‘I worked with men all my life’: ‘Ratched’s’ women open up about their time in Hollywood
In Ryan Murphy’s newest Netflix series, “Ratched,” one of fiction’s most unforgettable villains — Nurse Ratched of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” — gets an origin story. And women play a key part.
The noir-esque drama is set in 1947 and introduces Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson, who also executive produces), a former wartime nurse, as she arrives in Northern California to seek employment at a psychiatric hospital that will house the killer of four priests, Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock). The reason for her mission becomes clear as the season unfolds.
But Tolleson isn’t the only character adding layers to Ratched’s evolution. There’s Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon), the savvy press secretary to the governor, who has taken an interest in the hospital for reelection purposes; Lenore Osgood (Sharon Stone), a wealthy, vengeful eccentric who walks around with a monkey on her shoulder; Charlotte Wells (Sophie Okonedo), a patient with multiple personalities; and Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis), the head nurse of the hospital who is highly suspicious of Mildred.
The series was created by Evan Romansky and is executive produced by Murphy and longtime partner Ian Brennan. The first season’s eight episodes are now available to stream.
In a mid-September interview conducted over video conference (with only minor technical glitches!), The Times gathered Paulson, Nixon, Stone and Okonedo — Davis, who is in Australia, was unavailable — to discuss the appeal of working with Murphy, which of their characters they’d like to see get the prequel treatment, and what it was like working with screen legend Davis. Spoiler alert: It was the best kind of intimidating. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
We sort out fact from fiction in Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series, “Hollywood.”
Have you gotten acclimated to doing these virtual press interviews?
Stone: I prefer them to sitting in front of a bunch of hot lights and a bunch of poor press people sitting in the hall of the hotel for hours and hours and hours.
Okonedo: I would like to see all you guys, though. I missed out on a dinner here and there.
Paulson: I sort of agree with both Sophie and Sharon, because on the one hand there is something airless and awful about sitting in those rooms while people wait patiently in the hallway; you’re being asked the same question, and you’re trying to make the answers different. ... And at the same time, usually you finish something and then months later you get to be reunited with everyone — especially people like Sophie [in London] and Judy, who live very far away. So that part is a bummer, to not have the community in full swing.
How are you all feeling about getting back to work on a set?
Stone: I just got a little job that I agreed to do, a fun job. I’m going to work on Sarah Cooper’s special.
Okonedo: I love her so much. I love her.
Stone: I agree. They just called me yesterday to see if I’d do a little, one skit with her for her Netflix special. I would play Satan. Don’t you think that’s a fun idea?
Okonedo: That’s really good. You know what, it actually quite works filming. I’ve been filming for the last two weeks. Yeah, it surprisingly works OK.
Stone: Right. They come, they shove the thing up your nose ...
Okonedo: Yeah, there’s a a COVID-19 booth you kind of go through. You’re tested every two days or something. I was so excited, just so full of energy, just pent-up acting energy raring to go. By the time I got on I was like, I am never going to complain again about anything.
Stone: I have a house full of children, so I’m feeling quite cautious because even if they want to have friends come over, we have this whole agreement with friends’ families about they have to be COVID-19 tested if they’ve been anywhere else other than between our two families. We’re very, very strict. I had stomach flu two weekends ago, and the minute it hit I had so many of the symptoms that we went into immediate quarantine and we all got tested. Because I was vomiting and diarrhea and spinning, all the stuff that is COVID-19, and it hit so fast. I was OK one minute, and one minute later I was just a mess.
Paulson: I’ve had one little toe back in the water. We were about to start [“Impeachment: American Crime Story”] five, six days before the shutdown. So we had only done one prosthetic test. Now they have a start date, which is in the middle of October, which seems absolutely insane to me. But it seems like we are moving in that direction, and I went to work and had a full prosthetic day of putting it all on, with all the new protocols in place: We were all tested, and hand-washing stations, and hand sanitizer stations, in and out of stages. You can only walk in one direction; you can’t enter.
