SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the first season of “Ratched,” streaming now on Netflix.
For decades the character of Nurse Mildred Ratched from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” has been considered one of the most iconic fictional villains of all time. First created by Ken Kesey in his 1962 novel, she was then brought to life on the big screen by Louise Fletcher in 1975. Now Sarah Paulson has taken on the role, tasked with delivering an origin story for the character that reveals deep trauma in her childhood and a perhaps unexpected drive to take care of her foster brother Edmund (Finn Wittrock) in Ryan Murphy and Evan Romansky’s drama series “Ratched” for Netflix.
“This story takes place 20 years prior to when we meet Mildred in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest, so [Mildred could] be a very different person with some similarities and some things you recognize, but they’re not fully developed; they haven’t fully settled into her being [and] they have not come to define her. She’s still in the middle of experiencing them,” Paulson, who also executive produces, tells Variety.
The eight-episode first season of “Ratched” begins in 1947, with Mildred conning her way into a job as a nurse in a mental health facility — despite having no formal training — so that she can be reunited with Edmund who is an inmate-slash-patient there after he was caught for a massacre on a house of priests. The season follows Mildred as she manipulates the colleagues around her, not only to become the head nurse, but also to grant Edmund special privileges. Knowing where her brother is — and having him back in her life — allows her to breathe a little more and find herself in new ways, as well, which primarily includes entering into a relationship with Gwendolyn (Cynthia Nixon) and eventually moving to Mexico with her.
Along the way, some of those manipulations do end in violent ways, such as lobotomizing the lone survivor of her brother’s priest massacre and Charles (Corey Stoll) being boiled in one of the facility’s “therapeutic” tubs. But Mildred also displayed acts of kindness and mercy, such as planning to euthanize her brother, rather than let him be put to death in the inhumane electric chair.
“This is maybe why I work with Ryan so much and why I enjoy it so much: you’ve got to jump in with both feet,” Paulson says. “I think that’s what’s fun about working with him: the world is so bananas and you’re just looking for something to grab onto that feels like the core and the truth of the thing so you can swing really wide and really far while holding onto the center of it, which for me is her love for her brother. I could get behind that and I could stand behind it morally and I felt like people do some hideous s— to save the people they love. I’m not sanctioning it, but I understand it.”
Here, Paulson talks with Variety about tapping into Mildred’s abusive childhood and her survival instinct, honoring Fletcher’s version of the character, and whether Mildred is the hero or the villain.
Recently you mentioned that the Mildred Ratched everyone knows from “Cuckoo’s Nest” is a woman who couldn’t always access her heart. Yet, your Mildred often seems to lead with her heart when it comes to Edmund and eventually Gwendolyn. What is it that you think makes her open at this point in her life and hardens her later?
I was talking about how, given the patriarchal infrastructure of a mental hospital in the 1970s, that it might have been impossible to communicate or indicate or lead with her humanity — because a lot of times that is considered inappropriate in terms of treating somebody with a mental illness. Revealing too much of yourself, lots feel you have to remain as neutral as possible and not give away anything that someone could use against you, I suppose. It’s a way of maintaining control. What if we considered that idea when watching Louise’s brilliant performance so she becomes less of a villain and more of a victim of circumstance within that hospital?
In terms of our story, Mildred does not know anything other than the love she has for her brother, and I believe the main engine for her is a pursuit of absolution. She wants, desperately, to be absolved of what she perceives to be this unforgivable sin of leaving Edmund and not going back for him, and subsequently he has become this person she feels it’s her responsibility to prevent from committing any further crime. She wants to protect him [too] and do what she was never able to do when they were children, so her heart has been excised in order for her to survive. She has put on this facade so she can move around the world and in society without anybody knowing what’s driving her. Gwendolyn does crack that facade, for sure, but that’s the first time that’s ever happened for her.
The end of the season is set in 1950, a few years after the audience first meets Mildred, and although she has nightmares about Edmund coming after her, she has been able to push him aside and live her own life with Gwendolyn, rather than try to track him down. What is it about him reaching out to her directly that makes her change her tune and say she is going to go after him?
Mildred is a compartmentalizer and totally capable of pushing things utterly to the side and has blinders so she only sees the things she needs to see in order to survive. [There was an] opportunity for Mildred to dip her toe in the water of joy, only for her to be brought back to what she has always experienced of being her life, which is something that always moves around hardship and always moves around loss and always moves around betrayal and being forsaken. It’s very familiar to her. And when that happens she immediately becomes hardened. So who’s to say what will happen between Gwendolyn and Mildred when we find them in Season 2? They may not even be together.
