If you haven’t watched the iconic 1975 dark comedy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or read the novel on which it was based, chances are you at least know of it. You’ve also surely heard of the tyrant who rules the nest: Nurse Ratched. Nearly 45 years after the picture swept the Oscars and earned Louise Fletcher the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Mildred Ratched, Sarah Paulson is now taking the role to a whole new level. Forging her own spin on one of pop culture’s most iconic villains, Paulson portrays a younger version of Ratched in a new Netflix series, acting as a prequel to the famous story. Mohamed Hesham chatted with Paulson, as well as her co-star Cynthia Nixon, about the highly anticipated thriller.
Known for his unparalleled mix of extremely dark horror with bright, quirky humour, Ryan Murphy has written, directed and produced a number of critically acclaimed series, such as American Horror Story, American Crime Story and Glee. After reading a script by writer Evan Romansky imagining an origin story for Nurse Ratched, Murphy became adamant about bringing it to life. Along with his frequent partner Ian Brennan, Murphy managed to secure the rights to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest from none other than Michael Douglas, who had inherited the rights from his father. The legendary Kirk Douglas had portrayed the protagonist in a Broadway play, before it went on to be adapted for the big screen.
Shortly thereafter, casting was underway for the ambitious series. Sarah Paulson, who’s had many fruitful collaborations with Murphy, one of which being The People vs. O.J. Simpson, which earned her an Emmy, ironically came to hear about Ratched from her agent, not from her longtime friend Murphy. “My agent came across the script and she asked me if Ryan had contacted me about it, and I didn’t know anything really,” Paulson recalls.
It turns out that Murphy was actually thinking about Paulson for the titular role, but had suspected that she might not be interested. “I’ve been the leading character in seasons of American Horror Story before, but the star of AHS is AHS. As for The People vs. O.J. Simpson, although I was the female lead, the show was about a lot of things; it wasn’t just about my character. Ratched is about a lot of things and a lot of people as well, but it was a much bigger responsibility,” explains Paulson, who did have doubts after all, fearing that she might not live up to expectations.
“Ryan wanted me to also executive produce the program; he wanted me to have a stake in the show itself in terms of ownership. As he often does, he really wanted me to take the next step towards having a bit more power in my life. He’s always been sort of the godfather of my soul. He made it clear that this was going to be unlike anything I’ve done, in terms of time commitment, energy and focus,” says the actress, adding, “Ryan has this exceedingly confident belief that I can do things that I myself am unsure I can pull off. I was nervous about playing the part that won Louise Fletcher an Oscar and only came after Hannibal Lecter in a list for the greatest villains of all time. Then I read the script and realised it was an invented original story about Mildred Ratched during Post-World War II. I found comfort in that there’s distance between the movie and this time period, so people may not be looking for a carbon copy of Fletcher’s brilliant performance.”
While the original story takes place in the year 1963 at a psychiatric institution in Oregon, where mentally ill patients are kept on a tight leash by the ruthless Nurse Ratched, the show takes place at a different setting in 1947. We see a younger Mildred Ratched moving to North Carolina and starting a new job at a leading facility where patients are treated with questionable methods. Ratched is secretly on a personal mission that requires rule-bending, risk-taking and doing whatever it takes for someone she loves – in other words, everything Ratched comes to stand against fifteen years later.
The show has drama, passion, humour and plot twists… and that’s only in the opening credits. Also, expect so much bloodshed that it makes American Horror Story look like Love Actually. While the show centers on Mildred, there’s a slew of diverse characters portrayed by a star-studded ensemble, who all impressively service the story in one way or the other and push the narrative towards Mildred’s eventual transformation into the ultimate villain that she becomes. And unlike the male-dominated flagship story, this one is female-driven.
One of the main stars opposite Paulson is seasoned actress Cynthia Nixon, who is best known for her award-winning portrayal of Miranda in Sex and the City. Nixon describes the show, saying, “I feel like it is in the genre of film noir in a way. It has a little bit of mystery; there’s a lot of murder and deception, and people aren’t necessarily who you think they are.” However, while horror stories like this are usually dark and shadowy, being a Ryan Murphy production, Ratched is not all grainy and black and white. It’s all in bright and saturated technicolour with breathtaking backdrops and views.
There are numerous differences between Ratched and its 1975 predecessor. While the film goes under the genre of dark comedy, the new series could be best described as a bright thriller. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had dark humour drenched in sorrow and gloom. The Netflix show, on the other hand, starts off with eerie suspense but little by little builds up an eccentric, lighthearted element, all while maintaining its twisted nature nonetheless. The main source of comic relief in the show is two-time Academy Award-nominated veteran Judy Davis, who had previously worked with Murphy on his limited series, Feud.
“Judy Davis is one of my favourite actresses. When Ryan called me to tell me that Judy said yes to the role, it was an actual dream come true,” Paulson recounts. “She’s one of the people I can barely speak around. Now, we email each other back and forth, and she has no idea that I’m squealing every time. I’m just such a fangirl around her,” she goes on to praise Davis, who portrays Nurse Betsy Bucket, Ratched’s superior who butts heads with her at first glance.
