Sarah is featured on the cover of the new issue of Harper’s Bazaar. Here is a highlight of the article.
I hate asking celebrities about their personal lives, but I love celebrity gossip. I will happily read Bossip or Lainey Gossip or People, and idly speculate about celebrities and their romantic entanglements, real estate transactions, mistakes, or triumphs. And yet I don’t want to be the person who extracts this information. I don’t want to get my hands dirty. It makes me uncomfortable to pry, intrude, encroach. But still I am nosy. It’s a real predicament.
Sarah Paulson is first and foremost an actor—and a formidable one at that. Over the course of her career, she has perfected the steely glare, the tight smile, the precisely arched eyebrow. Paulson has certainly found her lane, but when she has stretched her craft, she has done so with aplomb. In Ocean’s 8, for example, Paulson uses her dry humor to great effect as Tammy, a wife and mother who also happens to be a fence. Or in her new Netflix series, Ratched, as the iconic asylum nurse Mildred Ratched from Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Milos Forman’s 1975 film version, a notoriously cruel character who Paulson somehow makes human. It is because of her humor, intelligence, and creative versatility that Paulson’s fans are legion, and I count myself among them. Though she may not identify as such, Paulson is also a celesbian, a self-explanatory Internet portmanteau of affection. She is in a relationship with Holland Taylor, another great actor and celesbian. I love saying the word “celesbian”—it rolls right off the tongue—and I love any and all gossip about celesbians because they are so few and far between. No one should ever be defined by their romantic life, but as a queer woman it is surprisingly wonderful to see relationships that reflect my own.
As I prepared for our interview, my wife gently insisted that I ask Paulson how she feels about being a celesbian. I said I would try, cringing inside, but then it wasn’t a problem because Paulson was forthcoming about their relationship from the outset. She and Taylor have been together for almost six years. They both own homes in Los Angeles. They go back and forth between each other’s places every few days. Taylor calls everyone a “lovely girl” or “darling,” and is more inclined to respond to Internet trolls. They deal with the same issues any couple does trying to live a shared life. Our conversation was peppered with anecdotes about their relationship. I was delighted, I tell you. DELIGHTED.
Paulson expressed the ambivalence that I suspect a lot of celebrities harbor about being private people in a public world. “To feel that I belong to anyone other than a person I would like to belong to, like Holland or my dog or my best friend or my sister … A bunch of strangers claiming me as their own feels a little confusing,” she told me. “Since I’m not an expert at figuring out how to move around it, I end up giving more than I want to sometimes.”
Paulson and Taylor’s relationship is often the source of speculation because of their age difference—Taylor is 77, and Paulson is 45. Or people speculate because they are both famous or because they are two women open about their relationship and that is still something of a novelty no matter how far we think we have come. I asked Paulson why people are so preoccupied with the age gap. An unwillingness to confront mortality seems to be part of it, she concluded, but it also reflects “our own ageist thinking and the idea that to be old is to cease to have any desire.” In general, Paulson said, the attention she and Taylor receive is positive, but when it isn’t she does not take to it kindly. “Anybody says anything about any person I love in a way that is disrespectful or cruel and I want to cut a bitch.”
When she said those words, I absolutely believed she is capable of cutting a bitch, and I had only one ambition throughout our conversation—to not be a bitch who gets cut. We spoke for a couple of hours in August, the way nearly everything is done these days, at a distance, via Zoom. Paulson was in her L.A. home in what appeared to be her office. She sat with her legs pulled under her, in a flowy white dress, her shoulder-length hair wet and slicked back, her face unadorned by makeup. It is beside the point, but she is arrestingly beautiful—wide eyes, sharp cheekbones, and an even sharper wit. Behind her, black-and-white photos, and an Emmy statue, the golden arms reaching toward the sky—a subtle, elegant flex. Paulson won the award in 2016, for her portrayal of embattled prosecutor Marcia Clark in The People v. O.J. Simpson. She had been nominated four times previously, primarily for her work in Ryan Murphy’s anthology program American Horror Story but also for her role as former Republican operative (and current MSNBC host) Nicolle Wallace in the 2012 HBO movie Game Change.
