It’s the morning after the Emmy Awards, and ensconced in her hotel in Beverly Hills, a still-beaming Sarah Paulson can’t stop looking at her new accessory: the golden trophy she has long coveted. After five nominations, she finally heard her name called on Sunday evening, then stood on the stage of the Microsoft Theater to accept the Emmy Award for lead actress in a limited series for her role in “The People v. O.J. Simpson.”
But this wasn’t just a win for herself, she says; it was a triumph, two decades in coming, for Marcia Clark, the prosecutor she played to critical acclaim in the FX show.
Paulson used her acceptance speech to offer an apology to Clark, whom she’d brought along as her date for the ceremony.
“I, along with the rest of the world, had been superficial in my judgement,” said Paulson in her speech, “and I’m glad that I’m able to stand here in front of everyone today and say, ‘I’m sorry.’”
It was the first time Paulson had ever prepared a speech, despite all of her previous nominations.
“I don’t think I’m one of those girls who can get up there and wing it,” she says. “I have too many feelings that would get in the way of knowing how to speak eloquently.”
But as much as she wanted to thank every writer and crew member by name, she knew there were two people she needed to use her precious 45 seconds to praise: executive producer Ryan Murphy, who has championed her career, and Clark.
“The thing I kept coming back to was I wanted to cut to the quick of how abandoned I felt she was by women, almost as a collective,” Paulson says. “It just felt like everyone wanted to drop the hot potato that was Marcia Clark. I so felt for her, having only played it. Multiply that by a million, and also have it be your actual life.”
Paulson brought Clark with her backstage to watch as the trophy was engraved with both of their names: “Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark.”
She’s been reading that plaque a lot this morning, she admits in her hotel room, surrounded by bouquets of congratulatory flowers from the likes of her “American Horror Story” co-star Matt Bomer and her partner, Holland Taylor.
“I didn’t know it was going to say my name and the character I played,” she says, as she steals another glance at the trophy. “But it was incredibly appropriate.”
Paulson, 41, has long joked that she’s wanted to be an actress since she was in the womb. But her path to fame was a long, slow burn: She endured a string of failed pilots and aborted series like NBC’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”
“I never was on a show that lasted more than a year,” she says.
Growing up, her sister, Liz, predicted that her success would be a long time in coming. “She always said to me, ‘It’s not going to happen for you until later in life,’” says Paulson. “‘I know you want it now. I know you feel you should have it now. But you’re going to have to wait.’”
Back then, Paulson would simply tease her sister for being “a little psychic” and dismiss whatever she forecast (even if she was uncannily able to guess whatever number Paulson might have in mind).
It was when she saw Liz at Fox’s after-party that the win finally sank in — and Paulson let the tears flow. It wasn’t just that Liz’s long-ago prediction had been right; it was that seeing her newly married sister struck a chord, reminding her of their struggles growing up.
“I started to think about where she had been in her life a few months ago, and what we had endured as the child of a single parent,” says Paulson. “I know what it was like to be the child of someone working and trying to mother, and being the sister of someone working and trying to mother. Playing Marcia gave me a whole panoramic view of what that was like.”
Collapsing into Liz’s arms at the party felt like a validation of everything she has worked for the past two decades, she says. “My sister probably wanted that win for me more than anyone in the world.”
One man may beg to differ: Ryan Murphy. There’s little question that Paulson’s partnership with him has transformed her career. Ever since he first cast her in “Nip/Tuck” in 2003, he’s found a role for her in nearly every project he has worked on.
All of her nominations — save 2012’s “Game Change” — have come from his projects. And their union shows no sign of slowing down: She’s currently filming season six of “American Horror Story” ; she’ll play Geraldine Page in his upcoming limited series “Feud,” opposite Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange; and she’s on deck for the second installment of “American Crime Story,” which will focus on Hurricane Katrina.
Paulson tears up talking about the standing ovation that Sterling K. Brown received when he was recognized for his work as Christopher Darden.
“It’s the one award that if nothing else happened, even my own, I wanted that for him,” she says. “There are actors in that room who have been doing this forever, who have been coming to the Emmys forever, standing up for this man. His work was that powerful.”
Yet she was slow to accept those same sentiments for herself, even as stars came up to her throughout the ceremony with compliments.
“As an actor, you’re always afraid that you don’t belong, especially when you keep getting let into rooms that you’re not sure you should be in, with more people that you respect and admire,” she says. “You say to yourself quietly, ‘I hope they don’t realize that they let me in here and make me leave.’ Somehow, standing there with all of those people, their reaction made me think that I belonged.”
As much as she used to practice giving speeches into the bathroom mirror when she was young, she says nothing prepared her for the moment when Claire Danes called her name.
It was “surreal” when she was escorted up the stairs of the stage by Bryan Cranston, who handed her the award as well as the envelope bearing her name, saying, “You’re gonna want to keep this.”
“I’m never going to forget that he handed it to me, and that he reminded me to take a breath,” she says. “It really is a fairy-tale kind of thing.”
The biggest payoff, she says, is more opportunity. “This means someone else will ask me to do something great.”
They already have. The last time Variety interviewed Paulson, she jokingly said, “I want to be in the all-female ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ with Sandra Bullock. Call me up, Sandy!”
Indeed, Bullock did.
Now Variety can confirm that Paulson has officially signed on for “Ocean’s Eight,” with Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, and Awkwafina. The film will be directed by Gary Ross.
Among the flood of congratulatory messages she received after the Emmys was a text from Bullock.
“I had an emoji from Sandra Bullock!” she laughs. “That’s a really good day.
