been, always will be. It happened with Jessica (Lange), too. Typically, I’m the aggressor in my scenes with Kathy, so she’s in a different headspace with me. It’s not my buddy Kathy that I’m playing with, it’s Iris, and she’s a real pill! I had almost nothing to do with her on “Coven.” And on “Freak Show,” we had one or two scenes early on, and then none again. So it’s really wonderful to get to work with actors in a different way. Different sides of your personality come out. It’s very exciting.

Matt Bomer joined the cast this year. What is he like to work with? 

He’s very distracting to work with because I don’t know if there is a more handsome man walking the planet. Matt is one of the more gentle, kind people, and [his character] Donovan has such darkness in him — it’s so not Matt. It’s just an example of the talent he is. The conversations we have off-camera are about what the kids are doing this weekend or what the best protein is to put in your smoothie. We talk about normal things, and then I watch him in a scene and I find him utterly terrifying.

Is Donovan alive?

Hmmm. You’ll have to ask him! I’m not spilling the beans. I like my job, and I want to keep it.

Well, the two of you did share a needle.

Interesting. I like how you’re thinking. That was not probably the best idea.

Why does Sally let the girl go at the end of the first episode?

Helping the girl escape is a combination of pissing off Iris and wanting to be entertained. She’s not doing it from it some altruistic point — she only lets one of them go. She gets off on watching other people have some kind of emotion. She’s desperately to feel things. She feels what other people are feeling. She’s an emotion addict.

Is Sally’s addiction love more than drugs?

Yes. We’re going to find out later why Sally is the way she is, why she had her heart broken. And when you have your heart broken, people respond to it in all kinds of different ways. A lot of drug addicts will tell you you’re constantly looking outside of yourself for something to make the pain stop. If you’re a more evolved person, you know that can’t come from an external source. It has to come from internal sources. But Sally doesn’t know that. She was broken too early. I don’t know if she can ever be saved, to be honest. She’s looking at love to save her. She’s looking for the drugs to help her forget. But when you can’t leave the hotel, I don’t know how you get saved —but maybe there’s someone in there who can help her.

American Horror Story: Hotel” airs at 10 p.m. Wednesdays at FX.

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