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Two heads harder than one for Sarah Paulson on ‘American Horror Story’

By Patrick Ryan/Gannett News Service

There are many words to describe Sarah Paulson, not one of which is two-faced.

But the versatile actress is quite literally a doubleheader in “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” where she tackles the dual roles of Bette and Dot Tattler, a pair of conjoined sisters who are taken under the wing of freak-show ringleader Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) in 1950s Florida.

Paulson is on her fourth season of Ryan Murphy’s spine-tingling anthology series, following Emmy-nominated turns in its previous two installments, “Coven” and “Asylum.” While past seasons focused on witches and mental patients, “Freak Show” (returning with a new episode at 9 p.m. Wednesday on FX) puts a horror spin on a struggling sideshow, populated by a bearded lady (Kathy Bates), a three-breasted woman (Angela Bassett) and other oddities.

Paulson breaks down the head-spinning feat:

Panic mode: When Murphy approached her about playing two characters, “I was instantly excited, followed by total panic,” Paulson says. Initially, “I was thinking about the excitement of playing two people with distinct personalities who shared a body — just the acting challenge of that was very exciting to me. And then very quickly, I [asked] myself, ‘How the hell are we going to pull this off?’ ”

Sarah Paulson with the single noggin she usually carries. | Tonya Wise/Invision/AP

Sarah Paulson with the single noggin she usually carries. | Tonya Wise/Invision/AP

No pressure: Despite her immense trust in Murphy, Paulson’s nerves went into overdrive as they started shooting. She spent one day filming a first-episode scene with Lange before taking a week off to let the special-effects team figure out how to create realistic conjoined twins. “Our cinematographer, Michael Goi, said, ‘This whole [season] hinges on this working,’” Paulson says. “Everything was on the line, it was very nerve-wracking for all of us, but then we heard from everybody involved it was looking good.”

Split personality: Rather than shooting a slew of scenes as Bette before transitioning to Dot, Paulson must switch between roles on a shot-to-shot basis for the effects to appear seamless. “Basically, I would shoot a wide shot as Bette, then move to Dot, and then they would change the camera lens. I would shoot as Dot and then go back to Bette,” Paulson says. “That was very hard and made me feel like I was short-circuiting my brain, because I had to go back and forth between each girl and was unable to concentrate on one.”

Identity crisis: Because of this, it’s easy for Paulson to forget which sister she’s playing, “and oftentimes it’s the other actors who forget because there isn’t anything for them to look at,” she says. While sometimes they’ll shoot with a green foam head in place of the second sister, other times there is nothing for her fellow actors to work with but a voice reading lines off-camera. “They have to imagine where my eyes are and where the head is,” Paulson says. “It’s asking a lot of everyone, not just me.”

It takes two: Although they share the same body, the conjoined sisters couldn’t be any different. Playing Dot, “I try to keep my face as still as possible because she’s not as welcoming of other people in the world and doesn’t want to telegraph what she feels as much,” she says. But Bette’s face is more expressive and warm. “Bette just wants to hug everyone and be near everyone. She is much more open.”