Sarah Paulson on Her Emmy Night Terrors and the Perks of Acting Without a Wig, Accent or Second Head

by John Boone 10:00 AM PDT, October 11, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

When it comes to Sarah Paulson, there's no such thing as more of the same. The exceedingly versatile actress recently won her first Emmy for portraying Marcia Clark on The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Having become something of a muse for Ryan Murphy, she's also returned to his flagship FX series, American Horror Story, for the latest season, My Roanoke Nightmare, where she's busy fending off pig men and colonial ghosts. Somewhere along there, she found time to shoot a beautiful, little black-and-white indie movie, Blue Jay, that follows high school sweethearts who reunite many years later and spend one heartbreaking, often hilarious day together. (Blue Jay is in select theaters this week and on VOD Oct. 11.) Paulson phoned ET from New York to discuss her Emmy nightmares, improving for the first time, and her secret rap skills.

EXCLUSIVE: Sarah Paulson Compares Marcia Clark to Hillary Clinton Following Emmy Win

ET: I wanted to start by saying congratulations on your Emmy win! Do you have it on a shelf somewhere you get to see it every day?

Sarah Paulson: Thank you so much! I really appreciate that. I have it in a place where I can see it from my bed, so when I wake up in a midnight terror that I didn't actually win it, I can see it. Just to calm myself down. [Laughs]

Do those night terrors happen often?

No, but it did the night of or the night after! I had a nightmare that they tapped me on the shoulder and were like, "We're going to need that back. We read the wrong name on the card." And I said, "But I have the card! Bryan Cranston gave me the card! I have the envelope and it says my name on it!" And he's like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was a misprint." I woke up and sort of bleary-eyed looked across and saw it, and I was like, "[Sigh of relief]."

When did the win finally sink in?

I think after the event itself. That night was a bit like -- I'm not married, but what I imagine my own wedding would be. There were so many well-wishers and wonderful, congratulatory moments with people that every time I went to take a bite of food it was like: Put the fork down. Stand up. Say hi. I'll introduce them to Marcia. Every time you go to take a sip of your first drink of the night, you're like, Oh! You can't do that. Hi, let me shake your hand. People spend months picking out their wedding cake and then they don't even get to taste it. It was like that. It was a really fun night, but it was a little out of body and then a few nights later, Marcia and I had dinner and it started to sink in. But it's still a pretty surreal thing to have happened, I have to say!

I love this movie because I would see pictures of you and Amanda Peet together at awards shows and I always wanted you to guest star on Togetherness, but it never happened. So, this is kind of like my conciliation prize.

[Laughs] Yes, it is! Because Amanda Peet is basically why I did this movie.

How so?

She's my best friend, and she had just finished doing Togetherness with Mark [Duplass, who wrote and produced Blue Jay]. I think they were waiting to hear about the pickup while we were doing Blue Jay. When Mark called me, I just thought, "Well, this is the scariest thing I could ever contemplate doing." Because I've only ever worked in a very script-based format, so the idea of doing something improvisational was always a little scary to me. I'd never done it! I called Amanda and she said, "If they're asking, you should do it. There's just nobody else you should do that with, especially your first time." She just said she'd never felt more safe or in better hands than with them, so that's what made me decide to do it.

Photo: The Orchard

And the scripted work you've done has been with the likes of John Ridley and Aaron Sorkin, no less. In the end, how did you like doing the improv?

I ended up liking it a great deal. There was something kind of fascinating about what happens when all you have is a blueprint, but you don't have the actual building. It actually creates a sense of acute awareness and really being in the moment, because you had to be! You literally did not know what was going to come at you. I think that's a very exciting place to work, because you can surprise yourself. You're not so busy trying to adhere to whatever you decided you were going to do based on a script and what you thought was wanted. You are having to really just be present to what is actually happening, which is what we should always be doing as actors, I think, but it's hard to do.

Is there one moment when you remember surprising yourself most?

Mark said the funniest thing in the world and it caused me to spit my eggs out -- very violently! It was one of those magical things. We were reenacting our childhood-love-affair-pretend-domestic-role-playing-bit, whatever you want to call it, and we had two cameras going, one on me and one on Mark. So, that moment was incredibly spontaneous. That was really borne out of Jim really making Amanda laugh, which is also Mark making Sarah laugh. I really just spewed those eggs everywhere. And if we'd been shooting in another way, there might not have been a camera on Mark and there'd be no way to recreate that.

You can't fake an egg spit take!

You can't! [Laughs] You can try as you might, but you can't.

Watching Blue Jay, you really do feel like your and Mark's characters have a past together. What kind of work goes into creating that chemistry? Or is it just luck?

I think it's a little bit of both. We had known each other a little bit socially, because I came to visit Amanda on the set of Togetherness, and Amanda had a mafia party at her house one night and Mark was there. We had seen each other at various Emmy award party things over the years and then with his connection with Amanda and the show, it was becoming more frequent. So, I knew him a little bit, but the truth of the matter is we had at least two or three sessions where we sat together in a room with the three female producers and Alex [Lehmann], the director, and we just sat around for two or three hours and really bared our souls to each other in a way that made it feel incredibly intimate right away.

Especially across the Ryan Murphy shows, you've played such a wide array of characters. What opportunities did playing Amanda allow you as an actress?

It's the first time I've done anything in many years without an accent, another head, a wig, or an antebellum outfit and hairstyle, so it was very liberating in a sense. Sometimes those things can be very confining. Also, they can be a wonderful way to hide a little bit, which I kind of like, because anytime you have a want or any intentionality that you're playing as an actor, when you're doing it from your character's point of view and when you're making the case to your director on behalf of your character, it's a kind of safe thing to hide behind. You can't do that in this format! So, you feel a little bit exposed and, at the same time, you feel incredibly free and alert and alive and in the moment. That is something really exciting and, for me, I hadn't had that in a while.

Amanda has dreams of being the first female white rapper to open for Public Enemy and you performed "Shoop" on Fallon last week. Is this a secret talent of yours we're learning about?

Yeah! I'm actually hoping to turn it into a second career, if there's any luck. [Laughs] We didn't have a lot of talk of the rapping in our three therapy sessions, so that was something that came out while we were shooting. It just started to keep coming up in different scenes and they were able to thread it through. That was something that just happened on the day.

Do you bust out your rapping talents often in your own life?

You know, I'm known to rap in the shower a little bit.

FX renewed American Horror Story for a seventh season last week. What is one thing on your AHS bucket list that you're hoping to check off next year?

Umm...God, people ask me that question sometimes and the truth of the matter is I sort of leave that up to Ryan. He sure hasn't disappointed me yet, so we'll see. And at this point, who knows? I hope to be a part of it, but I don't know!

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]