Sarah Paulson is on the phone from the trailer—“a 1970s van on wheels,” she describes it—that she shares with Kathy Bates for the shrouded-in-mystery sixth season of American Horror Story.
A little partition separates their bathrooms, she says. “We can hear each other practice our lines, which is a really impressive thing to hear, an Academy Award winner through the wall practicing her bits.”
For years, Paulson had actually shared a trailer with Jessica Lange during AHS seasons, before Lange retired from the series. “So I’ve had couple experiences listening to the greats practice their scenes,” she laughs.
Honestly, the feeling is probably mutual.
Paulson is currently nominated for two Emmy Awards for her work on Ryan Murphy-helmed projects.
She’s nominated for Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for playing tragic addict Hypodermic Sally in American Horror Story: Hotel. But it’s her blockbuster performance as attorney Marcia Clark in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story that has pundits practically demanding she take home the trophy for the startling, eye-opening ways she humanized a woman who had, in many eyes, been reduced to a pop-culture joke about a bad haircut.
Paulson shot both projects simultaneously, scrubbing Sally’s track marks off her arms as she left the AHS set at 1 a.m. in order to put on Marcia’s wig by 8 a.m.
Should she win, it would be Paulson’s first victory in six nominations, five of them coming from her creative partnership with Murphy—to which she’s adding a third franchise to the relationship. The morning that Paulson and I speak, it was announced that she would play legendary actress Geraldine Page in Murphy’s upcoming limited series Feud, about the notorious rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
She laughs when I ask if joining Feud was as inevitable as those who obsess over her partnership with Murphy suggest it was.
“I don’t know about that,” she says. “I know I was really surprised when he asked me do it and utterly thrilled. Because that time period has always been very fascinating to me. I’m fascinated by the story. I revere every single actor top to bottom on that show, so to me it was something I was drooling, chomping at the bit to do.”
For now, though, there’s another season of American Horror Story to film, and an Emmy for playing Marcia Clark to win.
Paulson has enthusiastically and graciously done an exhaustive amount of press for the role. I apologize if she’s tired of talking about perms and sexism by this point. “I would never tire of talking about her,” she insists. “I respect and admire her, and was too lucky to have the opportunity to portray her to ever tire of speaking about her.”
True to form, her voice practically glows as she monologues about Clark, her strength, what she faced, and what she learned about herself by playing her, even fighting back tears at one point. Here’s our conversation:
With the Emmy nominations for both shows and a fair amount of distance from shooting the shows together and both having aired, have you gained more perspective of what a feat it was to do that?
It’s interesting because while I was doing it, it really really helped me to not think about the reality of doing both things at the same time. There were things that helped, like I was shooting both shows on the same lot. I could take a golf cart from one set to the other set. But the truth of the matter is if I had taken a moment to think about what it was going to require, just in terms of mental energy, I never would’ve been able to do it. I think sometimes when you’re in the middle of something, when you’re in the middle of a storm, it’s best not to think about it.
Did shooting both at the same time affect your performances in any way?
The truth is, the circumstances really lent themselves to both characters I was playing, to sort of allow for great freedom inside both. The exhaustion I was feeling from doing double duty was very, very helpful for the exhaustion I was asked to bring forth for playing Marcia Clark. I was very mentally tired. I was physically tired. I looked tired. And I wasn’t playing a part where my job was to be the peppiest person in the room. I was allowed to be irritable. I was allowed to be disappointed. I was allowed to be weary. I was allowed to fly off the handle. All of the circumstances allowed for that kind of behavior.
What about for playing Sally in Hotel?
As far as playing Sally, Sally was a person who just didn’t give a fuck, and I got to dive into that playing her. I thought, what if I try to do this without worrying about trying to make it good? Sometimes I think as actors, you go to an audition, you play a scene, your goal sometimes ends up trying to be good instead of playing the truth of the scene. So I was trying to extricate myself from my normal, self-inflicted, psychological pain of trying to be good. I didn’t have time to try to be good. I only had time to try to show up and hit my mark, smoke those cigarettes, have that fried hairdo and have lipstick all over my face.
Was there something about Marcia, her story, or this script that—while obviously knowing it would be a challenge—helped you feel you would be able to do this? Not just want to do this, but thought you’d be able to do it, and do a good job?
It was a combination of things, and it didn’t really happen until we started, actually. I was riddled with fear about doing it. I think playing a real person, with that comes an enormous responsibility. And this isn’t a person that we read about in the history books. This is a person that is currently walking around the planet with a family, friends, a life. To look back at a part of her life when she was so vilified and misunderstood and had such a bright light on her, not by choice, but by circumstance. The idea that I was going to be a part of something that was going to put that light back on her, I was conscious of getting it right.
When did it click?
A lot of it hit when I started working with Sterling K. Brown. He was such a calming force, and he looked so much like Darden to me. He sounded so much like Darden to me that I was able to immerse myself in the reality that I was Marcia. I don’t mean that in some sort of psycho actress building where I’m not sure where I stop and she begins. But there was such beautiful alchemy that transpired between Sterling and myself that made me for the first time think, well, maybe I can do this. Maybe I really can do this. It was a beautiful marriage about what I had learned about Marcia on my own and what can happen magically when you’re working with an actor that you spark with. All of that happened in a big swirl.
What did it mean to you to be able to lift that veil and reveal what Marcia faced, in terms of sexism and as a mother and as a woman—all these struggles that people who though they already knew everything there was to know about these figures in this trial learned about for the first time?
