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Feud’s Alison Wright on driving Jessica Lange and filming during the election

Photo: FX

This post contains plot points from Tuesday’s episode of The Americans and Sunday’s episode of Feud.

It’s been quite a week for Alison Wright—on television, that is. On The Americans, she made a small, but notable appearance revealing the fate of her character, Martha, and in tonight’s episode of Feud her 1960s go-getter Pauline has her dreams crushed by Joan Crawford. It’s a standout episode for the British actress, and one that feels especially timely for a period piece.


Pauline, we learn, has goals beyond assisting Robert Aldrich. She’s written a screenplay with aims to direct, and she hopes Joan Crawford will star in it. Joan shoots her down first, and Aldrich himself, despite encouraging her, ultimately treats her work with careless disregard. In a closing scene laden with dramatic irony, Pauline commiserates with Crawford’s maid, Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman), who insists that demand will force studios to make more films by and for women. Wishful thinking, of course. The A.V. Club talked with Wright about filming the storyline during the 2016 election and the terror of driving Jessica Lange around in a golf cart.

The A.V. Club: What were you told about Pauline when you got this role? So many people in the show are based on legendary historical figures, but Pauline is not somebody with whom we’re familiar.

Alison Wright: Yes, Pauline is the only composite character that they have on the show. Everyone else is a real person. Pauline is representative of all the women that worked in the studio system and aspired to be more than they were. The women that were extremely capable and girl Fridays and, you know, women that we have today. The same situation, the behind every great man, it’s the same thing. She wants to have a career in the movies, and she deserves a career in the movies, and she’s capable and able, and she could have a career in the movies, but she’s a woman, and it’s 1962, so she can’t.

AVC: Did Ryan Murphy come to you?

AW: Put this in all caps: RYAN MURPHY CAME TO ME. He did, and it was ridiculous, because I knew all about the project already when the call came. My agents were trying to explain it like it was this big coup, and I knew all about it, because Ryan Murphy’s world is an aesthetic that I’m very attracted to and would like to be in. I love the stories that he tells and the actresses that he chooses to tell them with. And I love Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. I love What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?—a camp classic. So I knew all about it already when it came to me and just the fact that it was that project and Ryan wanted me to be in it, I was ready to say yes before I even got on the phone to talk with him, before he even pitched to me who it was that he’d like me to play.


AVC: Because you’re working from this archetype of women who worked in the studio system, how did you build Pauline?

AW: Ryan told me that he had written Pauline to be whip-smart, cool as a cucumber, and that she was more than able and capable to hold her own with Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. So I was able to go from that. I did a lot of research about Bob Aldrich, of course, because Pauline was working for Bob Aldrich. I kind of got to decide for how long she’d been working for him and what sort of relationship they actually had. I read a lot of books that had been written about Aldrich, and he talked about a lot of the times the characters that he was interested in making movies about. Something I read about him was he said he was interested in characters that no matter what the odds were, they wanted to go after what it was they believed in. It didn’t matter to them what all the obstacles were; they just wanted to go after it anyway. I thought that was a perfect description of somebody that I could build Pauline from. So I took that from a literal quote of his about the characters that he likes to make movies about, and I was like, “That’s a way in for me.” It would make sense that he would respond to a person like her if she had those traits and being a girl that wanted to be a director and was very capable and able and very strong-willed in a time where I don’t know where she would have got the example from. It wouldn’t have been her mother. This was a very backward time for women in this country. So I found that to be a way in for me.


AVC: That’s what makes his betrayal so heartbreaking, because you see that he respects her but doesn’t respect her quite enough. Was that part of the way you wanted to shade that relationship?

AW: He’s very kind to her, very generous to her. A lot more generous than I think a lot of men would have been to a lot of women at that time. What I will say is we filmed half of that episode four days before the election, and there are scenes in there when he’s like, “What are you worrying about?” And she’s like, ”Well, some men don’t like the idea of a woman being in charge.” It was literally the day before the election. There was a certain awareness about the lines that I was saying and what that meant to the place that we actually were today. And then to go back the following day after the results of this heinous election and have to go finish the rest of the scene and go, “Oh, shit, we’re exactly in the same place.” That’s really when the gravitas hit about the story that Ryan was trying to tell. I have no doubt that he knew that already and that that is why he had his finger on the pulse of this story. But to realize that and to feel the weight of that lent it a whole different kind of authenticity to see, as women, that we are still second-class citizens and that misogyny is still rampant.


