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Still Life’s Sarah Paulson on How She Beat Stage Fright

Sarah Paulson is perhaps best known for her part in Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Since then, she's starred on the ABC series Cupid as well as the Off Broadway productions of Crimes of the Heart and The Gingerbread House. In Alexander Dinelaris’ Still Life, opening tonight at the MCC Theater, she plays a famous photographer who can't pick up her camera after a tragic loss. Paulson spoke with Vulture about her battle with stage fright, her emotional new role, and her Jeremy Piven–doppelganger co-star.

How did the part come about for you?
It’s so funny when people ask me that. It’s like if I was Julia Roberts and I’m just sifting through so many things that I just can’t figure out what to do next. No, I was in Los Angeles, and I said to my agent that I really wanted to do a play, and — not to say anything disparaging about agents — but they’re never too excited necessarily for you to do a play because they don’t make any money because you’re not making any money. So, you know, they always sort of nod and smile at me and pat me on the head. And they sent me the script, and I really liked it, and it just happened to coincide in a time frame that I had open. That’s a boring answer, but that’s the truth.

Was there something about the character of Carrie Ann that you really related to?
You know, I think it’s always really interesting, people who are in the throes of something, good, bad, or otherwise. That’s much more interesting than watching someone who already survived something. She’s kind of right in the middle of this grieving process and is also sort of coming alive at the same time because she meets Jeff. So it’s a funny kind of crossroads that she’s at. And I thought she had a lot of humor too, which I liked about her.

Obviously you’re an actress and she’s a photographer, but as an artist, have you ever gone through a period like that, where you just kind of shut down for a bit?
Gosh, I never refer to myself as an artist. I don’t know why it makes me so uncomfortable. I’ve never gone through something like that, but I have had bouts of stage fright and that’s been really paralyzing. It’s not the same as having an emotional reason for shutting down like Carrie Ann does. Mine is similar to hers in that it’s fear-based, that I’m so convinced everyone’s going to think I suck. And I have had times where I’ve thought, Oh, I wonder if I’ll never be able to do a play again because I can’t actually handle being onstage. And that was a scary time, but knock on wood, that’s subsided a little bit. I don’t know if it’s gone because it’s always there a little bit, but it’s no longer got me by the throat.

How did you get over it?
Drugs. Pharmaceuticals. Just kidding. No, I could have taken beta blockers and all those things — I just, I don’t know, therapy, forcing myself to do, having to walk myself through worst-case scenarios.

We’ll admit we cry very easily, but we definitely got teary during this play. Do you find yourself getting emotionally involved?
Yeah, I find the whole thing upsetting. I try to not think about it as much as possible until I get to work because otherwise I think I would not get out of bed. But I think there’s a lot of hope in it too because through loving this person she kind of gets through something that she wasn’t going to get through prior to it. But, no, I try to kind of keep myself separated from it because I need to access it just when I’m there — because if I think about it too much, I would cry too much during the day and then I’d have nothing to do the play with. I would be sort of a shell of my emotional self. But it’s one of those things where sometimes in a play or movie, you have to kind of use other things to get you emotional, but this play is actually kind of helpful because you just have to do the play to get to where you need to be by the end of it. It kind of takes you along with it, which is nice and a real testament to Alex [Dinelaris]’s writing. And that doesn’t happen all the time at all.

Did you know Alex or the other actors before?
Fred [Weller] I had done a reading with, and my friend Jenny Dundas, who I did Crimes of the Heart with, is very good friends with he and his wife, so I had met him socially. Adriane Lenox was in Doubt with Cherry [Jones], so I was around that and knew her a little bit. But everyone else was totally new to me. And I didn’t know Alex at all, I didn’t know [director] Will Frears.

We also really liked the actor who played Terry.
Oh, yeah, Matt Rauch. Matt Rauch is the other person that I know very well — we did a pilot together six or seven years ago in L.A. I think he’s a wonderful actor, sort of like if Jeremy Piven wasn’t around, he’d have a huge career.

That’s exactly what we were going to say! The whole time we were like, “He is Jeremy Piven.”
He is Jeremy Piven. And if Jeremy Piven would just go away, everything would be A-OK. Everybody says it. It’s so funny — it’s kind of a blessing and a curse.

On Twitter recently, you mentioned you read a script that "everyone says is so amazing" but you thought it was so bad that you threw it across the room. What was it?
I can’t tell you! All I can tell you is it’s, like, a humongous famous actor and, like, the most famous director ever. It was like this movie is like the hottest movie and I literally threw it across the room — like, This is terrible. The state of the business right now, it’s like some of the most famous actors in the world are taking parts that normally people like me could get, but now I can’t get them because really famous people want them because they’re not making as many movies. So when the script turns around, everyone gets all excited, and I was like, “Wow, they can have it. This thing sucks.”

Photo: Getty Images