Sarah Paulson

Sarah Paulson stars in "12 Years a Slave." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Sipping a to-go herbal tea in the back of a hotel bar not far from the Fox studio lot in Century City, Sarah Paulson is blond, smiling and thoroughly modern. In the slavery-era drama "12 Years a Slave," her hair and her manner are darker in the role of Mistress Epps, wife of Michael Fassbender's demented slave owner Edwin Epps. It's a role that requires the actress to explore jealousy, sex and contempt — as well as feeling pain and doling some out. Paulson, who also stars on the FX network's "American Horror Story: Coven," couldn't be more delighted or honored. "Sometimes, you don't really know what the perception of you is. Everyone always says things to me like, 'Which medium do you prefer?' and I'm kind of like, 'I just want to go where they'll have me.'"

How did director Steve McQueen find you for the part?

I feel very honored when I get asked that question because I don't know who you think I am but I audition for every part I get, almost across the board. If it's a part in a Steve McQueen movie with Michael Fassbender in it and Brad Pitt's producing it — odds are I'm not the only girl in town who wants that part, which means I'm going to have to fight like a lady haggling over a shoe at a Barneys sale. I'm going to have to be ready to put some elbows in some eyes.

PHOTOS: Scenes from '12 Years a Slave'ON LOCATION: '12 Years a Slave'

And you had seen his previous films "Hunger" and "Shame." You knew that you were ready for some very long takes and rough stuff?

I have a theater background, so long takes is good to me because the more chance you have to play the beginning, the middle and the end of a scene or beat, the better odds you have of having something honest happen. I really didn't think I would get the part. I thought the movie was much too fancy and it was a coveted role. [McQueen] did finally tell me a couple of actresses who wanted the part — none of which I will name for you now, but they were fancy and celebrated. I'm sure he was doing it to make sure I didn't have a panic on the set the first day, thinking I was completely out of my league.

Mistress Epps is fascinating in that she has more power than many of the people around her ... but less power than the person at the very top.

I'm glad you saw those things. There are some people who will see the movie and just go, "God, you were such a …," and I think, "Well, you can't hold something very complex, can you? Because it's so much more than that." Yes, her behavior is deplorable and she does indefensible things. But when you have to play someone like that, the last thing I'm thinking about is her [nastiness]. She is as powerful as a woman can be in that time, in that household ... but under the thumb of that man, which makes her not very powerful and her only means of eliciting anything from him is to fly off in these blind rages that show him how much she cares. I don't think she's a person who's capable of self-reflection. I don't think she challenges any of the things she was taught as a child. A lot goes into trying to play a person who is capable of such atrocity.

Is it hard to create a physical look for moral decay?

I was really focused on being a woman who you really believed just didn't carry a lot of weight of any kind — except for the heaviness in her heart. I do think she loved Michael's character at one time in particular, and having lost that gaze — to be usurped by someone is very painful, and in one's own home and in front of everyone, it's very embarrassing. What you see on her face is this sort of fatigue that comes with this dancing as fast as you can, to keep up certain appearances and to try to be powerful when you are so powerless. And I do think there is a certain physical strain that comes from trying to hold something so poisonous up.

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