It’s 2003 and you’ve booked a coveted role in a four-hander movie alongside Renée Zellweger (of Chicago!), Ewan McGregor (of Moulin Rouge!), and David Hyde Pierce (of Frasier!). How could it not be your big break, especially because it has a crackling script by Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake, and spiffy direction from Peyton Reed (recently of Bring It On!).
That’s the position Sarah Paulson found herself in with the release of Down With Love, a witty redux of the sex comedies of the 1960s in which she played Zellweger’s fast-talking, smart-aleck best friend, officious Manhattan book editor Vikki Heller. Down With Love marked Paulson’s first major role in a studio movie, and it’s a wonderful performance, with her and Zellweger trading dialogue at Mach speed and executing dramatic costume reveals in choreographed synchronicity.
But the movie was not destined to be a hit. After premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival on May 9, 2003, Down With Love opened wide a week later across from The Matrix Reloaded, eventually earning only $20 million at the domestic box office. “At the time I remember thinking, ‘Not everybody wants to see the Matrix,’” Paulson says. “Well, a lot more people want to see the Matrix than see this specialty movie that not everybody’s going to get.”
The imagined big break didn’t quite come yet for Paulson, and it was only years later, after another hyped role in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, that she reached the acclaim, and regular Emmy attention, she has today. In honor of that all-important 18th anniversary of Down With Love (and mostly because I have watched it several times in quarantine as comfort food), I called up Paulson to discuss the all-out campaign she went on auditioning for her role, how Renée Zellweger led by example on set, and what she learned from its disappointing reception.
So from what I’ve read, the role you landed in Down With Love, Vikki Heller, was a pretty coveted part.
It was a coveted part. David Hyde Pierce was just about to be finished from his very long run on Frasier. Ewan had just done Moulin Rouge! Renée had just come off of Chicago. You had all of these real superstars coming off, at that point, the biggest hits of their careers and there was a role to be had, which was Vikki Hiller. If I told you some of the names of the people that were in the waiting room with me, or who got to the final callback, including the men I screen tested with, before they cast David actually, who didn’t get the part, it was just wild!
I was at that point in my career where I was playing the titular character of a show called Leap of Faith. That was obviously a little bit of a needle shift for me. At least it felt [like one], even though ultimately it was about as seismic as your dad burping on the couch.
Leap of Faith was one of the shows NBC tried to fit into its post-Friends time slot, right? And it just didn’t stick.
It was in between Friends and Will and Grace. I remember Jeff Zucker calling me on the phone the morning after the premiere and saying, “Wake up, America loves you.” By week two, I don’t think they did. It was also probably not that they loved me, it’s just that there was a half an hour between the two shows where people would just leave the television on and eat their food. But it did allow Regina King and I to work together and to meet. And that was the beginning of our knowing one another, so that will always hold a special place in my heart for that reason.
But I definitely was at a moment where it felt like there were more possibilities than there had been prior to that. But I still, to this day, don’t really understand how or why I got this part [in Down With Love], except that I just sort of went in balls out, if one can say such a thing. I wore a wig! I wore a full period costume.
Oh, so you went really out there in auditions!
After my very first audition, there was interest in me, but there was concern — get ready for this — that Renée and I looked too much alike because we both had blonde hair. So I did take a temporary hair color dye and slap it on my head for my second audition, which then got me my final audition, where I actually hired someone to put a wig on my head. My hair was a sort of lovely shade of green in between because it had been so blonde.
So what was your reaction when you got the part?
I remember just feeling like, “I’ve made it. I got a movie!” This studio film with people at the, as I said, absolute high points of their careers at that particular moment in their working lives. In terms of prepping, I watched a lot of movies involving Paula Prentiss and some Doris Day, Rock Hudson movies. The script [for Down With Love] was so fully realized, and I could see exactly who she was. When I started watching movies from that era, it was very clear to me what the sassy sidekick lady would be like. Of course, the costumes did a lot for all of that, as they often do.
Reading articles from the time, Peyton Reed was very insistent that the movie wasn’t a satire of those ’60s sex comedies but really more of something where you’re still staying within the genre and not just making fun of it. That’s an interesting acting challenge because you have to live in that style of acting and movement and not go too broad.
It was a whole thing. But I’m telling you, you put a pillbox hat on and a dress with an attached cape and a cigarette and you’re liable to [adopts a mid-Atlantic drawl] start talking like this, you know?I don’t know where I got the confidence to, in the audition even, come with this sort of persona, this rat-a-tat way of talking. I sort of applaud my younger self, going, “Good for you. You took a big old risk there, didn’t you?”
