From a pair of conjoined twins in American Horror Story: Freak Show to her award-winning portrayal of real-life prosecutor Marcia Clark in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Sarah Paulson’s character roles have been so diametrically diverse, it’s hard to pinpoint similarities they all share.
“I try to look for the things that are immediately communicative to me of real human behaviour,” explains Paulson by phone from Albuquerque, New Mexico. The actor is currently on location filming her next major project, a John Crowley–directed adaptation of Donna Tartt’s globally acclaimed bestselling novel The Goldfinch (2013). “I’m not always so interested in playing someone who is a hero on paper, or who is evil just to be evil. I want to know that the character is motivated by things that I recognize, things that actually go on in the psyche, spiritually and soulfully—all things that people struggle with and think about.”
This summer, Paulson’s acting talents will hit the big screen in one of 2018’s most anticipated blockbusters, the female-led Ocean’s Eleven reboot, Ocean’s 8. The Gary Ross–directed spinoff of the heist trilogy also stars the likes of Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, and rapper-comedian Awkwafina. The film’s plot sees the infamous Danny Ocean’s estranged sister, Debbie (played by Sandra Bullock), enlist a star-studded crew of larcenists to help her pull an impossible fast one on fashion’s biggest night of the year, New York City’s annual Met Gala.
“They did a really wonderful job of giving every character not only a specific skill set that makes them an asset to Debbie Ocean’s team to pull off this heist, but they all have very distinct personalities,” says Paulson. “The thing that separates me from the other women is that I’m the only one in the movie who’s a mother. I have a few small children, and so pulling this job takes me away from them,” she continues about her character, Tammy who’s a stay-at-home mom. “We don’t really learn about what [the other characters’] responsibilities are outside of the job they’re doing as directly as we do with Tammy so that was an extra thing from my storyline that was really fun to play.”
When asked how much the abundance of leading roles for women was a draw for her to join the A-list cast: “I wish I could say that that was the initial impulse I had,” she says. Instead, it was a text from her good friend, actor and screenwriter Danny Strong (who also happens to be very good friends with Ocean’s 8 director Gary Ross), that opened the door to that incredible career milestone for Paulson.
“I woke up to a text message from Danny saying ‘Gary Ross wants your number.’ I was like ‘What is it about?’ And he’s like, ‘I don’t know; probably a big movie called Ocean’s 8,’” recalls Paulson. “So, he gave Gary my number and we spoke on the phone, and he sent me the script. It wasn’t something where I sat there and mulled it over. I was the last girl cast.”
That type of director-actor exchange was a true pinch-me moment for Paulson. “I’m new to this world of people calling me and asking if big directors can have my cell phone number and offering me parts in big, exciting popcorn movies with some of the most extraordinary performers and actors in the world,” she says. “The reason to do [the film] was to be a part of something with such incredible talent, and the fact that it was all women was just a humongous bonus.”
Seeing herself on the big screen in a mega-blockbuster is also something she’s getting used to. “I’ve watched [the trailer] a couple of times myself, and I’d be like, ‘That’s me! I can’t believe that I’m in this cool movie!’ It’s so crazy,” she says with a laugh.
A seasoned actor—the 43-year-old first debuted on the small screen back in 1994 in a guest spot on NBC’s Law & Order—Paulson’s profile has been on a steady rise in recent years thanks to a well-earned string of celebrated performances.
“The first thing that shifted awareness and perception and everything for me was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” says Paulson about her role as Harriet Hayes, a devout Christian comedian, on 2006’s short-lived but critically admired NBC TV series by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. “It was my first Golden Globe nomination, and the first time I had a lot of screen time on something. The next season I was offered a pilot without having to audition, and that sort of grew things in one direction,” she shares.
Then there came noteworthy film projects like her Golden Globe–and Emmy-nominated performance as Nicolle Wallace, a senior advisor and spokeswoman for John McCain (Ed Harris) and frustrated tutor of Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) in the HBO political drama Game Change (2012), as well as her inhabiting the wife of a psychotic, brutal slave owner (Michael Fassbender) in the Academy Award-winning 12 Years a Slave (2013). But it’s been her long-time creative partnership with television mastermind and uber-producer and director Ryan Murphy that’s brought Paulson the most praise.
