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Great Performances: Sarah Paulson in 'Martha'

ETonline, Friday, October 21, 2011, 10:09am (PDT)

While much of the pre-premiere press for Martha Marcy May Marlene has focused on actress Elizabeth Olsen, who does give a star-making performance, it should be noted that Martha would be nothing without the equally impressive and incredibly nuanced performance Sarah Paulson gives as Martha's older sister, Lucy. In the film, Martha reaches out after escaping a cult-like community which cut her off from the world for two years and Lucy rushes to reunion without any idea of where her sibling has been.

But Martha's past crashes into her present as the psychological damage perseveres when she enters Lucy's home, fraying the audience's nerves as they wait for the other shoe to drop. Whether it does is not something to be spoiled here, but suffice it to say, normal movie going assumptions are thrown out the window the instant Martha begins.

The award seasons frontrunner opens in theaters today and to dig in deeper, ETonline caught up with Sarah Paulson to get her take on the movie's most buzzworthy moments. Additionally, she also revealed what's to come as she joins FX's freaky American Horror Story and why a recent ghostly experience may have turned her into a reluctant believer.

ETonline: One of the greatest strengths of the film, was how it never feels the need to be overly explanatory about these characters' lives before the film begins. But from an acting perspective, is that a pro or con? Sarah Paulson: In the beginning, there were moments when I found that to be a little bit limiting. I was scared we wouldn't tell the story in a way the audience wanted to know. I thought it would be important to explain how had it gotten so estranged between Lucy and Martha. But the more I talked to Sean [Durkin, director/writer], the more I realized he had something in mind with this storytelling approach. The truth is, most families aren't capable of communicating to each other their deepest thoughts and feelings. There's so much history to complicate matters. I know what that inability to really talk feels like. And it makes sense from the approach that MMMM is a snapshot of the two weeks where this girl is trying to rejoin family life.

ETonline: For me, the very apparent sisterly bond more than made up for any lack of exposition. Paulson: I'm so happy to hear you say that. Lizzie [Elizabeth Olsen] and I had an incredible connection right away –we kept asking for a scene where our characters just have fun, where we laugh hysterically because that's all we want to do with each other. We were having such a wonderful time in the in between bits, which is something I haven't experienced in a while. We sang a lot of showtunes.

ETonline: Such as? Paulson: We sang You Don't Own Me, but we were doing the First Wives Club version where they are going up the cobblestone street in their white jackets at the end. So we were shaking our fingers and singing the song all the time. We couldn't stop. That's the kind of movie where, no matter what time it is, you don't change the channel if you flip past it.

ETonline: Lots of people ask why it takes Lucy so long to push Martha for details on her whereabouts over the last two years. I chalk it up to fear of pushing her away again. What's your take? Paulson: Everyone has that person in their family that just pushes their buttons and I think Martha just brings up too much in Lucy – too much guilt, too much longing, too much need, too much sadness, too much responsibility. I think a lot of Lucy's guilt keeps her from asking that question. The fear with Martha coming back for Lucy is that it will bring up all these feelings of incompetency and guilt. She has her own anxieties about being a good mother, so to be confronted with Martha, who she did kind of abandon when she chose to pursue her own life, brings up so much in Lucy that she's afraid to let it in. She's walking this crazy tightrope of doing enough to keep her there, but not digging deep enough to make her run away again.

ETonline: Aside from the performances, the biggest talking point with the film has been the ambiguous ending. What do you think happens after the movie cuts to black? Paulson: It's so interesting because I haven't given it a single thought – here's why: This is a story about the first two weeks after a woman gets out of this community. At the end of the movie, Martha is where the audience should be: not having any idea of what the future holds. This is a journey the audience goes on with Martha. When the movie ends the way it does, you should feel confused and angry and scared because that's what she's feeling. The movie where we take Martha to the hospital and see her getting strapped down isn't the way this movie should end. I understand some people's frustration with it but you're on Martha's journey for those two weeks and that's the end.

ETonline: But your busy 2011 is just beginning -- in addition to Martha, you are reuniting with Ryan Murphy for an arc on American Horror Story. That had to be a starkly different filming experience. Paulson: That is a whole other world, man. But the Ryan Murphy world is one I'm always interested to play in. Anything goes. There are no rules there. With MMMM, there was a specific story we were telling. With TV, you can eek things out slowly and people will eventually get the information. With MMMM you ain't getting s*** [laughs]. You get what's on the screen and the rest is up to your interpretation.

ETonline: What excites you about Billie Dean, the psychic you play on AHS? Paulson: Well, I love her name [laughs]. Obsessed with that name. I also have this crazy, crazy manicure. And I do all my scenes with Jessica Lange, which is like working with the greatest actress alive. But, the character is not Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost. I'm not rolling my eyes around. It's not like that thing where you look down and hear the voice and speak.

ETonline: That said, do you believe in ghosts? Paulson: I will say that the other night I was sleeping and woke up in a panic because I felt someone sit on my bed. I felt a depression next to me, like someone sat down. It was like I knew something was there while I was sleeping. It was really freaky, man. I don't think my house is haunted or anything like that -- plus, I kind of don't want to believe in them in a way because I'm so terrified of them. But I do go to a lot of psychics.

ETonline: Really? Paulson: I do. And I got quoted somewhere recently taking something I said out of context – they made it sound like I only believe a psychic when they say I'm going to win an Oscar. What I meant was I only think they're telling the truth when they say things like, "You're going to have 20 children and your career is going to be amazing and you'll win 5 Oscars,” because I want to believe them. In that case, obviously you think they're the best psychic ever [laughs]. I believe in them when they say things I want to hear. The ones who say the things you don't want to hear are probably the truthful ones.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is now playing. 

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