Sarah Paulson on the ‘Horror Story’ of Self-Taping

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

Sarah Paulson received her first Tony nomination for her thrilling, vicious, and deeply felt performance in "Appropriate," the Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play about a group of siblings uncovering upsetting secrets in their late father's home. It's almost surprising that it took Paulson this long to be recognized by the American Theatre Wing, considering she started her career on the stage. However, she took a detour to the screen, where she won an Emmy for playing prosecutor Marcia Clark in "The People v. O.J. Simpson" and racked up nominations for her work on "American Horror Story" and "Impeachment." Here, she talks about the true horror of auditions, the importance of knowing your character’s stakes, and a must-see performance.

What role shaped you most as an actor? 

I think that question is not the right question. The right question is, maybe: What role or what opportunity shaped you the most? To me, it's like B.C. Marcia Clark or post–[Marcia Clark]. Because playing Marcia Clark was a combination of audiences and the industry responding to me differently, therefore allowing for more opportunity, mixed with me having the most connectivity to a person and the part and the experience of creating it. So, those things sort of dovetailed, and I don't know whether they inform one another or not.

But I know that pre–Marcia Clark I felt like a different kind of performer, and then post–Marcia Clark I felt like a different performer, but that was also because there was outside communication that my work was reaching people and meant something to people. And therefore, I wonder if that kind of confidence, or feeling that people were seeing you really for the first time, gave me a sense that I could do more. That also had to do with Ryan Murphy's belief in me, and his continuing to give me opportunities that were challenging to me, and force me to dig deeper than I ever had. 

Do you have an audition horror story?

I love auditioning. I love having an opportunity to go in and do what my take is. I love knowing that there have been auditions I've done where they were about to cast someone else, and they cast me from an audition. That is a very cool feeling to feel, like a sense of accomplishment. And also to know that in the room, you were able to deliver something. It makes me, then, when I walk on the set, feel confident that I can do it again because I know they saw it. 

So, I don't have an audition horror story. The horror story is that I feel like they've taken this opportunity away from actors, where they put us in this sort of sterile environment of putting something on tape, and then people just go, "Oh, that wasn't what I wanted to see," and then they just move on. Actors need to be directed, and want to be directed, and want to be inspired by something the director's going to say that's going to open up a whole channel of creativity that may not come to an actor in a room reading with a stranger or a friend. I just hate, hate, hate the world of self-tape, where an actor is left alone. By the way, acting is a team sport. It's about listening and responding. I feel like it's a wild disservice to the performer. So, that's my horror story.

Is there a mistake that you have made that you promised you would never make again?

My mistake was trying to excise myself from my work. In the beginning of my working life, I felt I had to remove me from the work. And I actually think the only thing that separates me from any other actor is me. When you think you have to excise your uniqueness or your take on something to deliver what you think they want or what your agent has said they're looking for, you're putting it through this filter of, "I want to give them what they're looking for." They don't know what they're looking for. They have an idea of what they're looking for, and they want to be shown it. 

I feel like the same note can be given to six different actors, but if you don't disavow yourself and you allow the note to sort of flow through you like a sieve or like a colander, and you let yourself pour out of it, that is going to be the thing that makes it different, special, unique.

The other thing that really matters to me is, I promise myself I will never try to casualize something. What I mean by that is, I feel like there is a school of thought about how, in order to make something natural, you have to turn the temperature down or take the stakes out of it. Most of the time, if you're dramatizing something, it is usually the most important day in someone's life. I feel like people are afraid to play stakes. And I feel like I learned on "American Horror Story" that the thing about it is that committing to your stakes in a truthful way is the only way to do it, because these circumstances are extreme. You don't have to play the extremes of the circumstances, you can just play your character's stakes, your character's wants, as fulsomely as you can. That's where commitment and where truth can come in in absurd circumstances that make something undeniably real.

Is there a performance you think every actor should see?

Gena Rowlands in “Opening Night.” To me, it just doesn't get better than that. And there's a million of them, too, but that one for me is unequivocal.

What do the best directors you've worked with have in common?

A real sense of collaboration and play. Collaboration's probably said all the time, but it's said all the time for a reason. It matters so much.