M. Night Shyamalan didn’t remember the first time he met Sarah Paulson. But after the second time, he reconceptualized one of the leading roles of Glass, a film he’s been toying with for the better part of 20 years, so she could play it. She can have that effect.
When we sit down to discuss Glass with the Emmy winner, Ms. Paulson is very open about the appeal of working on the deconstructionist superhero movie. Despite having complicated feelings about the superhero genre as a whole—she hasn’t even seen Glass yet due to refusing to watch herself on screen—she described landing the role of Dr. Ellie Staple as “one of the greatest days of my life.” It occurred after Shyamalan, a fan of her work on projects like American Crime Story and American Horror Story, agreed to meet her between shoots on the latter FX series and Steven Spielberg’s The Post. Squeezing into a trailer Paulson muses is from a different century, he revealed he originally imagined Dr. Staple as a male character, yet was so impressed with Paulson’s talent that he was considering casting her in the role anyway.
In the finished film, Paulson’s Ellie Staple is the kindest person on screen. Whereas everyone else is a supervillain with aspirations for mass death—or a superhero trying to stop them—Ellie is a psychiatrist with a specific field of study: the delusion of superheroes. Sitting across from James McAvoy’s shifting performance of the 24 personalities living inside of Kevin Wendell Crumb, or Samuel L. Jackson’s scheming Mr. Glass, she is there to empathize with these men—and to convince them that they’re delusional before they’re also doomed. There is something persuasive about Ellie, which makes her all the more insidious. Paulson, however, just thinks that’s a byproduct of living inside of Shyamalan’s head.
As she sees it, playing all five central characters in the film “is sort of like living in Night’s brain.” Still, Ellie is the one trying to “cure” the other regions of the mind. Below is our complete interview discussing that, what it was like working with McAvoy as “the Beast,” and just how Shyamalan’s mental institutions compare to the ones she’s experienced as Lana Winters on American Horror Story: Asylum.
Had you known Night over the years, and had you talked in the past about working together and collaborating on one of his movies?
Sarah Paulson: We actually didn’t know each other. We had met each other once a long time ago, but I don’t think he remembered it very well, and that was sort of heartbreaking when I first sat down with him. I said, “Oh, I met you,” and he’s like, “I don’t think so.” I was like, “Oh yes, we did.” We met for a part, and he says, “Oh, you kept saying ‘oh snap!’” And I was like, “I did? Never mind, I’m sorry I brought it up.” [Laughs] It was one of my very juvenile ways back in the day.
So this came about. I just got a phone call that he wanted to meet me, and I was shooting American Horror Story: Cult and The Post at the same time, and so I was only in town for two days, and I had no free time to go meet him. But he was kind enough to come to my trailer where I was shooting American Horror Story and sat with me for an hour in my sad 1970s looking trailer and told me a little bit about the movie, but not much, because as he was leaving he said, “I just want you to know, I have not decided what I’m doing with the character yet. And right now, it’s written for a man, and I don’t know, I just haven’t decided what I’m going to do.” But he said very nice things to me about my work, and then we exchanged phone numbers and off he went. Then he texted me a week later saying, “Still haven’t decided, but you’re still on my mind,” and then two weeks after that he said, “Can you give me a call?” and I called him up, and he said “I’d like you to do the movie.” And it was one of the greatest days of my life.
I know he’s said, for this movie specifically, he was writing to the actors. Did he tell you he wrote it with you in mind, or that selecting you changed how he viewed the character entirely?
I don’t know about that. I’m actually interested to ask him about that. It’s been over a year now since we shot the movie, and I can’t really remember what his answer was, but I did ask him if he changed any of the dialogue to make it sound more like a woman might be saying it, and I don’t think he did in my memory, but I could really be wrong about that. So I think he had been writing it prior to sitting down with me. I don’t know if as he was continuing to write it, he was thinking of me for it and if anything shifted. I don’t actually know the answer to that question.
When you did get the script, I have to ask, did you just skip to the end to see what the twist was going to be?
[Laughs] Everyone asks me that. I really was tempted, but I did not. I was actually surprised when I got to the ending that the last five paged were not in fact redacted or missing, which some people told me could happen, and I got to read the whole thing. Although there was a rewrite very quickly, very soon after I read the first draft, and I got a knock on my door and they handed me a new script, and then I tried to close the door and they stopped it with their foot, and were like “We’re going to need to have the other script back.” And I was like, “What? The old one?” And they’re like, “Yeah, yeah. We need it back.” I was like “Oh, okay.” [Laughs]
It had to be destroyed.