AVC: Was there a challenge to keep it grounded in the time period of the story while also knowing in the back of your head that this is still going on and that there are still Paulines out there today who are not being treated the way they should be?

AW: It was obvious to me that anybody with a couple of brain cells would be able to watch the show and understand how it reflected the modern time. I have to keep what’s real and current completely out of the equation. We have to be in 1962. We have to have Pauline’s expectations, not Alison’s. Pauline’s expectations would be very different than mine. You know, it wasn’t until 1974 that a woman could get a credit card without her husband saying so. 1974. So there’s just a different awareness and mentality that has to stay completely separate. We might be crying between the takes about the results of the election, but that doesn’t get onto the soundstage.


AVC: We don’t really hear about women in Pauline’s time that had ambitions that then got crushed. Did your research take you to any stories like that?

AW: Surprisingly enough, those stories are not out there to be found. Whether that’s because they were drowned in the bottom of a glass of gin in a bar somewhere, I don’t know. I couldn’t find any stories about women that had been burned by the studio system and had left. I thought I could possibly, maybe still speak to some ladies who might still be living who had worked in the studio system, but unsurprisingly they weren’t available to find.


AVC: Did you look into the women who maybe didn’t have these ambitions?

AW: I concentrated a lot on The Feminine Mystique book by Betty Friedan, and I read quite a few books by Kevin Starr that talk about life in Los Angeles in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and the old Hollywood world. I watched all of Joan and Bette’s films every night, so I could be in the world of where they spoke, because I wanted Pauline to speak a little bit closer to a 1940s style. That’s what I decided that I would like her to sound like. So I was just immersing myself in all of that all of the time, and then actually physically, literally working on the Fox lot every day gave me a lot to work with, too. The stages that I was shooting on is where they shot The Sound Of Music. You know what I mean? Shit that just blows your mind. It really was interwoven with my whole experience of just being in that time period in that world in that sound and how the women dressed and behaved as well as the research of living in that California and all the people that migrated there to be in Hollywood.

Photo: Suzanne Tenner/FX

AVC: In the scene with Joan Crawford in her bedroom, she says, “I’m not turning you down because you’re a woman. I’m turning you down because you’re a nobody.” What was it like getting dressed down by Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford?


AW: She had me crying the whole time. She had me crying totally. What was amazing about that was you couldn’t not agree with Joan in that scene. The way that she explained it, she may not have explained it in the nicest possible way, but at her age—which apparently then made her a dinosaur; she wasn’t even old, but old and washed up enough for those times—she couldn’t possibly risk taking a chance on somebody. She couldn’t possibly align herself with another woman, because another woman wouldn’t be taken seriously. The thing with what Jessica brings to Joan is a tremendous vulnerability. It’s so specific that when Joan is explaining why she can’t do it, you get it. You get it. Pauline couldn’t get mad at her. She was upset at what she was hearing, what she was learning, and what the implications made for her, but she couldn’t be mad at Joan. She understands what it’s like to be a woman in those times, and she knows a lot about the studio system and what Joan and Bette are facing. She couldn’t be mad at Joan for it. It sucks for her tremendously, and it was a dream crushed for her, but she had tremendous respect for Joan, as I do, for Joan and Jessica. Basically it was a dream come true, long story short.

AVC: Joan Crawford conjures images of Mommie Dearest. This presents her as a much more sympathetic character. Largely, what was your take on that as a fan of hers?


AW: Well, I don’t think Jessica Lange can help but do anything and show us the vulnerability of a character she’s playing. I think that’s something inherent to her ability. I think she showed us a much more human Joan Crawford than maybe even Joan Crawford could have ever shown us. But it gives you the luxury of being able to step back and say, “I believe that this is who this woman could have been, and that could have been how she actually felt inside.” Joan built a great barrier and wall around herself for protection. She had a shitty life. She had no education. She was abused from the get-go. She was scrubbing toilets as a kid, and look what she became, look what she did all on her own. She deserves hats off to her, the way that Ryan and all the writers wrote them as well. As the show goes on, you’ll see it’s just impossible not to feel for them no matter how evil they are to each other and how terrible and the things that they do to each other, which are just unbelievable. You still can have empathy for them. The last 15 years of both of their lives were so shitty, so much less than either of them deserved. They deserved so much more. To see what the studios and the system and what basically men, the men in control of all of their money, have done to them. It’s a really worthwhile story.

