How Sarah Paulson Found a Different Kind of Hollywood Success
In March, Sarah Paulson lost a whole week. She was in New York to do a little final photography work for the heist-comedy Ocean’s 8 and to shoot a few days on the upcoming drama The Goldfinch. In between, the former New Yorker had plans to see a few high school friends and catch some theater. Then it happened: the flu. And just like that she was out of commission.
The actress doesn’t really stop, so the experience threw her. “I couldn’t pick up a fork,” Paulson says ruefully as she stirs her mint tea on one of her first days back in circulation at Spring & Varick, a restaurant in New York’s SoHo neighborhood. “Being in a hotel room and watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is one of my great joys. And I couldn’t even do that. I didn’t want to view it through a sad haze.”
She admits it’s “sort of tragic” that it took full physical incapacitation to force her to hit the brakes. Paulson has been booked solid for the past four years, after the combination of her work on American Horror Story and her performance as Marcia Clark in The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story led everyone to realize the immensity of her talent. (Her Clark was so affecting that she won an Emmy, a SAG Award, and a Critics’ Choice Award.)
Paulson is a shape-shifter—and the kind of actress who’s always the most interesting thing onscreen. And finally, after she’s hustled for decades, the roles are starting to come to her. But funny enough, the concept of being offered a part gives her anxiety. “I like to sing for my supper,” she says, settling into the corner booth. “I like to go into an audition room, particularly when they think I’m not right for a part, and really fight for it. There’s something so exciting and challenging about proving to yourself that you can pull it off.”
So this “new world order” of being offered parts makes her uneasy—as if taking the casting victory out of the process means she might not be able to deliver on set. “I have a terrible fear that I’ll open my mouth and they’re going to go, ‘Oh … that’s not what we thought we were getting,’ ” she admits. “I’ve been trying to tell myself, ‘What would happen, Sarah, if you decided to believe that you are here because they want you to be here, not because you still have something to prove?’ It’s a very hard thing for me to get my brain around.”
Paulson’s career started informally when she was around 4, with reenactments of Prell shampoo commercials, and progressed, when she was in elementary school, to a real gig, serving as a pint-size MC warming up audiences in Tampa, Fla., her birthplace. That gave her the taste—the thrill and “the crackle”—of working an audience.
Her professional prospects got even better when she was transplanted to a major market. “My mom moved to New York City alone with a kid on each hip to try to live an authentic artistic life,” she says. Her mother, Catharine, was a writer who waitressed at Sardi’s to make rent. Sometimes that meant the family didn’t have much money, but it also meant that Paulson was able to spend afternoons watching theater in the park and could attend the famed Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Paulson says her mother’s passion might explain the way she barreled into her own creative pursuits without a backup plan. “There’s some bohemian part of me where the idea of falling back on something meant I expected to fail. I didn’t want to expect to fail.”
And she didn’t. In fact, Paulson, 43, has held only one nonacting job in her life, at a Brooklyn restaurant called Circles, right after graduating from high school. She worked there a single day. “Someone ordered a chicken Parmesan, and I realized I didn’t know how to spell ‘Parmesan,’ ” she says. “I had to call my mother to ask her how to spell it … and then I promptly quit. It was not for me.” Not long after, she got a job as Amy Ryan’s understudy in The Sisters Rosensweig on Broadway and never looked back.
But though she acted steadily from 1995 on, with runs on the series American Gothic, Jack & Jill, Leap of Faith, Deadwood, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, she wasn’t on the path she envisioned. “I thought success looked like a particular thing,” she says. “You have to have a When Harry Met Sally moment like Meg Ryan or go from Mystic Pizza to Pretty Woman like Julia Roberts.” Instead, she found herself often cast as the quirky blonde—always a blonde, she points out—in an ensemble.