More recently, Paulson appeared with Bette Midler, Issa Rae, Dan Levy, and Kaitlyn Dever in HBO’s Coastal Elites, a film comprising five vignettes that was shot in our new abnormal. Paulson plays a YouTube meditation guru grappling with Covid-19, the political climate, and her family, who ascribe to rather different politics. Paulson shot her scenes in her guest house, working with the director, Jay Roach, via laptop. The writer was in New York. The film crew was on her deck. It wasn’t her favorite way of working. “I’m not interested in acting with me. I like to look at another pair of eyes, not my own.” Paulson also leads the upcoming Hulu horror film Run, about the mother of a wheelchair-bound teen, played by Kiera Allen, who begins to realize that something is amiss in her life. As always, Paulson brings technical precision to the role, chilling as a woman determined to keep her daughter at any cost.
But Paulson’s most interesting role to date may well be Ratched. Her name was the first on the call sheet, and she serves as an executive producer on the series, which premiered on Netflix in September. (They are already developing a second season.) An origin story set in the 1940s, Ratched is visually sumptuous—the costumes and scenery, both natural and otherwise, are impeccable. The story is quietly terrifying, but also full of unexpected empathy. We see, over the span of eight episodes, what transforms Mildred Ratched into the cold, immovable woman we’d later encounter, and the character evolves in surprising ways. She does things that seem inexplicable, until they don’t. She demonstrates tenderness in harsh circumstances. “We were going for something, and I’m proud of it,” Paulson said. “It’s an exploration, and it has something to say, and it looks beautiful. It’s dangerous. It’s scary. It’s sexy.” Paulson was also a force on Ratched behind the scenes, an active participant in all the hiring decisions, with equity in the project. “I realized that not only could she be the lead actress, but I wanted her to produce with me,” Murphy said. “It was this great evolution of our partnership.”
And Paulson took that partnership seriously, even breaking a long-standing pledge not to watch her own performances. “I feel a real sense of accomplishment with it,” she said. “I still to this day have not watched People v. O.J. Not seen it. That was the beginning of my commitment to not watching myself. But because I’m executive-producing Ratched and because it was my first time doing something like this, I watched every frame of it, dailies every single day. And it was a very confronting experience. Dealing with one’s face is really something. It’s really something to just be confronted with your mug.”
At this point I am supposed to say that amid all this acclaim Sarah Paulson is having a moment, but Paulson has been working steadily for more than two decades. She is an avowed perfectionist and control freak. She is ambitious, but mostly about growing as an actor and being able to more easily sit in her work. She is, in her own words, exacting and self- critical, and yearns to get beyond the constant self-assessment. “That kind of freedom,” she said, “it’s happened to me so few times. When it has happened it’s like a drug.”
Looking at the map of her life, Paulson traces the origin of her perfectionism to her upbringing. “I was left alone a lot as a child,” she recalled. She was born in Tampa, Florida, but after her parents split up when she was five, she moved to New York with her mom, who worked as a waitress at Sardi’s while pursuing a career as a writer. As a kid, Paulson often bargained with herself, thinking that achieving perfection in everything she did would manifest the things she wanted most. “There was a wish fulfillment, magical thinking, ‘If I could be X, I could have Y,’ ”
Paulson said. “The idea that the world worked in this very cut-and-dried way seemed like a way for me to manage my fear. Perfectionism is often a real consequence of being terrified.”
After working as a Broadway understudy, Paulson landed her first professional on- screen role as Maggie Conner, a teenager suspected of killing her mother, in the fifth season of the original Law & Order. The year was 1994. She had recently done a Horton Foote play with the Signature Theatre Company and hadn’t put much effort into applying to college, maybe because she wanted to get into the work of acting immediately, but maybe because she was afraid of the unknown and of straying too far from home. That’s how she found herself engaging in what has become a rite of passage for New York actors. “I didn’t know you could turn your head on camera. I moved like I had a neck brace on the whole time,” Paulson said. By the time she returned to the Law & Order universe in 2010, this time on the Special Victims Unit franchise, she had learned to move her head, and much more. In “Shadow,” she plays Anne Gillette, an heiress suspected of murdering her parents. She takes a wonderfully sociopathic turn as Gillette—demure and elegant and assured and oblivious in the way of the wealthy and entitled. In the ensuing years, Paulson continued to grace screen and stage, but the kinds of opportunities she’s now enjoying eluded her. There is a very narrow and rigid career trajectory for most women who act. They are the ingenue, and then they aren’t. They are the sex object or the love interest, and then they age into onscreen motherhood, and then they age into dotage, and then they are 40 and their career ends. There are exceptions, but those are exceedingly rare. “I was very aware that the window was closing,” Paulson said. “I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to squeeze my body through it. But I kept trying.”
