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Actress Sarah Paulson Worked To 'Get It Right' As O.J. Simpson Prosecutor


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we continue our end-of-summer series featuring some favorite recent interviews. We're going to listen back to my interview with Sarah Paulson, who's nominated for two Emmys, one for her performance in "American Horror Story: Hotel," the other for her portrayal of prosecutor Marcia Clark in the FX series "The People Versus O.J. Simpson."

Both series were created by Ryan Murphy. I spoke with her in March while the O.J. series was being shown. The series is nominated for 22 Emmys. It was based on the bestselling book about the 1995 trial by legal reporter and analyst Jeffrey Toobin. The series brought us back to the confusion and divisiveness that surrounded the trial when it was broadcast live on TV in 1995.

The jury found Simpson not guilty of the double murder of his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman at Nicole's home. Marcia Clark was rightly or wrongly blamed by a lot of people for losing the case. She was also seen as a victim of rampant sexism in and out of the courtroom.

Sarah Paulson also co-starred in the movie "Carol." In "12 Years A Slave," she played a vengeful wife of a cruel slave owner. She's been acting professionally since she was 19. Let's start with a scene from "The People Versus O.J. Simpson." Here's Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark making her opening argument at the trial.


SARAH PAULSON: (As Marcia Clark) We've watched O.J. Simpson win the Heisman Trophy. We've watched him in movies and commercials. We think we know him. But what we've been seeing is a public face, the face of the athlete, the actor. But like many public men, he also has a private side, the O.J. Simpson you've never met, the face of a batterer, the abuser, the murderer.

I would like to summarize the results from our evidence from these heartless slayings. The blood trail from the Rockingham property matches the defendant. Blood found on the glove recovered at Rockingham matches the defendant. The blood drops at the Bundy murder scene match the defendant. And the blood found in the Bronco matches a mixture of the defendant, Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown.


GROSS: Sarah Paulson, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you were 19 when the white Bronco chase was broadcast live on TV, starting the O.J. fixation. How closely did you follow the trial?

PAULSON: Not very closely at all. I was a decidedly self-interested 19-year-old actress in New York City who was beginning my career, and I was very focused on that. And I just was not one of those people who became very obsessed and possessed by the trial.

GROSS: Did you have any general impressions of Marcia Clark back then?

PAULSON: Oh, I did, indeed. I drank the proverbial Kool-Aid about her and didn't do any deep thinking to challenge what I was being told and was very much on the Marcia Clark is a strident, shrew bitch person. I had sort of succumbed to that way of thinking.

GROSS: And now - your impressions of her now after portraying her?

PAULSON: My impressions of her now after portraying her are incredibly vastly different as anyone's would be if they had taken the time to investigate a little bit about her. And I now hold her to be a very competent, complicated, strong, deep-thinking, quick-witted quick draw, wonderful creature-person.


GROSS: So how did you prepare to portray Marcia Clark? What did you read? What did you watch? What did you listen to?

PAULSON: I read, watched and listened to any and everything I could get my hands on. The good news is there are so - there are copious amounts of videos on the Internet where I was able to watch a lot of her physical - her carriage, the way she used her hands, the way she spoke, how she often tilted her head to one side, particularly in the courtroom when she was addressing the judge, the defense team or the jury. I read her book. I read Darden's book. I read Toobin's book. And, of course, I read our scripts, which was probably where I ended up holding most closely, that stuff.

GROSS: I know you met her. Was that before, during or after the shoot?

PAULSON: I met her after we shot episode six, the "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia" episode. I did not meet her before then, and...

GROSS: So did meeting her change anything for you? And what did you most want to know from her?

PAULSON: You know, I don't even know that I wanted to know anything specific. I just wanted to breathe the same air that she was breathing (laughter) in the same moment. I just - I had so immersed myself in all things Marcia Rachel Clark that I just - the idea that I could be sitting across from her - and I'd come to revere her and respect her so enormously and to feel so much empathy and compassion that, as I said before, I never had for her. And I just kind of wanted to hug her. I wanted to look her in the eye and tell her that she didn't have to be fearful of the take that was going to be presented about her given all that I knew she had endured. I could have only imagined and anticipated that she was going to be terribly, terribly anxious about having to relive this experience that was a great trauma for her. She never went back into the courtroom to prosecute a case after this trial. And she had won 19 out of 20 prior to this case, so it was obviously a great passion of hers. And it was stolen from her. So I don't know that I took anything away from it or expected anything other than I just wanted to be in her orbit.

GROSS: The O.J. Simpson trial was so much about how race and gender influence people's perceptions. Was O.J. a wife abuser who then murdered her out of jealousy? Are police racist? Was there a racist conspiracy against O.J.? And I think in a lot of people's minds, there was no room for two things to be true - for it to be true that O.J. was a wife abuser and a murderer and for there to be some racism among police. Were you afraid almost of, like, stepping back into this controversy and, by virtue of playing Marcia Clark, kind of inserting yourself (laughter) into the middle of it?