“I eventually realized maybe I’m not special, maybe nobody is buying what I’m selling. Was I a leading lady? Was I a sidekick? Was I a character actress? No one really knew what to do with me. There’s this expression, ‘Not for all markets’—that used to be a very scary notion to me.” Then, in 2011, she was cast in the first season of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, as Billie Dean Howard, a medium who appeared in three episodes. Both the series and the collaboration with Murphy turned out to be a perfect fit. The second season of AHS started fresh, and Paulson was cast as the lead, journalist Lana Winters.
“I found a real home with Ryan,” Paulson says. “He was interested in the character; it wasn’t about making me more attractive. There’s something that’s not articulated about my face that allows me to morph into different things. That characteristic, which stopped me from getting jobs when I was younger, is exactly what allows me to get them now.
“But my embracing of it,” she continues, “didn’t come out of some wonderful zen perspective—it came out of me asking myself, ‘Do I want to get on the train that’s leaving the station or keep sitting here and wait for one that might never come?’ I got on the one that was leaving to see where the ride would take me. And it was the Ryan Murphy express.”
Paulson has since been in every season of AHS, and 70 episodes and 10 characters later, she’s gearing up to start work on Season 8, which will reportedly be set in the near future. On the big screen she has this month’s Ocean’s 8 (the formidable female cast, led by Sandra Bullock, “felt special and rare”) and then the postapocalyptic drama Bird Box (again co-starring Bullock, of whom she says, “I’ll take as much as I can get”). Next year will bring The Goldfinch and M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass. Paulson is also on board to lead Murphy’s new Netflix series Ratched (based on the Nurse Ratched character from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and his upcoming American Crime Story: Katrina. Her dance card remains full for quite a while.
In an interview for InStyle.com last summer, actress Holland Taylor, Paulson’s girlfriend, described Paulson’s work within the Murphyverse to me as follows: “I don’t know how she does it. She comes home, and she’s physically exhausted because she can’t do anything halfway. She does not protect herself or cushion anything. She goes for it, every take, every time.”
“That’s true,” Paulson says. “Holland’s not there on set when I’m doing it, but she’s home. She sees. People talk about the opening night of a play—apparently your body is tensing up so much that it’s the physical equivalent, from an anxiety standpoint, of getting into a small car accident. And the same can be said for reenacting these moments for your characters. My body doesn’t know that I’m not really doing it. So Holland does go, ‘I don’t know that this is good for you … ’ I have asked Ryan if we could do one season where I’m not upset all the time.”
Paulson and Taylor have been dating for nearly four years. When their relationship went public in 2015, the Buzzfeed headline read “Sarah Paulson and Holland Taylor Are Dating and It’s Everything.” The media’s attention to her personal life, Paulson says, is “a funny dance” for her.
“On one hand, when you’re in a relationship that makes you happy, you would be telling anyone who wanted to know about it. On the other, there’s a sort of … meal of it for people. That’s not my favorite thing. But I don’t want to spend my life jumping from shadow to shadow.”
So she’s not. Work is good, love is good, and, finally, she says, her personal style game is on lock. The afternoon we meet, Paulson is dressed in wide-leg Isabel Marant pants, a thin gray sweater, an aquamarine Irene Neuwirth heart pendant (a Valentine’s gift from Taylor), and Céline platform sneakers. “I have a uniform. That’s new for me,” she says. “It’s all about Phoebe Philo. And in terms of a beauty routine, if I don’t comb my eyebrows and have ChapStick, I don’t feel like I can face the day, and I’m not kidding.” Her red-carpet identity also has a specific inspiration: Bea Arthur. “It’s Golden Girls time for me all the time. Give me sparkle and a shoulder pad and you’ve never met anybody so happy in your life.”
Now that Paulson has figured out exactly who she is, she’s focused on making it count. “All I want is to be able to do this when I’m 80,” she says. “And the only way to ensure that happens is that I continue to do good work.”
She will. Imagine all the Bea Arthur-inspired sparkles and shoulder pads she’ll have amassed by then.
Photographer: Alexander Neumann. Fashion editor: Karla Welch. Hair: John Ruggiero. Makeup: Molly R. Stern. Manicure: Betina Goldstein. Production: Tyler Duuring.
For more stories like this, pick up the June issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download May 11.