It was nerve-racking, and a lot of people touching my face, applying things with no gloves. And they’re masked, but I wasn’t wearing a mask, so that was a little bit freaky. Part of it involves a real act of trust.
Sarah is well documented on this topic. But for everyone else, tell me what goes through your mind when you get that call about a project with Ryan? What is the appeal of working on one of his shows?
Stone: I was intrigued because I became such a huge fan, particularly watching Sarah, when I saw [“The People v. O.J. Simpson”]. I have admiration for Sarah. Sarah has fulfilled so many of the dreams that women of my generation had and fought for, and tried to make occur. And so many of us were laughed out of room after room, and punished for asking, and really tormented because we hoped to do things like direct and not be f— tortured every second. And so it really is such a joy, it just means so much to see this world happening.
And so when I went out to lunch with Ryan and he told me he’d written me this part, I said OK. But I was waiting, because it can be a part or it could be eight parts. You have to see. Are you going to play one part, eight parts, twins, dead people? You don’t know what the hell he’s going to ask you to do. And for me I have to see if it’s something I really feel I can deliver, and I really feel I can get myself around.
And not only was it getting around it, it’s when you go to work, you don’t have the whole thing. You have pieces of Episodes 1 and 6 and 3, and each one comes with a different director. And that is a new experience for someone like me — but not to a producer like Sarah, who is so wonderful at taking you through it and explaining how it goes and explaining what’s going to happen in it. And leading you through, “This director’s a broad scope shooter,” “This is an actor’s director who’s going to get in there and work with the meat of the character with you.” ... I know you hate this Sarah.
Paulson: Because it’s weird, normally you might be saying this and I wouldn’t be sitting here.
Nixon: It’s an amazing universe to be invited into. There’s so much to see, it’s sort of impossible to even know what all there is. Like Sharon, the O.J. Simpson thing was really what drew me in. Because I tried with “American Horror Story” ... it was just too — I couldn’t. I watched one and I still have nightmares about it. The thing about Ryan is his imagination seems boundless, but so does his knowledge. His deep sort of cultural knowledge of, not just of art but particularly of movies, and movies from this period, movies from the ‘40s and the ‘50s ... particularly actresses, in whatever decade they’re in. And he just loves to pull all of us from different, crazy grab bags and throw us together. I’ve been in a lot of big productions in my life, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been in one that was this sprawling, that had so many plot lines, but also so many actors. So one day there’s a whole new character and a whole new plot line and you walk in and there’s Sophie Okonedo, there’s Amanda Plummer, there’s Sharon Stone. It’s unbelievable.
Okonedo: I only ever met Ryan once because he didn’t film my episodes. So I just met him when I was in Los Angeles and he asked if I wanted to come and meet him for a cup of tea and I did. And he sat me down and gave quite a few promises, all of which he kept: “I’m going to give you a part in this piece I’m doing,” and he explained about “Ratched,” and he said, “You’re going to have a fantastic time.” And he gave me the cast list, and my jaw kind of dropped to the floor. And he said, “Now, I want you to come play someone with multiple personalities. I think it will suit your acting.”
He said, “It’s going to be wonderful.” And I was just nodding and really excited, and I left the office thinking, “Did that just happen?” And sure enough, my agent had been called back that evening, by the time I got back to my hotel.
Not to digress, but I’m just curious, Sharon, at what point did you learn you’d be working opposite a monkey?
Stone: At that lunch. And I was like no, I don’t want to, no, I don’t — let’s do a leopard. And he said, “No, it has to be a monkey.” And the greatest gift of that character was the monkey. It taught me to be present, it taught me to really understand the depth of the character and what that monkey really meant. And he is a freaking genius because that concept of putting that monkey on my back, and every time you move the tail comes around — and I have a neck injury that I got riding a horse under a clothesline. So every minute was like I had to address all that, and stay in my situation. Eventually I got to such a place of trust.
There’s an element of loneliness to each of the characters you play. What did that illuminate for you about women of that period?