PAULSON: (Laughter) Truthfully, I was more terrified about whether or not I was going to be able to pull this off. My fear sort of really lived there. I don't really feel that we've come that far from that period in our country's history, so it didn't really feel like it was an enormous step back, in a way, to me. But I know I was terribly afraid I was going to fail quite miserably doing this.

GROSS: Why? I mean, do you always feel that way when you take on a role?

PAULSON: I do always feel that way. I'm an incredibly self-critical kind of person and, therefore, actress, which is why I haven't even watched any of this yet. I think anytime you're playing someone that is a real person - and certainly someone that has a kind of iconic place in the country's memory - I felt - if I get this wrong, it's going to be very clear that I've gotten it wrong. And it's going to be a very sort of epic public failure. And the more I read about her, the more I knew about her, the more I just wanted to get it right. And that was my primary concern - was just to get it right. And by right, I mean just for it to be authentic and truthful. And I wasn't really looking at it as a way of trying to correct any perception or misconception about Marcia. I just wanted to try to do it in an honorable and a truthful way.

GROSS: So a lot of the story of Marcia Clark, as it's shown so far in the miniseries, portrays her as being a victim of sexism in terms of the preconceptions of the public, of the jury, of the defense team, of the people in her own office. I mean, she's told that she has to change her look and make it more feminine and change her hair and smile more and not wear business suits, but wear, like, skirts. So do you relate to that? Has anyone ever done that to you?

PAULSON: Well, I've never really had that done to me. I mean, I do sort of - I've had this question asked of me lately, and it does ignite a certain thought in my mind, which is that I've never had something sort of blatantly happen in that way. But I have - you know, I have naturally brown hair. And every time I've been asked to be a leading lady on television or in a movie, I have often been asked to make my hair blonde. And that is a sort of weird slippery slope where you start to go - gosh, am I - if my job on this particular program is to be alluring or charming - thought of as sexual creature, I have to have blonde hair? What does it mean that I don't actually have blonde hair? Does it mean I am not any of those things without it? So I've experienced it on that level, but not in quite the same way that Marcia did.

And moreover, you know - that's sometimes some of what comes with my job. I don't like that part of it, but when I signed up for it I sort of knew it. Marcia was a private citizen and a civil servant, and, unlike the defense team, was not very well-versed in the language of intense media scrutiny and pressure and didn't know how to find her way out of it. She had no map. She had no tools in her kit - had never been in that situation before. And so she was ill-equipped and, therefore, didn't manage it very well, not that she should have. She - as I said before, you know, she prosecuted 20 cases downtown in Los Angeles prior to this one and had never been under such scrutiny and really thrown to the wolves - the media wolves. And she just didn't know how to navigate it in a way that would serve her or extricate herself from it. It was just - it was a bit of her undoing at the time.

GROSS: We're listening back to my interview with Sarah Paulson. She's nominated for two Emmys. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sarah Paulson. She's nominated for two Emmys, one for her performance in "American Horror Story" and the other for her role playing prosecutor Marcia Clark in "The People Versus O.J. Simpson."


GROSS: So there's a scene based on a scene that actually happened in which she had asked Judge Ito not to extend the time of the trial that day because she had to take care of her children. She was due back at home. She was going through divorce proceedings at the time. Custody was an issue, and she needed to be home and, you know, do her job as a mother. And so the next day when the court convened and Judge Ito started to ask the defense to call their witness - and there's a whole backstory to the witness - Johnnie Cochran made a kind of catty remark about the day care...

PAULSON: I'll say.

GROSS: ...And Marcia Clark responded. So let's just hear that scene.


GROSS: It starts with Judge Ito.


KENNETH CHOI: (As Lance Ito) Mr. Cochran, is Ms. Lopez present here today?

COURTNEY B. VANCE: (As Johnnie Cochran) She is, your honor.

CHOI: (As Lance Ito) And do you anticipate that we can hear what she has to say in one day?

VANCE: (As Johnnie Cochran) I would expect so, your honor, barring any acts of God or further child care crisises (ph) from Ms. Clark.

PAULSON: (As Marcia Clark) Your honor, I am offended by Mr. Cochran's remarks as a woman and as a mother. Mr. Cochran may not know what it's like to work a 70-hour workweek and also take care of a family, but I do. And many other people do, too. To belittle my child care issues in your courtroom is unconscionable and totally out of line.

GROSS: So that was Kenneth Choi as Judge Ito, Courtney Vance as Johnnie Cochran and my guest Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark.

So Sarah Paulson, did you go...

PAULSON: Oof - that makes me so upset.


PAULSON: Ooh, boy.

GROSS: Did you go back and watch that part of the actual court case?

