Ryan Murphy is known the world over as a creator with hands in several Hollywood cookie jars. From American Horror Story to American Crime Story, Murphy has solidified himself as the Greg Berlanti of horror/drama. Ratched, his latest brainchild, is set to premiere this month on Netflix. The series is a springboard for Mildred Ratched’s (Sarah Paulson) origin story. What was she like prior to her villainous turn in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Ratched delves into young Mildred’s tale as she’s employed at a Californian mental hospital. She worked as a nurse during World War II. Mildred is hellbent on utilizing her skills to help famed Dr. Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) discover breakthrough medical treatments for patients suffering from mental ailments.
Of course, the show takes place in 1947, when people still fervently believed that homosexuality was merely a disease of the brain. Depression was still referred to as “melancholia,” and could potentially be cured via lobotomy. Needless to say, Ratched contains some of Murphy’s signature horrific style in that regard.
Recently, I had the opportunity to represent Geek Girl Authority at a virtual press conference for Ratched. Stars Sarah Paulson, Jon Jon Briones, Cynthia Nixon, Finn Wittrock, Sophie Okonedo, and Sharon Stone were in attendance. Since there were roughly 50 journalists, only a handful of press questions were chosen and asked by a moderator.
Now, the junket opened with the moderator asking the cast what it was like working with Ryan Murphy. For some, like Sharon Stone, it was their first professional foray. However, Ratched lead Sarah Paulson has developed a storied history with Murphy. This experience was a mite different. Not only was she the star, but she also served as executive producer. Here’s what she had to say:
Yeah, this was a different one for me…he was very, very interested in empowering me in this way that I had never experienced before, even in the traditional structure of working with him. I’d never played a titular character before, I had never owned a piece of a show before, I had never been executive producer of a show before, and this is all because of him. It was very important to him.
It was part of the reason why I was so terrified to do it…he would say to me over and over again, “Step into your power, step into your power.” It literally makes me want to take a hot shower, and run screaming into the streets…so it was a kind of interesting thing to confront my hesitation, and to deal with all of those moments of what does that look like for me, and am I capable, am I ready, do I want it? What does it mean if I do?
Paulson continued to regale us with her first outing as executive producer. It was quite intriguing, especially from a feminine perspective. We as women are learning to “step into our power,” which is altogether frightening and exciting.
Next, Sharon Stone talked about how she snagged the role of Lenore Osgood in Ratched.
Well, first of all, Ryan took me out to lunch and offered me this part. He’d written the part for me, and then I didn’t say anything, and he was like, “Well, aren’t you excited?” And I said, “I don’t know yet.”
And then of course I’m not really used to working in television, so I go to work, and I normally have a script, and a director, and a plan, and I’m kind of good at that. Then I go to work now, and I don’t have scripts. One day you’re on episode six, and the next day you’re on episode one, and the next day you’re on episode three, and you have three different directors, and you haven’t gotten to read all of these episodes.
So by about day five, I was in the hair chair and Sarah goes, “What’s going on?” And I was like, “I don’t know.” That’s when I really understood what a spectacular producer Sarah is, and I have such, I don’t even know how to say it. I don’t want to say this in a way…I mean, I have pride for you. In my generation, I wasn’t afforded this possibility.
if I wanted to do something, what would happen would be I would get a real “talking to.” If I had any thoughts or ideas, I could get called in to the studio to get a real discussion about what was my problem, and I might want to shut it down. First of all, when I worked, when I started working, it was me and 300 men.
Even my dresser was a man. So to come to work and have women cameramen, and sound people, and in every department, and to work with all these actresses…I didn’t have this opportunity to work within these fine, subtle, intimately layered, tender work of women and to be in the company of women. So at first, it was almost awkward.
So just to be able to be encouraged in a group, in a feminine group, and see women around me being lifted up to watch you, Sarah, it’s so touching to me. It’s so meaningful to me. That this man is doing this for women.
For me, listening to Stone’s testimony was my favorite part of the junket. She’s a certified film legend. Hearing her talk about how difficult it was for her to have a voice as a woman is a stark reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
Then, the moderator started reading off selected questions from the panel of journalists. I’m proud to say that four out of the eight questions asked were mine. However, to keep things fair, I wanted to include questions for every actor in the conference.
My first question was for Finn Wittrock. His character, Edmund Tolleson, is a murderer in Ratched. However, the homicide was isolated and it was fueled by revenge. A love of family. The show boasts multiple themes, but one that stuck out to me was the pervasive theme of how evil isn’t born — it’s made. Edmund had a rocky childhood. I asked Wittrock if he believed his character was a product of his environment. Additionally, if there was a particularly challenging scene for him to film as an actor.