Nixon: I think about Gwendolyn, and I think she’s in this profession that’s so completely male that her even being there is kind of a miracle, but of course then Gwendolyn also has this community of gay women, right? And we see little glimpses of that ... at least in terms of Gwendolyn’s experience, it’s kind of bar culture and sex culture, as opposed to her having a model of kind of a lasting, intimate, romantic relationship.
A lot of the people that we see in the show are nurses. And of course there is such a sisterhood of nurses, or I have this idea that there is. It’s a strong female profession from a long way back, from Florence Nightingale. But I think what we see here again, if you think about Bucket, even when there is a woman in charge, she’s so under the thumb of the male boss and so eager to please him in a million different ways that it turns her into a kind of a mini Ratched-to-be.
And so I think that’s one of the things about the women that we see in the show is when they have power, they don’t necessarily feel comfortable or even think it’s possible to rule the way they would like to rule, were it up to them. They are so eager to please the male bosses, and to be taken seriously, and obeyed.
Can you tell me about what best informed each of your characterizations for these women? How much was it the wardrobe? How much was it the physicality? The monkey?
Okonedo: It was just all on the page for me, for my characters. Each character had a very specific way of talking that was just there, it was in your mouth, as soon as you said the lines out loud. And then I just worked each character separately. I didn’t join them. I just made each one just as real as I could and worked from it like that because I didn’t feel she’d be conscious when she was becoming somebody else.
Stone: I’ve seen the majority of films from that era. I’m really kind of a bit of an obsessive film watcher. And I wanted to have a little bit of the vocal pattern from that time, which is something I talked to Ryan about quite a bit. Because I wanted her to have this weird back story where she kind of made herself up and then became the person she made up. So I wanted her to have a little bit of that mid-Atlantic movie [accent], the way that people talked at that time.
I was particularly interested in Barbara Stanwyck and a little bit of Bette Davis for the humor, but I liked this Barbara Stanwyck way of being at that time. And there was something about that — I felt like the character had just these weird traits where she was a little in that way in her life. Not that I was trying to act like that in the scene, but that she was acting like that in her life. She constantly had reinvented herself into this sort of extremely grand and overdone [person]. And she was just more all the time. She was just extra — extra clothes, extra hats, extra furs, extra stuff, extra behavior, and yet no ability to actually integrate.
Nixon: All of the clothes — not just the heels, but how cinched in you are, how buttoned-up. ... You’re not only wearing stockings with seams and heels, but gloves and hats — I mean, it just is so different from how we are now. And there is a kind of a ladylike-ness to it that just can’t be avoided. I played Eleanor Roosevelt about 15 years ago, and we were trying to do a sequel to that film. And we were going to talk about the run-up to the White House and the first 100 days in the White House. And during that time, Eleanor was having an affair with a woman named Lorena Hickok, who was a journalist. And so I had read a lot. And it’s like I went back to that, and I read, reread, and read more about Eleanor and her letters. And also particularly looked at photos of her because I think she was really a great role. She’s kind of hard-drinking like Gwendolyn was, sort of one of the boys, because she was in a largely male profession. But she had these kind of noteworthy love affairs. Some of them kind of tragic; she got her heart broken a lot. And so I felt like she was a great model for a woman who walked the line, who had a very serious professional job at which she was very successful. But in her leisure time had clothes that had more of a butch feel to them so that they weren’t screaming her gayness out, but to women that she might be wanting to sort of send a flag to it would. It might’ve been clocked and also, it makes her feel better.
Paulson: Mildred, before we meet her anyway, was somewhat of a grifter. Her behavior is learned. Some of it from films, some of it from the women she watches and sees who are living a particular kind of life. And she has built this facade so that she can pass as a certain kind of woman in different circumstances and environments. To echo what Cynthia said, the hat, the precision — I mean, remember the amount of time we would sit in the trailer and try to figure out exactly where the hat went to and how far back on the head and forward, to the side? The care of that and the intentionality of it just naturally lent itself to a kind of feeling of elegance and appropriateness and what [the] outward perception of you might be. I did wear a pair of weird clogs for all the rehearsals because I felt very strange rehearsing in a pair of house slippers, which is what I like to be in most of the time.