PAULSON: I did. I did, indeed. That was actually one of the more difficult days I had. I can't even hear it - even just now - without getting angry. And my throat starts to close up. I just - I cannot believe that Cochran would stoop - I mean, I can. But just on Marcia's behalf - I just cannot believe that was something that she had to do and stand up in that courtroom and defend her need to be home with her child. It just - it still really - oof. It chaps. It chaps my ass, I have to say, if you can say things like that on the radio.

GROSS: When you watch Marcia Clark say, more or less, those words, what did you try pick up on from how she said it and what you saw going on on her face?

PAULSON: Well, I could tell that she was very upset and that she was sitting on a lot of things she probably would like to be saying. She was just desperately trying, I think, to not spit nails and was very angry and at the same time, did not want to be labeled hysterical. So she was sitting on it. And so those are the things I saw.

GROSS: You said that you could see that Marcia Clark had all these, like, emotions and anger, but she was just sitting on it. You know, she was, like, containing it, but it was coming out anyways. Like, after she's had this makeover because she's supposed to look more feminine and then people mock her for that. And after her first husband has given a tabloid a naked photo of them that's published that totally humiliates her. And after this incident with Johnnie Cochran, she just kind of loses it. She loses it in the courtroom. And then, afterwards, she is alone in her office sitting on the floor, just weeping when Chris Darden from the prosecution team walks in, and he sits down next to her. And I want to play that scene. So Marcia Clark is on the floor weeping, and here's what she tells Darden.


PAULSON: (As Marcia Clark) I'm not a public personality. This isn't what I do. I don't know how to do this. And those other guys - they're flashy hotshots. They're used to it. But I (sobbing) - I just can't take it.

STERLING K. BROWN: (As Christopher Darden) You'll do fine.

PAULSON: (As Marcia Clark) No, I won't.

BROWN: (As Christopher Darden) Yeah. I know it.

PAULSON: (As Marcia Clark, sobbing).


OTIS REDDING: (Singing) ...Can't go no further 'cause you got me chained and bound. You walk with your head...

BROWN: (As Christopher Darden) And if it helps any, you do look mighty good in that picture.

PAULSON: (As Marcia Clark, laughing).


REDDING: (Singing) 'Cause you got me chained and bound, oh, now. So glad, I'm so glad, I'm so glad...

GROSS: That's my guest Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark with Sterling K. Brown as Chris Darden. And you know what I relate to about that scene (laughter)?

PAULSON: (Laughter).

GROSS: It's that...


GROSS: ...I think so many working women worry about the possibility of crying on the job because - I think it's probably true that women cry a little more easily than men (laughter).

PAULSON: (Laughter) Probably true.

GROSS: Like, not to play into stereotype, but I think that's probably true.

PAULSON: (Laughter) It's probably true.

GROSS: And you - like, you just don't want to have to cry on the job, no matter how bad you're feeling. It just always feels a little embarrassing. Whether it should or shouldn't, it does.

PAULSON: Absolutely, absolutely.

GROSS: And - (laughter) so I was wondering if you related to that, too, that feeling. You know, I guess I can imagine there must be so many humiliating things that happen to actors and actresses just being, like...


GROSS: ...Criticized on the set in front other people, being told that you didn't get a job, that you failed the audition, you know, so many opportunities.

PAULSON: All those things can make you...


>>PAULSON...Cry. But, you know, usually when you - when you don't get a job, you know, you typically can find that out when you're at home and you can have, you know, the privacy and the comfort of your own home to just bawl. But I absolutely relate to it, and I think it was a struggle for her. Marcia wasn't even a particularly overly emotional person, except for she's a very passionate person. She is a very passionate person.

And the idea that she would be expected to hold all of this - what was going on in her life at home; what was going on in her life, you know, in front of the cameras; what was going on in the district attorney's office, she was just - I also sort of think of it as - and this episode in particular - of Marcia being in a boxing ring and just getting pummeled left, right and center and just not ever getting an opportunity to get up and get her bearings and get her legs under her. And she just keeps getting knocked down. And at some point, you just have to say something's got to give, and she just had to let it out. And the fact that she - you know, that she got that far - you know, this is the sixth episode of the show - before that's happened is a miracle to me.

GROSS: Now, in that scene, you're crying alone in your office until Chris Darden walks in. So you never had the opportunity to see what Marcia Clark looks like when she's crying and alone.

PAULSON: (Laughter) No, I did not.

GROSS: So you had to figure that out for yourself

PAULSON: I sure did (laughter).

GROSS: So what kind of crier did you decide she was going to be?