I think what’s happened, for the first time, is she realizes that she’s wasted her life. Every ounce of energy — every thing she’s ever done has been about Edmund — and now he’s forsaken her in the most serious way. So now all bets are off and now all of the energy she’s every mustered to do the things that she’s needed to do and be reunited with him, she’s now probably going to bring towards bringing him down — in a way that I think will further ask the audience the question of, “Who is the devil here in this story?” [Edmund] is a person who, by the end of the show, has killed seven nurses and the priests, and if she’s going to go get him — if she’s going to try to stop this person, [her] brother, from perpetrating that type of violence against women — is she the hero or is she evil?
Or a combination.
That’s not the world we’re living in anymore. There’s no room for nuance anywhere. And it’s a shame because life really lives in the gray.
You often talk about not knowing what’s coming episode to episode on a Ryan Murphy show; was that still the case with “Ratched,” even though you were an executive producer? And if so, how did learning about the sexual abuse in her childhood affect the way you thought of the character or wanted to carry her?
[When] I reach for [Edmund’s] hand and he pulls it towards a part of his body that is just unacceptable to Mildred and she says, “I’ll never do that with you ever again,” at that point I did not know that what had happened between Mildred and Edmund was what was perpetrated against them — which is what they were forced to do. So Mildred’s reaction when she sees Edmund for the first time [at the facility] means is it worked, everything she did. It’s almost like tears of relief, too, that all of her strategizing and her manipulating and her grifting resulted in the thing that she had been gunning for.
I already had a lot of empathy for Mildred, but it would be impossible — I’d have to be some kind of monster to not have that make me feel even more sympathetic and more almost respectful of what she had to do in order to survive. Not of her deeds but of her tenacity. So that absolutely affected it and took it to a much deeper place.
Did you do any additional research on survivors of such abuse to inform her reaction to her experience in the puppet show?
In terms of research, I think that’s important for me around this subject of research, which I’m sure sounds like an excuse of a lazy actor, but what I never want to feel is more informed than the character. If I learned more from a clinical standpoint about the consequences of that kind of abuse, I worry that it would keep me in a cerebral place instead of an emotional place. And I also thought, “I don’t want to look at this from a person who has processed it and who understands how this can affect a human being’s life and what the consequences can be.” I needed to be in a place of experiencing because her telling this story to Gwendolyn is, I would guarantee you, the first time she told that story to anyone. So I wanted to still be inside of it. I didn’t want to be breaking it down from a clinical standpoint or a real comprehension standpoint. When we get further down the road and the story is deeper or more years have passed than maybe that will be different because maybe she has a different understanding of it, but we’re not there yet.
There are so many psychologically complex pieces to this story, what did you find the most challenging from a process and performance standpoint?
For me the biggest challenge was honoring and holding Louise Fletcher’s performance as closely to my heart and in my mind as I could but also allowing the freedom along with that to create as well — because the biggest thing for me to move around was the fear of global humiliation. This is a very real reality that we live in a time when everyone has access to a computer and everyone can put their opinion about what they see and what people are creating and endeavoring to do all over the internet. It’s a very vulnerable-making thing — to undertake anything from a creative standpoint — because it’s subject to critique, and that’s all fine and it’s always how it’s been, but I think when you’re taking something on that has so much meaning for people, even in a cursory way, having to move around that for myself — “Do I really want to do this?” when I’m basically asking myself to walk right into the fire of comparisonville, is scary. That was really hard.
And when you look back on Mildred’s manipulations in Season 1, which ones gave you the most joy to play, and which may have made you go, “I need a minute to wrap my head around that”?
I went through that a lot when I did “12 Years a Slave” — [that] “I need a minute.” With Mildred, I don’t think I ever said, “I need a minute.” I just don’t. I liked playing all of the stuff with Nurse Bucket where there was a real jockeying for power. That was really fun to play and I think Judy Davis is one of the greatest actresses alive, so it was an absolute thrill for me and something that was on my bucket list, which is silly to say, but it’s true. [That was when] Mildred where she felt the most confident, I think [and] that kind of manipulation and the absolute delight in unnerving someone was so fun to play.