Arts & Culture

The Shape-Shifting Sarah Paulson

There’s no role the Florida native can’t make her own

A woman with her hand under her chin


Paulson stars on Broadway in Appropriate, set in Arkansas and opening in December.

The Emmy-winning actress Sarah Paulson immerses herself soul deep into every role, to the point of nearly vanishing. The forty-eight-year-old brushes away vanity like lint, preferring to inhabit and occupy the roles of women who some (most) might label “difficult” (Linda Tripp, Marcia Clark, Nurse Ratched). “It’s not my job to determine whether they are likable or worthy people,” she explains, adding that for her, it’s more. “Can I go home at night and feel that I attempted to do something with truth at its center? And if I did, that’s enough.” Well, that and the thrill of pulling the transformation off. “I like to be a little scared. Can I do it?” For Paulson, teetering on the tightrope of failure with no net, well, “there’s nothing more wonderful.”

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We’re talking during the actors’ strike. How are you doing with the downtime?

I’m hanging in, recovering from E. coli poisoning, not kidding. [Loud barking.] Oh my God, that’s Louise. I’m going to open these doors for my dogs. Go ahead. Bark your faces off. Leave me out of it. [Laughs.]

What kind of dogs do you have?

Three rescues, the absolute loves of my life. They all have little quirks. Winifred T. Paulson—she goes by Winnie. She’s a genius. Then there’s Louise, who goes by Lulu. And the newest addition is a very sweet but intellectually challenged dog named Georgie, after George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life.

You asked me a question about downtime. Downtime has never been a good thing for me mentally or creatively. Left to its own devices for too lengthy a period of time, my mind is not my friend.

Prior to the strike, you were incredibly busy acting in both the American Horror Story and American Crime Story anthologies, as well as multiple films.

I said, “yes, yes, yes,” for about a decade, nose to the grindstone. People would ask me, “What do you do for fun?” and I couldn’t tell them, because there was no such thing as “something for fun.” I was afraid as I was getting older that those offers would slow down. Then the pandemic happened, and I started making different decisions in terms of what I wanted to put my energy into.

I read a study recently about how when you reach a certain age, you realize your work isn’t your identity, you have a crisis, and then you come out the other end.

Well, I wouldn’t say I’m out the other end. And I’m not at the beginning of the crisis. I’m somewhere floating in the middle.

Paulson kicking up her Larroudé heels in West Hollywood, in a Prada sweater and skirt.

You’re starring in Appropriate, an Obie-winning play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins about a broken Arkansas family and its legacy of darkness, which opens in December on Broadway.

The South has always been an incredibly evocative place for me. My whole family is from Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia, so the play was just me being dropped back into the world that I inhabited as a young person.

Your line “All this life you live—what’s it for if no one’s there to tell you about it?” struck me as so specifically Southern.

Yes. There’s a kind of Southern sensibility of taking care of your people, the desire to be near your family. This idea of family being all.

Who in your family influenced you the most?

My grandmother, who just died at ninety-two. I’m wearing her engagement ring right now. She was from Mobile and had the most incredible accent. My name was Saar-aah. Not Sarah. She taught me everything from get your elbows off the table, to the pleases and thank-yous and yes-ma’ams. She would inspect under my fingernails. My grandmother made an effort, without telling you she made an effort. You know what I’m talking about.

Oh, a hundred percent.

She also was funny, and quick to laugh at herself, which I think is one of the great qualities you can have as a person. My sister and I are both people who can really take a joke, and that’s thanks to her.

Hanging by the pool in a lace silk linen dress by Zimmermann.

Teasing is the love language of the South.

Exactly. I remember a friend of mine, when we first started working together, she was like, “You’re constantly making fun of me.” And I was like, “That’s because I love you.”

You spent your early childhood in Florida. Some folks don’t think Florida counts as the South, but—

It freaking does. My mother had a cotillion in Tampa, where I was born.

Were you outdoors all the time?

We’d go to school and then not come home until dark. You’d drop your bike and run into the house, the front wheel spinning on the front lawn.

Did you ever get worms in your feet from being barefoot? I did.

Oh yeah, I got worms. We both got worms!

Your mother moved you and your sister to Manhattan.

It was a very bold thing she did that changed the trajectory of my life. I came to New York in my OshKosh B’gosh overalls with my hair side-parted with a barrette, just the least cool kid you ever met in your life, and I remember using the school restroom and there were girls in there smoking cigarettes.

You weren’t in Tampa anymore.

I have a photograph that was taken the day I left Florida. My father is standing there looking stoic. There’s my grandfather—he’s wearing one of those seventies housecoats, showing a little leg, trying to be funny. I’m wearing suspenders and holding a Madame Alexander doll I was obsessed with. My sister’s crying. And my grandmother’s doing her very lovely Mobile, Alabama, smile. That was the moment I felt like I was being separated from the parts of me that made me me.

Your mother visited psychics who made predictions about your future. What did they say?

One said I would be a dancer, a performer. Then there was another psychic who told my mom, basically, “Your eldest child is going to live a really strange life, lady, and I hope you’re cool with it.” And it’s true. I have.

And yet, you still pine for Tampa.

There’s something about the South that feels like home. Those are my people, it’s where my people come from, therefore it’s where I come from. It’s what it feels like in my bones.