Alison Wright isn’t playing a person who actually existed in real life on FX’s 1960s drama Feud, unlike co-stars such as Susan Sarandon (playing Bette Davis) and Jessica Lange (Joan Crawford). But to anyone who’s familiar with Hollywood — or just the way business works in general — her character should still feel very familiar.
Wright plays Pauline, the savvy assistant to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? director Robert Aldrich (played by Alfred Molina), who knows exactly how to get what she needs from even the most difficult of Hollywood personalities. (A departure from her fantastic turn on The Americans as meek, hopeful secretary Martha.)
In Feud’s fourth episode (“More, or Less”), we discover something that maybe should’ve been obvious from the jump: Pauline has smarts and ambition well beyond the limits of her job. In fact, Pauline’s written a movie script in her precious little downtime, and she wants to direct it, an idea she presents to Joan’s assistant in the hopes that they can convince the legendary actress to star in the project.
The problem? Not only is Pauline a woman, she’s an inexperienced one as far as helming her own projects goes. Aldrich immediately agrees to help, but when Pauline pushes him at a particularly bad moment (i.e., Frank Sinatra throwing a tantrum on set), he goes back on his word in a fit of frustration. As for Joan, she tells Pauline — not unkindly, but firmly — that she can’t gamble her own waning career on “a nobody,” woman or not.
As a whole, Pauline’s story in this episode is a pretty neat encapsulation of the frustrating cycle that greets women trying to get experience in male-dominated fields — a cycle that, unfortunately, resonates far beyond the limits of Feud’s 1962 setting.
I caught up with Wright earlier this week to talk about the episode’s resonance, working with Ryan Murphy, and the surreality of shooting these scenes before and after the presidential election.
(And yes, I even got some — spoilery — clarity on The Americans’ Poor Martha.)
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Your character is the only regular on the show who’s more of a composite than a real person. How was the role of Pauline pitched to you in the first place? What made you want to play her?
Well, I got a phone call that Ryan Murphy wanted me to do it. That’s really the end of that answer. Whatever was coming after that, I was going to say yes.
He explained what he wanted her to be: whip-smart, and cool as a cucumber. Very confident and able to hold her own against Joan and Bette ... [Warner Bros. studio head] Jack Warner and Bob Aldrich, too.
I was able to jump in from there. I really did most of my research looking at Bob Aldrich. We decided that they had worked together for a while, and on Autumn Leaves, a film Bob had done a little earlier with Joan Crawford, so that there was an existing relationship. There had to be a familiarity and a confidence that I can only assume would take a little second if you were dealing with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. So she had to be able to be comfortable to not be entirely intimidated by them.
Ryan also said that he wanted Pauline to, you know, have some moxie! Which is right up my alley, I love nothing more than that. He mentioned Eve Arden, a sensibility like that. From there, I just got to dive in and create, and try to make her my own.
So what were your expectations going in, especially having been a fan of Murphy from before?
Oh, yes, I absolutely was a fan of everything he’s done. I was a fan from the beginning of Nip/Tuck. I love how he brings these strong actresses and strong characters together, makes these fabulous stories for them.
I was just very nervous, to be honest, because I didn’t audition for [the role]. He just had it in his head — I mean, the man has a lot of things in his head, but he had it in his head that I would be good for this role. So I was just nervous he’d realize he made a terrible mistake and send me back to New York. That was my main concern for quite a while.
You know, I’d only worked on The Americans before this, which we shoot on, like, a dirty canal in Brooklyn in relative obscurity. And then to walk on the Fox lot with Ryan Murphy and the massive machine of his productions was pretty intense. But it ended up working out.
How did you and Alfred Molina approach making it obvious from the beginning that Pauline and Bob have worked together for a really long time?
Well, we’re both great, you know, so it took about 40 seconds until we were just reminiscing and chatting about food and recipes, entertaining each other all day long. [Laughs.]
He’s like a dream. Every set should have Fred Molina, that’s a fact. He’s just a big kid, an absolute joy to work with. He really made that job extra special for me; he’s an absolute gent.
So in this episode, Pauline makes a play to be her own writer-director, and gets a couple upsetting reactions — but both are really interesting in their own way. One is from Joan, saying Pauline’s a nobody, and the other from Bob is him lashing out. What do you make of the difference between these responses? Is one more devastating to Pauline than the other?
I think she was pretty nervous and tense about asking Bob. I see Pauline as not that stressed or worried about the fact that all the odds are stacked against her. She’s just chasing her dream of what she wants to do. She’s not being a victim about it or worrying about the social situation at the time, that there are so few female directors and the likelihood of her being able to do this is slim to none. She’s not really concerning herself with the prevailing odds.
