Sarah Paulson on Why Playing Marcia Clark Was the Most Terrifying Thing She’s Ever Done

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Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Sarah Paulson is one of those actress who can effortlessly play any role, whether it’s a literal witch on American Horror Story or a figurative one in 12 Years a Slave. But it’s her stunning work as Marcia Clark in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story that terrified her most. The show’s sixth episode, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” focused on Clark and the struggles she faced as the only woman central to the trial, one who was treated unfairly by the press, the judge, and even her fellow attorneys. Paulson joined us for a little chat to talk about what scared her about the part, working with Ryan Murphy on two different projects simultaneously, and, of course, Marcia Clark’s hair.

How did you feel when Ryan Murphy called you up and said you must play Marcia Clark?
I thought, that is the most terrifying thing I’ve contemplated doing. I remember really thinking there is a huge opportunity for failure here. It’s one thing when you’re creating a character with a writer and a director from whole cloth. It’s another when you’re creating an actual person that people have a real, visceral reaction to. That is very much the case with Marcia. She was a very polarizing figure in the trial. I thought, God, when I think of her I can conjure up 50 different physical manifestations of her in my mind, I can see her, and I can think of as many adjectives to describe her, and I wasn’t even a ferocious watcher of the trial. Gee, what must that be like for people who are obsessed? I thought Oof, if I don’t do this right or well or if I fuck this up there is going to be no place to hide.

But at the same time, the very thing that scared the shit out of me also made me think that if I don’t do this, you are the greatest pussy that ever lived, and if you don’t do it you can’t call yourself an actress, because the scarier it is the more you should jump right in.

What were some of those adjectives you thought of Marcia?
Bitch, aggressive, ambitious, shrewy, really bad hairdo. Which is not an adjective but you know what I mean. Strong, tough, relentless. A lot of words that if you used them to describe a man they would be positive. I have to admit I fell victim to what had been represented to me about her in the media at the time. I never took time to delve deeper, and I just assumed those things to be factual and true about her. Once I did even a little research, I learned how off the mark that was.

What was your process like when you started to do the research and learn about her as a person?
I read the [Jeffrey] Toobin book [The Run of His Life: The People v. OJ Simpson], which is what the show is based on. I read Marcia’s book, I read [fellow prosecutor Chris] Darden’s book. I watched copious videos. I was immersed in videos of Marcia Clark: at the grocery story, walking down a hallway, everything I could get my hands on. I wanted to catch her in glimpses where she didn’t know the camera was watching. I wanted to get something that might confirm something I thought was true about what she was feeling.

When I finally sat down to dinner with her she said something and I said, “I know because you were born in Berkeley,” and then I said, “I’m talking to you and I don’t have to tell you where you were born.” Every time I talk to her I’m like, “Remember when we were, I mean me, I mean you ...” I get caught up in this thing now where I speak about it as if I was there at the trial, and I say, “You don’t know what we were up against!” And then I think, Whoa, you were not there. The amount of crossed wiring that’s happening in my brain is quite substantial.

Is this the first time you played a real person?
No, I played [John McCain strategist] Nicole Wallace in the HBO movie Game Change about Sarah Palin, and I played Bunny Yeager in the Bettie Page movie [The Notorious Bettie Page]. Mistress Epps in 12 Years a Slave was a real person, but not someone that anyone knew anything about in any deep way or knew what she sounded like or looked like.

When I was playing Nicole Wallace, I remember saying to Jay Roach, who was directing, “I’m watching all of this footage and I feel like Nicole’s voice is pitched more toward the front of her face and not in the back of her throat like mine is. Do you want me to try to do that?” He said, “Unlike Julie or Ed [Harris] who is playing McCain, I think it would actually be more distracting than not.” Whereas this time, you are very aware of how Marcia holds herself and all of those images are part of the story, so I didn’t really have the luxury to invent it.

One of the things I always remember with Marcia Clark is she always did this thing with her chin and her jaw when she was in the courtroom …
Yeah, it was always pointed to the side.

Yes! I saw you doing that and I thought Damn, that Sarah Paulson is good!
Thank you. The hardest part was writing with my left hand because Marcia Clark is left-handed.

Really, you went that far?
Well, I went that far in that I remembered to do it every time I pick up a pencil or a cup, I did it with my left hand. But if we did a close-up, I’d be like “Ryan, do I have to learn to write as a left-handed person? I don’t have time to do this. I’m not Daniel Day-Lewis!”

But it was a conscious thing where I would say, “We have to do it again, I picked up that cup with my right hand.” It’s not like left-handed people don’t do that, but I remember talking to left-handed people and they say that wherever you need the most control you’d use your left hand. So, if you’re holding a coffee cup but you need to be on the phone while smoking a cigarette, you’d have the phone and the cigarette in your left hand because that is your stronger hand. I would just try to remember that stuff.