Davis is not the only Hollywood heavyweight on the show. Another main lead in Ratched is the one and only Sharon Stone. Every scene Stone appears in is a Monet painting come to life. The breathtaking star portrays Lenore Osgood, a wealthy heiress who’s up to no good, with a pet monkey on her shoulder and a troubled son on her mind. “Sharon made me very nervous because she’s the personification of a movie star. I’m lucky to have worked with a lot of fancy pancies, but there’s something about Sharon that tells you she’s the smartest person in any room. She’s got a huge mind and an enormous heart. She’s also very generous and a great deal of fun,” Paulson declares.
The co-star that Paulson has the biggest share of scenes with is Nixon, who plays Gwendolyn Briggs, Mildred’s love interest on the show. “I’ve known Cynthia for so long. She’s a good friend that I would socialise with in New York. I’ve been to her apartment, as well as her summer home. I’ve spent a lot of time with her. She’s an actress that I’ve always respected and admired,” Paulson says.
Nixon indeed mirrors the same sentiments. “I really think the world of Sarah. I feel like I know her quite well, so I was thrilled to be able to work with her, however, much less to act romantically with her… It’s a challenge; it may be even harder to act opposite your friend in a romantic way,” admits Nixon, whose character is not in the original story. So, instead of referring back to the film or novel to study the role, she instead opted for a different approach. “I looked into a woman named Laurena Hickok, who was a female journalist at a slightly earlier period. She was said to be Elenore Roosevelt’s female lover. So, I read a lot about her, looked into her photographs and put myself in her shoes,” says Nixon, who shares several similarities with her character, one of which being her passion for politics.
In 2018, Nixon was in the running to become the Governor of New York. Although she did not end up winning the election, the actress and activist remains passionate and vocal about her beliefs and the causes she cares about, which is an element she has in common with her character. “Gwendolyn thinks of herself as a professional first and foremost. She works in government and wants to run for office someday, even though as a woman at that time, it was a big leap,” Nixon says.
On the other hand, there are aspects in which Briggs and Nixon’s paths diverge. “She has been for so long on her own, trying to fight in the political world, which is a very bruising one. I think Gwendolyn has a very hard time because of the life that she’s leading. She’s married to a gay man and they have a marriage of convenience that she finds very useful but also very stifling. I think that I, on the other hand, am very lucky because I have three children and I’m happily married. I still live in the place where I grew up and so many of my friends are from school. I think that makes such a difference in life, when it’s filled with people that you love and who know you so well,” Nixon explains.
Meanwhile, Paulson, who barely has any tangible similarities with the dark soul that is Mildred Ratched, had to resort back to the source material to make sure she does right by the iconic character. “I had watched the movie years ago, but out of respect and admiration for Louise Fletcher’s performance, I thought I should re-watch it just to remind myself of where this is going. This is a serialised show, so if all goes as planned, by the time the series ends we will end up at the hospital where The Cuckoo’s Nest story begins,” she reveals.
One of the beauties of watching the show is observing Paulson’s nuanced portrayal of Ratched, where you can see small hints of Fletcher’s famously restrained performance here and there; yet, in a way, Paulson’s reactions and mannerisms are distinctly different. “After re-watching the film, I then tried to leave as much of it at the door as I could, because that’s where she’s going; this isn’t where she is now. In the film, Mildred is very stoic, and so is Louise, but I decided that part of that stoicism is certainly born of great pain as a tool she develops to protect herself from the outside world. I just wanted to separate them a little bit and to remember that this is the imagined journey to that end,” explains Paulson.
Re-watching the film with the intention of studying the role, Paulson admits that her view of the character throughout the movie completely changed. While, the end result remains the same, with Ratched causing as much irreparable damage as she does every time you go back and watch the movie, it is the question of her intentions that changes. What if Ratched was really trying to do the right thing, not to cause harm or pain, but to try and actually help, in her own questionable way?
“You have to remember that the way the movie is constructed is for the viewer to be on the side of the patients. You’re viewing her as the person preventing them from living the life that they want to lead and that we as an audience want them to lead, therefore making her the villain. But she’s doing it for a purpose that she feels is noble, honourable and righteous. It’s just funny how one’s perspective can change depending on how you’re viewing something. She doesn’t seem so mean to me anymore; she just seems interesting,” Paulson explains.
The show does not set out to have you fall in love with Ratched or to justify her actions, but rather to walk you through her journey and to show you how she came to be who she is. “We spend a lot of time only learning about the things that already support our way of thinking. We don’t often venture outside of what’s comfortable or outside the boundaries of what we already believe and subscribe to. There is an enormous value in trying to understand another person, not to necessarily feel for them, but to at least have a sense of respect for how and why they behave the way they do,” says Paulson.
Although it is very likely that as a viewer, if you get invested in the character’s arc, your heart may inevitably be broken by the end of the show’s run, Paulson wants you to know that it’s completely fine. “It’s unfortunate that we know who she’s going to become, but at the very least, maybe we can understand why. It will make you have a sense of respect for what a person goes through sometimes and what the consequences of a hardship can turn that person into. You do learn that sometimes, hurt people also hurt. It’s not an excuse, but rather an explanation,” Paulson clarifies, going on to say, “Hopefully, we’ll have a few more seasons to figure out exactly how she gets there.”
While you’re going to have to watch the show to make sense of a world where you sympathise with Ratched, just know that at the end of the day, much like Murphy’s colourful reimagining of a dark universe, there is no such thing as black and white, good and evil, a hero and a villain. It all depends on whose story you’re viewing… and this is Ratched’s.
Ratched premieres on September 18 on Netflix.