Few actors have done half as many crazy things as Sarah Paulson, but for her, it’s all about balance. After a sex scene surrounded by snakes, an escape from a mental institution, and playing a two-headed woman on American Horror Story, she’s turned the eccentric dial to a low hum, portraying one of her most human characters yet in this year’s most universal love story.

In Carol, directed by Todd Haynes, Paulson plays Abby Gerhard, the best friend and former lover of Cate Blanchett’s titular blonde. An openly gay woman living in 1950s New York, Abby is anomaly of her time, a woman comfortable in her sexuality and unafraid of the men who rage against it. The film follows the budding love story between Blanchett’s Carol and Rooney Mara’s shy Therese Belivet, with Abby as Carol’s staunch support.

Paulson, who also appeared in 12 Years a Slave and recently wrapped on American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson where she’ll portray Marcia Clarke, took a short break from the Los Angeles set of AHS: Hotel to promote Carol in New York. I caught up with the actress to talk about the magnificent film and what it was like working alongside a radiant goddess, also known to us mere mortals as Cate Blanchett. Paulson revealed the major scene she shared with Mara that was cut from the film and what she loves about balancing her outlandish TV roles with something as delicate and subtle as Carol.

It’s funny, on my way up here the hotel’s art-deco elevators weirdly reminded me of the Cortez.

Oh yeah! Totally.

There are so many beautiful, quiet moments in this film. I’m curious what it was like to first read that in the script and then see it translated onscreen.

Definitely. I think on paper the script had a very evocative, potent 1950s air about it. I didn’t read the book until after I read the script because I auditioned and I didn’t want to read the book until I knew I had the part because I though it would be too heartbreaking if I really fell in love with the character and then I didn’t get to do it. So it was kind of a beautiful experience to just read Phyllis’ script since that’s ultimately the story we were telling.

It’s always strange to see a movie for the first time after you’ve read it. And we shot this movie a long time ago. I just recently saw the movie because I was doing [AmericanHorror Story and [American] Crime Story at the same time so I didn’t have any time to see it. It’s very much still with me since I only saw it a couple days ago. I think it’s just a very, very visually stunning movie to look at, and incredibly powerful. It certainly did what I thought it was going to do because of Todd [Haynes]. Sometimes you don’t know directorially if something from the script is going to lift into that world the way you hope it will, the way you imagine it in your mind. But because it was Todd and that sort of lush visual, cinematic, hyper-realism but with such cinematic flair was exactly what he did, and it was not surprising to me.

The Weinstein Company

Abby is a more prominent character in the book than the film. Were there things you took from the novel to create her?

Absolutely. There was so much. I don’t know if I’m supposed to talk about this, but there was a scene that was cut from the movie between Rooney [Mara] and myself. Basically it’s right before they set off on their road trip and I basically say to Therese, “What are your intentions with my friend?” I’m kind of tough on her, which sets up for the diner scene when she says, “Why do you hate me so much?” It’s because there had been this scene where she asks for a cigarette and I say, “Are you old enough to smoke?” and I’m giving her a lot of s---. I’m telling her that Carol’s a lot more fragile than she seems and to be careful with her.

So that scene not being there I think sort of takes a little bit of my character’s backbone away, some of my jealousy isn’t as apparent as what’s guiding my resistance to Therese. What you actually see in the movie is my total and utter commitment to Carol and that my friendship, and my romantic love actually, for her will keep me wanting to be in her orbit no matter what, even if it means I’m going to put my own feelings aside and go get her lover and bring her back as an act of friendship and love.

I think in that time in the ’50s, being a gay woman in the ’50s, your society was quite small. To give up that conduit to the outside world and to a shared sense of things was not something you’re liable to – and certainly not now, you wouldn’t want to give it up either, but there’s a much wider world to play in. I don’t know if I would, if the person I loved no longer loved me in that way, but was like, “Could you go pick up the person I am in love with and bring them back?” I might sort of go, “Uh, f--- you. No.” [Laughs]

I think it’s an interesting thing and a testament to Abby’s formidable loyalty and sense of responsibility and friendship. But I secretly think it has more to do with how much she loves Carol in a romantic way.

Carol is such a force in every moment of this film.

Well, when Cate Blanchett plays the part it’s kind of hard, she does have a very – I at least always feel like I’m going to faint when she’s around. Because she’s really tall and Australian and Cate Blanchett. It’s like one of the greatest actresses that we have so you get a little like, Wait, wait? Oh you’re talking to me. You want me to answer you? Because I can’t, because I’m going to pass out. So I do understand, I sort of let that be part of the thing for me because it was just easier.

Even so, Abby also has a power and strength to her, and is like a protector to Carol.

Absolutely. It was very clear in the script and in that scene that [was cut] part of what I say to Rooney is, “Be careful with Carol. She’s fragile.” That is laid in there. Even that scene Cate and I have in the bar where I say, “She’s young and I hope you know what you’re doing.” There’s this very, almost maternal thing Abby has towards Carol. They’ve known each other, as I say to Therese in the diner, since they were 10 and they have a brief love affair that was obviously more meaningful to Abby than it was to Carol.

The Weinstein Company

Did you and Cate spend a lot of time together off set to develop that?

