American Horror Story’s Sarah Paulson Tells Us Funny Stories About 13 Memorable Roles

Photo: Byron Purvis/AdMedia/Corbis

Sarah Paulson might be best known for the devastating and crazy-scary shit she does on American Horror Story. There’s not much she won’t do for the series. In last season’s installment, Coven, she had angry, magical sex with snakes and spent most of her episodes blind. She was terrorized by a nun and a serial killer the season before that, and she’s about to play conjoined twins Bette and Dot in the FX series’ fourth edition, Freak Show. Needless to say, she also has a terrific sense of humor. The very busy Paulson, who will be in Todd Haynes’s Carol and just signed on to star opposite Nicolas Cage in The Runner, graciously agreed to walk us down memory lane. Click through as she reminisces about her many roles and the times that work meant stalking Ewan McGregor. Or wrestling with David Milch’s words. Or dealing with internet trolls.

Paulson’s first job as a TV series regular was on Shaun Cassidy and Sam Raimi’s short-lived Southern horror drama. She played Merlyn Temple, the ghost of a young dead girl. “It was like the Lupita Nyong’o experience of my 19-year-old youth, the television version of it without any of the success because the show was obviously not a big hit. Shaun Cassidy created it, which didn’t mean a lot to me but it meant something to my mother, who was very excited. I didn’t know what “Da Doo Ron Ron” was! My character is murdered in the pilot. I took an enormous shovel swipe to the head, and then I’m on the rest of the series as a ghost. Lucas Black, who played my little brother, came to see me in the morgue and I was supposed to cry a tear of blood, so I had a little prosthetic running under my eye. On the other side of the gurney was this thing pumping blood to make me cry my blood tear. That was my first experience with the gore and the blood that was going to become very familiar to me. At the time it felt like, ‘This acting thing is great!’ It seemed to be going in a very nice way at the beginning, and then I didn’t work for three years.”
On the WB relationship drama, Paulson played a friend of Amanda Peet’s Jack. The actresses became instant BFFs. “The minute we met we just dissolved like little squealing weirdos on the floor laughing instantaneously and it’s been like that ever since. Amanda was intrigued by the goofy girl with the crazy bad hairdo. It was the worst hair I’ve ever had on television, and it was 1999 so we were in the world of the shrug. There was one outfit that was like a little black shrug with a hot-pink, midriff-baring tank top with tassels on it and a ballgown skirt. The costume designer for Friends, Debra McGuire, was our costume designer, and I think she was trying to take some of the great things she got to do with Phoebe and use them for me, but I wasn’t nearly as funny or charming as Lisa Kudrow and it just didn’t work. It was not good.” “That was the first time I met Justin Kirk also, who played the character of Barto. That was his name. I remember at the audition for the show he asked, ‘Didn’t I just see you naked in a play?’ I had just done a show called Killer Joe where I was naked onstage and that’s how he introduced himself to me. Amanda and I still have this thing called ‘JK it’ that comes from Jack & Jill. There was a big secret that Justin told me about whom he was dating during the first season of the show, and he said, ‘You can’t tell anyone,’ and I didn’t. Then when the secret came out in the second season, Amanda was like, ‘Do you believe that?’ And I said, ‘Yeah I’ve known since last year.’ It’s become this thing in our friendship where we say, ‘You’ve got to JK it’ which means it’s the most closely guarded secret in the world. I don’t know if Justin even knows that.”
Paulson landed the lead role in NBC’s riff on Sex and the City. The network gave it the high-pressure post-Friends time slot. “NBC was going ahead with a nice, confident six-episode order. But we were on when the most coveted time slot on television was between Friends and Will & Grace, which we got. I was so young and I just felt like, Yeah! That cocky thing of youth. It was charming, funny — of course it should be on between the two most-watched shows in the world. I remember getting a phone call from Jeff Zucker, who was president of NBC at the time, the morning after we premiered. It was 6:30 in the morning after ratings came in and he said, ‘Wake up, America likes you!’ And then I never got a phone call from them again. Every week we went down, down, down in the ratings and it was quickly very clear that America didn’t like me at all.” “I certainly liked the idea of playing the lead on the show and having all sorts of romantic foibles, but it was over so quickly I didn’t have a ton of time to enjoy it. I did love working with Regina King. And Ken Marino is brilliant. I feel like people are just starting to catch on why Ken Marino is the shit. I remember one day my mom came to visit and asked, ‘What’s going on with you and that boy?’ We couldn’t stop laughing. I was very hyperactive around him because I thought he was super cute and he just made me laugh nonstop. My mom was like, “I think you oughta go out with him!” If he asked me to go to the moon I would do it. I’m not good with heights or planes or outer-space travel but that’s the extent of my love.” Photo: Getty Images
Paulson’s first big role in a studio movie. An homage to 1960s rom-coms like Pillow Talk, Down With Love starred Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor. “I didn’t think I would get it because it was a coveted part. Many people wanted David Hyde Pierce’s part, and he was at the height of his Fraiser fame. I was coming off Leap of Faith, which was not a success. It was a time in my career when I was getting very close on a lot of romantic-comedy-type movies and the one I got was this one. It was one of the greatest experiences ever. The clothes alone! Those clothes were all handmade for me, from hats to undergarments. I had 50 million fittings.” “Renee was just coming off Chicago and Ewan had just done Moulin Rouge. I was so madly in love with him after Moulin Rouge! I remember we didn’t have trailers because we shot at this studio where I don’t think there was room enough on the lot and I think there was an idea that during production we would do what they did back then. In those Doris Day movies, they all had dressing rooms. Renee and I would sneak down the hallway because Ewan had a microphone and a guitar in his dressing room. We would go and listen to him and just press our ears to the door. Sometimes he would let us in. I’m sure he didn’t know we were there half the time; if he did he’d be like, ‘Whoa, I’ve got two stalkers.’”
