Fall Preview 2018: Sarah Paulson on the TV Roles That Made Her Cry, Go Crazy and Feel Alive
By Desiree Murphy
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It's nearly impossible to name a TV role Sarah Paulson hasn't mastered.
The Emmy-winning actress first made her debut on the small screen in 1994, appearing as a guest on NBC's Law & Order at the age of 19. It wasn't long before the Tampa, Florida, native caught the attention of high-profile casting directors and producers, who selected her to portray more prominent roles over the years, in shows like American Gothic (1995), Jack & Jill (1999) and Leap of Faith (2002) and the HBO film Game Change (2012), which earned her her first-ever Emmy nomination. (She has since been nominated seven times, winning once.)
"I didn't know how substantial the role was going to be when I got it," Paulson told ET about portraying White House Communications Director Nicolle Wallace in Game Change. "Very exciting day in my house."
While her range of talent was undeniable back then, it wasn't until she met superstar showrunner Ryan Murphy that her career was forever changed and the world was introduced to her unmatched, chameleonlike skills that ultimately landed her a spot on ET's Most Dynamic Women of Fall 2018 list.
The duo first worked together in 2004 on an episode of Nip/Tuck, where Paulson played Agatha Ripp, a patient who claims to have stigmata. Seven years later, in 2011, Murphy called on Paulson to guest star as medium Billie Dean Howard in season one of American Horror Story, and they haven't stopped collaborating since -- the producer's muse, now 43, has appeared in every edition of the FX anthology series, including the upcoming eighth season, Apocalypse, a crossover between Murder House and Coven premiering Sept. 12 on FX.
Thanks to their longtime creative partnership and her utmost trust in Murphy, Paulson told ET in June 2012 that there's really not much she'll say no to when it comes to the characters he asks her to embody onscreen.
"Ryan Murphy is the only person I know who could ask me to come and play without giving me any idea of what the role is," explained Paulson. "It's a leap of faith, but I trust him and know that there's nothing he could throw at me that I wouldn't be excited about. The crazier the better, I say!"
In celebration of Paulson's legendary career, which includes this summer's star-studded Ocean's Eight, ET's taking a look back at some of her best, often underrated TV performances in recent years, featuring exclusive commentary from the actress herself. (Warning: major AHS spoilers ahead.)
2012: Lana Winters in Asylum
Paulson became a series regular in season two of AHS, taking on the role of a writer who is committed to an asylum for being gay, which scored her an Emmy nomination -- her second in her career at the time -- for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie.
Recalling her contract for Asylum in a June 2013 interview, Paulson said she had "absolutely no idea" what her role would be, aside from the fact that Murphy previously told her over dinner that she'd be playing a lesbian journalist named Lana who smokes.
"I had no idea that I was going to be captured by Bloody Face, no idea that Jessica Lange [who played Jude] was going to insist I have electroshock treatment to try to take away my gayness, no idea that I would attempt a coat hanger abortion, no idea that I was going to be breastfeeding Zachary Quinto, no idea that I was going to have to murder Dylan McDermott as a 75-year-old woman. None of those things were known to me," she joked. "When I say it out loud, it's funny because I can't believe I did all of those things on television. Like, what show do you do all of those things on? Only American Horror Story, people."
While Paulson received major praise for her portrayal of Lana, she told ET it was "both exhausting and exhilarating," and one of her most challenging roles to date. "I was over the moon with what I got to do, but it was quite harrowing and not easy. I remember having very melancholy days because I had to spend a lot of time in a very dark place in my brain. There have been [times] where I had to excuse myself, go into a corner and cry a little bit."
She added that as an actor, "when you are doing something emotionally draining 12 hours a day, where I was being held captive, you have to stay in a certain place mentally. I don't fancy myself a Method actress at all, but with this character, I did find myself more removed than I normally am."
2013: Cordelia Foxx in Coven
Of all the AHS characters Paulson has had the opportunity to play in the series' seven seasons, she says she's always wanted to revisit this one: Cordelia Foxx, a witch who is the headmistress of Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies and, ultimately, the new Supreme.
"Cordelia didn't really come into her own until the last few episodes, and I would love to see what would happen to someone who was basically so pure and decent and kind when she became the most powerful of them all," Paulson said in April, before revealing at the Television Critics Association press tour in August that she will, in fact, be reprising the role in Apocalypse. "What would that do, and would she be corrupted? She is her mother's daughter, and her mother [former Supreme Fiona Goode, played by Lange] was a corruptible creature. So, that would be interesting to me."
2014: Conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler in Freak Show
Proving once again that she can literally tackle anything, Paulson played both freak show performers using a mix of practical physical effects and CGI for the fourth season of AHS.
"The biggest thing is that [Ryan] knows I like a challenge. He knows that I tend to feel most alive as an actor when I'm stumped and I don’t know how to figure something out, and so you couldn’t give me more of something that would be a head-scratcher than this one," she said in January 2015. "When I have that animatronic head on, I can't even bend down to put my socks on. It's the hardest thing I've ever done."