But I learned a lot of that as conjoined twins [on American Horror Story: Freak Show], because one of them only had a left hand. So I got nice and warmed up playing conjoined twins.

Was there anything else about your body language or how you carry yourself that had to change to play Marcia Clark?
She had studied dance and had aspirations to be an actress when she was younger so if you watch her she really walks in that first-position dancer walk. I did do some of that. And I kept thinking, Why are you even doing this? No one is going to see it. But it made me feel more like her. But I had a lot of help from the wig and the shoes and the clothing. You can’t feel more beaten-down and downtrodden than when you put on a prison-warden loafer. A nice Easy Spirit.

We have to talk about the hair because that is such a huge part of Marcia Clark. How did you feel the first time you put the wig on?
It was painful, I’m not going to lie. The first thing Marcia Clark said to me was she wanted to apologize for the hair. So she knew it wasn’t a great thing.

There is a moment of vanity, I don’t care who you are or if people are willing to admit these things, but in a world where beauty and youth are deeply celebrated, it was a moment of me taking a breath. I’m having these under eye circles painted or, by the time we got deep enough into the show, because I was playing Sally on [American Horror Story: Hotel] at the same time, they didn’t have to do much to add that on. On most jobs you take so much time covering up the “flaws” and on this one I had to just let all of that hang out, because that is what she did. She was so uninterested in being more appealing and attractive. She was interested in putting a man she believed to be a murderer behind bars.

But there was a moment of, I can’t believe I’m going to be on national television with this hair and this jacket. I just can’t believe it. But it became real armor for me. There is nothing more freeing for me as an actor than when I look in the mirror and I don’t recognize myself. It makes me feel powerful and more free. It was a liberating thing and it helped me absolutely to do it. I named all the wigs, though, because there were four different wigs.

What were the names of the wigs?
Gerard, Winston, Shorty, and Miss Perfect.

In this episode you go from the long wig to the short wig. Did the character transform at all?
The short wig is my favorite wig, because in my mind those are the most iconic images of her with that hair. It’s hard to know what came first because we were six episodes in by the time we got to that wig, so I don’t know if it was me settling into something with her, mixed with the hair that was the most identifying and the most iconic of all the styles she had. I felt the closest to her starting in episode six.

You do a lot of wigs on American Horror Story ...
I have never done a wig on American Horror Story.

You have never done a wig on American Horror Story?
Let me take that back and think. Season one was my own hair, season two was my own hair, season three was my own hair, season four was my own hair except when one of the twins went blonde for a moment and that was a wig, and then, this year [on American Horror Story: Hotel], as Sally, that was my hair, my friend. That was my hair.

Sally was your hair?
That was my hair, honey.

You had to walk around all the time with that as your hair?
You don’t understand. I’d have to go to the grocery store after a long night of work with bruises painted on my collarbone and makeup coming down my face and that freakin’ hairdo and I’d walk in to buy yogurt and water and some ice cream and I’m checking out, and I don’t know why the guy is looking at me like I’m a psycho and it’s because I forgot that I had that hair.

Sometimes it was the only way I could tell which person I was because I was playing them at the same time — one on a Monday and one on a Tuesday. It was so crazy, so the only way to know who I was was to look in a mirror and say, “Oh, Chia Pet. Marcia Clark. Electric socket. Sally.”

Did you find similarities or difference between the two?
There are animalistic instincts they both have. Marcia is incredibly nimble and quick on her feet, quick-witted and sharp as a tack. And so is Sally, but Sally is more self-aggrandizing and needy and Marcia is more for justice. But they are both kind of animals, slinky panthers.

You did meet Marcia Clark near the end of filming. I hear you two closed down the restaurant.
It was such a weird thing because I had so much respect and admiration for her and real empathy and compassion for what she endured, not just at home and in the courtroom, but her life, what was taken from her. Marcia had been a prosecutor, had won 19 out of 20 cases before this one and loved her fucking job more than anything. And Marcia Clark has never prosecuted a case since this trial, so something was lost.

I feel like we ripped the heart out of Marcia Clark and decided that she’s some sort of animatron — no one remembered that this was a human being. What she was trying to do was to have justice served for these two victims. And none of that was being talked about. We were just talking about the length of her skirts and the hairdos and we were talking about whether or not she had a bitchy attitude. No one said that about F. Lee Bailey, and he played dirtier than anyone.

It’s a fascinating study about how women abandoned Marcia, and I just sat across from her with an enormous sense of pride that I get to talk to her and that I get to portray such a complicated, multifaceted, razor-sharp, strong woman. It was an incredible gift. She is as witty as they come and she has a real potty mouth, which I love.