Born in Tampa, Florida, the actor has starred in every season of Murphy’s FX horror anthology American Horror Story, and never fails to blow audiences away with her versatility. The variety of boundary-pushing characters Paulson has portrayed in the television series alone is staggering—a true testament to her acting skills. There’s been the clever, 1960s-era lesbian journalist Lana Winters from AHS: Asylum (season two, 2012); a pair of conjoined twins, Bette and Dot Tattler, in AHS: Freak Show (season four, 2014)—also Paulson’s most challenging role on the series mentally, she shares—and ghost junkie Sally McKenna from AHS: Hotel (season five, 2015), to name a mere few.
“You have to be seen,” says Paulson. “The only way to have opportunity is to be seen by a person who can do something about what they’re seeing and put their money where their mouth is. Ryan was the first person who made me feel truly seen as a performer. And because of what he believed I was capable of, I started to think that I was capable of it too,” she continues. “I’m just so grateful to him because it’s not like people were beating down my door prior to him deciding that I was going to be his partner, in a way.”
Their director-actor relationship has led to Paulson being described as Murphy’s reigning leading lady and muse, but for the American Horror Story veteran, “It’s much deeper than that,” she says. “There’s such a true, real love friendship. There’s a platonic love story between Ryan and myself that’s over a decade old, and with that comes an enormous amount of trust and history where you feel the most free. It’s not a traditional work environment with us. It’s a very unique, eccentric way of doing things.”
The unconventionality Paulson mentions pushes her to take risks. Describing their conversations together, she shares that Murphy will call her up and say, “I have this idea and here is why I think it could work. You can think about it if you want, but you should do it.” Paulson’s response is often “that’s terrifying,” with Murphy quickly firing back with “Good—all of the more reason you should do it.”
“He has a fearlessness that is infectious, and it inspires the same kind of thing for me as a performer,” says the actor, who has a knack for disappearing completely into whatever character Murphy throws her way with intensity.
In 2017, Paulson’s bravura performance as the earnest prosecutor Marcia Clark in Murphy’s 10-episode true crime anthology The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story (2016) won the star her first-ever Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress, as well as a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress. Those two landmark accolades capped off a winning streak for Paulson, who also brought home a Critics’ Choice Television Award, TCA Award, and Screen Actors Guild Award for her scene-stealing portrayal.
“That was something I never could have imagined in my wildest dreams. Winning those awards was an extraordinary moment in my work life, for sure,” says Paulson about her Emmy and Golden Globe take-home.
In conjunction with the unbelievable excitement that year, Paulson was also left wondering if that was it for her—if she’ll “ever get a chance to do anything else great again,” she says. “It’s hard mentally to not associate winning an award as telling you that [a performance] was good. And that if you don’t win an award, that maybe it wasn’t good. You get wrapped up in this way of thinking.”
Paulson has personally realized, though, that good work is good work, whether somebody hands you a statue or not. “Winning an award does not mean that the other work you’ve done [in the past], or the other work that other people nominated with you did, wasn’t also worthy,” states Paulson. “The truth of the matter is, at the end of the day, whether I had won for playing Marcia Clark or not, in the literal sense, I had already won by getting to play her at all. That experience of having done the work and playing the part—whatever the part is—is something that no one can take away for me. That has to be the win.”
For those not in the know of the book-to-movie adaptation of The Goldfinch (which is set to be released in the fall of 2019), the Pulitzer-winning novel tells the story of a young man named Theodore Decker (being played by Ansel Elgort) who survives a terrorist bombing at an art museum, which kills his mother and leads him to move to Las Vegas with his deadbeat father (Luke Wilson). Paulson is playing the girlfriend of Theo’s father, Xandra, a woman who seems to like drinking and drugs more than filling a maternal role.
“I remember sitting in my bed reading the book when it first came out, and I thought, ‘If they ever make a movie of this, I would just die to play Xandra,’” reveals Paulson. “She does despicable things and she’s complicated and she’s selfish—which are utterly human things. She doesn’t rise to the occasion to be her best self very often, but sometimes people aren’t capable of doing that.”
But when Paulson wrote to her agent about her must-play-the-role-of-Xandra interest, she got word back that the director couldn’t really see the fit. Paulson was, however, still invited to come in and read for the part.
“I had to really fight for this one,” says Paulson. “I had a wig on, I got a spray tan, I wore an outfit I wouldn’t be caught dead in in a million years, and I brought cigarettes into my audition room and made a tape,” she shares.
That wholehearted attempt sure paid off, as Paulson’s audition soon found the actor in steady conversations with the film’s director, who eventually offered her the part. “It was one of those things where I wanted it—it wasn’t going to be handed to me—and the only way I was going to get it was to prove myself.”
Photography by Doug Inglish