The award-winning actress on the importance of strong women, the power of good hair,
and having cocktails with Marcia Clark.
Written By JACK SUNNUCKS
Photography By NAJ JAMAÏ
Makeup By FRANCESCA TOLOT
Hair By ADIR ABERGEL
Styled By WILLIAM GRAPER
Nails By STEPHANIE STONE
Sarah Paulson is a revelation. Seated in the restaurant of the Sunset Tower Hotel in a plaid shirt, jeans, and a Céline overcoat, short hair tucked behind her ears, she looks nothing like the permed, chain-smoking lawyer Marcia Clark she won an Emmy for embodying on The People vs. O.J. Simpson, nor any of her vaguely deranged American Horror Story characters. This shouldn’t be a surprise but it is, perhaps because the meeting came on the heels of a particularly grueling AHS episode, in which—spoiler alert—Paulson and costar Angela Bassett chow down on a human leg.
“Just thinking about it makes me really sick, so thank you for bringing it up,” she laughs, vigorously stirring her tea to expunge the memory. She adds that there is nowhere she’d rather be than on television, chewing cold beef jerky for the benefit of AHS creator Ryan Murphy. “I do think, ‘Wait, what?’” of the more gruesome scenes, she says, contorting her expressive face to comic effect. “But then I get really excited, because I think about what the alternatives are, you know?” She’s referring, of course, to enviable position she’s achieved: At 41, an age at which many actresses struggle to land salient roles, Paulson remains an ubiquitous presence on our screens.
I wanted so very much for her to not walk around with the burden of being misunderstood for the rest of her life.
And she shows no signs of slowing down. She has also started filming the all-female Ocean’s Eight alongside Cate Blanchett and Rihanna, which has a June 2018 release date, and new Murphy productions American Crime Story: Katrina and Feud, about the infamous rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, which reunites her with AHS costar and close friend Jessica Lange. It’s a nonstop schedule, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“For the most part, I don’t look around at the landscape and wish I were doing something other than what I’m doing, and I think that’s partly because there are so many different characters [that’s she’s played],” she says. Her greatest triumph was her aforementioned portrayal of Marcia Clark, a role that brought with it “an enormous sense of responsibility,” Paulson says. “I really wanted to get it right for her, because the more I read and the more I understood her motivations and who she was, the more I felt she had been so wrongfully presented,” she explains, alluding to the way Clark was raked over the coals during the trial. “I wanted so very much for her to not walk around with the burden of being misunderstood for the rest of her life.”
You need only watch Paulson’s emotional Emmy acceptance speech to know her goal was realized—halfway through, the camera cut to Clark in the audience, smiling and resplendent. “It was a pretty exciting night,” Paulson says. “Although it was like being at my own wedding. I never got to eat, I never got to drink, and I was home and in bed by 12:30 a.m.! But the rest of the week was much more celebratory—Marcia and I got to go out and have our own private drinks.”
She laughs, implying that said drinks were rather fun. “Yeah, we went for it a little bit more,” she admits (Paulson told Larry King that she and Clark drank tequila all night at their first meeting). “She’s a wonderful woman,” Paulson says of her muse. “She has kids who love her very much and I feel I’ll probably always be proudest of playing that role.”
Sometimes I’ll just put it on and lie around my house in my green, sequined Prada dress and think, ‘How did this happen to me?’
Indeed, Paulson tends to surround herself with such women, including Lange—whom she first met on the stage and who recommended her to Ryan Murphy—or her partner, actress Holland Taylor, whose name peppers her conversation. A moment spent reading their tweets is a heartwarming insight into Paulson and Taylor’s relationship; retweeted compliments about one another and documentation of their date nights abound. Paulson’s best friend is actress Amanda Peet, who helped select the sparkling shoes Paulson wore with her Emmy dress—which was supplied by another brilliant woman, Miuccia Prada, whom Paulson calls “an actual genius.” Ms. Prada let her keep the gown, too. “Sometimes I’ll just put it on and lie around my house in my sequined green Prada dress and wonder, ‘How did this happen to me?’”
What’s your beauty must-have?
I am obsessed with Chapstick. Have you not seen me put on Chapstick like five times today? It is cake batter–flavored Chapstick!
I really like a long, luxurious getting ready time. So if I have a 7:30 dinner, I’ll start getting ready at 5. If a bunch of gals are going out and we’re having a night of it, I like to take a bath and a soak, have music on, and I take a really long time doing my makeup in a magnifying mirror so I can see every little nook and cranny of anything that needs to be highlighted, shaded, color-corrected… I like the process. It quiets my mind a little bit.
I have an overactive brain and it’s kind of soothing and it also feels like self-care. And baths feel celebratory. There’s so much going on in the world not to celebrate that when you can find something to celebrate, you should.
Tell us about your relationship to your hair.
I’m a girly girl that way. Always have been. Since I was a little person, I’m not kidding, I would take the brush to my mother and be like, “Can you put these ribbons?” They were wrapped around, cascading blue on blue, but different-toned blue. I have a lot of pictures of me in those ribbons. And my sister would kick and scream and would never want a hairbrush anywhere near her. The irony being that I don’t have hair anymore and my sister’s hair is down to here. She won in the long term.
The actor Brian Bloom. You have to Google him. The thing I always loved was that he has a big, dark brow and blue eyes. You’ll agree, or you’ll be like, “Ew, too pretty.” I thought he was the most gorgeous person I had ever seen. I was wildly in love with him. He’s sort of Matt Bomer–ish in a way!
Speaking of your American Horror Story co-stars, what is your relationship with Jessica like?
She is fun and cool, and she is amazing. And she is tough. I think her toughness only comes out of her caring very much about the work. It’s never about her trailer not being the right temperature. Her toughness is about story. Which was a wonderful thing to watch and learn from. I mean, I was 29 and turned 30 when we did a play [Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie] together, and now I’m 41, so it’s a big chunk of time, and a lot of those years I spent working on the show with her.
What’s your favorite piece she’s been in?
Frances. I have a poster of that movie in my house.
What can you tell us about your new show, Feud?
The actress who I want to work with more than anything is Emma Thompson. And the actor is Gene Hackman, but I don’t think he’s working anymore. But he, to me, is one of the great actors of our time.