PAULSON: (Laughter) I don't think I decided anything. I think I just, you know, played the scene and looked at Sterling, whom I think is just such an extraordinary actor. And we had such a wonderful, intimate connection that we were able to draw upon, which was so wonderful. There was something sort of raw about this and something that I just sort of let come. I mean, it sort of happened in the courtroom, too, when I walk in with my haircut. Again, I had nothing planned, and there was nothing scripted about what was to happen or not to happen. But Ryan Murphy, who directed this episode, just said to me just - I want you to walk in, and I want you to be ready for the day. You've got this, and I think you look - you think you look pretty good, and you're just here to do your job.

And I walked in that courtroom and wasn't really thinking about how to play any of it, and Ito, you know, looks over at Marcia and says welcome, Ms. Clark, I think. There's a smattering, tittering laughter that happens. She looks to the left, and there's - you know, all those men sit. And it's just - was the most humiliating thing. I felt so embarrassed. The temperature in my face and my neck rose. I could feel my pulse in my cheeks, and I just - it was very hard for me to keep it together. And I was a bit of a mess. And, you know, there's nothing sort of more uncomfortable and also sort of exciting, as an actor, to sort of feel that you are out of control in a way and that I'm not - I wasn't trying to...

GROSS: Out of control in character?

PAULSON: In control in character, yeah - that you're going to control the moment - oh, you're going to laugh here. Or sometimes it's scripted - laugh here, she cries here. And sometimes when you don't have those guidelines, it's kind of freeing because you just - if you're working with a director - and I was this time with Ryan - that trusts you and that, you know, lets you sort of trust yourself and it just came out.

GROSS: We're listening back to the interview I recorded last March with Sarah Paulson. She's nominated for two Emmys for her portrayal of Marcia Clark in "The People V. O.J. Simpson" and "American Horror Story: Hotel." After we take a short break, we'll talk more about her acting career, and we'll talk more personally about having what she describes as a fluid sexual orientation. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded last March with Sarah Paulson. She's nominated for two Emmys for her performance in "American Horror Story: Hotel" and for her portrayal of prosecutor Marcia Clark in the series "The People V. O.J. Simpson." Paulson also co-starred in the 2015 movie "Carol." The O.J. series is based on Jeffrey Toobin's book about the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial.

There are many times when I don't like biopics or historical dramas or ripped-from-the-headlines miniseries because, you know - because they're not accurate. And I always think, like, the real story is usually more complicated and way more interesting than the reduced, overly dramatized, sentimentalized version that's presented in a lot of biopics and miniseries. So there's a moment in the O.J. series where you, as Marcia Clark, after all these humiliating things have happened - you've had your makeover. People are mocking that. And you're in the grocery store, and you're buying Tampax. And the guy at the checkout counter is checking out the Tampax. He looks at you and he says, I guess the defense is in for one hell of a week. And I thought, oh, well, that's a clever line that some writer for the series juts came up with. That kind of thing doesn't happen quite like that in real life. Then I open Jeffrey Toobin's book - and that's the reportorial book that the miniseries is based on - and it's in there. (Laughter) It's in his book.

PAULSON: (Laughter).

GROSS: So nevertheless the less, though, I'm wondering how you feel about the importance of a miniseries like this - like, what's your position (laughter) on how true something has to be?

PAULSON: On the veracity of thing...

GROSS: Exactly.

PAULSON: Well, I obviously think it's of paramount importance, and at the same time, it is a television show and it is a dramatization. And there is no way to know exactly what Marcia Clark was feeling and exactly, as you said before, how she cries privately. And there are many, many things that cannot be known. And that's when you just have to kind of - if you're going to make the thing - and the thing was being made, and I had already signed up. I - you know, I just sort of have to kind of get behind knowing that the bulk of it is all true. And the moments that cannot be known, except for by the people that were actually there and lived it, you know, that's where the acting comes in and the clever writing and - at least you hope. And I think the whole thing in general was - everything was incredibly well vetted and all of that.

GROSS: Did you talk with Toobin?

PAULSON: I did talk with Toobin. He was around a little bit, not a ton. And I like him very much. I just don't agree with some of his opinions about Marcia.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK.

PAULSON: So (laughter) that was - you know, he said something to me in person about her arrogance or something, and I just politely smiled and excused myself and went back to my seat and mumbled something to Sterling, who plays Darden. I was just like...

GROSS: (Laughter).

PAULSON: ...I don't want to talk to him if he's going to talk to me that way about this person that I'm playing that I've come to revere and feel so much empathy towards and for and compassion for. And also, he's a man and what does he know? And get out of here. And so it was...


GROSS: You are so deep in character (laughter).

PAULSON: I was so deep in character it's like, oh, God, get out of my face.


GROSS: So "American Crime Story," which the O.J. series is part of, was created by Ryan Murphy, who also created "American Horror Story." And you've been in several seasons of that. One of the roles that you played was a conjoined twin who has two heads. So she has...


GROSS: ...One body, two heads, two brains, so...

PAULSON: Two brains, yeah.