The tide began to turn, Paulson said, with the trifecta of Game Change, 12 Years a Slave, and American Horror Story. For 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, she made an audition tape that McQueen’s daughter actually watched. She told her father that Paulson was the scariest person she’d ever seen, so he should probably cast her. And with that endorsement, McQueen did. As Mistress Epps, Paulson is chilling, embodying the ways in which white women were complicit in slavery, especially in the subjugation of enslaved Black women. As she prepared for the part, McQueen told Paulson, “If you judge her, this will not work. You cannot do it.” Paulson’s performance is magnetic and appalling, compelling and repulsive. You want to look away from the brutality of the performance, but you can’t. You shouldn’t.
Paulson welcomes the darkness of such roles. “It’s where the good stuff is,” she said. “I’m much more interested in where there isn’t nobility. Human beings so often are motivated by the ugliest part of themselves … the stuff we don’t want to admit to ourselves about what we’re hungry for.”
“What’s interesting about Sarah,” McQueen said, “is that there’s a fear, but that fear is overridden by her power. She gets better and better each take. When she’s really comfortable, it becomes extraordinary and different and unexpected.”
Paulson’s costar Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work in 12 Years a Slave, which was her first movie. “I was terribly nervous and shy on set, though I think I hid it well,” Nyong’o said. “In walked Sarah, with a big, generous smile and warm spirit. I recall her coaxing me out of my shell by asking thoughtful questions and sharing freely of herself.” Nyong’o and Paulson developed a tight bond off set. “I feel so blessed that she continues to be just a phone call away,” Nyong’o said.
Ryan Murphy first worked with Paulson on Nip/Tuck in 2004. He later tried to work with her again on Glee, but she wasn’t available. Their creative stars finally aligned in 2011 with American Horror Story, and Paulson has become something of a muse for Murphy. I tend to disdain the notion of men and their muses. It seems like quite a lot of unpaid emotional labor for women. But in this instance, the relationship has been mutually beneficial and enriching. “She knows every light, every camera angle,” Murphy said. “She’s a savant about memorization. She knows everybody’s part. She makes other actors sit up straighter and bring their A game.”
The premise of American Horror Story changes each season, which allows for a creatively dynamic environment for the cast. “The biggest gift I’ve ever been given in my working life has been what my being on American Horror Story has made permissible with my relationship with an audience,” said Paulson. “They don’t expect any particular thing with me. That’s afforded me a tremendous amount of freedom.”
Paulson’s frequent scene partner on American Horror Story has been Jessica Lange, whom she’d worked with onstage, in a 2005 production of The Glass Menagerie. Lange appreciates the energy Paulson brings to a performance. “She comes to it with a full range of emotions,” said Lange. “There’s nothing artificial. There’s no grandstanding. It’s always coming from a place of great honesty and emotion.”
Though much of her career has been spent in supporting roles, Paulson has a way of creating a center of gravity in each character. “Sarah is a ferocious actor,” Murphy said. “She attacks. She doesn’t sit back.”
“When I started out I was playing a lot of supporting parts, and I didn’t know if this was just going to be the story for me,” Paulson said. “I used to think of it like a building. You need a buttress.”
I asked Paulson if she ever thinks, “Fuck it, I’m going to chew the shit out of this scene.” She laughed. “Can you imagine? That would be such a great way to be. Why not? Nobody wants to celebrate themselves enough. You can say as many shitty, self-deprecating things about yourself and no one would say anything other than, ‘Oh, how charming.’ ” Indeed, Paulson is right. For women in particular, the vigorous performance of low self-esteem is de rigueur. Like many creative people, Paulson seems to balance self-effacement with the confidence of someone who is a master of her craft and is finally being recognized as such. McQueen is effusive on this point. “There are actors, and then there are artists,” he said. “She’s an artist.”
If there is something more to want from her work, Sarah Paulson is going to find it. “It’s the one place I don’t feel frightened in terms of my ability to go somewhere unpleasant,” she said. “I am unafraid to be ugly. I feel a certain sense of pride about being able to do that and without all the things that happen in every other aspect of my life when that comes up. But in this one area, I can actually say I feel capable of being fearless.”