We obviously have to talk about the costumes, because there were so many. But I especially love when you and Renée come out with matching yellow-and-houndstooth reversible dresses.
I probably had more fittings for Down With Love than anything I’ve ever done. Daniel Orlandi was the costume designer, who I later worked with on Game Change, which was such a different thing because it was such a hyperreality. But I had things that were just made for me. It was like muslin fitting and then another muslin fitting and then it would be recut. It was like jumping in a time capsule and feeling really like I was going to the studio for my fitting with Edith Head or something.
Part of the whole thing with those costumes, as magical as they were, was that Renée and I had dance rehearsal to try to figure out how to do all the choreography. Of course Renée had just finished Chicago and has great dance skills, and I don’t quite have those. She took to it quite easily and well, and I was like, “I think I’m going to trip over this thing.” With the houndstooth-and-yellow and me on my face on the stairs!
I hadn’t considered that you’d have dance rehearsals because there aren’t musical numbers, except in the credits, but it is so choreographed with all the in-sync stepping and posing.
It’s very choreographed, and it’s Renée Zellweger, and I’m supposed to act like it’s not a big deal and that we’re best friends and I’m her publisher. Meanwhile, I’m just going, “I can’t actually believe that I’m doing this movie with these actors.” I had a Moulin Rouge! poster on my wall at this time in my life. Being around Ewan McGregor, who was playing music in his dressing room where he’d be singing, I was like, “This is some out-of-body experience.”
Is it true that you all didn’t have trailers on set, but used dressing rooms by the soundstages instead?
Like they did back in the day: You pull up into the lot and you park your car and you walk into your on-the-stage dressing room. Compared to how I think most of us are used to working, you would get ready sort of together, as if you were backstage at a play in a theater and getting ready for your five-minute-places call.
So what was it like working with Ewan while having a Moulin Rouge! poster on your wall?
There’s this thing that happens when you get a job that feels game-changing and you’re working with people whose careers you’ve always admired and you wonder what their world is like. Then you find yourself having a conversation about what you had for breakfast and what you were going to do that weekend. I tried desperately to seem nonplussed, but I wasn’t. I don’t think I ever admitted to him that I had that poster. But I just remember him being so lovely to me. Recently, his daughter who was literally a 5- or 6-year-old when we made this, Clara, followed me on Instagram, and she wrote me saying that she just can’t believe what it’s like to see each other after all these years, even virtually, and that she and her dad often talk so fondly about that time.
One of the big funny scenes you have in the movie is with David, in Ewan’s character’s bachelor pad, where he keeps setting off different contraptions and you get caught in the middle of them.
David Hyde Pierce is just, when it comes to comedy and physical comedy, a master at it. It was just about listening and responding, which is what I think all good acting aspires to be. I actually get under the couch at that one point and the cigarette smoke was coming out from under it. I remember having a mild panic attack under there, like, “How well made is this prop couch?” It’s funny how much this movie I really remember probably because the whole thing is sort of in Technicolor in my mind. I mean, I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning.
That scene also builds to Vikki becoming convinced that David and Ewan’s character are lovers and he has to keep insisting he’s straight. It’s funny in retrospect because at that point David hadn’t come out publicly, and I don’t think you had publicly dated a woman either.
Oh, that’s right. Right.
Now it feels like a meta-echo of the Rock Hudson dynamic in those original movies.
That’s really true. That’s so interesting.
Is that something you’ve at all reflected on?
No. I mean just because … I don’t know, I tend to be that kind of person that when I’m doing something, I’m doing it fully and completely immersed. Then when I’m done, lately anyway, I have gone right to the next thing. So I haven’t done a lot of reflecting on that time very much at all. But when you say it, it’s not lost on me how interesting that is.
Down With Love opened the same weekend as The Matrix Reloaded, which sucked all the attention away from Down With Love — at least that’s how the box-office narrative goes.
I remember it was my first time ever traveling to New York to promote the movie at the Tribeca Film Festival on the plane with Peyton. He said, “Oh, there’s a review that’s out in the Film Comment that’s really strong.” I just remember the premiere and staying at the Ritz-Carlton and doing these press-junket days that I’d never experienced anything like. Then with a thud, the paper lands the next day, and it’s like, “Nobody cares about this movie.”
But I kind of love the idea that the movie landed with the people that love the movie. That’s who the movie was made for. I don’t think it was trying to convert people who didn’t understand what everyone was going for. That’s kind of a thing I love about rediscovering the movie years later. That’s a real testament to Peyton, as well, and I guess the studio let him do that too, because that doesn’t always happen.
