Asking anyone to star in Ratched was a tall order. Any actor tasked with the role would be forever compared to Louise Fletcher and the part that made her one of the most iconic villains in film history. That’s without even considering the larger obstacle of creating a show like Ratched in the first place. Mildred Ratched was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest‘s irredeemable, corrupt, manipulative foe. Granting her even a shred of compassion feels like a betrayal of her sins. That’s why there was only one person who could play Mildred Ratched, one actor so well versed in finding the humanity beneath the monstrous she’s made a career out of it. Nurse Ratched was always Sarah Paulson‘s role, and it’s about time we’re seeing her in the part she was born to play.
Though Paulson is well versed in the world of horror, this is one of the few times she’s played one of Ryan Murphy’s monsters. Typically in American Horror Story Paulson embodies the wide-eyed victim, such as she did with Coven and Apocalypse‘s Cordelia, Freak Show’s Dot and Bette, and Asylum‘s Lana Winters. There have been times when she’s been allowed to explore more warped worlds in FX’s twisted series. Hotel‘s Sally McKenna was a hardened badass, and Cult‘s Ally Mayfair-Richards was a screaming, neurotic wreck. But with the exception of one brief character in Apocalypse, it’s rare that Paulson is cast as the season’s villain. Rather she’s almost always the one reacting to the monster, instead of embodying one.
It’s that place on the sidelines that makes Paulson the perfect choice for Netflix’s origin story about a despicable character. In Ryan Murphy’s universe there is rarely pure evil. There are broken, confused people who do terrible things. Though Paulson’s characters are often the victims of these monstrosities, they’re also the same women who are tasked with finding their underlying humanity. Lana with Bloody Face, Cordelia with her own mother, Bette and Dot with the con man Stanley — these were all women who were terrorized by different beasts. Yet before they were allowed to escape — if they were even given that luxury — all had to reckon with their aggressors’ humanity.
That’s the balancing act Paulson has perfected throughout her time on American Horror Story, channeling the sympathy these aggressors so deserve and crave while never forgetting the horrors they’ve inflicted. That’s what any study into Nurse Ratched needs to do. It should never sugarcoat or ignore the horrors she inflicted upon the helpless patients under her care. But it should also be unafraid to question what birthed this fiend.
“It wouldn’t have been interesting to me to explore the parts of Mildred Ratched that aren’t porous,” Paulson said during a press event for Ratched attended by Decider. “In the movie she’s so, she’s calcified. There’s a hardness. Nothing ekes out.”
Paulson remembered when she first saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest she was convinced that Nurse Ratched was evil. “When I rewatched it before we started I thought, ‘You know this is a woman who’s sort of the victim of a patriarchal infrastructure in this hospital,’” Paulson explained. “It’s quite possible, and could it be considered, that she didn’t have any choice about whether or not she could access her heart in her work, if she could bring her femininity and her womanhood to the job. What about considering that idea? And that she’s not a villain but she’s a person who didn’t have any recourse.”
Once Paulson stripped her own prejudice from the character a completely new story started to emerge. “I had to believe, if I was going to play it, that she did it because she thought she was adhering to some kind of rule that she believed was most right,” Paulson explained. “She was limited in her thinking because of the era, in terms of what she was willing to investigate, where she might have found power outside of the confines of that hospital. Who knows what her life was like? So I was interested in this idea of who is Mildred Ratched when she takes that key and she turns it and goes into her house?”
For years we’ve subscribed to the same stories with the same heroes and the same villains. Those narratives can still be true. Nurse Ratched can still be evil. But we can still push them further, examining how that evil was created and not born while never discrediting its victims. No one other than Sarah Paulson has a more tried and true record of testing those extremes. Paulson may not be Louise Fletcher; she’s something far less formed and more complicated.
All episodes of Ratched Season 1 premiere on Netflix Friday, September 18 at 3/2c a.m.