‘AHS’: Sarah Paulson on ‘Murder House’ Return, ‘Apocalypse’ Finale and Directing Jessica Lange

Franchise star tells TheWrap about behind-the-camera debut — and how she got nine and a half hours of dailies with Lange on set

Sarah Paulson American Horror Story

(Warning: This interview contains spoilers for “Return to Murder House,” Wednesday’s episode of “American Horror Story: Apocalypse”)

Sarah Paulson has been a card-carrying member of Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” club since Season 1, “Murder House,” so it’s rather poetic that she make her directorial debut with tonight’s episode of Season 8: “Return to Murder House.”

This installment was, as the title suggests, just under an hour of callbacks to the franchises first season, and arguably the most eagerly-anticipated “Apocalypse” story yet. Fans have been waiting weeks (six, but who’s counting?) for the “Coven”-“Murder House” crossover to finally turn its attention to the “Murder House” side of things, and Murphy entrusted Paulson with the task of getting it all on film — including Jessica Lange, Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott’s returns (with the former having exited “AHS” four seasons ago, and the latter two having been out since the first year.)

And, yes, the “AHS” lead is very aware of just how big a gig this was for her first crack at directing — especially in a season where she’s also playing three different roles.

Here TheWrap chats with Paulson about working with Lange again, sitting behind the camera and acting in the same scene, what’s in store for the “Apocalypse” season finale, and how long she’ll stick with the franchise.

TheWrap: “Return to Murder House” is arguably the most eagerly-anticipated episode of the season, did you feel increased pressure to make this pivotal episode for fans to be your directorial debut?

Sarah Paulson: I think it was twofold. I felt empowered by Ryan’s trust in me, by saying, “I’m going to give you the biggest episode of the season.” I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s long for our shows. They wrote 72 scenes, when typically we range between 28 and 40 something. So it deserves to be that long, the fans deserve to have that much time with the characters, plus it helps serve the story we are currently telling. So I think I felt both emboldened by his willingness to give me that opportunity with that much at stake. And at the same time I was very cognizant of the fans’ wishes and what they were going to want and how to balance some of that anxiety I would have — you know, it was hard, because I wanted to do right by the characters, but I also kept thinking, “We are making Season 8 because of this first season.” And you’ve gotta honor that and you’ve gotta give the people what they want. And at the same time, I didn’t write the episode, so I can’t shoot what’s not on the page, but I really think that people are going to have plenty of things to be excited about.

Was it easier doing this episode in particular because you were not as big a part of “Murder House” and could focus more on directing than acting?

I was not as big a part of “Murder House” at all and if I had been in this episode any more than I was, I wouldn’t have survived it (laughs). It was really, really hard to wear both hats. I’m in a scene, watching a scene, directing a scene, giving notes to actors, and then watching a scene again, and then midway through that scene I’ve gotta take my headphones off as a director and from where I’ve been standing in the corner with my wig and my press on nails and my high heels and my bag, I have to then enter the scene and then try to go watch it in playback.

I’m sure I’ve talked to you about this before, but I don’t like to watch my work ever — but I was forced to because my responsibility as director meant I had to make sure I had everything visually where I wanted it to be, in terms of the composition of the frame, but also in terms of storytelling. You have to hit everything, all the actors. Because when you’re in a scene as an actor, you’re not watching the other actor making judgement calls about whether or not what they are doing is authentic or right, that’s none of my business. But then all of a sudden as a director I’m standing there acting in a scene and thinking, “Wait, do I want to give her an adjustment about this? Do I want to give him an adjustment about that?” But I’m also trying to remember my lines and remember this character that I’m playing. So it was challenging, to say the least, and I don’t think — if I am lucky enough to do this again — I’ll put myself in that position of having to wear both hats. Not until I’ve gotten a little bit more time directing under my belt, if I’m lucky enough to again.

What was it like to direct Jessica Lange, after spending so many seasons co-starring and so many years working together as actors?

I mean, I credit her and every single person in the cast, all of whom I’ve worked with a long time, for making it such an easy transition for me. You know, Jessica hasn’t been on the set of “American Horror Story” in four years. So this was, for her, a new world in a way, because she hasn’t been here in so long. So she was completely open, willing, ready and hungry for my ideas, thoughts, and notions about how to play a scene. And it was humbling, really, because, you know, this is an actor I admire probably more than almost any actor on the planet, and not only is she my friend of almost 15 years, but she is the person I’ve acted opposite most in my working life. So there’s a lot of dynamics at play there, and it could have gone any which way, because when you shift the playing field you never know what happens to people.