Ellie has a fascinating career in these times. She’s trying to understand our obsession with superheroes right now. Given the dizzying amount of superhero movies out at the moment, how do you relate to her quest in this movie?
On some level, personally, I understand the entertainment value and the need sometimes to unplug from one’s life and dive into a universe that doesn’t actually exist on our planet. I do see the power, the potency of it, and the value of it, actually. Then there’s the other part of me that’s like, “Yeah, but it’s not real!” So I share a little bit of Ellie’s skepticism, but I also have that kind of romantic in me who would like to believe.
Do you have a past history with superheroes, in that have you ever had any interest or been approached by some of these gargantuan projects out there?
I have not. I sure would like to be. It would be fun to do something in that world, and I will say that when I first read the script, I was secretly hoping that my character would be the one who ended up being the most powerful character of all, and I would get to have some superpower of some kind. And alas, I did not.
Without spoiling it, she’s pretty unique in her own way.
She is pretty unique in her own way, and I respect and admire you for putting it that way.
What’s also really fascinating about Glass is how much you all ground it. It is going to be this big event film, but it looks like it probably has an aesthetic you’re used to coming from independent movies as well as television.
Yes, and that’s something I feel is really unique to this type of movie, and what separates it from all the other crazy CGI, green screen worlds of movie viewing that have become the norm now, and that something like this could seem subdued by comparison when really it has a lot going for it in and of itself.
When you’re shooting, you are involved in some action set-pieces, but does it feel like an action movie while you’re there or does it feel more like a drama you might be more used to?
It feels a little bit more like a drama, to me, in a way that it didn’t feel so far outside of my realm of experience.
Between this and the second season of American Horror Story, you’ve spent quite a bit of time playing both the patient and now the analyst in a mental hospital. Which chair do you prefer sitting in?
[Laughs] Well, there were so many horrible things that happened to poor Lana Winters sitting in that chair [in AHS], so I would probably say Ellie Staple has the better view. However, where Lana ended up might be where I would rather be than where Ellie is by the end of this movie.
Did the research you did or the experience you had on American Horror Story help influence how you approached Ellie in a similar environment?
Well they’re such different characters, but it’s not lost [on me]—I will never set foot in an institution like that and not to think of Briarcliff or not to think of Lana Winters. That will never happen as long as I’m doing this for a living or find myself in that environment, I’m sure. Also, it’s a different time period in our country’s history during Asylum, so it’s a bit different in terms of what I might take from that to this. And Ellie has a very, very unique area of expertise. One where there isn’t a plethora of material to sift through to do a ton of research. So it’s interesting.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on interacting with James as he’s just flipping through his performances like a kaleidoscope. And do you have a favorite of his alternate personalities?
My favorite is probably Patricia, just because she was the one that I think went the most toe-to-toe with Dr. Staple and really gave her a run for her money, which I think is hard to do. So that would be the answer to that question, but in short, it’s nothing less than extraordinary to watch James do that.
It is a real front row seat in a master class on acting, and I’ve been lucky enough in my career to work with some exceptionally talented people and he just blew my mind. It was something to behold, and he did it so effortlessly and barely breaks a sweat, and it’s like he can just do it all day long, and you just stand there with your jaw hung open, and yet, your character can’t have her jaw hung open. So, there was an acting challenge in that moment because I had to try to clampdown some of my awe.
When you’re watching him cycle through in doing multiple takes, does he approach each character differently every time he does it, or is he so prepared that he knows exactly how it’s going?
Well he’s so prepared that he knows exactly how it’s going, but he absolutely has little tiny physical manifestations and physical communications that immediately tap him into the characters. So he’ll do something a little bit physical and I’ll know he’s about to become Patricia. But he has it all in his mind, he knows exactly what he’s doing.
Your character is so empathetic for all three alleged superheroes in this movie, but she is trying to convince them of their ordinariness. Does she feel as much like a product of our times in a way? Someone trying to rationalize and trivialize maybe what people are dreaming about, even if she’s doing it in a very merciful way?
I do know what you’re saying. I don’t disagree with you. I’d like to imagine that part of her motivation is for a greater good and not just want to snuff a light out. But I do think there’s something to what you’re saying, for sure.
I feel like Night very much sympathizes with your character, but I think he also sees that as a little bit insidious.
Yes, but I think the truth is that there’s a little piece of Night in each one of our characters. It’s sort like living in Night’s brain, is what it means to play all five of these people.
Glass is in theaters on Friday, Jan. 18.