PHOTOS BY DENNIS LEUPOLD
Speak Your Truth And Love Whomever You Fucking Well Please
Actors can be hard to interview. They can recite a perfect press-release answer, twisted and buffed and polished, until you barely recognize what you asked them about in the first place. It can be hard to get behind a facade so solid.
Sarah Paulson is not one of these actors.
When she speaks on the phone from LA, it is raw and real. Paulson talks about truth, above all: in court, in acting, in oneself. She talks fast, laughs easily, and she thinks about things deeply. At 41, she has spent a life building up a career and a fame she knows could be fleeting.
“I have a very good friend named Pedro Pascal and he had a similar thing with Game of Thrones,” she says. After years of pounding the pavement and not getting the roles he needed, his career rocketed following his appearance in that show. “He and I talk about how grateful we are that [the success] happened when it did. We are so aware of how rare these kinds of things are, how hard fought they were for both of us, that we don’t take any of it for granted. Nothing about it is common place, nothing about it is ordinary, nothing about it is just a typical day when you’re just hanging out on set with Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates.”
“This is a very extraordinary, lucky thing that is rare. Rarified rare.”
Even if you haven’t consciously watched a Paulson film or TV show, you have definitely seen her work. She fills her roles so completely that she herself disappears. She’s so versatile that there is also no one categorical “Sarah Paulson character:” she has played a slave-owner’s violent wife in 12 Years a Slave, a Christian actress in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, she’s played smart, dumb, crazy, drug-addicted, and complicated, and as an audience we — for the most part — knew almost nothing about Paulson as a person. Operating under the radar for the greatest part of her career, Paulson has been the blank slate we needed her to be.
She says it’s useful place to be: as an actor, you can inhabit a character completely without the baggage that being human in the world brings along. She worries that narrow-minded audience members won’t be able to stretch their minds and believe an actor in a role the more they know about them as a person. She mentions Marion Cottilard in Le Vie En Rose, which Paulson regards as one of the greatest performances of all time. When it was released in 2007, we knew almost nothing about Cottilard personally. All we had was the perfect Edith Piaf she presented on the screen.
“Part of what was so brilliant about it was that nobody — Americans, anyway — had anything to ascribe to her. You were able to completely submerge yourself and believe that she was Edith Piaf. If she had been an incredibly well known actress, would it have been a bigger feat?”
This blank mystery was something Paulson could draw on before, but no longer: her fame has levelled up. American Horror Story was big, but American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson was a phenomenon. Everything down to Paulson’s private life has become fair game. Although, she says, her romantic life was never a closed door — it’s just that nobody really cared until she was publicly dating a woman (Broadway actress Cherry Jones, in 2005). Paulson outed herself accidentally.
“She won a Tony Award, I kissed her, and all of a sudden I was outed,” she says. “I didn’t really think about it in that way at the time — I was just doing what one would do when a person they love has just won a big fat acting prize.
“What am I gonna do, pat her on the back and say ‘good job, dude?’ It didn’t occur to me to do anything but what I did.”
Afterwards, the phonecalls came. Her sexuality became “a thing”. Paulson wasn’t sure where the chips would land. She had just signed up to play Harriet Hayes in Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip — a very conservative Christian woman who was, in the course of the series, going to be in from from the gay community for going on The 700 Club, flagship show of CBN, the Christian Broadcasting Network. Paulson worried that she was going to get fired.
“I had anxiety. I was worried somehow that there was going to be some fallout if Aaron [Sorkin] or anyone on the show knew that I was with Cherry. [But] on my very first day, when we met to do the table read for Studio 60, Aaron walked right up to me and says, ‘I didn’t know you were with Cherry Jones, that’s so wonderful. I just want you to know that you’re safe here. You never have anything to worry about. You’re safe here.’
“It was the biggest exhale of my life. I didn’t realise how anxious about it I had been until he said that.”
Did the experience help in her role of Marcia Clark, in portraying the experience of having nudes leaked to the magazines, and a constant, suffocating media interest in every piece of her life?
“I couldn’t help but feel a kind of kinship in terms of being looked at. But there was so much celebration about my relationship. So much so that I thought: Jesus, did everyone just assume I was going to be alone forever with 500 cats?”
“I believe that everyone should be allowed to speak their truth and just say what they want to say and show the world who they are. You should be able to love whomever you fucking well please.””
Lately the newfound interest in Paulson’s personal life is a combination between career success and the fact that she’s dating a woman who is significantly older than her: Emmy Award-winning actress Holland Taylor, 73. They flirt over Twitter. BuzzFeed compiles lists of their exchanges. Paulson finds it all kind of funny.
“I believe that everyone should be allowed to speak their truth and just say what they want to say and show the world who they are,” she says. “You should be able to love whomever you fucking well please.”
Marcia Clark never got her dues when she was lead prosecutor in the case against OJ Simpson. In a world before social media, her work in the trial was broadcast live across America, packaged into highlights internationally, and she was torn apart in magazines, talk shows, in print and on our screens. No fringe groups defended her or started a Twitter campaign; there was no Facebook group that she could dip into late at night and know that people cared. In the 20 years since the trial happened, Marcia Clark had not been vindicated — not properly, not by the wider world — until Paulson played her on FX’s American Crime Story: The People Vs. OJ Simpson.
“I remember thinking when I first read the script: I don’t know how I’m going to do this,” says Paulson. “I don’t know how she did this. I really drew strength from knowing that this was not something that we were making up. I was trying to imagine what it would be like for someone to go through this — her divorce and her home life completely falling apart under such intense scrutiny — and I just thought: if she could do it, I’ve just got to honour her as best I can and hope that some respect gets thrown at her. I’ve just got to do it.”
