Scary isn’t the first word you’d use to describe Sarah Paulson. In fact, by her own admission, “no one is a bigger scaredy cat than me. I jump at my own shadow.” But yet, in 2020, she inhabited two truly evil characters: troubled mother Diane in the film Run (now streaming on Hulu) and nurse Mildred Ratched in the Netflix original series Ratched. “Here I am acting in these extreme situations where you’re being asked to simulate really very emotional situations where the pendulum swings so wildly,” Paulson explains during our Zoom chat. “It’s so delicious. And you get away with a lot more largesse in your acting when the stakes are high. There’s nothing middling about it.” This month will see her taking on a real-life monster—or at least someone many of us think of that way: the late Linda Tripp, in Ryan Murphy’s Impeachment: American Crime Story, the latest installment of his anthology series for FX premiering September 7.
At 46, Paulson has never been busier, but she can’t put her finger on what attracts her to these complicated parts. “I’m not looking for something specific in a role but looking for an internal bell that lets me know when I’m afraid of something,” Paulson explains. “When I don’t see a path toward it clearly, I know that means I have to do it. I like to be as far away from me as possible. The more terrified I am of a role, the more likely I am to say yes.”
Of course, Paulson is lucky enough to have found a frequent collaborator to whom she can often say yes in the form of Murphy. She first appeared in his series Nip/Tuck in 2004, and he’s the creator and producer of Ratched and American Crime Story. Her portrayal of O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark in 2016’s The People v. O.J. Simpson earned her Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards. “Ryan Murphy is such a feminist and such an amplifier of women—really, of any disenfranchised group,” says Paulson. “He really puts a spotlight on women and storytelling for women over 45 years old.” The last decade has been good to Paulson (Carol, Ocean’s Eight, Bird Box, Twelve Years a Slave, and Mrs. America, to name a few—and 10 seasons of Murphy’s American Horror Story). “We’re real friends,” she says of Murphy, with whom she talks on the phone for hours regularly (even when she spends her days on set with him). “It’s a platonic love story.”
Another love story—albeit one that’s more surprising—has been Paulson’s with Tripp, the former White House and Pentagon employee whose secret audiotapes of former friend Monica Lewinsky led to the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton. “What was interesting to me is this story is really about these three women: Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp,” says Paulson. “There is one predominant thing that we forget: that these are human beings and multidimensional people. This series gives you an opportunity to understand some of the behavior. I have more in common with Linda than I care to admit. My impatience, my desire for everything to be just so. I can tap into that with Linda. I felt a connection with her.”