She’s just going for her dream — which was a very conscious personality trait that I chose based on things I read about the types of stories Bob Aldrich was interested in telling. So obviously then it makes sense that they’d be working together, that he’d respect her. They’d have a great working relationship, because she had these qualities that I already knew he admired and respected.
So she’s kind of going into it a little bit nervous, and is really surprised and relieved when Bob says of course he’ll help her. So that builds her up to be ultimately really knocked down by Joan.
But Joan’s argument ... you know, it’s solid. Pauline can’t be mad at what Joan says because she can see Joan’s struggle, Joan clawing to keep her head above water. Pauline’s logical. She’s in control of herself and her emotions. But it’s disappointing, devastating, and embarrassing — especially because she thought she’d succeed.
She’s chasing her dream. And Hollywood is full of people like that, who think they’re just a second away from what they think is going to happen, and ultimately it’s snatched away from them.
So while Joan’s struggling with one side of sexism — which is that she’s “aged out” of Hollywood — Pauline has to deal with the fact that she wants to be a woman director but can’t get a start because she’s not established already. A lot of what Feud is trying to do is point out that this sexism isn’t just “of its time.” Do you feel like Pauline’s particular problem is still relevant today?
One hundred percent. And I think Hillary Clinton would say the same thing as well.
I was going to say, I read in the New York Times that you shot this episode on either side of the election. That must’ve been bizarre.
It was bizarre. There’s the scene where Pauline asks Bob, “Would you read the script? Would you even consider producing it?” And he goes, “Yeah, of course I will, why are you acting so shocked?” And she says, “Well, some men don’t like the idea of a woman in charge.”
[We shot that] literally the day before the election. So there was a certain irony and tongue-in-cheek [attitude] while we were doing it, sort of, “Ha ha, look how far we’ve come, we’re going to have a woman in charge tomorrow!” And then, of course, the bottom fell out of that.
For the rest of the episode, it took the whole thing to a new, deeper level of relevance. The disappointment, and the realization that maybe this curtain we’d pulled over the sexism and misogyny in this country was taken back, it was so disappointing. It just added another layer to the reality and truth of this story Ryan was telling. Unfortunately.
I remember thinking when I was watching the episode that the Sinatra meltdown was such a great contrast, to show this man having a full-on tantrum on set versus how Bette and Joan’s rivalry got blown up in such an exaggerated way.
Yeah. Because men are allowed to do whatever they want, allowed to behave however they want. And it doesn’t matter. Whether it’s Sinatra [blowing up over] a belt, or another chip on their shoulder … you know, women can do nothing and some story is still made up about them being bitches, or having catfights, or how difficult they are, maybe just because they happened to be in a bad mood one day.
That’s something that still applies today, absolutely. I hear it on sets all the time, or when a female director comes in and there’s a conversation about how her personality is. That conversation doesn’t happen when it’s a male director.
Yeah, because it’s just assumed everyone will deal with it.
And I think that applies to the boardroom, and all business. For some reason, our personality, how we are, how we behave, is really on the judgment block.
[Herein lies a spoiler alert for us discussing season five of The Americans; if you are not caught up, proceed with caution.]
And finally, I have to ask this question, which I didn’t even realize I’d be able to ask about when I first scheduled this interview:
I wasn’t expecting to see Martha in last week’s episode of The Americans! When did you know you’d be back?
I don’t know if I’ve been asked that yet, I don’t know if I should answer it...!
I knew last year, in season four. A long time I’ve had to keep my mouth shut.
And you know, [executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields] always said she was alive. A lot of people didn’t believe them, but they were like, “We’re not going to kill her off offscreen, you guys. We’re not going to push her out [of] a plane without you knowing about it.”
But yeah, they told me they would like to have this happen even before we’d finished season four. So I’ve been very good.
Very good! I had no idea!
Yes, so praise me for that, I will take the praise! [Laughs.] Only my mom knew.
That must’ve been so hard, but it also must be pretty gratifying to see that a huge part of the reaction to that episode was about those 15 silent seconds.
It’s so great that people care. They’re invested! I mean, that’s tremendously gratifying. We’ve done something right if people care this much — and they do, they hound me all the time, every day. They want her to be okay. They have a tremendous amount of empathy for her.
That just makes me feel like we did a really good job with her character, from the creation to the production, fantastic writers, and lastly me on top … I feel really proud of what we’ve done with her and her storyline, and that so many people care.