In season two, Paulson portrayed a patient who claimed to be a victim of stigmata. The episode, “Agatha Ripp,” was her first collaboration with Ryan Murphy. “Ryan just offered me that part. It got me hooked on doing roles where the less vanity was involved in the story, the more comfortable and free I was to go for it. They spray-painted acne on me, they gave me roots with Vaseline in my hair, they put stains on my teeth. I’m supposed to be this very poor woman in Florida who had nowhere to live and was a hooker. She’s taken in by the church and claimed to have stigmata. I could really go there. It was the beginning of my love affair with the dirtier and the more hideous. The less I have to think about being charming and pretty the happier I’ll be. Of course I had no idea where it was going to lead.”
David Milch cast Paulson as Sofia’s tutor and secret Pinkerton spy Miss Isringhausen in season 2. “David Milch writes this very dense dialogue, sometimes almost in another language. It was really hard. It made me feel dumb when I would read it. I’d go, “I don’t know what I’m saying here.” I’d have to really slow down. I’m a fast talker, I read things quickly, I get ahead of myself and I would lose the thread. One day I was about to do a scene with Tim Olyphant and I walked on set and David handed me new pages and said ‘Can you say this instead?’ I looked and it was like a paragraph of all, like, inverted sentences. I wanted to cry.” “I knew I was a Pinkerton spy from the beginning. David had all these crazy stories about it. There was some amazing plan for what they were going to do, but then the show ended up not going forward. But I got to work with Ian McShane, which was like working with one of the greats, and especially with that character I got to be someone so strong up against Al Swearengen. I wasn’t playing a wilting flower of a woman against this very powerful man. For everything he threw at me I threw the ball right back at him and I just loved that.” Photo: ©HBO/Courtesy Everett Collectio/Copyright © ©HBO/Courtesy Everett Collection / Everett Collection
In Joss Whedon’s film sequel to Firefly, Paulson appeared in just one scene — her character Dr. Caron records a video warning before being killed by Reavers. “They had shot it with someone else. It’s very weird, that’s happened to me a couple times in my career. I got a call from my agent saying Joss was a fan of mine. I’d never met him. They were already shooting the movie and I said, “Yes, of course I’ll do it.” I was on the set for one day. I put on that weird space outfit, the zip-up ensemble. I did it on a big green screen by myself talking to no one, looking at a dot of tape. Joss was there to direct it and was incredibly helpful and so smart. People who were fans of that show and movie are hardcore. They still come up to me. It was an emotional thing because she was devoured by the Reavers. People are like, ‘You were screaming!’”
Paulson scored her first Golden Globe nomination for her work in Aaron Sorkin’s heavily hyped follow-up to The West Wing, set behind the scenes of a live sketch show. She played performer and devout Christian Harriet Hayes. “Everyone knew the prototype for the character was [Sorkin’s then-girlfriend] Kristin Chenoweth, who is a brilliant singer and a great comedienne. I was Sarah Paulson playing that part and I am not a brilliant singer and I don’t think of myself as a comedienne. All everyone talked about on the show was, ‘Harriet Hayes is so brilliant. Harriet Hayes is so funny,’ while I’m thinking, Wait, what? I understood why people were angry I wasn’t Kristin Chenoweth, but it hurt my feelings. It was my first experience with the internet. The show was launched like it was the Second Coming, the biggest thing to ever hit television. So I started reading things online and there would be whole threads about how much people hated me. I remember complaining to Tommy Schlamme and Aaron, ‘I feel I’m letting everyone down,’ and they were so supportive and wonderful. And then I got nominated for a Golden Globe, and I was the only person on the show who was even recognized. Aaron and Tommy made fun of me. ‘Everybody hates me. Boo-hoo! Good morning, Golden Globe nomination.’ People come up to me all the time now loving that show and that character, but I’ll always remember getting my first of many talking-tos from Amanda Peet, telling me, ‘You’ve got to step away from the computer!’”