Sarah, you’ve talked about this before while promoting “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” that you had formed an opinion about Marcia Clark at the time of the trial that changed with time and perspective once you did the series. Obviously, Nurse Ratched is fictional, but everyone had this view of her as this monster. Did that view of her change for you at all?
Paulson: So often we feel compelled, and I’ve certainly been guilty of it, of wanting to be liked and wanting people to feel empathy for your character when sometimes it’s just not part of the story. And you don’t want to insert that for your own personal gain, or just to feel better about what you’re doing. I did have, [as] with Marcia, a kind of idea about who Nurse Ratched was. I did not even know she had a first name. And I remember hating her and thinking she was quite cruel and how she could do such terrible things, and then when I rewatched the movie, I sort of thought, “Oh, what a terribly sad story about a woman who was probably incapable of challenging [the] patriarchal infrastructure of that hospital.” And what would we feel about Nurse Ratched if Nurse Ratched had been a man? Are we naturally expecting because she’s a woman for her to have her heart and her head integrated in a way that feels palatable to us, and makes us feel soothed?
She probably believed that she was following the rules, was treating them as she saw fit to the best of her ability. What we do [while] watching is more about our limitations as viewers and also the construct of the movie itself in terms of what we are. ... The movie is set up and the story is set up for us to fall madly in love with the camaraderie between those men, and she comes in and kind of creates an opportunity for us to not have that. I couldn’t imagine how I would do it if I just tried to do what she was doing in that movie. She’s not very porous, there’s nothing, nothing ekes out, nothing leaks. Nothing. And I thought, well, this predates that story by 20 years. Stuff is probably still coming up with her more. She has not reached the point where everything in her life has hardened her.
This is an invented, fictional story of a kind of fantastical nature. It has a lot of important things to say, but it’s also, I think, a f— good time too.
It’s a unique opportunity to get an origin story for a character. Often you hear from actors that when they’re working on a character, they’re creating their own back story either on their own or in collaboration with the writer. What’s a character that you’ve played that you think is worthy of a prequel treatment?
Stone: My character in “The Muse.”
Paulson: Mine is two. Can I be greedy? Abby and Carol [from “Carol”] because, in the book she had, there was so much there about life with Carol prior to the Therese relationship, which would have been really interesting and fun to do. And also Mrs. Epps in “12 Years a Slave,” I think that would have been interesting. I don’t know if anybody would want to watch it, but it would be interesting.
Nixon: I’m sorry, I don’t have one. I pick up my person where they are, and if there’s a story that I know, then I know it. And if there’s not, I don’t.
Okonedo: I can’t think off the top of my head, really. I often think I’ve played parts where I think, ‘Oh, I could carry on with this.’ So you know the story about them that way round, but not so much. Because then it probably won’t be me playing as well. We’ll be too old when you think about it.
Nixon: I thought about my back-story person, which is Nancy Reagan, because you know how Nancy Reagan invented herself, and I won’t say scandalous things about her, but that’s a story to tell.
I don’t want to end without asking you guys to share what it was like working with the woman who couldn’t be with us today, Judy Davis. She’s such a force in this show.
Paulson: I found her to be incredibly responsive as an actress, incredibly present and inventive. She does this amazing thing. I think the first time we’re in Dr. Hanover’s office where she’s cleaning up, he’s throwing the bust and she’s cleaning up the broken bits and she knocks the dust pan against my skirt. And it’s not scripted that she did that. She just walked right by me and knocked the dust pan against my skirt on her way out. And I remember in the moment, I couldn’t help but play Mildred. ... I was impressed. Mildred was impressed that she did it and also, ‘Oh s—, this is going to be really somebody to contend with.’