AVC: What is being part of this telling of history like? Is it important to you personally?


AW: Absolutely, because I would hope it would change a few people’s minds about how they treat other people, and what other people are actually going through and things that seem all shiny and pretty on the outside, how actually difficult they are on the inside and how much work they take. I would hope that ultimately it would give people empathy to certain people or two, a cross-section of society that they would have never had empathy for before. Ideally, about being able to understand another person’s life. That’s the point of what we’re doing. So hopefully it would do that.

AVC: That last scene in episode four is so tragic, in a sense, because Mamacita is presenting this ideal version of the world that you would have hoped would have happened. Obviously, we know that’s not the case. What was it like playing the dramatic irony in that scene?


AW: Well, you can’t do that. You can only play the specificity of the person in the situation that they’re in, in the time that they are in. I can’t control the overall arc of that. That would happen in the editing room or somewhere else down the line. An actor can’t do that. The fact that we feel it, of course, of course—we feel the irony and the horror of what we’re seeing. But again, that’s what art and storytelling is for.

AVC: Was there a specific voice that you were emulating for Pauline? A specific star you looked to to get the tonality right?


AW: Like I said, I was watching a lot of films at the time. I was watching The Women a lot, the 1939 version. Eve Arden is somebody that Ryan had mentioned to me. I know her primarily from Grease, is where it began, which made me think of Joan Blondell, which made me think of one of my very favorite films, Desk Set with Joan Blondell and Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. I decided just to live in that world and do that. And it’s not something that anyone else was doing at all or anything that I was guided to. It was just somewhere that I decided I would like to tip my hat and honor those people and have Pauline’s voice live in that time. It’s just something that I picked up from these wise-cracking funny ladies of that time like Eve Arden.

AVC: Do you work with a dialogue coach?

AW: Never. Maybe one day I’ll be able to afford one, but thus far I do it all on my own.

AVC: How does the world of the show color your performance? The costumes, the period details, being on the Fox lot. Is it funny shooting on soundstages of soundstages?


AW: It lent itself so perfectly to my character’s experience that she’s supposed to be having at the time. And also it just happened to be a real kick for Alison, too. So it was a win-win. But I had to drive Jessica Lange around on a golf cart, multiple times, as Joan Crawford on camera. I’ve never ridden around in a golf cart before. We don’t have those in Brooklyn, believe it or not. So driving around in one of those on the Fox lot was trippy enough. And I was like, “Oh, my god, I love this. This is amazing.” And then they were like, “Oh, you get to drive Joan Crawford in all of these scenes.” I was like, “Hang on. Not so amazing. Hang on.” It was really a weird crossover.

AVC: How did the driving go?

AW: Oh, my god, I didn’t breathe. If you ever see my driving on screen, I wasn’t breathing at all. It has been historically raining in L.A. the past few months while we were there, and every time that they have me bloody drive, we were driving on some grass that had been rained on for 12 hours, so it was all muddy and bumpy. Every time Jessica was like, “Oh,” I was mortified. And I expected I was going to get fired, and the last thing I want to do is go over a bump and eject Jessica Lange on it. My head will roll, and that will be the end of my career. I was so mortified and stressed doing it, and Susan [Sarandon] would laugh at me. One time I came around the corner, and we were chatting and improvising and laughing, and Susan was like, “You’re doing so good. You’re laughing. You don’t even care. It’s great.” It was that one time. I was terrified inside. I was crying inside, shitting my pants inside.


AVC: What was it like building your relationship with Alfred Molina? That’s such a key part of your character.

AW: Well, Bob’s a Brit, and so am I. So it took about point four seconds for us to become familiar and just start pretending like we were characters from a Mike Leigh film and entertaining each other with impressions of people from soap operas, from Coronation Street and EastEnders and stuff. It took no time for us to bond, and Fred was lovely enough to let me live in his guest house for a little while. Filming was never ending. We couldn’t leave L.A. forever. At a certain point I was like, ”Okay, this is weird. Am I only ever going to work with male guys opposite me from Great Britain as Americans?” There’s Matthew [Rhys] from Wales and Fred. But I’ll take that any day of the week. Fred Molina is a gift to any set.


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