This Is How Sarah Paulson Really Felt About Playing Sally McKenna and Marcia Clark at the Same Time
For Glamour’s September issue, we photographed 54 incredible women across America and asked them to define themselves. The results were brilliant, funny, and inspiring—read them all here—and create a stunning portrait of what it is to be a woman in America today. (As our editor-in-chief puts it: “We’re all unicorns.”) Here, Sarah Paulson discusses the mental toll of playing addict Sally McKenna in American Horror Story and O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark at the same time, why she won’t change her Wikipedia page, and more.
GLAMOUR: What does it mean to you to be an American woman in 2016?
Sarah Paulson: I don’t know that my answer is all that positive. On one hand, the pendulum swings in such a direction where you feel a great sense of power and possibility. Like, in the world of art and expression, it feels to be a quite fertile time and very alive and potent. I just went to see Eclipsed starring these five women, written by a woman, directed by a woman. On the other hand, I just don’t feel that we’ve traveled very far. There just seems to be a little bit of unrest. And sometimes I think that happens when you really feel like something’s about to change. Right before the moment of lift off, sometimes things feel a little bit unhinged, and that’s what it feels like to me right now, both as a woman and just as a human on the planet as an American woman in America. I feel like we’re on the precipice of change. I feel a little nervous.
GLAMOUR: But excited?
SP: Excited and hopeful, I certainly feel hopeful. I think sometimes when you can feel the velocity of change, you really need a seat belt. It’s almost like having a growth spurt that you can feel, like a 16-year-old who woke up one day and grew four inches literally overnight. That can be a painful thing sometimes.
GLAMOUR: It just hasn’t happened yet.
SP: It just hasn’t happened, but I can feel everybody is stretching towards something. I just don’t know what that something is.
GLAMOUR: What do you hope it is, if it’s just one thing?
SP: I hope it’s a little bit of quiet and mindfulness. I feel like there’s just so many voices, so many opinions, and so many places to express it, which is both wonderful and also makes for a lot of noise. It’s hard to get quiet with yourself and really figure out what you think and feel about something when you’ve got so many opinions and so many places to gather more opinions. It feels a bit overwhelming.
GLAMOUR: You have played some of the most incredible women in film and on TV. Is there something that you’ve learned from any of them that you would like to pass on to any of our readers?
SP: Tenacity. All of the women I have played in the last three years are the most tenacious, unwaveringly courageous women. Courage is something that I’ve learned a lot about, particularly with Marcia [Clark, from The People v. O.J. Simpson. I do not know how she woke up in the morning, how she put both feet on the floor, how she got food on the table for her children, and went out into the world under such a horrendously bright spotlight. One that was really incredibly harsh and unflinching. There was no escaping it for her. She had no safe haven, yet her commitment to her belief that he was guilty made her wake up every morning and face another day and have to contend with things that had nothing to do with putting a man that she believed to be guilty behind bars. Her need for concealer was really important to a lot of people. It just wasn’t important to her.
I think it was very brave of her to show up every day in the face of such vitriol and disregard and disrespect. She never lost sight of that through the entire circus that the trial became. And she lived to tell the tale—and retained a sense of dignity and self-respect. She just, for better or for worse, had the courage of her own conviction. I feel that is something that I myself personally have a big deal of purchase on. I learned, having played her, what the value of that is in your life because it can affect everything, every choice you make, the way you deal with a stranger on the street, or your best friend or lover. It’s a powerful thing to know yourself and to have the commitment and the courage to let that be your guide.
GLAMOUR: Is portraying women like Marcia Clark something that you hold onto every morning when you wake up and go to your job?
SP: I just think I have the greatest job on the planet because my TV show [FX’s American Horror Story] is going into its sixth season and I’m playing an entirely different character, like nothing I’ve ever played. I’m not going back to a show, putting on the same outfit that I’ve worn for the last six years. It’s like being reborn every season. From an acting standpoint, nothing can touch that. Don’t get me wrong, I look at Claire Danes, whom I just absolutely worship and revere as a person, and I think about the depths that she’s gotten to explore with that one character. Then I think, God, if I had to put that pantsuit on every day for six years, I’d be really tired of it. I’m saying that because I’ve had such an extensive costume life on [AHS]. Two heads, different appendages, it’s been very wild.