We didn’t really off set because there wasn’t really time. Cate has young children and was in every frame of the movie practically, so I had a little more down time. The whole movie took place [in] five weeks I think, so it was pretty quick. We had a dinner the first night I got there, Rooney and Cate and myself. It was really lovely. They were incredibly inviting. I think Cate and I, although we didn’t discuss it, we both have wonderful female friendships in our lives. So it was sort of this very not discussed, but inherently, intrinsically known that we both knew how to be good friends to people. That was a built in thing that wasn’t really worked on, it was just something that happened.

I love how Abby is a woman so self-assured and confident in her sexuality, which was extremely rare for women at that time. How did you approach depicting that? 

I guess I sort of felt like her gayness was the least interesting thing about her, about Abby. It just didn’t define her, in a way. People in society can have their disgust and their confusion about it, but Abby knew who she was and didn’t have any ugly feelings about it and sort of lived by the confines, the dictates of 1950s society. Except she didn’t do what Carol did, she didn’t marry a man. She sort of lives her life as a gay woman. There was just something about it that I didn’t really question it. I didn’t really delve too deeply into it, I just accepted it and thought this is just a woman who knows who she is and isn’t afraid of it. I thought it was kind of inspiring actually.

It definitely is. Your Lana Winters was a resilient gay woman of the 1960s in AHS: Asylum. Did you draw any connections to her playing Abby?

It’s funny because someone said something on Twitter where they posted a picture of me as Lana and me in the movie and I thought, That’s so interesting. I think it’s probably the brown hair and the lesbianism. They are set 12 years a part, but there’s certainly the strength. They’re both incredibly strong women. I think Lana is a far more flawed person. She was incredibly ambitious – not that ambition has to be a bad thing, but it got her into a lot of trouble, morally. She was out for herself until she wasn’t, which is human and I understand that too. But Abby, to me, is a much more selfless person. Even though she has all the feelings she does about Carol, she’s still going to be the friend she’s going to be to her. I did sort of look at that and think that takes a particular kind of person to do that.

You don’t see that a lot.

You don’t really see that, because people get their feelings hurt. You’re like, “I’m gonna go pick up your lover. What? That person should be me.” So I thought it was a very inspiring way of being.

FX

The sexuality in the film is so nuanced. I don’t think the words “lesbian” or “gay” are even said by the characters.

I don’t think so. It’s the morality that’s used a lot to discuss what had happened in the past between Abby and Carol. At least in the words of the men, in their perspective, that there’s something about how it isn’t “moral,” which I think is interesting. The sexuality, it’s interesting. I thought this when I saw the movie, neither Carol nor Therese seem undone by the prospect that they could be found out or it could be known that that’s who they were. That doesn’t even seem to be a part of what’s happening.

Carol’s undoing has to do with the potential of losing her child and this reality of being exposed in a particular way, but not because she thinks there’s something wrong with it, about who she is or what she wants. I think that’s very interesting too, a sense of being so self-assured. You don’t usually see that depicted with this kind of story. Even today when it’s told there’s a lot of people with angst and worry and panic. These women, it’s not what is guiding their choices. Sometimes it’s a societal pressure for Carol in her family life and with Harge and with that sort of Grace Kelly world she lives in. Whereas Therese, she’s asking Richard, “Is it normal? Do you know anybody who’s ever [fallen in love with the same gender]?” But she’s doesn’t have that freak out of, “Oh my god, I’m gay. What am I gonna do?” All she’s thinking about is wanting to be with this woman and that is all that matters. I think that’s kind of amazing.

Is there any hesitation to the film being specifically categorized as a “lesbian” romance or “LGBT” film? Would you prefer it to be seen as just a love story?

On the one hand you go “Gosh there aren’t that many movies that are for gay women,” in a way. Or telling their stories in a particular or an honest way, or a full-bodied way. At the same time, I think the wanting to separate everybody by labeling everything and by everybody having to take a stand where they fall on the spectrum of things is sort of like, I wish there was just more of a normalization. Nobody goes and asks George Clooney who he makes out with. So I would prefer it to be just a movie about love because maybe in that way it can be held, people who are more closed-minded about it, it will maybe hit them in a different way or just going, “This is just a story about two people who love each other. Wow.” And it’s so beautifully told. That’s my hope.

As an actress, what is it like to go from years on American Horror Story, which is so extreme and over-the-top, to a film like this that’s so delicate and quiet?

To me it’s one of the most beautiful things about getting to be an actor for a living. I’ve been so lucky that I get to do all that stuff on Horror Story that’s so outlandish and there are no rules. It’s limitless what we can do. We can do anything. It can be as big as you want, small as you what. The freakier the better. The more out there the better. This to me is a movie with a lot of simple human behavior, and I think it’s equally compelling. I think you gotta have both in the world, because we have both in life. I feel very lucky that I’ve got to go between both.

Does that help you explore different sides of yourself as a performer?

Yeah, and I don’t even think about it in that way, but when you say it, yes. When I think about doing 12 Years a Slave right before doing Lana Winters and then from Lana Winters and then doing Coven and then doing this, I feel really lucky. I certainly didn’t go to bed at night when I was a kid thinking I’d get to be a two-headed woman, so that was pretty cool.

Carol opens on November 20.