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TELEVISION Actors talk about tackling 'Ratched' roles, working with Ryan Murphy
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times
2020-09-16

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It takes the winning combination of gay producer Ryan Murphy and lesbian actress Sarah Paulson to bring the fictional story of Ratched to life in unexpected ways. The new drama series on Netflix already has a built-in fan base, thanks to nurse Mildred Ratched from the unforgettable novel and film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Nurse Ratched is known for being a cold, complicated and controlling character in past portrayals. Ratched takes these traits to a whole new level and begins streaming on Netflix on Friday, Sept. 18.

Creator Evan Romansky returns Ratched back to her roots as a young nurse working in a psychiatric hospital in 1947. Jon Jon Briones portrays Dr. Richard Hanover, who runs the mental institution along with sidekick nurse Betsy Bucket, played by Judy Davis.

For queer audiences there is plenty to chew on over the course of season one. There are conversion therapy horrors to be seen and several patients wrestling with their sexuality during a very closeted time period in America.

Out cast member Cynthia Nixon displays many different dimensions to her character, Gwendolyn Briggs, on the series. Nixon spoke about Briggs on a Zoom call with Windy City Times and other reporters before Ratched's debut. Nixon said of Briggs, "She is very different from the people I am usually asked to play. Gwendolyn is so wholehearted and pure. She's up against the odds. She's a queer woman in 1947 and trying to make a life for herself in politics. She moves ahead without fear and wants Mildred to walk in the light."

When asked about the LGBT storylines, Nixon stated, "One of the overarching themes of Ratched is, not only the brutal treatment of people who were deemed ill, but what fell under the umbrella of mental illness. Being queer was front and center. We have so many examples of it in the story. One of the saddest parts of the show is played by Jon Jon's real son, who is forced to undergo a lobotomy because he could possibly be gay."

Paulson added, "There are many elements to this story that are queer-centric, but for Mildred there's a consequence of discovering that part of herself. It is not a story about a woman who is struggling with that identity. It is a story about a woman that wants to absolve herself from the guilt of abandoning the most important person in her life at a very young age.

"The only place where happiness lives is in her relationship with Gwendolyn. I love that element of this story. Within this show is the queer component of love. It is the first time that Mildred can feel seen and explore these parts of her. You see that all the confidence she has just goes away when she is with Mildred. She doesn't know how to access that part of herself. There is a great joy in playing that as a member of the LGBT community."

Some may call Ratched a comeback vehicle for actress Sharon Stone, although her pet monkey almost steals the show. She said that she has admired the women Ryan Murphy had worked with in the past, such as Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates, influencing her to accept the part of the quirky Lenore Osgood, "There were so many vague areas about my character and we got to explore why she is the person she is. What is her backstory and how did she get here? I had a monkey on my back both literally and metaphorically!"

British actress Sophie Okonedo plays the unbalanced woman Charlotte Wells. She confessed on the conference call when asked about preparing for her part, "I didn't do much research on mental illness, everything was in the script. I played each personality as a separate character. I didn't worry about Charlotte being underneath."

Many may recognize actor Finn Wittrock as Edmund Tolleson after he played several roles in the American Horror Story series and the Murphy film The Normal Heart. He explained on the phone that episode two with Briones was his most challenging scene to play: "I approached my character as someone who had never grown up. He was traumatized by the violence inflicted on him during his childhood. I never thought of him as a sociopath. He has a moral compass—but a warped one."

Briones explained that even though he had previously appeared in two series helmed by Murphy, The Assassination of Giani Versace: American Crime Story and American Horror Story: Apocalypse, he had never worked directly with Murphy in the past. He admitted he was at first intimidated by Murphy, describing the producer as someone who is sometimes hard to gage if he's joking or serious, "The first time he looked at me, I was in my costume and wig for approval. He has a genius and a vision for his whole world of storytelling, which is exciting."

Wittrock concurred, saying, "I feel Ryan was even more meticulous this time. He was into the nuances of how it looked and felt. He was hands on in that way. He is generally fun on the set, although there are some people that cower in fear of him. Even when it is a sad, crazy and bloody scene, he brings a party atmosphere to it."

Paulson agreed that this time working with Murphy was different from past projects, "I had never played a titular character before or been an executive producer before. This was possible now because of him. That was why I was terrified to do it. I didn't have a ton of experience. He told me to step into my power, which made me want to take a hot shower and run screaming into the street! I wasn't sure if I was capable or ready. It was a myriad of things to contend with, but he has always been my greatest champion. There are challenges, but any relationship will have those. He gave me some power, but not all of it, which was healthy. If he had let me do what I want, that wouldn't have gone great for anybody!"

Paulson went on to say that as an executive producer she received the early edits first and Murphy would make adjustments afterward, "It was an interesting experience to think beyond my own narrow view of my performance and think about the show as a whole."

Nixon described working with Murphy as "mind-blowing." She remembered that Pose costumes were paraded out for approval when Murphy was on set and seeing storyboards for a new series. She recalled, "Ryan showed me a documentary he had been working on called A Secret Love about two women who were a couple for decades. You think that you know what Ryan Murphy does, then you see a new project that is not just a new chapter for him, but a whole other book!"

Stone told the group that Murphy took her out to lunch to offer her the role in Ratched, although she had some concerns, "I was excited, but you never know how big the cliff is that you are going to have to jump off of when Ryan Murphy offers you a part. I have seen his other shows, but I am not really used to working in television. I usually went to work with a director, a script and a plan. I go to work these days and don't have scripts or the same director. One day I am on episode six, then the next day on episode one with two different directors and not able to read the entire work."

Stone complimented Sarah Paulson as an executive producer: "In my generation, if I wanted to suggest something I would get a real talking to. My ideas would be shut down. When I started working, it was me and 300 men, even my dresser was a man. The experience of working on Ryan's show was very different. This time I had actresses and females in the crew. I had an opportunity to finally be in the company of fine, subtle, intimate, layered and tender women that were empowered. The men's roles even had a respect and emotional intelligence that was just a different thing than in the past."

Ratched is wound tight with unpredictable twists and turns while limiting the series to two seasons with a total of 18 episodes planned. Murphy directed the first and second episodes, setting the tone for the overall first season; he then relinquishes control for other directors to take over as the series progresses.

All the cast members on the conference call stated they are looking forward to getting back to work and completing season two. Roadblocks in the way of filming the followup season of Ratched include the hectic schedule of Ryan Murphy and the pandemic. Paulson said, "I believe I am working soon, just not on Ratched yet. I want us all to be together, including the crew. I love collaborating with all of these people that are just as invested as I am. I don't know how we can access that with shields, masks and gloves. We have a lot to consider."

Paulson told the group that she picked the project to explore the "porous parts" of Mildred Ratched, "In the original movie, she's calcified and there's a hardness. I remember thinking she was a villain and evil. When I rewatched One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest before shooting this series, I thought of her as a victim of a patriarchal infrastructure that is in this hospital. Possibly she didn't have a choice to access her heart in her work or bring her femininity to her job. Maybe she is not a villain, but had no recourse. If I were going to play it, she would have to be adhering to some rule that she believed was most right and limited to her era.

"I was interested in who the woman was in the movie that turns a key and goes into her house. Who is that woman at the door? There was no backstory and that is an enormous freedom. We can give context and depth to things that weren't there before. It was interesting to confront my prejudice of the character from the outset. I wanted to get in her head without being like, "She is so crazy!"


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