In Glass, in theaters now, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan brings together characters from 2000's Unbreakable and 2016's Split, which was revealed in its final moments — though it seemed at first to standalone — to be a sequel to the former. The new movie introduces one prominent, brand new player to the universe. Sarah Paulson plays Dr. Ellie Staple in Glass, and though the actor signed on to the movie before she even saw a script, she also felt the pressure of joining a trilogy already in progress.
"Every time you walk on a film set, it’s like the first day of school," Paulson says, sipping tea at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York City. "Like in fifth grade. So, it’s always a little bit awful and then you very quickly you find your people, and just like school, it ends up being just fine. But this was, like, triple-fold."
The People v. OJ Simpson star took home the Golden Globe, Emmy, and SAG Award for her performance as Marcia Clark, and she's American Horror Story royalty. But when it comes to Shyamalan movies, Paulson is also just a fan — a fan who's walking onto a set where most people already know each other, including the crew, who she says "basically have been with [Shyamalan] for every single movie he's made."
Paulson's character is also an outsider — a psychologist who specializes in treating people who have the delusion that they are superheroes. It's her who puts the three possibly super-human men from the two previous movies in the same room together, for the first time. The scene where Dr. Staple hosts a tense group therapy session with David Dunn (Bruce Willis), Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), and Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) proved to be particularly surreal for Paulson.
"What I’m looking at are three extraordinary actors that on any day would be nerve-racking enough for an actor to be working opposite," she says of her costars. "But then you add to it the iconic characters that they’re playing." Having "immersed" herself in their stories as a fan of those previous movies, the actor says she had to do an "interesting internal dance" to embody someone who's "in a position of power and authority" over them.
Paulson recalls Shyamalan explaining Dr. Staple to her as someone who is "very, very, very good at her job," in all its specificity and theoretical danger. So appearing to be intimidated by the Overseer, Mr. Glass, and the Horde was not an option. The doctor is, however, genuinely sympathetic to their circumstances. "It is not just cut and dry, it’s not just clinical," the actor says. "She does believe she can provide them with a better way of thinking that would benefit them first and foremost, and ultimately be better for the world."
In her position, Staple gets to deliver some of the movie's meta cracks about the rise of superhero and comics culture in the mainstream. Unbreakable begins with a title card explaining that there are people who collect comic books, a prologue that seems hilariously extraneous 19 years later, but which speaks to how much the influence of that art form has grown, and how fan culture has expanded to include other genres and formats. Some of the biggest laughs in the screening I attended were prompted by Paulson's line about how comic-cons now exist to sell teen TV shows. Because we're rooting for the villains and heroes, it reads as Shyamalan's jab to critics who find superhero movies to be too prevalent, or comic-con attendees stunted or sheep-like. A genre fan and now icon herself, Paulson isn't going to rain on anybody's parade.
"I think it’s an extraordinary thing to have people be wholly committed to something that they love," Paulson says, comparing that passion to her childhood love of Kirk Cameron and Alyssa Milano. "I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. I don’t think it’s destroying the film community. I don’t think it’s ruining anyone’s attempt at artistry." In fact, the actor finds comic-con culture to be indicative of how hungry fans are for stories that move them. "All you want to do in life is do work that’s going to affect someone in a positive way, and to me that’s just a huge reflection that something people are doing is landing somewhere," she adds. "I'm all for it."
At the far opposite end of that spectrum, her performance as Dr. Staple is so effective and convincing that you may find yourself questioning what you saw in Unbreakable and Split, and whether Mr. Glass was really right about heroes living amongst humans in Shyamalan's vision of the world. As is the case with all the filmmaker's movies, there are surprises in store. Paulson recalls hearing stories that she'd receive scripts with pages redacted or containing multiple false endings, but that wasn't the case in practice. She knew everything up front, as did the rest of the main cast.
"Because I was such a fan and because I was getting so excited to do it, I mean, the last thing I would ever do in the world would be make it known to anybody what the ending was, and I think everyone working on the movie felt that way and feels very protective of Night," she says. Anchoring many seasons of American Horror Story has made Paulson extremely confident in her own secret-keeping abilities, though, she does add with a smile that she "[longs] for the day" when she doesn't have to be quite so tight-lipped about something she's working on.