Sarah Paulson Is Everywhere (Thank God): On ‘Carol,’ ‘American Horror Story,’ and ‘O.J. Simpson’

When an actress has a role in a lesbian romance, a literal Horror Show, and the upcoming dramatization of the O.J. Simpson trial, there’s a lot to talk about. Let’s get started.

11.22.15 5:00 AM ET

“It feels really good to be in something good,” Sarah Paulson says, sitting a few feet away from a poster for the movie Carol, which she has a supporting role in. “These things don’t always happen.”

The thing is, with the oh-so-humble Sarah Paulson, these things have been happening quite often lately.

She’s probably best known as one of the handful of cast members to have starred in every season of American Horror Story. In the current fifth iteration, Hotel, she plays Hypodermic Sally, a strung-out addict of everything from heroin to love to attention. No one has rocked streaked mascara and track marks like Sarah Paulson.

Sally might seem like a bit of a respite after Paulson pulled double duty in last year’s Freak Show season of Horror Story, playing conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler, but that wasn’t exactly the case: “She’s so fucked up,” Paulson says.

Plus, she was actually pulling double duty again during the shooting of Hotel, going back and forth between the Horror Story set and the set of Ryan Murphy’s upcoming FX series American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, in which Paulson will play prosecutor Marcia Clark.

When we meet, she’s just two weeks off of wrapping her work as Clark, which she filmed for six months and researched so heavily she ended up wearing the same perfume Clark wore during shooting. Sometimes she’d leave the Horror Story set at 1 a.m. and be scrubbing off Sally’s track marks and putting on Marcia’s wig by 8 a.m. on the Crime Story set.

“The good news is that both bitches look real tired,” she laughs.

While a Ryan Murphy reimagination of the Case of the Century certainly has the industry in a tizzy of anticipation, not much has been seen of the show, aside from some teasingly short trailers and photos of the cast in costume. “This is not going to be an extended episode of Law & Order,” Paulson ensures me. “It’s about the lawyers and the people and what their particular trials were like out of the courtroom.”

And then there’s Carol, the aching period romance starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, and Paulson, which is already being pegged for a Best Picture Oscar nomination. The film depicts a tortured love affair between Blanchett’s Carol and Mara’s Therese, and the barriers to their romance in a 1952 New York that was, suffice it to say, not hospitable to same-sex relationships—particularly when one party, in this case Carol, is separated from her husband and has a child.

Sarah Paulson stars in "Carol"

Wilson Webb/The Weinstein Company

Sarah Paulson stars in "Carol"

As Carol grapples with giving in to her authentic desires—happiness with Therese—or returning to a life society would rather her live, we’re introduced to Paulson’s Abby, an ex-lover of Carol’s (the one who presumably caused Carol’s separation from her husband) who then becomes her close confidante, helping her navigate the waters with Therese.

In a 2015 that proudly trumpets “love is love”—Paulson herself was accidentally outed to the public when she kissed her then-girlfriend Cherry Jones on CBS when Jones won the 2005 Tony Award (now she doesn’t label her sexuality)—it’s at once maddening and beautiful to watch the obstacles in the way of Carol and Therese’s romance, and how their connection is so strong they give it a go anyway.

So, for Paulson, there’s lots of “something good.” And we chatted about all of it. 

People have been trying to get Carol made into a movie for 11 years. But there’s something that just seems right about it being released now, like it’s extra resonant today.

What I like about it is just this sort of “normal”—and I put that in quotations purposefully—love story. The fact that it’s between two women is obviously important, and yet you’re just watching two people be in love. I think it’s sort of ordinary in that way, which is what makes it sort of extraordinary.

A lot of the coverage of the movie often reduces it to “the lesbian movie,” which must be frustrating.

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Yeah. I don’t think it needs to do that. On the one hand, I feel like I do recognize the importance of gay women having a story that they feel like belongs to them, or is representative of them in a way that feels comfortable and honest and celebratory. At the same time, I just don’t see the need to put the label and the sticker on something, to say “This is a gay movie!” This is a movie about human beings that fall in love with one another, which is what happens in life. Period. The end.

Do you think we’re reaching a point in culture where that label doesn’t have to be there? Where we can just focus on the love aspect?

You can’t not mention that it’s between two women, because it is special that it’s between two women—and it’s done beautifully—but I feel like it would be wonderful to be able to talk about it for what it is, which is a love story between two people.

Abby has a confidence and a strength that seems to be missing from Carol and Therese.

I definitely think that, for example, Abby does not marry a man. Abby does not live an alternate life. Abby is who she is and she’s comfortable with who she is. The main problem with Abby is that she’s in love with Carol, and Carol ain’t in love with her. That’s tough. But it’s not enough to keep her out of Carol’s life. I keep thinking, “What would I do if the person I love loved someone else and then asked me to pick that person up and drive them across the country?” I don’t think I could do that. I think I’d say, ‘You have to find someone else. I can’t help you.’

So what is it with Abby that she’s willing to do that?

I think it’s a combination of a true selflessness that she has that I think is rare. Also, I think in 1952, the society—and I don’t mean the society they live in, I mean the society of gay women—I think was a narrow one. It wasn’t a big, fat, wide room. So losing someone you were connected to in that world, who was a member of your tribe as both a human being and also a gay woman, it would probably be too costly. And if you really love someone you’d rather be in their world than not in their world. I think Abby will take having Carol versus not having Carol. So if that means hightailing it across the country and picking up that little twit, then she’s going to do it.

Carol gives a monologue near the end of the film where she says she’s not going to go against her true instincts and identity—deny being attracted to women—in order to placate lawyers trying to keep her from her child. Watching it in 2015, it’s shocking to think about how many people must have done the opposite, talked themselves into living inauthentic, unhappy lives in order to conform to what’s “normal.”

