The Immovable Sarah Paulson
“I feel like I wanted to be an actress in the womb - I just came out that way. I don’t understand how or why we have these impulses. Being able to make a living doing it is such a gift.”
Seven Primetime Emmy nominations, five Golden Globes nominations, and two SAG Award nominations. Sarah Paulson is one of the most reliable, sought-after actresses of our generation. With her stern domineering demeanor, Paulson commands your attention, and once she’s got it, it's hard to look away. It is no wonder why Sarah Paulson has become one of the most recognizable faces in the entertainment industry.
Paulson was born in Tampa Bay, Florida but by the time she was five years old, she was already living in New York City and soon attending the Performing Arts High School located behind The Lincoln Center. Starting at a very young age, it seems obvious that Paulson had a supportive mother at home. After leaving high school, she continued to hone her craft by attending the New York branch of The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1993.
Following her training, she was cast in a production of “Talking Pictures” at the Signature Theatre in New York. As is the rite of passage for many young actors, Paulson’s first screen credit was in a 1994 episode of Law & Order titled “Family Values.”
Throughout the nineties, Paulson worked mostly in television with recurring roles on the popular horror show American Gothic and the Warner Bros. dramedy show Jack & Jill. From here, her career has only blossomed. She worked on the rom-com What Women Want which featured Mel Gibson, Helen Hunt, Marisa Tomei, and Alan Alda about a man who suffers a head injury which gives him the ability to hear what women are thinking.
As well as the call back to the late 1950s era of rom-coms, Down with Love, which starred Ewan Mcgregor, Renee Zellweger, and David Hyde Pierce. Love follows a New York City playboy journalist and his reluctant journey of falling in love with a feminist writer. Both films remain favorites of turn-of-the-century rom-com fans. During this time of the early 2000’s she also portrayed President Lyndon Johnson’s youngest daughter, Luci Baines Johnson, in the TV movie Path to War, which dramatized the then president's foreign-policy team debating to withdraw or escalate the war in Vietnam. The cast included heavy-weights Michael Gambon, Donald Sutherland, and Alec Baldwin. It was directed by Hollywood legend John Frankenheimer.
In much of her work, you can find a certain poise and gravitas. (One reporter referred to her as “more like a no-nonsense female surgeon than a Hollywood actress.”) Television mogul Ryan Murphy shared a similar sentiment when they first met. Noting her professionalism while filming an episode of Nip/Tuck in 2004, Murphy said she was “very obsessed and worried about everything.” Since Nip/Tuck the pair has become inseparable and routinely collaborate on numerous projects (Paulson enjoys referring to Murphy as her “creative husband”). This relationship would eventually prove to be fruitful in terms of Paulson’s career but until then she stayed steadily working in television, hitting most of the major tv-shows of the time, such as Grey’s Anatomy and The Desperate Housewives. In 2005, she had a nine-episode character arch on HBO’s popular western show Deadwood and a supporting role in Joss Whedon’s sci-fi thriller Serenity, starring Nathan Fillon and Gina Torres.
Unable to get a role for Paulson on Glee, Murphy was urged, at the behest of actress Jessica Lange, to write a part specifically for her on American Horror Story. Doing exactly that, Paulson appeared in 3 episodes on the first season of the anthology show and has subsequently had major roles in nine following seasons, including the upcoming eleventh season. For her work on the show, Paulson has garnered a cult following and it is the view of many fans and critics that the ninth season titled “1984” suffered considerably without the acting chops of Paulson. The horror show would gift Paulson five primetime Emmy nominations between 2013 and 2016.
Two-thousand twelve brought a change of pace for Paulson as she began to have more substantial roles in feature films. It brought her first Primetime Emmy Award nomination as well as, her second Golden Globe Award nomination for her role as Sarah Palin advisor Nicole Wallace in HBO’s Game Change. Mud also premiered in 2012 at The Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the coveted Palme d’Or prize. The film follows two young boys living on the Mississippi River, who discover a fugitive hiding out. They begin to develop a relationship with this mysterious man, eventually forming a pact to help him avoid the vigilantes pursuing him and to reunite him with his true love. The film starred Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as the young boys, Matthew McConaughey as the fugitive, and Reese Witherspoon as his true love; with Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, and Joe Don Baker rounding out the supporting cast. While the film helped to usher in a new chapter in Paulson’s career, it is also known as one of the films that helped solidify McConaughey as a serious actor and not just rom-com eye candy - as he went on to win the “Best Actor” Oscar the following year.