The payoff, however, is worth the time it took to execute. "I think it looks incredible," she added.
As for Bette and Dot's Southern accents? Well, those were Paulson's idea -- and the only suggestion she had ever pitched to Murphy at the time.
"I asked if I could have a Southern accent, because I knew it was going to be very difficult for me to be playing two separate personalities sharing a body," she explained. "So, I wanted something very grounding, and my family is from the South. I said that I would love to have something that would really root me to the story, and he went, 'OK, you can have a Southern accent, that's fine!'"
2015: Hypodermic Sally in Hotel
Paulson pulled out all the stops yet again for AHS' sixth season, playing a drug addict ghost named Sally who is trapped at Hotel Cortez after being pushed out of a window.
She was also filming another Murphy project at the time, The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Less-seasoned actresses may have found double duty acting exhausting, but Paulson described the experience as "fun."
"Working really hard is good for your soul," she exclaimed. "I think I had a really good warm-up on Freak Show, playing Dot and Bette, playing a two-headed person, because it's essentially what I have now -- two heads."
2016: Marcia Clark in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story
While many of the AHS characters Paulson has played have received recognition from fans and TV critics, it wasn't until 2016 that she landed her first-ever Emmy win, for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for her portrayal of prosecutor Marcia Clark during the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson. She told ET backstage after winning the accolade that she was going to celebrate by "having a cocktail and taking my shoes off!"
But all jokes aside, she couldn't have been more grateful for the win, saying, "This is an incredible honor."
Earlier onstage, Paulson marveled over Clark, telling the crowd during her acceptance speech that the responsibility of playing a real person is an "enormous one."
"The more I learned about the real Marcia Clark, not the two-dimensional cardboard cutout I saw on the news, but the complicated, whip-smart, giant-hearted mother of two who woke up every day, put both feet on the floor and dedicated herself to righting an unconscionable wrong…the more I had to recognize that I, along with the rest of the world, had been superficial and careless in my judgment," she added.
Paulson also received a Critics' Choice Television Award, TCA Award, SAG Award and Golden Globe for the role, as well as a "thumbs up" from her girlfriend, Holland Taylor.
To get into character, Paulson told ET that she wore the same perfume as Clark and watched as many videos of her as possible. She also met the attorney while the series was in production.
"For me, it's kind of an exciting thing," she said of playing the role. "[Marcia] is who she is, I'm just trying to honor that, but she was not given any credit or respect at the time for the work she was trying to do."
2016: Audrey Tindall in Roanoke
Perhaps Paulson's least talked-about AHS role is Audrey Tindall, the British actress who plays Shelby Miller (Lily Rabe) in the Roanoke show-within-a-show, My Roanoke Nightmare.
Paulson's co-stars found her performance inspiring, especially Adina Porter, who played real-life Shelby's sister-in-law, Lee Harris. In an interview with ET at the time, Porter -- who was initially hired for only six episodes -- credited Paulson for helping her elevate her own performance, which resulted in her character ultimately being one of the season's surprising survivors… until, of course, the finale.
"I'm a working actor and I'm really appreciative to be a working actor, but it's another level when you're a working actor with the likes of Sarah Paulson," Porter raved. "I knew, ‘OK, I have to bring my A game because this is how these people operate -- especially Miss Paulson.'"
"I really like that I had an opportunity to be involved with people where you could not phone it in. You have to be alert every second of the way -- and with Miss Paulson, every freaking second of the way, because she'll call you on it if she feels like you're not being genuine in the moment," she added. "I feel really good that she liked me. Because I think if she didn't like me, I could have been killed off in episode seven!"
2017: Ally Mayfair Richards in Cult
Paulson is in the running for another Emmy this year -- Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie -- for her role as the liberal, anxiety-ridden Ally Mayfair-Richards in AHS: Cult. Following Donald Trump's victory in the November 2016 election, Ally's fear of what will happen to the country (and her marriage) once he becomes president brings back her history of severe panic attacks and biggest phobias, like clowns, holes, blood, coffins and tight spaces.
While Paulson had a plethora of memorable scenes in Cult, guest director Liza Johnson will never forget her time working with the actress on episode two, where Ally shared an intimate bathtub moment with her new nanny, Winter Anderson, portrayed by Billie Lourd.
"It was really fun for me to get to work with [Sarah]," Johnson explained to ET. "Being an actor overall is really vulnerable, so being an actor naked or being an actor doing a sex scene is especially vulnerable. I think that any time that I'm doing that, I try to really mark out what's going to happen, so that everyone knows what to expect."
Simply put, "Sarah is a pro," she said.
Next up, you can catch Paulson in American Horror Story: Apocalypse. In addition to reprising her roles as Cordelia from Coven and Billie Dean from Murder House, she'll also be playing a new character named Venable, and will be directing the sixth episode of the season.
Other previously announced returning AHS stars include Jessica Lange, Evan Peters, Emma Roberts, Kathy Bates, Billie Lourd, Leslie Grossman and Adina Porter, with Joan Collins, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman and Kyle Allen also joining this season's cast.