Issue Nº8 deals with Naturalism, and Sarah Paulson is a natural. As part of the ensemble of the wickedly glorious anthology series American Horror Story, she manages to insert a sense of realism into characters that are made up of anything but. Paulson grew up in New York City, and went to the famed High School of Music & Performing Arts. Just four months after graduating, she found work in plays like Horton Foote’s Talking Pictures, and Wendy Wasserstein’s Broadway hit The Sisters Rosensweig. Paulson moved to LA and started taking on TV, in shows like American Gothic, Jack & Jill (where our paths first crossed) and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Since then, she’s been back on Broadway in The Glass Menagerie and turned in notable performances in films like Martha Marcy May Marlene and 12 Years a Slave. But it’s her deliciously varied roles on American Horror Story that’s got the world going gaga. Even, it would seem, Gaga.
Alec: Tell me about going to Laguardia (High School of Music & Performing Arts). I imagine it to be a total dream, even if it was nothing like the movie.
Sarah: It was completely life altering. When I went there I was told there were about three thousand kids auditioning for the drama department and sixty of us got accepted. So, it was sixty kids that really, really wanted to be actors. So, not only to be in Manhattan, but also to be in a building behind Julliard and Lincoln Center that was filled with performers was just… a stimulating and soothing place to be.
Does the school teach a specific acting technique?
You’re taught different things depending on your teacher. There was one teacher, this Russian man named Marat Yusim, who I guess was fully Stanislavski, but that wasn’t the school’s only focus. He was an incredible teacher. I remember having a conversation with (fellow alum) Jennifer Aniston once and she was saying how he was so tough, and he was. He was so tough on you! But the truth was he was tough on you if he thought you were good.
You started working pretty much right out of high school.
I got very lucky.
So you don’t have those obligatory stories of being a waitress, or spraying perfume at Bloomingdales…
Well, I had one. I got a job at Circle’s Pizza in Brooklyn. I worked there for one day. I am a terrible speller. Someone ordered chicken parmesan, and I couldn’t spell it. It didn’t occur to me that I could abbreviate it to just “parm”. I called my mother in a panic, “How do you spell ‘parmesan’?!” And then someone ordered eggplant Parmesan, and I was like, “I just… can’t”.
That was it.
It was really terrible for me! And I quit. But then, a few months later I got Sisters Rosensweig, so…
You understudied Amy Ryan?
SP: Yes. And at the end of the run, I got to go on for two weeks. It changed everything for me.
You went to LA.
I did. I did a show called American Gothic. I try to do shows that have the word “American” in the title. American Gothic, American Horror Story, American Crime Story…
I noticed that. It’s very impressive.
Thanks! American Gothic is the thing that brought me to LA. I tested and got it. When it was cancelled, I went back to New York to do a play and then I came back to LA to do a show called Jack & Jill, and I’ve been here ever since.
So, here’s our six degrees of separation. A billion years ago I was an actor in LA, and I did an episode of Jack & Jill.
You did not.
Yes, I did. I’m surprised you don’t remember my stunning turn as a very flamboyant book agent. I had one scene.
That is so amazing.
Good memories working on the show?
The biggest thing is that it’s where I met my best friend. Amanda Peete was the gift given to me from that experience.
With American Horror Story, I’m curious how you prepare for these extreme roles. Do you feel like your strong theater education helps bring you into these incredible characters?
No. I actually think it’s my genetic makeup in the sense that I was born with a very big imagination. There is no world or frame of reference to guide you with these stories, because they are so extreme. You just have to dive in. Nothing small works here. I said this to Lady Gaga the other day, because it was her first day on set. There is no world in which whatever choice you make would be wrong here, because the world is so extreme that almost anything goes.
Some of the scenes in AHS are unbearably terrifying to watch. I mean, having Bloody Face standing over you, or that clown in Freak Show… Are they as terrifying in the moment while you’re shooting?
It’s a weird thing that happens when you are putting yourself in a reality that you know isn’t true. Mentally, I know that I’m not scared, but physically, my body is communicating terror in a way that my brain has one part that knows it’s not real, and the other part is believing it. So, it’s draining and there’s a price to pay physically for it. But it’s totally worth it to me because it’s such engaging work. I’d much rather be doing this than playing some nice lawyer on some other show, you know?
Do you have any say in what you want to play next, or something you want to lean towards in terms of a new character choice?
In season four (Freak Show), I told Ryan (Murphy, co-creator of AHS) that I wanted the twins to be Southern, because I was going to be playing something so out of my comfort zone. I’ve never had any experience at all that correlates with having another person’s head attached to mine … I wanted something grounded… because my grandmother, my mother, my father are all from the South, I wanted something that rooted me in reality, and he was totally open to that. So there’s collaboration in that sense. But, I think the things he’s come up with and he’s given me are so extraordinary that I don’t dare say, “What about this?” because I think he’s done a really fine job. And this year particularly, I’ve never played a villain on the show. The idea of playing someone who is really out for themselves I think is interesting for Ryan to ask me to do because I’ve never done it on the show before.
I’m sure I’ll end up watching through my fingers, but still. I can’t wait.
Photography: Nino Muñoz
Stylist: Johnny Wujek
Hair: Laini Reeves
Makeup: Adam Breuchaud using Chanel Les Beige
Manicurist: Sarah Chue using Séche Vite
Studio Manager: Ursula Strauss
Styling Assistant: Alana Van Deraa
Photography Assistants: Gregory Brouillette & John Fitts
Digital Tech: Carl Novick
Location: Milk Studios, L.A.