But she was so extraordinary and incredibly generous and just on my side. And it made it really easy. And she’s such an extraordinarily gifted actor that every time we did a take she gave me so much rich material and also many ideas of different things she could try. Jessica will give you five different things going on in four words. And it’s a really extraordinary thing, it was a real embarrassment, I actually had nine and a half hours of dailies for my editor to go through the day we shot her stuff sitting at that kitchen table. And it was like 11 pages of dialogue and I had three cameras on her. But he said that I beat his daily record, he’d never had more than seven and a half hours of dailies and I gave him two and a half hours more than that with all of the Jessica Lange stuff. So I felt pretty proud of that, even though it did create a pretty tremendous amount of work for him to have to go through every frame of everything and try to pilfer the best takes from everything.

What is your favorite thing about the story in tonight’s episode?

Well I think it’s exciting, because it is a bit of an origin story. You are learning about Michael and how he came to be, anyone watching the show is now very well-versed in who Michael Langdon has grown up to be. But anyone who has really watched the show from the beginning remembers that little boy from at the end of Season 1 and the blood on his palms. So it’s kind of an incredible full circle thing, and I just love seeing Michael as he’s essentially a boy. I mean, Cody [Fern] is playing a teenager. And it was just so interesting, like in that moment when the Satanists come to the house and he’s standing there in his t-shirt and his boxers and rubbing his eyes like a child. We just thought it was an interesting juxtaposition between what we know of Michael now and who he’s become, and how he became that way and all of the people in his life that we as fans of the show already have been invested in. Everyone that lived in that house we are invested in.

You are shooting the finale right now. Is it possible that we will see the Murder House — or any of its inhabitants — again this season, possibly in the finale?

I can only say that I think there’s the possibility, because on “American Horror Story” anything is possible. And that’s all you’re gonna get out of me regarding that.

You announced Jessica’s return during the Television Critics Association press tour this summer, was that because you were directing the episode and did you play any part in asking her to come back?

Well Ryan gave me permission to announce that at TCA, which you know, I don’t do anything without his permission when it comes to announcing anything having to do with anything, because God knows I like my job and want to keep it (laughs). But I was not involved [in asking]. I mean, I think the truth is Jessica has played four extraordinary characters on this show, and Constance was the beginning, and it was a character that was close to her heart. So I don’t think it took much convincing to get her back here for that. I think it was her love of the character, the connection to that character that drew her back. And hopefully it didn’t hurt when he said to her, “Sarah is gonna direct it.” You know, it didn’t make her say no or anything. She still did it. (laughs)

You are playing three parts this season — four, if we’re counting director — and so many other “AHS” actors are playing multiple roles too. Has that been at all confusing or overwhelming?

Honestly, it’s what we’re all here for, that’s partly why we all love it so much is that you just never get bored. Because the minute you are tired of doing one thing, odds are you’re going to be playing something entirely different. So it just keeps your muscles really warm as an actor and it makes you feel — I don’t know, it makes me feel really alive and like a real performer because I got to do so much. And there is no limit to what we could do here, whether or not we should always is another question. But there is no limit to how far we can take things and that’s a really fun, very freeing place to work. And also I love standing there watching an actor that I’ve seen playing one thing all season all of a sudden come in with an entirely different wig, and a different look, in a different costume, with a different voice and you go, “Oh, my God!” And it’s so thrilling. And I think we all get really excited watching people that we know and love come on to play different people. It’s really exciting to watch everyone flex their muscles like that.

Is there any particular moment in tonight’s episode, a callback or a scene you shot, that you are most excited for fans to see?

I think it’s hard for me to toot my own horn, and I don’t even know how I would — I just can’t believe that I survived it, and that I made it, and that I’m proud of it is enough. And I hope there are many things about it that the audience sees and notices and responds to and that if they like it, I did it on purpose, and if there is anything they don’t like, it was a complete accident. (laughs)

There have already been at least two more seasons of “American Horror Story” ordered. Do you think you’ll stay with it through the end or do you want to switch gears at some point?

I’ve said before that they’re going to have to drag me out of here kicking and screaming, but it’s always up to Ryan, you know? He decides whether or not he has something or whether he wants to reinvent the whole thing and if he decides to do that will he want me around? I don’t know. I can only hope to be here as long as they’re willing to have me, but it’s always in his hands. And I just have always trusted him, so whatever he decides I know will be the right thing.

“American Horror Story” airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on FX.