Yeah, the big scene I had with Jon Jon [Briones] in episode two is probably the most challenging scene I had. Well, I don’t know how much I should explain right now, but suffice it to say it’s a lot to chew, and we had to shoot it a little preemptively.
But is he a product? Yes, I would say as we learn his history and his history with Mildred, and her history, I really approached him as someone who had never really grown up in any kind of nurturing environment. It was like he so traumatized by the violence inflicted upon him throughout his childhood that he was always coming from that place of a “battered kid.” Where his path and Mildred’s path diverge, that’s sort of still where, even though it was many years ago, that’s still where I think he and Mildred’s relationship is still at, is that sort of raw place that they never really got to resolve.
So she went this direction, and he went this direction, and a lot of violence ensued. I guess you can’t really think about yourself playing a sociopath. I guess some people could, but I never thought of him that way. But he does have his own sort of moral compass, it’s just kind of a warped one. There is a level of innocence that he really, really believes in, and that he would never harm. You’ll see it, he’s got this affinity for animals that might come as something of a surprise, but reveals the actual sort of little kid still inside of him.
Next, the moderator asked a question I had posed for Cynthia Nixon. Gwendolyn Briggs was a character that embraced her truest self. Another relevant Ratched theme is one about identity. Several characters, Mildred included, incessantly “ran away” from themselves. I asked Nixon whether Gwendolyn’s resolve to be herself as part of the LGBTQIA+ community was something that initially drew her to the role.
I mean, she’s a really interesting character, and very different than the usual kind of things I’m asked to play. I would say particularly as I’ve gotten older in the last 10 or 15 years, I mean, I’ve been asked to play a lot, what would politely be called “complicated people,” but sometimes bordering on malevolent. So the thing about Gwendolyn is she’s so wholehearted, and she’s so pure, and she’s so confident, and she’s up against so many odds.
She’s a queer woman in 1947. She’s trying to make a life for herself in politics. I mean, she’s all of these seemingly impossible tasks that she sets for herself, but she moves ahead sort of seemingly without fear, and so for me to be basically the only person, really to wholeheartedly be advocating her walk in the light.
Almost every other character has many different parts of themselves that they’re trying to kill, or stamp out, or suppress a bunch of those, and Gwendolyn is really the opposite. She knows she’s got at least four or five pieces of her personality, but meeting Mildred is kind of the key that unlocks a door. She realizes she actually has to integrate all these parts of her personality, and thinks for the first time it could be possible.
Then, Jon Jon Briones was the recipient of my next question. I’d never seen him act in anything prior to Ratched, but I was taken by his performance. His Dr. Hanover, besides Gwendolyn, was one of the few characters on the series that possessed an identifiable moral compass. Of course, like everyone else, he made his fair share of poor choices. But for the most part, he truly wanted to help people. I asked Briones if he agreed with that sentiment.
Absolutely. Absolutely. Just like all the other characters, they’re up against something, and I think that thing is his undoing as well, because of his past. But he truly believes that he can help people, and I can relate to that, because I feel like personally, I want to do something that’s going to last me. But I don’t know, and I just try to do what I can with what I have, and I think that’s what he is.
He’s doubling down on his capability, and his honesty of, “I can help someone.” But at the same time, his ego gets in the way, and gets him in trouble, which, in Ryan’s world that’s wonderful, because mayhem ensues.
The moderator proceeded to ask Sophie Okonedo, a.k.a Charlotte Wells, a question from another journalist. She was the highlight of the series for me. Wells is inflicted with schizophrenia. Okonedo brought her A-game to the role and then some, seamlessly weaving in and out of multiple different characters. The question posed to her was how she went about preparing to play a schizophrenic woman in 1947.
I didn’t really do much research around mental illness, if I’m honest. Because I thought when she’s in it, she’s not thinking, “Oh, I’m going through this mental illness.” I just got each character, and then just got to the heart of that character. It was in the script, so it’s not like I had to reach out. It was all in there, and all the rhythms of how everyone talks was just, it was written, and then I sort of worked from the script backwards, and then just made each person. I had fun filling in the coloring book of their life, and then I just played each one like that was the thing. That’s the character that I’m playing and then didn’t really worry about Charlotte being underneath, or anything, if I’m honest.
Next, the moderator asked Paulson another question from me regarding whether she believed Ratched will resonate with audiences because of its timely themes. Another journalist question was directed at the group as a whole. Was there a moment when they were truly terrified of Nurse Ratched? The general consensus was that Ratched herself wasn’t terrifying. Lastly, the moderator ended with a question of what the cast is most looking forward to for Season Two. Paulson is just ready to get back to work.
I think that’s the general global consensus.
Ratched Season One will be available to stream Friday, September 18th on Netflix.
This article was originally posted on 9/12/20
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