"It’s my job to push this to the limit because that’s what the story requires for me and for my character. If I try to make it more palatable, I don’t think the story is told as truthfully. I think in order to really know what they were enduring, Michael and I had to commit to going somewhere and not backing off of it…” In an interview with Indiewire Paulson discussed the total commitment she had playing the contemptible Mary Ebbs, the wife of slave owner Edwin Epps, in Steve McQueen’s hailed 12 Years a Slave. The film documents the journey of Solomon Northup, a freed black man living in New York who was kidnapped and transported to New Orleans where he was kept as a slave for Edwin Epps. Paulson’s work as Mary Epps brought her considerable recognition for her ability to demand attention—menacing attention—in the perfect stillness that beautifully juxtaposes her fellow cast-mates. Mary knew of her husband's misdeeds with their slaves and would take her enraged jealousy out on them. The film was critically lauded, with a total of nine Academy Award nominations with three wins including “Best Motion Picture of the Year.”
Paulson’s next picture was another smash hit at the Oscar, Carol was nominated in six categories at the 2016 Academy Awards. A period piece directed by Todd Haynes, the film explores the intimate relationship between an aspiring photographer (Rooney Mara) with an older woman (Cate Blanchett) in 1950s New York. On top of its six Oscar nominations, Carol received five Golden Globe nominations, nine BAFTA Award nominations, and competed for the Palme d’Or at The Cannes Film Festival, as well as, being the best-reviewed film of 2015.
Paulson’s attraction to rich material with fully fledge characters refused to let up. In 2016 FX kicked off its anthology series American Crime Story with the dramatization of the O.J. Simpson trial with Paulson at the center playing the lead prosecuting attorney, Marcia Clark opposite John Travolta, Nathan Lane, and David Schwimmer as the opposing legal team, and Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. Simpson. The season went on to achieve twenty-two Primetime Emmy Awards, winning nine including “Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie” for Sarah Paulson, as well as, five Golden Globe Award nominations winning two, with one once again going to Sarah Paulson. She would return again to the show under heavy make-up to portray Linda Tripp in season three’s examination of the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. The producer list of the show reveals a friendly face, Ryan Murphy served as producer/showrunner for twenty-nine episodes, as well as, director for seven throughout its three-season run.
Adding another Hollywood legend to her director list, Paulson co-starred in Steven Spielberg’s ode to the free press, The Post, right up there with Hollywood A-listers Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, and fellow Academy past student Bruce Greenwood (Class of 1981). Following the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, detailing the governmental cover-up of U.S. Military involvement in Vietnam, the country’s first female publisher (Streep) and editor wages a battle between press and government. The cast also included Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys, and play-write Tracy Letts (whom Paulson used to date). The film made a splash at the Golden Globe Awards with six nominations.
The next few years brought a solid string of supporting roles in major feature films such as Netflix’s fan-favorite horror film Birdbox, M. Night Shyamalan’s trilogy-closer Glass, Dreamwork’s Abominable, and Hulu’s Run. Paulson once again joined Cate Blanchett in FX’s Mrs. America which chronicled conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly's fight against the Women's Equal Rights movement of the 1970s.
Another Golden Globe nomination was thrown her way for her bringing chilling calmness to Nurse Mildred Ratched in Ratched; the imagined backstory to the villainous nurse from the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Ratched landed on Netflix in September of 2020, with a second season on the way.
When discussing her appearance as Sally Freidman in Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly, Sarah said, “I haven't been on stage for about two years, which is about as long as I like to go without doing a play because I start to fear that my muscles will atrophy and I'll become a person who can't be onstage-I would never want that to happen!” With all of her onscreen success, it hasn’t deterred her from returning to the theatre. In 2005, Paulson starred as Laura Wingfield opposite the likes of Jessica Lange, Christian Slater, and Josh Lucas in the Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie. Five years later, Paulson originated the role of Lisa Morrison in Donald Margulies’ play Collected Stories at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
“[She was] probably the most exquisitely beautiful woman I’d ever seen.” In 2016, Paulson opened up about her ongoing relationship with Holland Taylor (Two and a Half Men, The Morning Show), thirty-two years her senior, saying, “If my life choices had to be predicated based on what was expected of me from a community on either side, that’s going to make me feel really straitjacketed, and I don’t want to feel that. What I can say absolutely is that I am in love, and that person happens to be Holland Taylor.” When discussing the age difference between them Paulson had this to say, “there’s a poignancy to being with someone older… I think there’s a greater appreciation of time and what you have together and what’s important, and it can make the little things seem very small.” The relationship came about after Paulson ended her five-year relationship with famed actress Cherry Jones (24, The Eyes of Tammy Faye) in an amicable split with Jones saying, “It’s the happiest breakup that's ever been. We grew so much together and now we can send each other off with a kiss and great love."
There’s absolutely nothing cheap about Sarah Paulson. From the projects she chooses to her dedication to the work to her commanding presence - it all comes from deep within her.
August Sorenson greatly contributed to this piece.