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Sarah Paulson Dares to Play the People You Love to Hate


Sarah Paulson still doesn’t fully understand why fans call her “mother.”

At first, when she started seeing the word used online to describe her, she was bewildered and a bit irritated. She was in her 40s and childless. Did these people really think she looked like their mother?

Once she began to understand it as an age-neutral compliment — a term Gen Z likes to use for famous women they adore — she leaned into the meme, appearing on “Saturday Night Live” last year, alongside Pedro Pascal, in a sketch in which he was “father” and she “mother” to a group of enamored high schoolers.

“How did this happen to us?” Paulson wondered about her and Pascal, a longtime friend. “We were two 18-year-old kids who used to go to Sheep Meadow and smoke pot and go see Peter Weir movies. How did we become the mother and father of children on the internet?”

For Paulson, the answer is a 30-year career that has wound its way from television bit parts to meaty lead roles as fraught real-life people. It is animated by an eclectic cast of characters orchestrated by the television producer Ryan Murphy, including conjoined twins, a Craigslist psychic, a ghost with a past as a heroin addict, an evil nurse and two of the most ridiculed and obsessed-over women of the 1990s.

Paulson has long dared to play characters that viewers are liable to dislike — or downright loathe — and the role that has led to her first Tony nomination is one of her most provocative yet.

In Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s family drama “Appropriate,” her character is often the one audience members are rooting against: a sharp-tongued elder sister who lashes out against mounting suspicions that her recently deceased father harbored racist convictions.

On a sunny Monday afternoon, Paulson recounted the arc of her career on a bench in Washington Square Park, not far from the rental where she has been living during the play’s run with her three dogs.

“There was a time when I thought it needed to look like one thing in order to be deemed successful,” said Paulson, who, on her day off, was wearing sweats, conditioner in her hair and a few pimple patches on her face. She added: “I thought if you’re not Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock, you might as well just hang it up.”

Paulson, 49, never quite hit the rom-com stride, but she has made it to leading-lady status through an altogether different path. Her best-known roles have been publicly reviled women: Marcia Clark, the relentlessly dissected lead prosecutor, in “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” and Linda Tripp, the meddling confidante to Monica Lewinsky, in “Impeachment: American Crime Story,” about Lewinsky’s affair with President Bill Clinton.

And then some of her characters have been certifiably deranged. She tapped into profound odiousness to play a plantation owner’s wife in “12 Years a Slave.” And in “Ratched,” she gave the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” nurse new depths of cruelty.

“I’m more settled in the idea that I have a career I’m proud of, albeit an unconventional one,” Paulson said.

The actor’s character in “Appropriate” is no spoonful of sugar either. Gathered with her siblings in Arkansas to sort through their father’s possessions, Toni Lafayette is clinging to the memory of a beloved parent, despite evidence that he was not the man she thought he was.

Throughout the play, Toni mocks, taunts, provokes and hurls grievances. When her siblings fight back, she ratchets up the volume, the tendons in Paulson’s neck visibly straining.

“The point is to eviscerate so that no one can come back at her with anything because they no longer have any limbs,” Paulson explained from the park bench, before picking up one of her dogs, a small scraggly-haired mutt named George, and cradling him like a baby.

Some actors avoid playing objectionable people, concerned about being pigeonholed into villainhood, or that in the audience’s impressionable minds, their character’s likability might blur with their own. Paulson, for example, recalls that to some of her actor friends, the “12 Years a Slave” role was too vile to pursue.

Paulson said those kinds of thoughts haven’t occurred to her. She said she often found herself simply saying yes to roles she was offered in order to keep working, resulting in a résumé of striking variety.

“My hope is that it creates a path for longevity that is not attached to beauty or age or sexuality,” she said. “When all of those things continue to fall away, maybe it won’t matter so much.”

PAULSON LIKES TO SAY that if her mother hadn’t moved her out of Tampa, Fla., as a child, she would still be an actor, but perhaps at a Disney theme park.

When Paulson was about 5, her mother relocated her and her younger sister to New York City to pursue a career as a writer. Her mother, Catharine Clarke, was in her mid-20s, recently split from Paulson’s father and in an unfamiliar city. She found work as a waitress at Sardi’s, a Broadway haunt next door to the theater where “Appropriate” opened last December.

Paulson attended LaGuardia High School, the performing arts school that inspired the movie and TV series “Fame,” surrounding her with the earnest creativity of young dancers, sculptors and actors. She decided against college, quickly landing her first Broadway role, in which she understudied for Amy Ryan in “The Sisters Rosensweig,” and a small part in an episode of “Law & Order.”

In the first decade or so of her career, she played side characters in the kind of romantic comedies she had dreamed of starring in — Mel Gibson’s assistant in “What Women Want,” Renée Zellweger’s book editor in “Down With Love” — and she landed lead roles in several television series that never quite stuck.

Paulson was nearing 30 when she first started working with Murphy, who wrote her into an episode of his medical drama “Nip/Tuck” as a patient feigning stigmata. In Murphy, Paulson found a champion who would write her role after ambitious role, particularly in his series “American Horror Story” and then in “American Crime Story,” relishing her openness to the instability and experimentation of character acting.