My phone case said, Judy F— Davis for the last year and a half. On the day that she wrapped, I got these Judy F— Davis T-shirts for a lot of the crew and we sang her a little song and I have video of her, just her face. Her face is bright red. Her head is in her hands. She just doesn’t like a lot of fanfare and is just really there to do the work. And I just found it utterly joyful. And I’m sure she was supremely irritated by me because I was like, “Good morning, Judy. Hi, Judy. What are you doing, Judy? What are you doing now, Judy?” It was one of the highlights of my working life, for sure.
Stone: Oh, I think she hung the frigging acting moon and she’s always been my favorite, and that red kind of lipstick she always wore, I just thought it was the greatest thing that ever happened. And I remember when she played George Sand [in 1991’s “Impromptu”], and it was before “Basic Instinct,” and I just watched it over and over and over again. I thought, if she can do that, I can do this. I can. And when she was laying under the piano, listening to Chopin play the piano, and I thought, I know this was her idea. When I went into hair and makeup [on “Ratched”] and she was sitting in the chair next to me, in my mind I was like, “Should I talk to her? I don’t want to say, ‘I’m your biggest fan.’ That’s such a stupid thing to say. That’s so annoying.”
Paulson: Well, I said that, Sharon. Jesus.
Stone: She’s so incredible. And she’s very shy and very discreet. And so I said something, I think funny. I don’t remember, but she’s just ... She’s very intellectual. Absolutely fascinating and hilarious. And then the very next thing that happened was that Sophie came and sat in the other chair next to me. I turned and I was kind of like, “Holy f—.”
Okonedo: I was too shy to say anything to you, though. That’s the weird thing.
Stone: And I remember looking at Sophie, and going [eyes widen], because nobody told me she was going to be in it. And I remember sitting there going, “She’s in it?” I knew that Cynthia was going to be in it. I don’t feel quite as freaked out by Cynthia because I’ve seen her around at a bunch of things over the years. That was the thing that was amazing. I haven’t worked with other women. I worked with Meryl Streep [in “The Laundromat”] and that was already like, “Oh, well, hi.” But I worked with men all my life.
And all of a sudden I’ve got these great women actresses just turning up left, right, and then Cynthia’s standing behind me in the outfit and I was like, “Waah! Good morning to you too!” For me, as a person who’s never gotten to work with women, whose dream was always to go to work and work with women, it changed me entirely to the core of my soul. It changed me and healed me in a way that I can’t even really describe. I can’t even say, coming from sets and sets and sets where I was playing horse at lunch and smashing my nose with a basketball because I was going to keep up with the guys.
Okonedo: It’s something special.
Nixon: I couldn’t even believe it, this giant would be in the show with us. But also the chance for me also to work with Amanda Plummer, who I had idolized. But what Sharon said about Judy, she is weirdly shy and completely intimidating. It’s such a funny combination. The very first time I was in the same room with her was when we were having the sexual harassment seminar training, whatever you call that. And it was hilarious because everybody was there trying to be a good trouper, and we know this is important and it’s great that it’s happening. And she kind of wasn’t having any of it. She was like, “Well, what if what is being said is not true? Then what?” I mean, it was like “Waah!” But also I think she must have people falling down at her feet wherever she goes. And then maybe also people not knowing who she is, kind of in equal measure.
And Sharon said the thing about her red lipstick, but I always remember the brown lipstick. Remember the brown lipstick in “Husbands and Wives”? She brought her own lipstick in every shade that’s ever seen. But also, you think about “My Brilliant Career” and stuff like that. And you have to really work to get the stories out of her, because of course she has the stories. But I remember Sarah and I were sitting there with her at one point during some kind of photo shoot or something, and she starts telling us a story about a film [she] did with Peggy Ashcroft. First of all, making sure we know who Peggy Ashcroft is. [Then] tells a story. It’s like a great story, you know? And it has Laurence Olivier in it, and it’s all the stuff, and like Laurence Olivier is in Peggy Ashcroft’s story that Judy Davis is telling.
And after she gets up and leaves to go smoke, I said to Sarah, “Does she think that we haven’t seen ‘A Passage to India?’”
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17)
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