In the season six episode “The Time Warp,” Paulson played a young Ellis Grey. “I didn’t watch every episode but I knew the story of it and more importantly I’m a fan of Kate Burton. I was doing a production of The Cherry Orchard at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. where her husband, Michael Ritchie, had just become the artistic director. Now I look about as much like Kate Burton as I look like Renee Zellweger; they were worried I look too much like Renee Zellweger on Down With Love. When my agent called me I thought that is the biggest honor and also, ‘How are they gonna make me look like her?’ After it aired, I ran into her in a parking lot at Gelson’s in Los Feliz, and I said, ‘I can’t believe I’m seeing you. I haven’t seen you since… it’s so weird!’ and she was like ‘I know, but it’s so great.’ I don’t know that she ever saw it but she was very sweet when I saw her. I don’t want to know if she saw it. I’m sure it was horrible. She probably saw it and said, ‘That was terrible!’”
Paulson starred as Elizabeth Olsen’s sister in the Sundance thriller about a girl suffering from delusions and paranoia after returning to her family from an abusive cult. “Hugh Dancy and I would be doing a scene that on the page was between the two of us and the camera would be over shooting Lizzie Olsen through the glass door of the kitchen where we were talking. I was like ‘Hey, [director] Sean Durkin, the scene is happening over here,’ and he’d be like ‘Hey, Sarah Paulson, the camera is over there on Lizzie Olsen because that’s what matters.’ It was very clear to me that I was in the presence of a real filmmaker. He was never just shooting what was on the page. They were very consciously trying to tell a story with the camera, which I sometimes feel like doesn’t happen so much anymore with movies.” “It wasn’t my character’s story so I didn’t get to have those moments of explaining why she was shutdown. But I loved it because so much is unsaid and so much really is unspoken between family members. It added to the tension of the movie, so much being unknown. Also, the length of time the camera would stay on something. I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe we’re shooting this and the camera hasn’t moved.” It was amazing. This movie is when everything took a turn for me for the better. I remember seeing it for the first time at Sundance and going, ‘Holy shit I’m in a really good movie!’ It had been a long time since I felt that way.”
Paulson received her first Emmy nomination for portraying Nicolle Wallace in HBO’s drama about the rise of Sarah Palin. “Once I got the part I talked to the director Jay Roach on the phone and he said, ‘I don’t want you to do an impression of Nicole Wallace.’ She was the face of the campaign in terms of who spoke to the media, but she wasn’t as immediately recognizable to someone on the street the way Sarah Palin or John McCain are. Nicole talks more from the front of her face than I do, I talk more from the back of my throat. So I tried to do a little of that, but it became really distracting and I let it all go. I let my D.C. crepe pants and silk shirt buttoned to the top do its thing. My scenes were all trying to get Sarah Palin to do things, trying with kindness, but trying with the undercurrent of knowing she was unsure whether or not this was gonna fly. The film’s writer Danny Strong told me [HBO chair-CEO] Richard Pleper said the scene where Nicole goes to John McCain to say she didn’t vote had to stay in, which I’m sure is why I got nominated for an Emmy. It’s the only scene in the movie where she’s emotional basically.” Photo: Phil Caruso@2011 GAME CHANGE/Phillip Caruso@ 2011
In the Oscar-winning historical drama, Paulson played the jealous wife of a sadistic plantation owner. “I auditioned with the scene where Mistress Epps humiliates Michael Fassbender in front of everyone by saying that he’s a pathetic man and everyone knows he’s weak. I got a call the next day saying Steve McQueen was very intrigued by my tape, and they’d try to work it out. This is when Ryan Murphy proved to be another hero in my life. The studio couldn’t move the start date of Asylum, which would have overlapped with the movie. I called Ryan and said, ‘It’s a small part but it’s an impactful part and I really want to do it.’ He made a call and we started the whole season a week later. I don’t know what I owe that man but I owe him my first born at least.”  “If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re all capable of great horrors. There’s darkness in all of us. The only way I could think about approaching Mistress Epps was thinking about what motivates that kind of behavior. And it’s panic and terror and her own sense of being worthless and having no center. She didn’t want to be humiliated and usurped by his feelings of love for this other woman right under her nose. Therefore, you have a woman who throws glass decanters in someone’s face and a person who’s horribly cruel. It’s all about her own limitations as a human being.”
Paulson has appeared in every edition of the FX miniseries, scoring a lead actress Emmy nomination for playing a lesbian journalist locked away unfairly and terrorized by a nun and serial killer in Asylum. “It’s not a typical everyday thing that you can ask a 36-year-old actress to play an 80-year-old woman. Ryan wanted to end it with that Barbara Walters–style interview where Lana has everything she wants, and has to kill her son, but he was really terrified of shitty makeup effects. It scared the shit out of me. Could we do it? But at the same time it seemed like the most beautiful way to end the story. That she’d be the one to be the old woman living out her dreams. She says to her son in that last scene,‘ I always knew you would come,’ and I think she feels she could die, and that she’s lived enough, but there’s the part of her that doesn’t want him to do to one more person what was done to her… The way I talk about this part is as if it happened to me! I feel so strongly connected to this woman that I literally wept like a baby the night we wrapped. Lana is the gift of all gifts.”
American Horror Story’s Paulson on 13 Roles