Well, I was one of those people. I had my own preconceived ideas about Marcia Clark that became so immediately debunked with everything that I read that I sort of felt like I was the audience too, in a way. So I wasn’t holding any sort of responsibility or power in thinking I was going to be revealing the way she was perceived. I give the entire credit to the writers and to Ryan for making it such an important part of telling this story, to re-evaluate and re-examine what we thought to be so about Marcia Clark. Nobody talked about the gender discrimination that was happening during that trial when the trial was happening. It was an enormous thing for them to make that a big piece of this story.
It obviously sparked a huge conversation about how unjustly we treated her, but also generally speaking the media treats women thrust into the spotlight harshly. What was it like to observe that conversation and also whether you think that conversation will have any lasting effect on our culture?
Well, I sure hope it does. I just think we’re a nation that’s a work in progress. Not to be pat, but for every 10 steps forward sometimes there are 15 steps back. I certainly feel very proud that there was some part of this piece that we all got together and made that may have an impact. One person whose life it’s had a real impact on is Marcia’s. That to me is everything.
That’s true. I don’t think anyone who’s seen this doesn’t now look at her in a new light.
The reception that she has received and the generosity of spirit and the apology. And the recognition about the preconceived notion that had been upheld for so long, that people were so eager to shed it after they watched the show. I think it was a very profound thing for Marcia to experience. I don’t mean personally. She said this the other day at an event that we did where Ryan moderated a conversation between the two of us.
What did Ryan ask her?
He asked her directly if people would ever come up to her that were unkind during the trial and what the difference is between then and now. She said people never came up and said unkind things to her, on the whole, back then. But I think publicly the difference, in terms of the attention she’s receiving and the apology that seems to be directed to her has been a very big deal. And for that I feel incredibly proud to be a part of that because I feel she deserves it. And she deserved it then.
Right. She deserved better than how we treated her.
This is a woman who is a civil servant and was there to seek justice for two lives that had be snuffed out way too early. Yet the conversation on the evening news was about the length of her skirt and the color of her lipstick or her lack of concealer or the length of her hair or whether or not she was sleeping with Chris. The idea that that’s what became the national conversation about a woman who was trying to do right, I will never fully understand and I think it’s embarrassing. I’m embarrassed that I bought any of it. And I think everyone should be embarrassed that they did.
But decades later, that might be changing.
That any of that is turning on its axis, spinning a little bit, at least in terms of awareness that we were wrong and that we didn’t know—we didn’t have all the information and we didn’t see her fully and yet had deeply held convictions about who she was—to have that looked upon in a different way is a very big deal, I think.
You’ve told an anecdote before about how when you met Marcia for the first time she said, “I just want to say sorry,” and you said, “For what?” and she said, “For the hair.” When I read that I was astonished that she had such a sense of humor about what she went through, because I’m not sure that I would.
That’s the thing about Marcia Clark. She’s an incredible human being. She’s resilient. She doesn’t dwell in the muck of things. She’s not Teflon. Things absolutely got to her. But she doesn’t let it stick. She’s also a person with a very big brain who can look back and go, “That haircut probably wasn’t the best look for me.” And be like, “I don’t understand why it was part of the conversation given what we were trying to do, but I do understand that it was not my best look. And I can have a laugh about it now, and I can feel sorry for the actress that’s about to don that wig on national television. I can feel badly for her about that, because it’s not my best look and it’s not going to be anybody’s best look.” She has an incredible sense of humor.
What else did you observe during that dinner with her?
For all intents and purposes, she can zoom out and see some things from a distance now. Yet at the same time, the first time I had dinner with her and started talking about the trial, I don’t know if she meant to or if she was aware of it, I don’t know if what she knew about what she was revealing in her face. I don’t know if it was just because I spent so much time watching her that I like to think I was picking up on a lot of things that maybe someone else wouldn’t, just because I was very attuned to her physical communications. Because I’ve been studying so intently. Her eyes got wet. She was not able to talk about the trial in any way that was casual. It still felt like the stakes were as high as they were then. It was still as present for her as it was then. That may or may not be true, but it was very clear in the moment that she was not free of it.
She’s not free of the trial?
I don’t think anybody who was there and actively a part of that trial will ever have it not be a part of their daily life or experience. I think Ryan even asked her that in that talk together, and she said she thinks about it every day. She thinks about Ron and Nicole every day. When you think about that reality, what her reality actually was. What her wants and desires actually were, that we as a country, I as a woman, anyone as a woman spent any time thinking about the way she looked, we ought to be ashamed, really.
In spending time with Marcia and being so immersed in her story—and then discussing it in such detail with journalists—is there something that you picked up from her and from being in her world that has lingered with you as a person?
God, it’s funny that you ask me that and I almost want to cry, and I don’t know why exactly. I don’t know if I’ll be the same as an actress or person playing her. Ryan Murphy gave me the greatest gift I will ever get as an actor, and I really believe that. Because I got to play a three-dimensional character. I got to play a real, living, breathing human being with flaws and nicks and a big, full, enormous heart. Those kinds of things change you molecularly, I feel, when you’re an actor, if you allow it to get in deep enough. I had that experience with several scenes playing Marcia.
That’s a big effect on a person.
I know I made a joke earlier that I’m not one of those cuckoo actresses that doesn’t know where I stop and she begins, but there were many moments in the making of this thing where I couldn’t really tell internally. I don’t even know if it’s something that I could articulate that doesn’t make it sound like you should lock me up in a looney bin. But it had a very profound effect on me.
It sounds like it.
There is something to be said about a person who has the courage of their convictions, and who gets up every morning not just with the responsibility of caring for her own children, but is trying to do right in the world and would continually show up, even when there was cruelty slung at her for no reason. She was fighting so many battles, and all in the name of justice and all in the name of doing right by two people who were murdered. I just think there’s no way you can have an experience where you’re playing someone with those kinds of values and those kinds of beliefs and commitment and a kind of internal moral compass that is so on the right side and not be forever changed for the better. I will never be the same.