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 coming year 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 upcoming Impeachment: American Crime Story, the latest installment of his anthology series for FX.
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.”
Her thorough transformation into roles like Tripp is impressive, given how genuinely kind and funny she seems. “The whole time we worked together, I was thinking how crazy it is that this laughter-loving human could turn herself into the world’s most despicable human at the drop of a hat,” says Run director Aneesh Chaganty. “But then, when the cameras aren’t rolling, she’s back to being the coolest person in the room. Watching Sarah act is watching your movie get better. Period.” Her friend Diane Keaton is as impressed with Paulson onscreen as off. “She’s the real thing,” says Keaton. “A character-driven actress. When she leaps into those parts, my jaw drops. It’s just part of the whole landscape of her career.”
Like many of us, Paulson has survived 2020 thanks to a new puppy (Winifred T. Paulson or Winnie—the “T” is for Paulson’s partner of five years, Holland Taylor) and sharing a lot of laughs and memes with longtime friends like Keaton and Amanda Peet. “Sarah makes me laugh so hard that, on several occasions, I’ve peed in my pants. And this was even before I had children,” says Peet. “We are kind of a disaster, because the instinct to be inappropriate has only gotten worse as we’ve gotten older.”
Paulson relishes her frequent pre-COVID-19 dinners with Keaton, where the two eat and drink wine. “We love going to restaurants and coming up with life stories about the people dining around us. It’s so delightful,” she says. Keaton echoes the sentiment. “She’s smart as a whip, hilarious and curious about people’s behavior,” says Keaton. “Which makes our dinners so fun. I miss not being able to go out with her over the past nine months. She’s easy to be friends with.”
Paulson and Taylor maintain separate homes in Los Angeles—for those worried about Winnie, she travels back and forth. “We are both really independent, and there is a fluidity and elasticity to our living arrangement that works well for both of us and takes the pressure off,” says Paulson. “It’s been a good thing to allow a change of scenery. It’s such a blessing to not feel injured by wanting that space. We’re not so interested in a total mutation of our ways.” Plus, since November, both actresses have been back on set (Paulson is currently filming Impeachment and Taylor is filming a streaming series). “Frankly, the dog is the one who’s really suffering.”