In the harrowing scene where Marcia walks into the courtroom with her new haircut — when John Travolta as Robert Shapiro gives her a sarcastic thumbs up — Clark, crushed and deflated, became our hero. When the checkout guy saw her buying Tampax and commented that the defence was going to have a bad day, there wasn’t a woman in front of their TV who didn’t want to leap inside it and strangle him.
Marcia, Marcia Marcia. We’re so sorry.
When asked if she’s ever experienced any similar degree of sexism in her career, Paulson takes it back to a hairstyle. “The only thing I’ve experienced that is not only sexist, but offensive to me on a human level is that any time I’ve ever been asked to portray the leading lady, I’ve auditioned as a brunette and have always been asked to make my hair blonde. Somehow my brown hair didn’t have the same allure, the same sex appeal, the same power, that a blonde would have. It wasn’t even a subterranean message: it was overt.” She sighs. “What a way to communicate to somebody that how they come into the world is not enough.”
Talk to anyone over 35 about The People vs. OJ Simpson and too many of them will wave their hand and say they can’t bear to watch it, they lived through it: they can’t see those faces on TV again. The thing that makes it work — the reality of it, the insanity of it — it the same thing that’s turning others off. It’s too close. The series looks like a 90s TV movie because they got the 90s so horrifyingly right, from the brown suits right down to the gender and racial politics that dominated a story that should have been about two people dying.
It’s a show so easy to become obsessed by. It never explicitly says OJ did it, but we know OJ did it: there’s no one else who could have done it. But that wasn’t the point. Throughout this story, OJ was just an empty vessel at the heart of an enormous cultural battle. The show isn’t a whodunnit, it’s helping us see how a baffling verdict came to be.
Paulson wasn’t glued to her screen when the trial was originally broadcast: she was a 19-year-old actress in New York City. “I was very confused by the whole thing,” she says. “I did not know OJ Simpson as a football star, or a hero in that way, I only knew him as the actor from the Naked Gun movies. I wish I could say I had some kind of grand stand of ‘I’m not watching this circus act that surrounds a really terrible, terrible crime’ but I was beginning my acting my acting career in New York. I was just trying to get a job.”
At her core, Paulson is not a star: she is an actress. She’s willing to get dirty and mean and ugly, and she is hungry as hell to perform roles that demand something bigger from her, something real, something outside of pretty. The role of Marcia Clark was so real she doubted she had the ability to do it justice. Executive producer Ryan Murphy, who co-created American Horror Story, didn’t have her audition for it: he believed so strongly that she had it in her he didn’t need to check.“He said, ‘You’re doing it whether you wanna do it or not’. Usually when Ryan has that idea it’s really best just to listen to it,” she says.
So Paulson ended up watching the OJ trial, 20 years after it happened, on her iPad in the courtroom set for The People Vs. OJ Simpson, trying to capture every nuance of the character that she could. When the cameras started to roll, Paulson would throw her iPad and headphones under the prosecutor’s table and become Marcia Clark.
She didn’t meet Clark in real life until the filming was mostly completed, the reason being that there are so many different angles to the story that Paulson didn’t want to cross-pollinate. She wanted to keep true to the words in the script.
“Everyone involved in that trial wrote a book, so everyone’s got an opinion about what they think happened, how they think it went down, how they feel it went wrong.”
She didn’t want a situation where she disagreed with the script because Clark saw it a different way: putting herself and the producers in that weird situation, a trial about a trial, was not what the world needed.
When Paulson talks about finally meeting Marcia Clark, it’s as if she has met God. When Clark walked through the revolving door of the restaurant, the sun was so bright that Paulson was blinded but she could tell it was her by the way she moved. “I can only describe is as if I sat down for a dinner with Meryl Streep, or Emma Thompson, or Judy Davis, my favourite actresses of all time. Meeting Marcia was like sitting in a room with the three of them, all rolled into one.”
Ask her about sharing the set with John Travolta and Paulson sounds enrapt. “He was so dedicated and incredible,” she says, praising the work he put into the role that Twitter ate up and put on a weird meme pedestal: get you a man who can do both. “During the breaks, while they were changing the lighting or moving the cameras around our director would put on Pharrell’s Happy really loud, and everybody would get up and dance. Everybody. Johnny Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) with his moustache, me with my little wig. Travolta would dance for me: he would do little Pulp Fiction moments, putting his hands across his eyes like he did in that film.
“One time I made him dance to You’re The One That I Want. He didn’t do the full number, but he obliges — he’s so fun and game and he’s just one of those people who’s happy to be alive, and it’s infectious. That little girl in me who used to watch Grease was just like a pig in shit. I was thinking, ‘this is the coolest thing that ever happened to me — fuck that I never get to act a scene with him, I’m watching him dance.’ That’s not nothing.”
But where do you go from watching Travolta dance in the most famous courtroom of all time? Paulson isn’t sure.
“After playing Marcia, the bar has been set quite high in terms of what I want to investigate, not only in the character but in myself. I learned a lot about my own limitations: I was so ready and willing to drink the proverbial Kool-Aid that was shoved down my throat by the media about who and what Marcia Clark was about, and I believed all of it back then, during the trial. When I learned more about who she actually was I was embarrassed with myself, for my willingness to just believe what I was told. I am now much less willing to believe instantly what I am told about any person third-hand.”
Now, Paulson wants work that has her investigating, researching, learning more about what it means to be a person. With her bar raised, she’s waiting for the right role to cross her path.
“I may be waiting around a little longer than I would like to.”
Photos DENNIS LEUPOLD
Stylist ANNA KATSANIS at ATELIER MANAGEMENT