“To be 41 years old, approaching 42, and to have all of this?” she adds. “We all know what goes up must come down, right? I’m just trying to keep my eye on the horizon.”
She hasn’t done a play in three years, and she’s itching to get back to the stage — which she calls her “holy place” — perhaps in “A Doll’s House,” she muses, or “The Goat.”
But for now, she’d like to head behind the camera: Angela Bassett helmed an episode of “American Horror Story” this season, and Paulson’s working up the courage to ask Murphy to give her a shot.
“I understand the tone of the show. I know what Ryan responds to and doesn’t respond to, and I’m very interested in story,” she says. “I think it would be a safe place for me to try — where I would have a really big cushion around me, that if I fell, it wouldn’t hurt too much.”
From anthology master Ryan Murphy, American Crime Story examines the dark underbelly of America’s passions and prejudices. Beginning with The People V. O.J. Simpson, which made the nation reevaluate the O.J. Simpson murder trial, stars Sarah Paulson, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Courtney B. Vance, and producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson, explain why crime isn’t the exclusive preserve of criminals.
Sarah Paulson is Marcia Clark
One day on set, Sarah Paulson checked her email more than she usually did. She was sitting on location in Los Angeles, not far from where Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman had been murdered, and she’d mentioned that fact in the message to which she was waiting on a response. People in the crew asked her—all day—whether she’d heard back yet. “It was like I’d written to someone I had a crush on,” Paulson says, “wanting to know if they’d go on a date with me.”
But she did have a crush, of a sort. When Ryan Murphy approached her about The People v. O.J. Simpson, she had consumed every book on the trial she could find. “I read Toobin’s book, I read Darden’s book and I read Marcia’s book, grabbing information wherever I could.” The Marcia Clark she found within the pages of the former prosecutor’s account of the trial had not been the dowdy incompetent the news media had painted. “I came to have so much respect and admiration for her,” Paulson says now. “But I feared if I met her, I would all of a sudden feel like I had to tell every part of this story from the actual Marcia Clark’s point of view, which might have got in the way of telling the story as it was written.”
So she delayed sending an email to Clark until she was well into shooting. By that point, there were only three episodes left, and she’d just wrapped the hardest task she faced on the show: the episode “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”, which was all about Clark’s own trials as she prosecuted this case. She offered dinner, lunch, a drink, a coffee; anything that would have resulted in a scrap of Clark’s time.
Marcia Clark opted for dinner. “And it was a surreal, out-of-body experience.” When she walked into the restaurant, Paulson’s immersion in all things Marcia meant she recognized her instantly from her gait and the way she used her hands. Clark had wanted to be a dancer and had done a lot of training in her youth that had informed her posture. “I did all those physical things in the show, and I don’t think anyone noticed them,” Paulson laughs. “We had a wonderful evening together, drank plenty of tequila, and closed the restaurant down.”
They talked about life, they talked about art, they talked about the O.J. trial; and Paulson noted the emotion in Clark’s voice when they settled on the latter. Professionally, O.J. Simpson’s acquittal had been a blow to Marcia Clark. But personally, the work that had gone into building the prosecution’s case, and the way the world scrutinized its execution on live television, had been devastating. “If I loved her before, I loved her even more after this dinner,” says Paulson. “The thing that mattered most of all to me was that there was integrity and honesty in the performance, because she had so much integrity, and her own moral compass was of paramount importance to her.”
When it started airing in February, The People v. O.J. Simpson became as much of a watercooler topic as the trial it was depicting. Through the meticulous research of the writing staff, which extended well beyond the pages of Toobin’s book, the show felt like it was breaking news every week: sending facts into the world that the media of the time didn’t know—or didn’t care—to report. “There was only so much a camera in a courtroom was going to pick up on,” notes Courtney B. Vance, who plays defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran. “We weren’t following them home. We weren’t with Darden and Marcia, or Johnnie, or any of the other participants. We wouldn’t have known the drama. Via the news media, it looked like these dream teams were at each other’s throats, but we didn’t know any details.”
“[The trial] was the first celebrated reality show extravaganza of its era,” notes Gooding. “Out of that trial were born a number of facets of celebrity that are still dissected today, from the Kardashians to Judge Judy and all of these shows.”
It’s funny,” adds Paulson, “because people have said to me that, if the trial were to happen today it would be very different for Marcia. She would have had more support. I completely disagree. There are so many platforms, now, from which to stand and bash people. Can you imagine the blare of it now with Twitter and Facebook and Instagram? The cacophony of sound?”
Still, the glare of the trial at the time, and the way people remember it, presented a unique challenge for the cast, who had to battle the preconceptions of a world that had dined out on Simpson’s legal troubles for almost a year. For Gooding, this meant tapping into O.J. Simpson’s emotional core, and discarding the rest. But he was surprised with the voracity of the enquiries he’s had about his own take on what went down on Bundy Drive that one fateful night. “It’s the first time I’ve played a character where people want to ask what my position is on his guilt or innocence more than they do my performance,” he laughs. “But it’s my job to give the director the tools he needs to manipulate the performance in the editing room, and that puts me in an almost schizophrenic frame of mind where I can go from guilty to innocent in any moment. The hardest part was playing this split personality. It was almost like playing twins.”
It wasn’t until Paulson did her deep dive into Marcia that she even knew it would be possible to play the part. “Everybody enjoyed the pastime of making fun of her, belittling her and joking about her appearance. Myself included, by the way. How was I going to be able to offer up anything new? I was scared—which typically is a sign that I have to do something. I had no idea the scripts would be so enlightening, and show a whole entire side of her that no one even thought about at the time.”