GLAMOUR: You as an addict though, that was incredible.
SP: That was really one of the more freeing [roles]. I was doing Marcia Clark and Sally at the same time. I mean truly at the same time—sometimes on the same day. It was very taxing on me mentally, but having played the conjoined twins the season before, I was sort of used to finding a way to divide my focus and my attention. The reason I was able to play Sally was that she just literally didn’t give a f–k about anything. A person who has no investment in anything is the polar opposite of Marcia. Marcia had so much empathy, conviction, belief, dedication, and fire in her belly. Sally, all she wanted was another fix, all she wanted was to make out with Wes Bentley. And if you’ve made out with Wes Bentley, you would want to be continuing that as much as possible. Believe me.
GLAMOUR: He’s so dreamy.
SP: She just didn’t have any attachment to anything, didn’t need anyone or anything. That was a very liberating thing to do. That was a wonderful, freeing thing because we all in life have so many responsibilities to ourselves, to other people, that we rarely get to explore a very selfish side of ourselves in doing what we want, when we want, how we want, without answering to or being responsible for anyone else. That was really delicious to live in, but I wouldn’t want to really live there because I’d probably have no friends and a really lonely life.
GLAMOUR: If you could rewrite your Wikipedia page, what would be the first sentence? What do you want people to first know about you?
SP: That I’m an American actress. I wonder if it says that. Does it say that?
GLAMOUR: It says, “Sarah Catharine Paulson is an American film, stage, and television actress.”
SP: You know what? I wouldn’t correct my Wikipedia page. That’s perfect. That is what I am.
GLAMOUR: What I love about your response is that work is super important to you, and I think right now, for women, it’s OK to say that. It feels good.
SP: It’s also, I think, a big relief. I remember watching something on PBS about two women with very divergent experiences. One was a single mom raising her children with a job in the education world and not compensated handsomely for it. The other woman was very wealthy; I can’t remember what she did for a living. The woman with a lot of money said you actually can have it all. And the other woman who was raising her child on her own and didn’t have a full income was saying it’s actually not true at all. I personally think it would be a very liberating thing for women to allow themselves to understand that having it all incorporates sacrifice. It does mean that you can’t be everywhere all the time. It does mean that your friends are not going to get all of you.
I don’t have children, but my work life is as important to me as anything could be. I’ve dedicated a lot of time and energy and years to it. Some might say some of my childbearing years to it. In and of itself, my work is like a child to me. That is my reality. It’s that important to nurture and foster my own creativity. There are plenty of birthday parties I haven’t been able to go to, weddings I haven’t been able to go to because I’ve been working. Those are things that have not been easy to give up, but at the same time, it is my reality. It’s my responsibility.
GLAMOUR: And you’ll be remembered for it, which, for a lot of people, the point of childbirth is to pass—
SP: —is to pass on something, right. I do think about that. I have friends say, “Don’t you want to have a little you?” The jury’s still out on that for me. I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do know that I can look back on some of the things I’ve worked on and some of the things that have literally come out of my imagination and be just as proud of it as if I had created a person. I feel like that shouldn’t be of any less value. It can’t be because it’s what my life is, and I don’t want to make it smaller or more palatable just because society tells you to. If you can get comfortable with sacrifice, then you are having it all.
GLAMOUR: What’s your secret talent besides impersonating Ryan Murphy? We hear it’s incredible.
SP: My secret talent is actually not fit for print. You can print that.
GLAMOUR: Is there anything that you feel about yourself that’s not very American?
SP: I have an unconventional romantic life. I always have. It’s not on purpose. It’s not a choice that I’ve made. But I can’t not look at it and go, yeah that’s a little European. I’ll take it.
Related: This is How Women in America See Themselves Today
See all of our American Women coverage here.
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