GROSS: ...Each of these people - each of the two women sharing this body have different feelings, different emotions and...

PAULSON: Yes, different feelings, different emotions.

GROSS: ...They're put in a freak show.


GROSS: So can we just talk technically for a second like...

PAULSON: Please, yes.

GROSS: How did (laugher) - how exactly was this done, this two-headed person?

PAULSON: It was - if I really explained it really intricately in full detail, you'd probably fall asleep before I finish. But essentially, it was all done on a green screen. And I would come in in the morning and prerecord my dialogue because often the twins were speaking telepathically to one another, and I wanted to be able to hear my own voice in my head. So I would record it and then wear an earwig so that I could talk to myself. I didn't want to have another actress off-camera reading that didn't sound like me and didn't sound like my twin. It was a lot of lonely work where I would have to look at a piece of tape and imagine my own head there. I never was able to look in anyone else's eyes to play a scene with myself in the way that I had to. It was incredibly challenging and very, very technical. And everyone who ever did a scene with me on that season of "Horror Story" was just always bemoaning the fact that they had to work with me because it meant their day was infinitely longer...

GROSS: (Laughter).

PAULSON: ...Because it was just take after take. And, you know, we essentially had to do everything twice...

GROSS: Oh, to have...

PAULSON: Each take, yeah.

GROSS: Each - of the twins, yes.

PAULSON: Each girl had her - each of the twins had to have their own, you know - and I would have to go back and forth between each girl. They would shoot a big wide shot and then they would do a tighter shot. And then I would have to switch characters before they could change the lens to go in tighter. And so it was really, really hard to do. It really was.

GROSS: Let me move on to another role. You co-star in "Carol," and it's a great film. "Carol" is about two women - a woman played by Cate Blanchett who's married with a child. She lives in a wealthy suburb. And then the other woman is played by Rooney Mara. Rooney Mara's, like, a young woman who works at a department store. They meet at the store and kind of fall in love with each other. Now, at this point, Cate Blanchett realizes - she knows she's a lesbian, and she's separated from her husband and trying to get a divorce whereas Rooney Mara is like - she has no context to put this love she's feeling in. She doesn't understand it. You are - you play the best friend of the Cate Blanchett character, who for a while was also her lover. You still love her, but she just wants to be friends.

PAULSON: (Laughter) The dreaded she just wants to be friends.

GROSS: (Laughter) Exactly. But you're still confidantes. And in the scene that I want to play, Cate Blanchett's character and Rooney Mara's character have gone together on this road trip just to kind of get away from all of this craziness and be alone together. And Cate Blanchett's husband - the one she's divorcing - is looking for her. So he comes to your house figuring she must be with you. And he's really angry. And you're kind of angry with him for how he's treated your good friend. So here's that scene. And the husband is played by Kyle Chandler.


PAULSON: (As Abby Gerhard) She's not here.

KYLE CHANDLER: (As Harge Aird) Well, that's impossible because she's not at home and she's not with me, so she must be with you.

PAULSON: (As Abby Gerhard) Yeah, you know, Harge, you have a point. You've spent 10 years making damn sure her only point of reference is you - your job, your friends, your family.

CHANDLER: (As Harge Aird) Where is she, damn it? She's still my wife, Abby. She's my responsibility.

PAULSON: (As Abby Gerhard) You know, that's some way of showing it, slapping her with an injunction. I'm closing the door.

CHANDLER: (As Harge Aird) I love her.

PAULSON: (As Abby Gerhard) I can't help you with that.

GROSS: Ouch.


GROSS: My guest, Sarah Paulson...

PAULSON: The old door slam.

GROSS: ...As Abby (laughter) in a scene from "Carol." You've said you had to fight to get that role. What exactly did you have to do?

PAULSON: Well, I've never - I haven't - I don't get movie roles just sort of thrown at me. It's very hard to get a movie - really and truly it is. I auditioned. I flew myself to New York. I was shooting "American Horror Story" in New Orleans at the time. And Todd was not really seeing actresses in person. He was watching tapes. So I went into a room with...

GROSS: This is Todd Haynes, the director?

PAULSON: Todd Haynes, the director - and I went into a room with Laura Rosenthal, the casting director. And she spent, you know, 45 minutes to an hour with me. And we just made a tape and did, you know, various different types of takes and did the same scene over and over again in different ways. And then I just had to wait it out while he watched lots of tapes of lots of famous Academy Award-winning actresses and...

GROSS: (Laughter).

PAULSON: And I got it, and I don't really know how that happened, but I did. I feel very lucky. But the part was actually more substantial in size in the script than it ended up being in the movie, which was a big kind of disappointment for me 'cause I really loved playing that part. And she was much more integral to the story and much more - very, very clearly still in love with Cate and in fact, asking her to be back with her. But that didn't make it into the movie.