There has been some talk about reassessing Marcia Clark as a feminist hero. Do you think that is a fair assessment?
I do. I even think from less of a feminist standpoint, but I know what people are saying. They were saying she was so torn asunder because she was a woman. However, I feel like what Marcia was, was on the right side. Her moral compass is so strong and what she was fighting for was for the greater good, and I think there is great heroism in that and being a civil servant in general — to go out and make wrongs into rights in the only way allowed to us, in the judicial system. On that score, I think the woman is a hero for sure.

Do you think we needed the past 20-odd years between the trial and the show to get to that place?
You know, I think enough time has gone by that we can all look back and see where we went wrong. People laid a lot at the prosecution’s and Marcia Clark’s feet for “losing” that case. When given the climate that was the city of Los Angeles post-Rodney King and given the perfect storm that was that environment, the city was in flames, literally. What I’m trying to say is, I don’t think the case was winnable, and people are more able to see that now. It had less to do with the prosecution’s failure or the Dream Team’s execution. I think Marcia would have a good deal more support now. There would have been platforms for people to support her themselves, whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or online. There would have been plenty of people shouting their support for her, and equal numbers of people denouncing her, but I think she would have felt a lot more supported.

Have you dealt with any of those things in your own career?
I have not. I’ve been lucky and I’ve never been mistreated in an audition. The closest thing I will say is that every job I’ve ever gotten on television before I started working on American Horror Story, at least eight out of ten of those jobs, they asked to make me blonde. I’m a natural brunette and I am always asked to blonde myself. I don’t mind my hair that color, I quite like it, so it’s fine by me. In the beginning it was fun to change, but as I look back on it, I think, Is there something about my brown hair that makes me less appealing? Is there something about my brown hair that makes me less of a leading lady? Is there something about my brown hair that makes me less attractive? What is it that makes them want to make me this thing that I wasn’t born as, which is a brunette? And that does this weird thing to your brain where you think, Oh, maybe I’m not attractive the way I came into the world. But in terms of anyone directly treating me in a way that is incredibly sexist, that I have not experienced.

You were doing Sally on AHS and Marcia Clark at the same time. What was the difference working with Ryan Murphy on both of those shows? How was he different?
I’ve worked with Ryan as a producer for five years on Horror Story. Prior to season four [Freak Show], I had never worked with Ryan as a director. He never directed any of the episodes of Horror Story I had done. My first real experience was season four when I was playing conjoined twins. That was a very extraordinary experience where we were both doing something we had never done before and so we both had our own level of anxiety, and he was a great comfort to me. He directed the first two of O.J. and Hotel, and my episode of [O.J.].

The one thing I will say is different is that he has an incredible awareness of the difference in tone between this piece and Horror Story, the same way he does between Eat Pray Love and The Normal Heart. He’s the real deal because he doesn’t just put the Ryan Murphy stamp on everything he’s doing no matter what it is. He takes great care to protect the essence, the truth of the thing.

Ryan was hell-bent on cutting all the fat and the extraneous crap that we might do a lot of on Horror Story, he didn’t want to see any of it on Crime Story, because the story itself is so heightened that you don’t need to add any of the theatrics or that operatic flavor and tone that you get on Horror Story, which I think is so delicious and so much fun to play. This was much closer to the bone and he really encouraged that. I think that is why the thing rings so true and why it holds up, because there is a real tautness to it. You don’t have a lot of gristle.

If you had to choose either Crime Story or Horror Story, which would you choose?
That’s like asking a mother to pick her favorite child. It’s a nightmare question. You can’t ask me that. You can ask me which I like to watch, Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, because I’m not in them. But I couldn’t possibly tell you because they are both so different. I have the good fortune to do both and from an acting standpoint I get to be as wack-a-doodle-do as I can get away with on Horror Story, and then on Crime Story I get to really investigate a lot of truths and just staying as honest as possible.

Does that mean you’re coming back for the next American Crime Story, set in New Orleans?
I hope to God he asks me to do that. That would make me very happy. I think it’s a big, bold, and brave thing that he’s making it Katrina, because to me that is a true American crime. There is so much sensationalism around the O.J. thing because of what it was, and to not have the next installment of this not be of that ilk, in terms of the circus that surrounded it, is a great thing to undertake. Leave it to Ryan Murphy to flip the whole thing on its head.

Does that mean you’re coming back for Horror Story?
I am not allowed to confirm or deny, but I can hope. We’re going to be talking about it soon, but I’ll get killed if I say anything.

So, would you rather watch Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead?
Ha ha. Game of Thrones! Game of Thrones! To me it is this kind of exquisite Shakespearean drama. The stakes couldn’t be higher, but at its core it’s all about family and betrayal and trust and love, which is all any good story needs, and that one has it in spades. I’m really hooked. Really hooked.

This interview has been edited and condensed.