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Sarah Paulson

Silk gown, $8,700, Valentino, South Coast Plaza

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Sarah Paulson is the Great Pretender

By Hannah Morrill

Photographed by Brian Bowen Smith | Styled by Karla Welch

05.24.18

After being nominated for a trifecta of hefty awards and starring in the most #TimesUp female-blockbuster film to date, Sarah Paulson reveals she wants to be anything—anything!—but herself.

If you ran into Sarah Paulson

at Whole Foods near the scallions or at Starbucks topping off your soy latte, you likely wouldn’t recognize her straightaway—and not because she isn’t striking or famous (she’s both). She has quick, bewitching dark eyes that can be at once flirtatious and menacing, and the kind of moony skin and statuesque neck that only the truly beautiful possess. She also has an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award, and this month you’ll see her in arguably the summer’s best and most anticipated blockbuster, the all-female Ocean’s 8, right next to Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Anne Hathaway, among other A-list actresses. But never mind all that.

You wouldn’t recognize Paulson because when she’s working, she can’t bear to look like herself. “The more I can look in the mirror and not recognize myself, the more excited I am,” she says, calling from Los Angeles, where she is wearily waiting for the gas company to call during a determined five-hour window—because stars, they’re just like us! For Paulson, the act of physical transformation—the infinite and far more tedious hours in hair and makeup—is a rare gift, a treat, an honor: “It’s a reason to live,” she says of the transformative process.

As such, Paulson is damn good at physically transforming and at emotionally radiating exactly the kind of nuanced performance her characters require. In the last five years alone, she’s played (among many other roles) a sociopath; a drug addict; a pair of conjoined twins; and real-life prosecutor Marcia Clark in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which is where those little old awards come in. To uncannily embody Clark, Paulson would slip into bulky ’90s fashions, pull on a jaunty spiral-permed wig and walk through clouds of Magie Noire perfume. (She liked the way she felt in the wig so much that she traveled with it while doing press for the film.) “We’re constantly faced with all these ideas of beauty—things that Hollywood puts out there for us to gobble up,” Paulson says. “It’s very powerful when I look in the mirror and the first thing I’m thinking isn’t, ‘Are you pretty? Are you going to appeal to someone?’ I can work much more freely when I don’t have to concern myself with my looks.”

Sarah Paulson

Hammered satin trench, $5,900, silk dress, $2,390, both at Valentino, South Coast Plaza.

In relinquishing her desire and sexual appeal, it’s as though Paulson has become all the more so, especially to megaproducer Ryan Murphy, who first cast the actress in Nip/Tuck in 2003 and has found roles for her in nearly every project he’s worked on since. “I don’t know the answer as to why Ryan decided to throw the ball to me,” she says. Likewise, she’s not sure why she caught the acting bug or how it all worked out.

Paulson was born in Florida; her parents divorced when she was 2 years old; and at 5, she moved with her mother and sister to New York City. Some child actors crave the spotlight. Paulson craved the questions—questions she would often ask her grandmother. “I was always really curious about human behavior,” she says.

“Children always ask a million questions, but my questions were particularly like, ‘Are you happy?’” And she still remembers the raw and life-changing significance of seeing Carol Burnett on The Carol Burnett Show and as Miss Hannigan in Annie. “The knowledge that she had been on something else that I watched that was so different, and then here she was playing this mean lady at the orphanage… it was just a wild connective tissue where I thought, ‘Oh, my god. This is something that people do.’ And the moment I knew you could do it for a living, I never really thought about doing anything else.”

Paulson went on to Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and when all of her friends went off to college, she opted out and immediately started scoring the most glamorous and notable roles. Not. “For the first six months, I didn’t do anything. That time felt lifelong and endless,” she recalls. “Now six months is no time at all, but to a 19-year-old, it just felt crazy.” Then she got a small break, a fissure, when she was cast as Amy Ryan’s understudy in The Sisters Rosensweig on Broadway. Then another fissure: Ryan went to Paris for two weeks.

There are two ways to view the next decades of her career. There’s one in which she churned through pilots, TV movies and supporting roles—grinding around L.A. from audition to audition “with 65 wigs in my car and six costume changes.” That version is entirely true.

Nero silk inverted sweetheart gown, $3,925, Versace, South Coast Plaza

And then there’s the perspective—also true—in which Paulson ascended through a career of remarkable and important roles. She played opposite Jessica Lange in The Glass Menagerie on Broadway. She starred in Aaron Sorkin’s smart but short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and earned her first Golden Globe nomination. Later came HBO’s Game Change as Sarah Palin’s director of communications, along with another Golden Globe nomination as well as an Emmy nomination. Then there was the ensemble Oscar nomination from 12 Years a Slave, in which she lent humanity to a racist plantation wife. “Likability has never been a word that has resonated with me,” Paulson admits. “I’m interested in playing human beings. And I have yet to meet a human being that was uncomplicated in this life.”

Least of all herself. Paulson’s Ocean’s 8 role as Tammy, a Stepfordy suburban mom with a taste for theft, couldn’t look less like her own reality. In 2015, it was revealed that Paulson was dating 75-year-old actress Holland Taylor, titillating gossip sites everywhere. Paulson, of course, was entirely unfazed. “If someone wants to spend any time thinking I’m strange for loving the most spectacular person on the planet, then that’s their problem,” she says. “I’m doing just fine.”

Fine is a bit of an understatement. At 43, an age that once spelled an unceremonious retirement for most any actress, Paulson’s career is nothing short of magnificent. She’ll headline as Nurse Ratched in Murphy’s next project, Ratched; she’s starring in M. Night Shyamalan’s next film, Glass; and with Nicole Kidman in the film adaptation of The Goldfinch. As for the tactless question about whether she’s concerned about her age? “If being older means the kind of roles that I’m getting to play now because of all the ups and downs and hills and valleys preceding it, I say bring it on,” she says. Still, though, at times, the reality of 43 lurks. “Every once in a while, I’ll go, ‘Wow. That’s seven years shy of 50.’ That’s the big five-oh. But then I go, ‘Stop running seven years down the road. You have no idea what your life will look like and where you’ll be.’ And that’s just what makes life so sweet. You cross your fingers, take a deep breath and jump. And that’s really all you can do.”  

Hair by Lona Vigi at Starworks Artists using Dyson Supersonic Hair Dryer | Makeup by Adam Breuchaud at TMG-LA using Chanel | Manicure by Whitney Gibson at TMG-LA using Chanel