GROSS: So is this a period you've played before, 1950s when gays and lesbians mostly had to stay deep in the closet and most women had to take on the role of wife and mother without much of an outside life? What did you do to get into that period emotionally and physically?

PAULSON: Well, the clothes helped a lot. Sandy Powell is an incredible designer. And the clothes just did a lot. And, I mean, not to mention the girdle that we were all wearing. It just does a lot to make you feel very, very hemmed in, I can tell you that. So you sort of move a little bit differently and everything's - you stand a little taller and you - there's a little bit more restriction and your movements can't be quite as broad and modern, quite frankly.

But I just read a lot of Patricia Highsmith. I read the book that the movie is based on called "The Price Of Salt," which was later renamed "Carol." The clothes did a lot of the work for me, my hairstyle did a lot of the work for me. Todd helped me do a lot of the work. And working with Cate and Rooney was the end of the puzzle.

GROSS: We're listening back to my interview with Sarah Paulson. She's nominated for two Emmys. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sarah Paulson, which was recorded last March, when FX was showing its series "The People V. O.J. Simpson." She's nominated for an Emmy for her performance as prosecutor Marcia Clarke. She's also nominated for an Emmy for her performance in "American Horror Story: Hotel."


GROSS: Because sexual orientation is still a thing in our culture, you made news when you kissed Cherry Jones at the Tony Awards in 2005 when she won 'cause you were there together as a couple. Did you realize that you'd be on camera and that that would be reported and that it would mean that you were in the public eye as a couple?

PAULSON: I think I was a bit naive, actually, as to what it would mean. I was just doing what was instinctual to me, which was to congratulate and kiss the person whom I loved and who had just won a very sort of fancy acting prize. And it would've been strange for me to - what? - you know - I don't know, pat her on the head or pat her on the shoulder. And I didn't - I just sort of did what occurred to me to do. But I was very quickly made aware of it being a bit of a news 'cause I got a phone call from my publicist saying, why did you do that? She's no longer my publicist, though, by the way.

GROSS: Because of that?

PAULSON: Well, I just - I remember feeling sort of like I was getting my hand slapped, that I had done something wrong. And I didn't feel very comfortable with that. And it wasn't immediately after that that I severed that relationship, but - not my relationship with Cherry, but the relationship with the publicist.

GROSS: So you had already had, you know, years of being a professional actress before you were in a couple with another woman 'cause you'd been with men before that. So did it change, do you think, how you were treated professionally? I mean, your career actually has gotten a lot bigger since then.

PAULSON: Yeah, I don't think I felt it in any substantial way that it was a hindrance for me. But then again, I hadn't really - I had been working, but I wasn't very well-known, and I just didn't feel it. I didn't feel it. And certainly, I wonder sometimes if being in the Ryan Murphy world and that I get to play so many different types of characters within that one TV show that there really isn't time to sort of typecast me as one particular kind of thing. I'm not a sex symbol. I'm not a - what is, like, a person in a movie with a big gun and a (laughter) like a comic book figure...

GROSS: Your typical movie star (laughter).

PAULSON: Your sort of typical - yeah, I'm not sort of your typical movie star. And I don't - so I wonder if I've been sort of protected from having to worry about it preventing me from working, in a way, because people - the public doesn't really have a particular attachment to me being one type of thing.

GROSS: Right, and also, Ryan Murphy's gay, and I think there's more and more people in Hollywood and Broadway coming out. So it's not - it's hopefully not as big a thing as it would have been.

PAULSON: Here's hoping (laughter).

GROSS: Here's hoping, right.


GROSS: So you've described your sexual orientation as fluid. I think there was a time - and maybe that time is still now - when people felt pressured to choose a team. When being sexual - you know, if you describe your sexual orientation as fluid, people would think, like, oh, you're covering up because you're really gay and you just don't want...


GROSS: ...To say so. But I think maybe - and I'd like to hear your impressions - that maybe in this LGBTQ era that it's allowing for fluidity - not only allowing it, but demanding that fluidity be accepted as a way of being.

PAULSON: You know, it's interesting, I try to kind of - the politicalization of it is complicated for me because I only know what to do according to what I feel. And I only want to sort of be governed by that. I don't - I try not to make any choices across the board that are sort of dictated to me by someone else's idea about what it should be. So I do hope that the idea of somebody being fluid is no longer a sort of covert or a euphemism for, oh, gay, just don't want to say it because for me, you know, I have been with men and I have been with women, and I don't know what lies ahead. And I don't want to be stuck with some kind of label that makes me then a traitor to my people if I make a different choice. And I want the freedom - my own personal freedom to decide that as I see fit.

GROSS: I don't know if I'm crossing a line here, so guide me.


