Nurse Mildred Ratched, the coolly vicious antagonist of 1975’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, is one of the most iconic characters in cinematic history. But back in 1974 when the film was being cast, the role was a poisoned chalice. Hollywood could not give it away. Just about every A-list actress of the day turned it down, from Angela Lansbury to Ellen Burstyn to Anne Bancroft.
“They didn’t want to mess with their brand,” says Sarah Paulson, who plays a younger version of the character in Netflix’s new origin story series, Ratched. “They didn’t want to be disliked in that way. And of course, Louise Fletcher gave a performance that none of those women, as wonderful as they all are, would have given. It was very, very brave of her to do, because it’s an unapologetic performance. She’s not asking you to like her at all.”
Paulson is similarly unafraid of being disliked. When you hear the premise of Ratched—which follows a younger Mildred Ratched in one of her first jobs as a nurse—you might assume that Paulson is playing a softer, more naive version of the character. But rather than showing who Ratched was before she became the jaded monster of Cuckoo’s Nest, the show leans into the idea that the damage was done long ago. As the star of her own show, Paulson’s Ratched does have more room for nuance than Fletcher’s, and throughout the show’s eight episodes she’s intriguingly hard to pin down, pivoting smoothly from real empathy to unspeakable cruelty in the space of a single scene.
Paulson speaks to ELLE.com about what she took from Fletcher’s performance, why she doesn’t see Ratched as a villain, and how the show incorporates the events of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Going in, how familiar were you with this character and with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?
When Ryan [Murphy] first came to me, I only had a cursory memory of having seen the movie when I was much younger. But once I knew I was going to do it, I decided it would be very important for me to watch the movie, even though I felt intimidated by having too much of what the brilliant Louise Fletcher did in my mind, for fear that I could never measure up. But then it started to feel like the most respectful thing I could do, to watch it and try to hold it as closely in my mind and heart as possible. So that’s what I did. And of course, I had a very different view of the character once I knew I was going to play her, which included me not thinking she was a villain at all.
Are there any scenes from the movie you found especially helpful as you approached your own version of the role?
I thought a lot about one particular scene, which to me is the moment when you can’t believe what she does. It’s how she responds to Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif) after he’s hosted this kind of raucous and irresponsible evening on the ward. She comes in, and her way of dealing with him lacks such humanity. She threatens to tell his mother, which, as we all know from the earlier half of the movie, nothing could be more threatening or more traumatic or more upsetting to him. That’s the moment for me where the record skips, and I actually don’t understand her. How could you be so cruel? I have to believe she thinks she’s doing something right, by threatening him with the one thing she knows will make him realize he should never, ever, ever do anything like this again. She doesn’t think that by telling this to him, she’s going to provoke him into suicide, but that is what happens. It’s a moment of failure, a human failure on her part in responding that way to him. That’s the most indelible moment of hers for me. The domino effect of this choice she makes in the hallway to speak to Billy Bibbit that way has such consequences that alter everyone in that hospital’s life forever. But I do have to say, it’s the only moment in the movie that I don’t understand what she’s doing.
Do you find the rest of her actions easier to understand?
Yeah, because all the other things she does and the methods of treatment she’s offering, providing, seem to be what was the treatment of the day. Remember, this was the ’70s, and so she comes from a different era in an extraordinarily patriarchal system, the medical field. Who knows what she was able to contest, or what she was able to say, or what was possible for her in terms of questioning authority? In my opinion, she was treating the patients the best way she knew how. I really think she probably didn’t have many options available to her in terms of how best to manage the men in that ward. I mean, her patients were all men, and her bosses were all men. If she had wanted to lead with her softer side, would they just have said, “You’ve got no business here, you can’t run this thing”?
You mentioned you don’t see Ratched as a villain.
I came across something that Louise Fletcher said, which is she didn’t understand why everyone found her to be so evil—that she was a Top 5 Villain in cinematic history. She just didn’t see it that way, and I agree with her. Very famously, nobody wanted that part. All the most famous actresses of the day, they didn’t want the role. They didn’t want to mess with their brand. They didn’t want to be disliked in that way. And of course, Louise Fletcher gave a performance that none of those women, as wonderful as they all are, would have given. And she won an Oscar for it. And it was very, very brave of her to do, because it’s an unapologetic performance. She’s not asking you to like her at all.
Your Mildred has moments where she genuinely connects with patients, and she shows empathy, and it seems absolutely real—but in the next breath, she’s brutalizing them. In episode 2, she empathizes with the traumatized priest, and then turns around and forcibly lobotomizes him.
Well, yes, the action is savage in the sense that this man’s life will never be the same, but on some level, he was so traumatized from what he saw, that who’s to say that she wasn’t actually being merciful to him—in order to also get what she wanted? That’s how she soothes herself, by telling herself, “I’m doing this for his good as well. He’s in so much pain. He’s in so much pain.” Of course, she needs to silence him to serve her own interests. The things she’s doing, she’s doing for one purpose and one purpose only, which is to be absolved of a terrible, terrible guilt she carries with her. So, is it genuine? Yes. Does she manipulate? Yes. Is she a grifter? Yes. Is she a liar? Yes. Does she have a reason and a purpose that she could deem—and I think some other people would as well—as pure? Yes! What’s so great about the show is that you start this ride thinking it’s one thing. By the time you get to the end, I promise you, you will think differently. You might even really like her. You might even really hope she gets everything she wants!
Do you know if the plan is for the show to continue all the way up to the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest timeline?
I think so, yeah. We’re definitely doing a second season, but if we were to go on, the plan would be to do about four seasons. And in the fourth season, we end up in the Cuckoo’s Nest era. But I don’t believe we will ever find ourselves in the hospital [from the movie], unless it’s pre McMurphy being admitted, unless it’s pre all those patients being there. Unless you want to see computer-generated Danny DeVitos and Jack Nicholsons acting with me, which, I don’t know that that’s the way to do it.
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