His appearance in the film, playing a character who constantly defies expectations, still provides plenty of pop. You could say “Rust Creek” reinvents itself the moment Paulson appears.
Hermione Corfield stars as Sawyer, a woman stalked by rural strangers en route to a job interview. Along the way she meets Lowell (Paulson), a mystery figure who could save her, or make her wish she never crossed his path.
So Hollywood in Toto reached out to the veteran actor to learn more about why he joined the film’s crew, his historical detour and working with George Clooney on a huge new Hulu series
HiT: “Rust Creek” feels like a standard genre film at first blush but quickly upends our expectations. Did that jump out at you, too, or were there other elements that attracted you to the project?
Jay Paulson: Initially, the script was the attraction. The characters were very well drawn. There was something inherently atypical in its typical-ness. So yes, I saw some familiar tropes; but then there would be a scene between real humans, it came alive for me. The fact that my next door neighbor was the director (not a joke) was unbelievable. I had hoped to work with her for some time before she approached me for this. It felt like an exciting opportunity from the start. Meant to be.
HiT: Lowell and Sawyer have a complex relationship in the film, and you help reveal some of her character’s flaws… can you share how you approached your scenes with co-star Hermione Corfield?
Paulson: Hermione was so natural and fluid. And she had a grace that I really tried to let in. It made me feel very tender toward her. I wanted to help get her out of this situation. At the same time, she clearly had a strength, a reserve. It made for a good push/pull. Often, I would simply explore “how did we end up here?”
HiT: It’s easy to look at “Rust Creek” and say it’s a film attacking very small town USA -- the film’s two key villains are types that are familiar to movie fans. But several characters, including yours, defy that thinking. Was that something that was discussed on the set, the notion of giving a more nuanced look at rural America?
Paulson: I don’t recall a specific discussion along the lines of doing right by rural America. But I do think rural America gets a bad wrap. Cities get a bad wrap, too. Both have their services and disservices. Good people are everywhere. Bad people are everywhere, too. Maybe the movie reflects that?
HiT: You began acting at an early age, but later went to college to earn a degree in History. Was that a purely educational decision, or have you found those studies helped your craft in some fashion?
Paulson: I started acting in high school. My parents were adamant that I pursue a degree. Education meant a lot to them. But they didn’t care if it was a theater degree! I began my studies at UCLA in the school of theater, film and television. But it wasn’t the right fit. I loved writing and transferred to the college of letters and sciences initially to study English and creative writing.
Ended up in history because I found the English program to be too rigid. In hindsight, I wasn’t ready for any of it.
I wish I could do college again (I’d do philosophy and poetry). I am still fascinated by history and I think it does help my acting in that it fostered a love of reading in me. In reading I can explore what it means to others, and me, to be human. And that’s what I want to explore with acting as well.
Since graduating, I’ve had the chance to study acting with incredible teachers and realize how important it is to train in this regard. There’s so much to learn and unlearn.
HiT: How has the rise of streaming television and the new golden age of TV impacted your career? Are there more quality roles available now … or is the competition still as fierce as in the past?
Paulson: Everybody talks about the amount of content and outlets today. I’m glad more people are working. But it still feels very competitive out there. TV has turned out to be the best place for telling certain stories certain ways. And I’ve been very fortunate to have been involved in amazing programs that wouldn’t have existed maybe five years ago. So it would be uncouth to say these changes haven’t benefited me.
That said, I recently read there were almost 500 scripted shows produced last year. I’m not on one of them. So if you’re reading this and you have a show, I’m available.
HiT: One of your upcoming projects is “Catch 22” — is there anything you can share about your part or George Clooney’s approach to the material?
Paulson: In “Catch-22” I play Chaplain Tappman. It was an incredible experience to be a part of the project. I’m a book guy, so to get to bring a book to life is an extra special thrill. What amazed me about George was his ethic. It was clear from day one that the project meant very much to him. He was acting and directing and producing and all kinds of hats worn with aplomb.