GROSS: You're in a relationship now with the actress Holland Taylor. And I heard her interviewed by Anna Sale on Anna's podcast. And she said - and this was a few months ago - that she was in this, like, wonderful relationship with a younger woman, who is you, but that she didn't want to say. Anna said, would you like to say her name? And she said, no, I really don't, you know, meaning, like, I want to keep it private. But you've said her name (laughter) in interviews. So I'm wondering, you know, if there's ever in relationships, you know, that you've been in - if there's ever any differences in whether to be public or not with the...

PAULSON: I think - you know...

GROSS: ...The fact of being a lesbian couple on who's the other member of the couple?

PAULSON: I think because Holland was doing that interview and I wasn't sitting there and we had not spoken about this prior to it, so I think she felt protective of me because we hadn't, as a couple, discussed it in terms of how it was going to be publicly spoken about - if it was going to be publicly spoken about. And it was sort of that interview that kind of - people started investigating and looking at our Twitter accounts and piecing things together and deciding that it was - it sort of shoved the story out in a way that I think Holland wasn't anticipating. And so it made it seem sort of odd that she wasn't saying my name but she was saying that she was in relationship with a younger person. But it was really just we hadn't discussed it. So she was trying to be protective and proper.

GROSS: How did you feel about the investigation and the discovery?

PAULSON: That part was a little strange. I was more surprised by what was seemingly such a positive reaction as if, I don't know, people thought maybe I was going to be alone forever or something. They were just all so delighted to hear that I found someone. (Laughter) And I thought, oh...

GROSS: (Laughter) Yay, she's in a relationship.

PAULSON: Yay, she's in a relationship. (Laughter) I was just so glad that there was collective relief - and surprised.

GROSS: So I hope you don't mind my asking this. She - Holland Taylor is about 30 years older than you. And I know people who've been through this when your partner deals with the health-related issues of aging far in advance than you deal with it. It's - you know, it's something people face. And - have you kind of, like, jumped ahead to that or you're not thinking about that or is that irrelevant?

PAULSON: I would have to be...

GROSS: Or is that none of my business? Just tell me.

PAULSON: It's not - no, it's not none of your business. I think it's a sort of interesting - it's a more interesting question - one of the more interesting questions that I've been asked about this, so I'm actually happy to answer it. I have thought about it. I think I would be a sort of strange person if I didn't because how could I not? There is a very significant age difference. And when you love a person, the idea of losing them is sort of terrifying, to put it mildly.

GROSS: Yeah.

PAULSON: So I have thought about it. But, you know, Holland actually put the best spin on it and said what I think was a sort of very, very funny thing, which is - we were at a dinner party and we were newly sort of out and about as a couple. And a mutual friend of ours said, oh, Holland I am so, so pleased for you. I'm so happy. This is so great, you and Sarah. And Holland said, yeah, I know. You know, look, if she dies, she dies.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PAULSON: And it was just so - it was so sort of disarming because, you know - and Holland's point being, you know, yes, on paper, it looks like one thing. But anything can happen, and you just don't know. So - you know, but of course it's something I think about because that would be very upsetting, and of course on paper seems a lot closer than it normally would in a relationship. So - but it's something I don't like to think about often, so thanks for asking, Terry. No, I'm just kidding. I'm just kidding.


PAULSON: Thanks for bringing it up towards the end of the interview so I can go off and cry somewhere privately - privately, by the way.

GROSS: Right, are you going to cry like you or like Marcia Clark?

PAULSON: I'm going to cry like me or maybe like Marcia Clark, privately in my room.

GROSS: I'm glad you brought up crying. How do you - you know, crying - when I cry, I think I'm at my most hideous-looking.

PAULSON: Sure, most people are, Terry.

GROSS: 'Cause your face - your face just kind of contorts. You have no - like, when you're really sobbing, you have absolutely no control over it.


GROSS: It turns read.


GROSS: There's, like, stuff running out of your nose and your eyes. It's just, like - it's so horrible.

PAULSON: (Laughter) Everything's leaking. It's just awful.

GROSS: Everything's leaking, yeah.


GROSS: So, like, when you cry on camera, whether it's for Marcia Clark or any other character that you're playing, how do you get to that place of the genuine convulsive, hideous kind (laughter) - kind of crying?

PAULSON: You know, I really try not to think about what I look like. I think Meryl Streep said once, you know, vanity has no place in acting. And although, you know, it's a nice idea in theory, often as women, you know, you are sort of more acutely aware of what you look like while you're being filmed or photographed than most people spend time doing.

But I think if I really thought about what I looked like when I was crying, it would - listen, as young person, I did cry sometimes and look in the mirror just to see what it looked like in my sort of budding, youthful acting days. I would sort of do it and then go, oh, that's what it looks like, which was sort of a horrifying thing to admit. But I don't - I try not to think about it 'cause I know it isn't pretty. I know it isn't pretty when I cry. But, you know, if it looked pretty while I was crying, maybe I wouldn't be really crying and then I wouldn't be really in the scene, so I try not to think about it.

