Success, you could say, has snuck up on Sarah Paulson. At the age of 41, the actress finds herself unpredictably enjoying a career peak, with four Emmy nominations in the last four years and two more chances this year, most notably for her searing and sensitive portrayal of Marcia Clark in “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” the 10-part FX miniseries about the double murder trial that riveted the country in 1995.
That Paulson is a standout in the sprawling ensemble should not come as much of a surprise to those who’ve paid attention. It comes on the heels of a series of critically acclaimed portrayals, in the HBO movie “Game Change,” in all five seasons of “American Horror Story” and in a string of acclaimed indie movies from “Martha Marcy May Marlene” to “12 Years a Slave” to “Carol.”
Still, this widespread acclaim at a relatively late age for an actress has caught Paulson off guard, because it’s nothing like the career she envisioned as an aspiring actress at a performing-arts high school in New York City. “To be brutally honest, I wanted to be Julia Roberts,” she told TheWrap of her childhood dreams. “I had pictures of her all over my locker. I was obsessed with her. I just thought, ‘I want to do that.'”
But that never happened for Paulson, who gradually learned that hers would be a slower, less glamorous road. “It was a matter of accepting what was in front of me,” she said. “I was left out in the cold a lot. I couldn’t get a job and I didn’t understand why. I thought, ‘Why don’t they want me when I want them so much?’ I had to learn to go where you’re wanted, and don’t continue to try to beat down a door where they’re saying, ‘We are not going to let you in.’
“It wasn’t so much a conscious choice as letting myself be open to where I was being led. It was like, ‘Oh, I’m being asked to play women who have wit, and who are smart and complicated and not two-dimensional. Interesting.”
The most interesting role of all might be in “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” where Paulson’s performance as the embattled Clark has landed her the best reviews of her career. And she simultaneously if inadvertently picked up buzz in the gossip columns when she acknowledged being in a relationship with actress Holland Taylor. It wasn’t a coming out, since Paulson had been in a lengthy and public relationship with Broadway and former “24” star Cherry Jones that ended in 2009–but for a woman who only dated men for much of her life, it was an unexpected blast of publicity for her private life.
“You know, what I am is a mystery even to me,” she said of her relationships. “But this is a new experience, to be sure, that anyone would give a crap about what I’m doing. And it begs the question, ‘Was everyone afraid I was going to end up with four cats?’ A shrug. “I try to live my life the best way that I see fit for me. The rest is just noise.”
Just noise is a good description of the attention that surrounded the O.J. Simpson trial, which dominated television in the fall and winter of 1994. Paulson was all of 19 years old at the time, living in New York and trying to launch a career. Like everybody else, she was aware of the drama playing out on TV every day — and like most people, she scoffed at the resolutely grim and unglamorous prosecutor who was trying gamely to marshal a mountain of DNA evidence to convict the former football star of the murders of his ex-wife and a friend of hers.
A flashy and expensive band of defense lawyers, dubbed “the Dream Team,” captured headlines with lead attorney Johnnie Cochran’s showy verbiage like “if the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.” But coverage of Clark was typically accusatory and often downright sexist. Clark was too stern and humorless, the critics said; her changing hairdos were constantly mocked; she was publicly humiliated when a topless photo of her taken on a European vacation 15 years earlier was sold to a tabloid by her former mother-in-law.
And Paulson, watching from her apartment in New York, didn’t question the tone of the coverage or the indignities visited upon the trial’s only assertive woman. “I thought, ‘Why isn’t she smiling?” she said. “I completely bought into it. I didn’t challenge one thing that I was told by the media, or any commentary that I heard flipping channels trying to find something I wanted to watch instead of the trial. I give myself a bit of a pass because I was a kid, and I was really focused on becoming an actress. But when I look back, I think about all the women in their 30s and 40s and 50s and 60s, people in her own field. Why were they not standing up and demanding that this not be the way she was being written about and talked about? Why was nobody taking Marcia’s side?”
In a way, Paulson has now taken Marcia’s side. In the must-see miniseries, she sketches Clark in vivid shades of gray, showing the pressure, the strain and the incomprehension that a trial she thought was a slam dunk was being turned into a theatrical sideshow. “This is the third time I’ve played a real person, but the only time I’ve played a person who had such an iconic, immediately identifiable way and look,” said Paulson. “That contributed greatly to my terror. It wasn’t just from a vanity standpoint — even though there was that moment, I’m not going to lie, where I put that wig on and they were painting dark circles under my eyes and I was getting that little prosthetic mole placed just so. I remember thinking, ‘This is going to be on television, and I’m going to look tired and have a really bad hairdo.'”
A pause. “In an actress’ career, if you’re lucky enough to have one that lasts any span of time, your beauty or lack thereof is always going to be part of the conversation. So it was definitely not lost on me that this was a moment of confronting my own vanity. And once I put the wig on, I was very excited about it. It was liberating and freeing.”
Paulson said she’d like to imagine that coverage of Clark would be different today–but when she’s reminded that the presidential campaign finds Hillary Clinton being judged on her look and mannerisms in a way male candidates are not, she agreed. “Absolutely, without question,” she said. “This whole idea of, ‘Why isn’t she connecting with young women, what is she doing wrong as a woman?’ As if any woman is supposed to like and support another woman just because she’s a woman. It’s just disheartening.”
In today’s world, added Paulson, it’s likely that Clark’s supporters would have taken to social media in her defense. But even that doesn’t mean that women in the public eye aren’t held to a different standard. “You know, I had two hours of hair and makeup before I came here,” she admitted with a grin. “If I were a guy, I probably would have splashed some cold water on my face and maybe brushed my teeth, do you know what I mean?” She laughed. “It’s just a whole different thing, and I envy it.”
Still, Paulson readily admits that she herself was once enamored of the glamorous side of acting, the Julia Roberts-style fame that was never within her reach as she began to get jobs on stage, on television and in occasional independent films. “I realized pretty quickly that that career was not coming for me,” she said. “The sort of mega-stardom, romantic-comedy charm-festival smiling-magician person was not me.
“It was hard, because it makes you feel like you’ve failed somehow. But that dream was a child’s dream, it wasn’t a dream based on something. It was the dream that you have when you see actors you admire and you fantasize that one day you can have a career like that.”
Instead, she’s found a career playing those smart, complicated women–in Aaron Sorkin‘s short-lived TV series “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip;” in Jay Roach‘s TV movie about Sarah Palin, “Game Change,” which landed her her first Emmy nomination; in “AHS,” which got her three more nominations for playing a lesbian journalist in Season 2, the headmistress of a school for witches in Season 3 and a two-headed woman in Season 4; in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” for which she shared a Gotham Award nomination with the ensemble cast; in Jeff Nichols‘ “Mud,” for which the entire cast won a Film Independent Spirit Award; and in “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” and whatever comes after.
And now she’s trying to reconcile herself to the fact that people are interested and life is good. “I’m having something happen to me that I know is extremely rare, which is that in my late 30s and early 40s things started to turn, exactly at the moment when the brakes are supposed to go on,” she said. “And I know that because I’m a woman, there are fewer roles and fewer opportunities for me, and some incredibly great actresses my age who are movie stars. I get it — I just wish some brave people would go, ‘You know, I’m going to go with Sarah Paulson instead of that really fancy movie star.'”
And yet she can’t help but wonder about what’s next. “After spending a long time having so much hunger and desire and longing for it, and then getting a big taste of it, I keep looking over my shoulder thinking, ‘Is someone going to tell me this is a joke?'” she admitted. “‘Oh, God, is the piano going to drop on my head out of the sky?'”
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