When the character of Alice Macray in FX on Hulu’s “Mrs. America” was brought to actor Sarah Paulson’s attention, only two scripts had been written for the limited series. Alice is the lone central character that is not based on an iconic woman in American history, so there wasn’t source material to which Paulson could turn to get a deeper understanding of the woman described as a homemaker and loyal friend of Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), fighting against ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment. But, she was an essential part of the story because she was the only character who could change her stance on the movement over the course of the series.
That’s where the relationship between Paulson and showrunner Dahvi Waller became so crucial.
As Paulson recalls it, Waller told her she couldn’t make a promise that Alice was going to be as prominent in early episodes as in the later part when Alice’s worldview opened.
“It has to be a slow burn so the impact will be [stronger] later on,” Paulson recalls Waller telling her. “And so there may be times when you’re sitting around in a way that you’re not used to, but I hope you’ll trust me and have faith that I am going to give you something really delicious.”
Citing a “real connection” with Waller “instantly,” Paulson did just that, and it changed the trajectory of the show.
“Casting Sarah was critical to Alice’s journey,” Waller says. “Alice is the way into the series because she’s the everywoman and the person we can all relate to, but when we cast Sarah we hadn’t finished breaking the second half of the season. And to be honest if Sarah hadn’t agreed to play Alice I don’t know that I would have felt like Alice could carry an entire episode, and take Alice’s storyline where we took it. When you have someone like Sarah, it completely changes what you can do.”
In the writing of the character, Alice was “based on several people, including a woman I spoke to who was a Phyllis Schlafly Eagle in the ‘70s in Indiana and a neighbor of Phyllis,’” says Waller. But in fleshing her out further for the performance, Paulson says she drew a bit from her own grandmother — who “is a very religious woman and married my grandfather right out of college and had two children and didn’t work and was a devoted homemaker and very fulfilled in doing so.”
Alice staunchly stood by Phyllis’ side in the beginning of the series, afraid that her status as a homemaker would be challenged if the amendment went through. But Paulson and Waller shaped Alice’s conservatism so that it “had a cloak of innocence to it,” Paulson says. “Alice is a real product of her time and it really has to do with what hasn’t been learned and what hasn’t been investigated.”
Adds Waller: “We didn’t believe that all of the women in Phyllis’ movement were Birchers or racists, and we knew it was important to have women on her side who were very much anti any kind of bigotry. We wanted Alice to have those characteristics, but we wanted to be below the surface with it. Sarah can play 1,000 things on her face or with her eyes so you can get all those different layers and complexity, while at the same time playing a character who’s so pure at heart.”