GROSS: We're listening back to my interview with Sarah Paulson. She's nominated for two Emmys. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.



GROSS: My guest is Sarah Paulson. She plays prosecutor Marcia Clark in the FX series "The People V. O.J. Simpson." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sarah Paulson. She's nominated for two Emmys, one for her performance in "American Horror Story: Hotel" and the other for her role playing prosecutor Marcia Clark in "The People V. O.J. Simpson."


GROSS: Before you go, I have to ask you about "Law And Order."



GROSS: There's an episode of "Law And Order" that you're in from, I think, 1994...


GROSS: ...That was just on TV. You know, Sundance has this, like, "Law And Order" marathon on a few days a week. You were on. You played a teenager, who, if I remember correctly...

PAULSON: ...Having an affair with my stepfather.

GROSS: Right and kind covering up for him.

PAULSON: Covering up and then, yeah, killing my mother - right? - I think.

GROSS: I'm not sure whether you killed him or he killed him, and you covered up for him doing it...

PAULSON: He killed him, and I covered up for him. That's right.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I think that was, like, your first screen role?

PAULSON: That was my first on-camera role. I still had my - note the brown hair.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PAULSON: It was my first on-camera role, and it was back when I didn't know anything about what it was like to be on camera. I'd only ever done only a little bit of theater in New York. I'd just graduated from high school in 1993. And, yeah, it was back in the days when I didn't know you could move your body, your head on camera, so I moved a little bit like I had been in a car accident and I was wearing a neck brace. So it's very humiliating to me that you have seen this, and I hope for my $2.93 residual check and all the humiliation that goes with knowing that it's out there for people to see.

GROSS: When you got the role - and I have to say, there are so many, like, Broadway actors who end up doing "Law And Order" or who've done one of those franchise crime shows because so many have been shot in New York over the years. So when you got that role - and you were either in your teens or 20s - did you think...

PAULSON: I was 19.

GROSS: Did you think, like, OK, now I own the world? I am, you know...


GROSS: ...I've made it...

PAULSON: ...Oh, I absolutely did. I thought...

GROSS: ...From here to stardom, any day now.

PAULSON: I did. I thought, here it is. Here it comes, you know, and then I waited, you know, a good five years for another job. So I very quickly realized that that's not how it went. But, yeah, getting a "Law And Order" in New York, it's a real rite of passage. And it was right after I got out of high school. And it was actually my first experience with a director who saw something in me that I actually wasn't even doing. It was a very emotional scene. I think I cried an awful lot - a lot of ugly crying in that episode of "Law And Order."

And in the audition, in my final callback for Ed Sherin, I could not cry. I had done it in the first audition. I - for some reason, I was just dry as a bone. I couldn't do it, and I was feeling incredibly humiliated. And Ed Sherin, instead of just saying to me, thanks very much, and, you know, go on your way, little one. He said, I think you're feeling something right now that might be useful for you. And I looked up at him, and I said, what's that? And he said, are you feeling very embarrassed? Are you feeling sort of humiliated? And my eyes welled up with tears, and he said, go now. Go, act, do it right now. Do the scene right now.

And I did, and the tears flowed. And it was - you know, and then I got the job. But, you know, that was all - I could have easily walked out of there without that job if Ed Sherin hadn't looked at me and seen something that, you know, I wasn't even aware I was putting out energetically. My humiliation was clearly very on-the-surface.

GROSS: So you've said you don't like watching your own work 'cause you're very self-critical. You haven't watched any of the O.J. series. Are you ever going to watch it?

PAULSON: I am going to watch it, but I think I'm going to wait 'til it's over, until all the sort of hoopla-doopla-do (ph) has died down about it. I think it's the first time in my life I have felt - in my professional life - I have felt a real swell of positive feeling about my work in something. And I think I'm trying to just enjoy that because I know that if I watch it, I'm going to start picking it apart. And I think it would be nice - a nice treat for myself to give myself a minute of enjoyment to celebrate, you know, the work.

And I know I was certainly very proud to do it. And I had a very strong emotional connection to the material and to the person. But I'm trying to enjoy what seems to be a positive reaction to my work in it, and I don't want to sully it by ripping it apart. So I'm trying to give myself a little time.

GROSS: Sarah Paulson, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much, and I'm really enjoying your performance.

PAULSON: Thank you so much. It means a lot to me. Thank you.

GROSS: Sarah Paulson, recorded in March. She's nominated for two Emmys, for her portrayal of prosecutor Marcia Clark in the series "The People V. O.J. Simpson" and for her performance in American Horror Story: Hotel."


GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on this week's best-of series and listen to our interviews with Tom Hanks and Larry Wilmore and hear our 2005 interview with Gene Wilder, who died this week, check out our podcast. You'll find those and other interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonaldo, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.