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Sarah Paulson's own fears became the basis for her character's anxieties in 'American Horror Story: Cult'

Sarah Paulson describes having trypophobia and what it's like having to perform her phobias on "American Horror Story: Cult."

Usually when confiding in a friend about your deepest darkest fears — in this case, anxiety about clusters of small holes, as in sponges, say — the assumption is the friend will, you know, not use it as a thread for your TV character. But in Hollywood, if you’re Sarah Paulson and the friend is Ryan Murphy, all bets are off.

The result is Paulson’s latest character in “American Horror Story.” Subtitled “Cult,” the seventh installment uses the divisive 2016 election as a starting point to explore misogyny, race and media manipulation. In it, Paulson plays Ally Mayfair-Richards, a liberal-minded wife and mother who suffers from debilitating anxiety following Donald Trump’s election as president. Murphy, the mastermind behind the franchise, incorporated Paulson’s real-life phobias into the character — most notably, her fear of groupings of holes.

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Let her explain.

“I think I saw a natural sponge in a store once,” Paulson said when she stopped by the L.A. Times video studio. “It gave me — like, the hair on my arms stood up. I felt my throat close up. And I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t like seeing all those gaping holes touching other gaping holes.” And then I told Ryan one night and he thought it was hilarious, of course. He’s like, ‘That’s crazy, lady! That’s funny.’ But I told him that five years ago. I did not think he would inflict that on me in Season 7.”

Paulson said the biggest challenge in portraying a character who shared her fears was in finding ways to emote the internal anxiety.

“I don’t exactly know what happens to me when I see it in life,” she said. “Because I kind of go into this white out mode, like, I’m not seeing what I’m seeing. So, [trying] to create some physical sensory reaction that was real that the audience could feel -- I had to find a way to make it perceptible.”

The conversation took a turn from there, when Paulson got a glimpse of a hole-filled decorative piece on our set — and then caught sight of tightly packed pebbles in a planter. Take a look in the video above.

But the talk wasn’t all about her phobias. Paulson also discussed the emotions of filming the season so soon after the 2016 election, the status of her next Murphy project — an origin series on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” character Nurse Ratched — and getting online shopping advice from her “Oceans 8” castmates.

For all that, watch the full interview below:

"American Horror Story: Cult" star Sarah Paulson discusses the challenges of playing a character who is "in a constant state of anxiety and questioning," why playing a part that is "closer to home" is actually harder than one more extreme and what she owes to Ryan Murphy.
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