Having had hopes about this movie being your big studio break, what was it like when that break didn’t work out?
I did have that sort of young person’s notion that I was going to be set from here, that I was in this movie with these people, and it felt very affirming to get a job like that at that time, because I spent many years not working at all. Anything you spend a lot of time working on and making and putting your heart and soul into, you, of course, have a tremendous amount of hopes and wishes pinned to it. Of course you do. I can’t even remember what I did after it, but I don’t think I worked for a minute.
It was, in retrospect, a very good experience for me to have that the movie was not a box-office success. It was the beginning of many experiences I’ve had where you go, “Well, that didn’t quite go the way I planned.” But I have a different response to it now. It doesn’t feel quite as crushing. It sort of feels par for the course and means that I’m actually really doing it, because not everything can be for everyone.
That’s a perspective that does take a lot of time to learn, too.
I remember after a screening that they had done, we came out and Ewan looked at me and he went, “Oh man, can’t wait to see what happens for you.” And he made this sound like a rocket ship and he put his hand in the air, like it was going up. And I was like, “Really?” And he was like, “I think so.” Lo and behold, I didn’t work for who knows how long and the movie wasn’t well-received. But I still got to have that memory of Ewan McGregor making that sound in front of my face. It was very heartening and meant a lot to me at the time. But it just took a couple decades for that to happen.
Just looking at the order of your IMDb credits, it was Down With Love in 2003, then a role on The D.A. for two episodes in 2004, and then your appearance on Nip/Tuck in 2004, which was the the very, very beginning of your working with Ryan Murphy.
But that’s a couple of years of me doing really nothing of any great significance … I mean, the significance certainly was not lost on me. I was able to pay my rent with the work I was doing. I was able to feed myself, and that’s no small thing. But it’s interesting when you look back at those things and you go, “Oh, yeah. Remember when I did that and I thought everything was going to change?” I remember when I got Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip [which premiered in 2006], thinking that that show was going to be on for a decade, at least. Of course it didn’t last. It lasted a season.
What has your experience been with Down With Love as the years have gone by? Is it something people bring up to you often?
It doesn’t happen a lot, but if I’m meeting a person for the first time and that’s the thing they say they love, I instantly know I’m going to like them, because it’s an acquired taste. You’re either going to be into it, or you’re not. I feel so proud to be in something that is just not for everyone. That’s just groovy to me.
Did you keep any costumes, even a pillbox hat?
I think I have my wig in storage somewhere.
With those flipped out ends!
I think I wore it to audition for some Jackie Onassis miniseries that I didn’t get. I also have some original drawings that Daniel Orlandi did of my costumes that I have framed in my office. I should have kept the clothes. I wonder if Renée did.
Was there anything else about making the movie that stands out in your mind?
The whole thing stands out in my mind. I remember being with Renée, and because I had so little experience, there were so many things she would do when we were shooting that I have since done. She would sometimes do a take and then start over again from the top without cutting or without breaking. It created a sense of looseness and spontaneity. I just remember being really intrigued by her process and also how incredibly fun she was and how she never seemed to take any of it seriously. It was important to her to do a great job and she was wholly committed. But in my experience, she’s not one of those actors who feels they need to suffer in order to do something well or good.
She made me feel like her pal and she looked out for me and that was a really special, rare thing. I think she was very interested in my comfort and my feeling safe and good and welcome. Renée really does that better than anyone, really.
It is impressive for someone like her, coming off of Chicago, being as big as she was, to take that extra effort.
There are plenty of wonderful actors I’ve worked with who don’t do that extra thing, and it’s fine. I don’t have any expectation that it should be anything other. It’s just something you really notice, because it does make you feel so much more at ease. I do think of her often in terms of her thoughtfulness and everything. Every single member of the crew loved her and she knew all of their names. That shouldn’t be something to report that’s special about someone. But I had such little experience at that time that it was a real learning opportunity for me to see the way in which the leader of the company was behaving. She was a wonderful teacher without meaning to be a teacher.
Well, that’s lovely to hear.
Renée also smells better than anyone in Hollywood.
Oh, my God! What kind of smell?
Heavenly. I can’t describe it. She smells like absolute heaven on earth. I mean, it’s a thing, to me. Then I ran into her at the Toronto Film Festival recently when she was there with Judy and I was there with a different movie and I hugged her and we hadn’t seen each other in so long. And there was that magical Renée Zellweger smell and it just … smells like heaven.