She’s the one Feud: Bette and Joan character who’s largely fictitious – but what she represents is truthful today as it was in the 1960s.
Pauline Jameson – the capable assistant to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? director Robert Aldrich who harbors ambitions to become a screenwriter and filmmaker herself – is not to be confused with a British actress whose career was in full flourish around the same time as the series was set: they share only a name.
But as actress Alison Wright (The Americans, Sneaky Pete) reveals to Mashable, the character — a composite of many smart, creative women working in Hollywood at the time — represents an untold number of ladies hoping to shatter its many glass ceilings. Pauline herself may not be real, but the creative struggles depicted in her story were – and in many ways still are – as genuine as it gets.
Aside from what was on the page for you with this character, what did you need to know about her – about women in similar positions as her, from that time period – to wrap your head around what you wanted to do with your performance?
Wright: I had the good fortunate of Pauline being a composite character. Obviously, Ryan had a couple of guiding lines that he wanted her to be: “book smart and cool as a cucumber” was the character description. And that he wanted her to have a little feel of Eve Arden, and the ladies of that era and that sort of quirky personality.
So what I did was I started researching Bob Aldrich. We came up with the idea that Pauline had worked with Bob for quite a few years, and that she had worked on the previous project that he had done with Joan Crawford, Autumn Leaves. I came across a really great quote that Bob mentioned, a story that he was interested in telling, and the kind of characters that he was drawn to were characters that prevailed: characters that were struggling against the odds for their self-determination, for what they wanted their life to be. But no matter what the prevailing odds were, they didn’t really concern themselves with those odds or focus on them, they just fought through and fought against them.
I thought that was a really great personality trait that would make sense for me to build Pauline around that. I obviously watched all of Joan and Bette’s films, the ones that I hadn’t seen yet. I read a couple of books about Bob Aldrich. I watched a ton of movies from a little bit earlier than that time, movies from more like the '40s and '50s, just because that’s a time period that I really like, and something that I could take the opportunity to tip my hat to in my creation of Pauline, since I did have a little leeway.
That was probably where I started from and what my basis was for it. In terms of being a woman, I know how that goes.
Once you solidified your vision for her, what did she begin to mean to you as an individual character, and as a function in this bigger story that’s being told?
I like the idea that it’s 1952 and she was somebody that had a broader scope for the picture of what she wanted her life to be than just being a mother and a wife. I like that she’d somehow gotten the gumption in that time period to have those aspirations and dreams, and not really be bogged down with the difficulty of achieving them or how impossible it might seem or how the odds were all stacked against her. That is just what she wanted to do, and that she was going to try and do it.
She’s not in the victim corner, but she was quite proactive and had her head screwed on and sensible, and not living in a dream world. I think it’s very valuable for women to see characters like that on the screen reflected back at them. So I was very proud of that.
Image: Suzanne Tenner/FX
Of course, the election actually happened right in the middle of shooting episode 4. Literally, the day before the election happened was the time I was shooting a scene with Fred Molina as Bob Aldrich, and I was asking him, Would he read it? Would he read my script? Would he even consider producing it? He said that he would, and kind of laughed and joked a little bit at me. He said, “Why are you so surprised that I’m going to help you?” She’s very able and competent. I had some sort of line like, “Well, some men just don’t like the idea of a woman in charge.”
There was a certain sense of irony in the place in the storytelling, and the time in history that this was set, that I imagined once this was shot and people were watching it, that there would be a little bit of a tongue-in-cheek look back to how things were for women 50, 60 years ago.
Then of course, it turns out that it’s resonating on a much deeper level, because things are really just exactly the same and really haven’t changed that much. So it is very timely and important and had something to say. It’s great as an artist when you get to be part of something that’s more than entertainment.
Is was poignant to see these female characters from all different levels of Hollywood, from Mamacita to Pauline on up to a star of Joan Crawford’s caliber, having to conspire together to achieve their dreams and ambitions. Has it changed significantly in your experience in Hollywood? Or is there still sort of a sisterhood alliance that’s needed to push things forward?
I think it’s still needed, and I think we still need to cultivate it more and work on it more. I do think that given the current situation that we’re now in, women are empowering each other more, and trying to lift each other up more, because a divide and conquer will do just that. There’s not just room for one woman. There’s enough of the pie for everybody. Even for actresses.
When we get that through our head that we’re not all competing for this one top spot, there’s just not just one of these places, there is enough for everybody. Then if we can understand that more, and band together, and lift each other up to support each other more, everybody wins.
I think it’s something that feels like it’s a movement that’s happening now, in no small part thanks to the person that is the president now. I feel like we’ve had this great unity amongst women at the moment, in every walk of life. I hope it continues. We need more of it. We need more women to try and shake things up and make room for other women.
We’re discriminated against as women for so many different things, in just the casual sexism and misogyny that we accept. Things like “Throwing like a girl,” all these expressions that we have. If we could all just take a second to actually point a finger at those things, and hold the mirror up, maybe they will change. I feel like we’re really at a moment in my lifetime where that stuff is very tangible, and hopefully pushing forward in changing things… I’m sure they said the same thing 40 years ago.
You clearly leaned into your research. What were the great takeaways of studying all those classic era films?
There’s no negative takeaway at all. It’s fabulous entertainment. I don’t know how many times I watched The Women, the original one – the excellent one, not the dreadful remake. The one from 1939, I watched that over and over, just to get an idea. Even if it wasn’t for Pauline, just the kind of women that Pauline would have to have been used to being around. It’s very specific that she could hold her own against anybody, but she wasn’t a wallflower. She’s got her own wit, and cheekiness about her.
I read a lot of their biographies too, I saw all of their interviews. I tried to read anything about any women that worked in the studio system and what it was like to have to shuttle between departments to try and work your way up. I read about what life was like in Hollywood in the '20s, '30s and '40s.
Pauline obviously came from somewhere else. She’s not from Hollywood. And obviously I’m foreigner, and I live in England. I got to read all about the development of California and Los Angeles, and the business itself as well. There’s no downside to any of that. That’s part of being an actor: the random pockets of knowledge that you get from all the stuff.
It came in really handy when I’m doing it, because one day I was with Sarah Paulson and shooting her scene when she’s Geraldine Page. She has a phone call with Joan… Jessica couldn’t be there – she was away, so they asked me to step in and be Joan Crawford off camera for Sarah Paulson. So I got to do that, and luckily I’ve been watching Joan’s movies nonstop. So I got to have fun, and sit on a toilet around the corner in the dark and do my best Joan Crawford impression to the bathroom walls all day long. So that was a really awesome moment too. I’d like to think I was pretty good, but who knows?
Since Pauline is a composite character, if you could write her ending, what would you love to see happen for her in her ambitious Hollywood career?
As luck would have it, I by no means claim that I got to decide on anything about her, but since she was a composite character, there was a little discussion about what her story may end up being. Tim Minear had a few options, and we talked through them. We had the luxury of deciding what was going to be the most exciting for the end of her storyline.
I had my input, and they took it on board. They chose the ending that I wanted the most, I’m sure because they wanted it the most too. But I did happen to have a little luxury to actually do that in this case, which is wild. So of course I want to be a great example for women, and of course wanted her to succeed, and not fail, and not be beaten.
Feud airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on FX.