Award-win­ning Sarah Paul­son on the im­por­tance of tak­ing risks, be­ing seen by the right peo­ple, and prov­ing your­self.


Sarah Paul­son talks Ocean’s 8, Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story, and her in­cred­i­ble jour­ney to suc­cess

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 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 of 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 Tam- my, 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 pinchme 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: Asy

lum (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 Out­stand- ing 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.”

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