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Sarah Paulson Explains How She Turned Trump Fears Into An Emmy Nomination For 'American Horror Story: Cult'

Sarah Paulson as Allie Mayfair-Richards in AHS: Cult
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Sarah Paulson's nominated for an Emmy this year for American Horror Story: Cult, where she plays a woman with a history of phobias kept in check -- until the election of Donald Trump, sending her into a breakdown.

Election night serves as the unraveling point of the entire season, which aims to explore the forces behind how we got to the socially, politically fragmented place we are now.

Cult was the seventh season of American Horror Story, and it was unique in its unabashedly current political charge.

"There were moments when I would read it and think, Well this is so extreme, this is not going to happen in our country," Paulson told us. "Not that we don't live in a world that didn't give birth to the KKK, right? ... I think when I read it and thought, how can this be America? This can't be. I thought it was too extreme, and then realized these things were happening all over the country."

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The season was shot -- then two weeks later was the "Unite The Right" rally in Charlottesville. The show's creators, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk wanted to do something they had never done before by driving the series home and forcing viewers to sit up and think about their role in society. Paulson said they were delving close to the bone -- probably too close.

Note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's The Frame.

American Horror Story: Cult played host to several themes that both echo and foreshadow the xenophobic forces at play in today's America. Evan Peters' character, Kai Anderson, is a Trump-savvy cult leader that feeds off of liberal fear. Sarah Paulson's character, Ally Mayfair-Richards, is a petrified lefty who falls for his confidence after the election leaves her questioning everything.

"Her incredible, rigid way of being and thinking is preservational," Paulson said. "She had recovered from a terrible sort of anxiety and disorder, and probably some form of mental breakdown years before. And had been doing very well. But in order to manage that, she was living a very regimented kind of life. And the minute anything started to shift in that, she was absolutely unable to cope, and was convinced that the world was out to get her."

This latest turn was one in a long series for Paulson, who's been a muse to series creators Murphy and Falchuk. The show premiered on FX in 2011, and Paulson's been in every season of the anthology series. In 2016, she won an Emmy for playing Marcia Clark in Murphy's American Crime Story about O.J. Simpson.

The show's given horror fans a high-quality cable show to love. Since its premiere, the Television Academy created the limited series Emmy category to accommodate anthology shows like AHS.

Paulson said there's a power that horror has when exploring conplex ideas like hate and discrimination that other dramas, documentaries, and even comedies can't match.

"You're trafficking in the world of extremes when you're dealing with the horror genre," Paulson said. "You're not dealing in the world of nuance really. It's unquestionably what it is. What you are seeing is immediate. There's death, there's a different kind of horror. Which is sort of what we're dealing with as a nation."

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Filming such unnerving material isn't always easy for Paulson -- but she refuses to compartmentalize herself from her characters.

"I like to use my whole self," Paulson said. "I'm not interested in putting who I am to the side in order to play something. In order to do that particularly here, I had to call forward a lot of things I think I spent a lot of time trying to push to the side. Instead I was having to sit in the middle of all the muck of the things that I contend with as a human being: my own fear, my own ignorance. ... I couldn't move to the left or the right of it in order to do the job."

Another way that AHS: Cult managed to stand out in the pile of post-election, politically relevant media -- its lack of an agenda. It was concerned with exposing human forces, not partisanship.

"It wasn't just showing the right wing and only saying one negative thing about one, and one positive thing about the other," Paulson said. "There were plenty of moments where Allie was behaving in ways that were so indulgent and self-righteous."

After such a successful season 7 run, Paulson's gearing up to direct part of AHS season 8, Apocalypse. She plans on incorporating the directing styles she values as an actress.

"I really like to be directed. I really like notes," Paulson said. "And I don't mean notes just for notes' sake or that I like to be toyed with. I always have questions, and I'll tell you if I don't agree, or if something feels slightly off. But sometimes what happens is we'll have directors come on the show, and they don't give me direction. Because they think I don't want it. I certainly don't think it's because they think I don't need it. I think they assume that people don't want to be told. I really like having that help and that pair of eyes that aren't my own. Because I can't see what I'm doing. What I feel like doesn't always transcribe."

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