“One minute she’s playing a heroin addict and the next she’s playing Mamie Eisenhower,” said Murphy, who said he considers Paulson like a sister. “She desperately wants to challenge her talent.”

There was only one role that Murphy recalls Paulson not saying yes to: the guidance counselor in “Glee.” Murphy said he wrote it for her, but Paulson had already booked another job.

It was on one of Murphy’s shows that Paulson had what became a career-defining role as Clark, the O.J. Simpson prosecutor. Her sensitive and considered portrayal helped spur conversation about the way Clark was treated in the ’90s by the public and the media, which picked apart her appearance and published a leaked topless photo of her. The performance not only won Paulson critical acclaim and an Emmy, it gave her a level of pickiness over her future roles that she had never had before.

Paulson speaks of Clark adoringly, and she can be fiercely protective of her.

Midway through the production, she met with Clark to express that the show planned to do right by her; the women still keep in touch, and traded text messages when Simpson died last month. (“I didn’t shed a tear,” Paulson said of his death, though she said she did have sympathy for his family’s loss.)

When Paulson took on her next 1990s tabloid epic — the Clinton scandal — she and her movement coach pored over footage of Tripp, seeking to mimic her mannerisms, such as the way she fixed her hair and leaned in to share some gossip, and practicing her walk around Paulson’s backyard pool in Los Angeles. The reviews were markedly less positive than of her portrayal of Clark, but Paulson said it’s the role of which she’s proudest.

The show didn’t exactly spark a mea culpa from Tripp’s critics, and Paulson acknowledges that Tripp’s actions — which included secretly recording her phone calls with Lewinsky and turning the tapes over to an independent prosecutor — were not above reproach. But however misguided some of her decisions were, the actress has empathy for what she sees as Tripp’s central motivation: to expose what she saw as an abuse of power.

“There is something potentially noble in a woman making unapologetic choices because they believe them to be the right ones,” Paulson said.

Around the time that filming concluded on the Clinton season in 2021, Paulson was offered “Appropriate,” which would become her first stage role in a decade, since an Off Broadway production of “Talley’s Folly” in 2013.

Directed by Lila Neugebauer and produced by the nonprofit Second Stage Theater, “Appropriate” debuted late last year at the Helen Hayes Theater to critical praise and strong ticket sales. In March it moved to the Belasco, where it is running as a commercial production through June 23.

To prepare for the play, Paulson worked closely with her movement coach, Julia Crockett, who helped her locate the physical dynamics of Toni, a divorcée enraged by the sudden appearance of her absent brother just as their father’s estate is slated to go up for sale.

One source of inspiration for Toni’s expressions was Meredith Marks, a cast member on “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City,” whose verbal sparring match with one of her co-stars went viral. “She’s got this willingness to go there, like, ‘I will fight if you want to fight,’” Crockett said of the clip, which came from a scene that Paulson and Crockett studied. “And there’s something that she did with her eyebrows and her eyes that I really loved. She kind of pulled her head back and had this scoff that we worked a lot with.”

Crockett said she and Paulson have collaborated so closely on her roles that they now share a kind of secret language of metaphors. For Toni, one of the central metaphors of her physicality is a bowling ball that has been hurled down an alley. For a scene in the second act in which Toni is drunk and significantly more pacified, Crockett told Paulson, “Imagine the bowling ball just turns into a potato.”

“And she walked away and did it,” Crockett said.

Paulson’s attention to detail and feeling of responsibility for her roles can be obsessive: at one point, Crockett was living with Paulson in Greenwich Village so they could rehearse in the morning and at night. But there have also been moments of abandon.

Elle Fanning, who originally starred alongside Paulson in the play as Toni’s brother’s sage-burning fiancée, recalled one performance in which the actors realized that a poodle-like dog was sitting in the audience when it started barking. “We just looked at each other and we started hysterically laughing,” Fanning said.

For the Tony Awards in June, the category in which Paulson has been nominated — best leading actress in a play — carries echoes of a time much earlier in her career.

It was during the announcement of that award, at the Tonys in 2005, that Paulson first came out publicly as being in a relationship with a woman, when her girlfriend at the time, the actress Cherry Jones, won the award for her performance in “Doubt.” Paulson, who was seated beside her, kissed Jones ahead of her acceptance speech, something that she later described as instinctual and not intended to broadcast their relationship to the world.

Nearly two decades later, Paulson, now in a long-term relationship with the actress Holland Taylor, will be the one in the camera’s focus as the Tonys envelope is opened.

Speaking from the bench in Washington Square Park, in between waves of giddy recognition from fans passing by, Paulson acknowledged that like many of her previous characters, Toni is not likely to be viewed as a heroine. By intermission, her family has lobbed accusations at her of being “radioactive,” “disgusting” and “sick.” In his review of the play, The Times’s chief theater critic, Jesse Green, described Toni this way: “Think of the worst person you know: the kind who blabs people’s secrets, mocks their diction, dismisses their pain while making festivals of her own.”

“Liking” Toni is far from the point. But Paulson hopes that by the end of the play, after learning why Toni is the way she is, the audience feels at least something of a softening toward her.

“My hope,” Paulson said, “is that there’s a fully realized person up there that you can have some connectivity to, even if only for a fleeting second.”





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