Paulson at Center Stage
Sarah Paulson went from character actress to leading lady.
The day Sarah Paulson calls for this interview she has just been nominated for two Emmy awards. The first is for her role as Siamese twins Bette and Dot Tattler in the TV drama American Horror Story: Freak Show and the second is for attorney Marcia Clark in the miniseries The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. (Oh, and she played them at the same time.) If there is one phrase that sums up Paulson at the moment, it is this one: a brilliant character actress who has gone from chorus girl to leading lady at the top of her game.
If there is anything Paulson is not, it’s typecast. Known for her diverse character roster—and playing each to much critical acclaim—Paulson has played everything from the relentless wife of a slave master (12 Years a Slave) to celebrated photographer Bunny Yeager (The Notorious Bettie Page). Not to mention every offbeat character she has portrayed in the Horror Story series, which she has been a part of since its first season in 2011. Her ability, and desire, to jump into new skins could be credited to the fact that as a child, she moved around constantly and therefore had to adapt to new surroundings quickly.
“It made it possible to be incredibly malleable in unfamiliar situations,” she says of her upbringing. “The saying ‘The wound is the gift’ has become a useful tool. At the end of a day [of taping], I say I’m going home—and that can be anything… as long as there’s a nice bed to sleep in.” Her childhood has also given her a great imagination, she says, as she often found herself alone.
“My mom had a boyfriend, and I had a day off from school,” she recalls. “He woke up late and didn’t realize I had been playing bells in the closet all day. You have to have a big imagination to play by yourself. [Entertaining myself] was never an issue.”
Don’t mistake Paulson’s versatility for an inability to commit, though. Quite the contrary, she completely immerses herself into a role, sometimes down to the smell. For her portrayal of Clark, in addition to relentless research and consulting Clark herself, Paulson insisted on wearing the attorney’s choice of perfume, Lancôme’s Magie Noire. She realized just how much she had come to embody her character during a memorable scene in which Clark reveals a new haircut—one that was ridiculed by not only her peers but by the media and strangers worldwide—in the courtroom.
“I knew at the end of the scene there would be emotion,” she recalls. “It was clear she was going to be humiliated. [Director] Ryan [Murphy] told me, ‘Remember, you think you look good.’” So she tried to not prepare for what hadn’t happened yet, and when it did—when Judge Lance Ito tells Clark she looks ridiculous, when they all start to laugh, Paulson says members of the crew noticed her skin change color. “I remember feeling of my blood rising. I felt the heat rising into my eyeballs and tears came out. I could never have prepared for that.”
The one other time she remembers that level of emotion happening is when she performed opposite Jessica Lange in a stage production of The Glass Menagerie. Lange played mother Amanda to daughter Laura, played by Paulson. “Amanda comes home and she’s yelling at Laura, who starts shaking,” she says of a scene they’d done over and over again. “Jessica picked up the glass ornament and says—and I’m going to butcher the line here—‘All you care about is this glass menagerie!’, and the glass breaks, and I burst into tears in a way I could not do again if I tried. It was a beautiful moment, one I was deep enough into that I felt it had really happened.” Paulson was 18.
It was one of Paulson’s first roles after graduating from Manhattan’s famed High School of Performing Arts. Then she didn’t work for a year.
“It was like a big cold glass of water thrown in my face,” she told actress Julianne Moore in Interview. “I would go on auditions, but I just wasn’t getting anything. And then I got a phone call out of nowhere to do a Hallmark movie with Jack Lemmon… It was my first time working with someone who I had admired so much, and he was so kind to me. One of the last things he said to me was, ‘Don’t ever forget how good you are, and don’t ever let anyone tell you different.’”
Lemmon certainly wasn’t the last person to praise her talent. “Working with Sarah Paulson has been the highlight of my career thus far,” Sterling K. Brown, who played attorney Christopher Darden in People vs. O.J., told E! News. In an interview with The New York Times, Ryan Murphy—who has directed her in both Horror Story and People vs. O.J.—described her as having “a real faculty for being somebody else. If I said, ‘Sarah, next year you’re going to play Pope Francis,’ she’d say, “OK!’”
It’s that level of dedication to completely becoming a character that not only left audiences in awe of her performance as Clark, but also led her to decide not to watch herself when the series came out.
“I’m not expecting all this to be ripped away from me anymore—I always had a secret fear that would happen,” she says. “I’ve worked long enough that I feel I can relax and not watch my work and pick it apart. I felt very connected to [playing Marcia]. There was such a positive reaction to my work that I thought, ‘I’m going to try to enjoy this. For once, let it be what everyone is telling you it is.’ I was so proud and thrilled and personally affected, and on top of it all, a reaction that was so positive. I was 40 and I’d never had that. It was lightening in a bottle.”
Somehow we think that won’t be the last time lightening strikes.
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