In order to be accepted. To live the more accepted life. No thank you.

My scribbled notes from the screening, at the very bottom it just says, “God, love sucks.”


This movie, if you include, Kyle Chandler’s character, is four people in love, but unable to find happiness.

I think gay, straight, it doesn’t matter. Love is a bitch, man. Except for when it isn’t! And it’s the part when it isn’t that keeps us coming back for more. Women who give birth and are like, ‘It’s the most painful thing to ever happen to me…I’m having another one at Christmas.’ Like, what? You said it was the most painful thing that ever happened. People forget the joy and elation that women can have from being parents. They want to have that experience again. They’re willing to go through the pain again. The pain is something you don’t really hold on to.

And it’s the same with love.

You remember that incredible feeling when you first fall in love with someone of not being able to not be near them. Like any other drug, it’s something you chase and chase and chase until you realize finally that it really exists some place in the middle.

Do you mind if we venture into Ryan Murphy land for a bit?

Not at all!

Sally is quite the character.

Quite the character.

Last year, there was the physical and psychological challenge of playing the conjoined twins. On the surface I think it would seem like a respite to play Sally this season, but…

But she’s so fucked up! Sally is so addicted to wanting to feel and then anesthetizing herself from feeling, and being selfish and entitled. She’s just a mess of a person. But she’s in love with John Lowe, and that makes her very desperate. There is such desperation to her, and that’s not a comfortable place to live.

What’s your entry point into playing someone as fucked up as Sally?

I have plenty of shit to draw on, believe you me. And the kind of amazing thing that’s happened to me having played these various disparate characters on the show is that I start to trust myself and go on instinct. More than any other character I’ve played on American Horror Story, Sally is an animal instinct person. I only finished Marcia Clark about two weeks ago and I’m still doing Sally, so the reality is that my focus was so much on Marcia Clark; I was really entrenched in that world. I had the scripts for Horror Story way in advance and I knew what I was doing as Sally. I just didn’t overwork on it, because I thought my task with Marcia is so big, and I started that first.

So you sort of just let Sally take over?

With Sally, I thought what I’m going doing here is just let it fly. Don’t overthink it. Don’t overprepare it. Just go on total and utter instinct, because that’s what she was. Sally is a beast. She’s a beast of need and want and hunger and dependency. I just thought, oh, you don’t have to work too hard on that. You have plenty of that inside you, and you don’t have to worry now about concealing any of it. There’s a great freedom in letting out just the ugliest parts of yourself and going, “It’s just the character!” Meanwhile people who know you are like, “Wow, that is the real you.”

Meanwhile you have the comfort of knowing that if you go down a self-destructive spiral, you look amazing in smeared mascara.

Thank you. Smeared mascara, crimped, fried hair. Sally rocks it.

What’s it been like to go from one set to the other to film at the same time? Scrubbing off Sally’s track marks on your arms while putting on Marcia’s wig?

It was hard. Hard. It was harder doing that, really, than it was doing the conjoined twins. With the conjoined twins, even though there was a similar sort of schizophrenic reality, they shared a body. They were twins. They were sisters. They were the same, in a way. Marcia and Sally couldn’t look more different. The one thing they have in common is that Marcia is also a kind of animal-instinct person, but with much more compassion for other people than Sally has.

So it was hard—it was particularly hard timewise. I would be working until 1 in the morning on American Horror Story and then I’d have to be at Crime Story at 8 a.m. The good news is that both bitches look real tired. They painted dark circles under my eyes for Marcia, and it was good that I already had some to give them as an outline. “Just put those circles where mine already are.” And Sally had so much makeup on you couldn’t see them anyway.

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: HOTEL -- Pictured: Sarah Paulson as Sally. CR: Frank Ockenfels/FX

Frank Ockenfels/FX

Sarah Paulson as Sally in "American Horror Story: Hotel."

When the photo of you as Marcia Clark was released, social media lost its shit.

(Laughs) I hope that’s true. It was really hard to do and I hope I got it right, because I did have the honor of meeting Marcia. Because of all the research I did and all of the stuff that actually delves into her personal life, I feel so much empathy for her and what she went through. We’re talking about a woman who’s a civil servant, who was thrust on a national stage and was expected to weather all that with grace and aplomb. It’s just not possible to do.

She didn’t have that kind of flashy Johnnie Cochran drama in the courtroom. She was just the mother of a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old, going through a terrible divorce, who was a prosecutor for the County of Los Angeles, trying to put bad people away. Then all of a sudden she’s being criticized for the length of her skirts, the style of her hair, how tired she was, the color of her lipstick. It was really rough from a female perspective to be judged and ridiculed that way. So it was hard to do.

If you don’t mind me asking, how did she feel about this TV show happening?

That I will let her answer, which I’m sure she would. I feel very protective in the sense that I don’t want to say anything about her personal feelings about this that wouldn’t come directly out of her mouth. But I can only imagine that it wouldn’t be a pleasant thing to revisit such a painful time in one’s life. For all we watched on TV, this is something these people were actually living. Every disappointment. Every victory for the prosecution or victory for the defense on that day in the courtroom was a crushing blow to the other side. We were all watching somewhat as entertainment, but these people were living this.

Besides a few short teasers and stills, we haven’t seen much of the show to get a sense of the tone yet.

Totally. There’s some humor in it, for sure, but in a dark way. This is not going to be an extended episode of Law & Order. It’s about the lawyers and the people and what their particular trials were like out of the courtroom. There are definitely courtroom scenes and things that we’re doing that actually happened and that were seen by the world, and then all of the stuff that’s actually behind the scenes that nobody saw is really where the show lives. So…it’s gonna be good. I think. I found it incredibly compelling.