Sarah Paulson is gracing the cover of Bustle’s latest digital issue, which is her first ever digital cover story.
Sarah Paulson is killing me. I’ve asked to read the text chain she has going with her Ocean’s 8 co-stars (weeks before it was reportedly deleted), and though she’s given me a firm “nope” because she doesn’t “want to get kicked off the chain,” she’s now holding her phone a foot-and-a-half from my face, offering a glimpse of the thread but scrolling too quickly for me to actually fix my eyes on a single word.
“There’s hearts,” she narrates. Swipe. “We’ve got Helena Bonham Carter giving us some emojis.” Swipe. “Mindy Kaling hearting things.” Swipe.
I stop her. Was that a photo of Rihanna in her new lingerie?
“Yeah, probably,” she says. “But then there’s also this.” She scrolls back to what looks like a dollar-store ad for nasal spray, moving her screen a cautious few inches closer to my face. I assume it’s a meme (earlier she’d told me Anne Hathaway “is the meme queen” of the group) but struggle to decipher its meaning. That’s because it’s not, in fact, a meme. “This is a sinus rinse that we can use if we’re feeling stuffy and puffy,” Paulson explains.
While a recommendation for “saline nasal irrigation” is hardly as provocative as Rihanna in lacy underthings, Paulson says it sums up what one might find in what she calls the “Ladies of O8” chat if one were allowed a proper perusal. “We had a press day where we were all involved and it was sort of like, ‘Well, what does one wear to these things?’” Paulson says. “Everybody started firing off, ‘I’m wearing pants,’ ‘I’m wearing a skirt.’ It was a very typical girlfriends thing to do.”
It’s the Saturday before the Met Gala, and we’ve claimed a corner table at The Mark Restaurant by Jean-Georges at New York’s The Mark Hotel, where dozens of celebrities will pass through in the days leading up to Anna Wintour’s $30,000-per-ticket fundraiser, an event so lavish and dripping with wealth that it’s the target of fictional career criminal Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) in Ocean’s 8, an all-female reboot of the heist franchise starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon, which hits theaters June 8. Paulson has yet to see the intricate Prada gown she’ll wear to the gala (the wait is “nerve-wracking but part of the fun,” she says), and she’s not sure whether there will be an Ocean’s 8 reunion on the Met steps, despite the obvious marketing potential (Rihanna is co-hosting).
“There’s a thing that happens when you walk in, where the co-hosts and Anna are all standing there, and you do a sort of handshake like you do with the queen or something,” Paulson says, extending a hand and bowing her head for effect. “I know Rihanna, so I’m hoping I get a hug. But we’ll see what happens. She could pretend not to know me now!”
At 43, Paulson has been a working actress for more than two decades, but she’s only seen the kind of success that might get you a hug from Rihanna in the past couple years, as the crown jewel of Ryan Murphy’s TV dynasty. She’s starred in seven seasons and counting of his anthology series American Horror Story, earning four Emmy nominations for her work on the show along the way. In 2016, she finally took home the award, for her role as Marcia Clark in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which Murphy executive produced. (He also directed several episodes, including Paulson’s showcase installment, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”)
“I keep [the Emmy] on a shelf that is in very close proximity to my eyeline when I wake up in the morning,” Paulson says. Her smile starts with a quiver in her chin then spreads across the entirety of her face. “I have them all there — I keep the Golden Globe there and the SAG there and the Critics’ Choice Award there and the TCA award. I need to be reminded that it actually happened.”
As if her jam-packed schedule isn’t reminder enough. In June, she’ll start production on AHS 8; she’s signed on for two seasons of Murphy’s Netflix show Ratched, an origin story of the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest villain; and she’s set to star in the Katrina-focused season of American Crime Story as Dr. Anna Pou, the real-life physician accused of euthanizing patients during the disaster. She’s also cultivating her career independent of Murphy, with three films (Bird Box, The Goldfinch, and Glass) in the pipeline after Ocean’s 8.
“It’s not like I’m searching for things outside the Ryan Murphy world,” she says. Suggest Paulson is anything but loyal to Murphy, and she’ll probably hire her friend Clark, with whom she still texts regularly, and take you to court. But the fact is, she’s getting more calls from big-name directors than ever, and with her television bona fides in place, she’s now able to focus on what she calls the “weak arm” of her career: film.
“I’ve done movies,” she says (12 Years a Slave, Carol, Blue Jay). “I just haven’t done a ton of them, and I haven’t done sizable parts in movies that have made a lot of money.” She also hasn’t had the luxury of being selective (“the definition of success”) until recently. Shortly after O.J., she passed on a movie by “a wonderful writer” because she was being offered the part of a lawyer. “I thought, That’s just too easy,” she says. “That doesn’t make me think very highly of the people offering me this. Because it feels really unimaginative. … In the past, I just would have been so over the moon just to be asked — and still am — but what I feel now is, it’s about protecting my time for my actual life.”
In Ocean’s 8, Paulson plays Tammy, a stay-at-home mom with a felonious past who gets lured back into her old life and plots to steal $150 million in diamonds right off the neck of an unsuspecting A-lister (Hathaway). Trolls have already compared the movie to Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, which underwhelmed at the box-office and weathered the rage of misogynists. Comments on the O8 trailer include: “I smell another Ghostbusters flop”; “Stop remaking guy-gang films with women. When will you learn?”; and “How about a Magic Mike reboot with the genders reversed, hmm?”
Paulson’s having none of it. She leans forward and delivers a rebuttal that’s both calm (she has a voice suited for ASMR) and pointed. “Everybody’s rolling the dice every time you go out of the gate,” she says. “We sort of delude ourselves into thinking we have some semblance of control or some idea about how things are going to go, and we just don’t. At the end of the day, I bet you those girls had a f*cking ball making Ghostbusters, and so who gives a f*ck if anybody saw the movie? I’m not gonna spend too much time worrying about it. I had a f*cking blast, and I made seven new friends.“
Paulson says “f*ck” a lot (see above). She also slams her hands down on the table, hard enough to startle the silverware, when she wants to drive home a point. And she can’t seem to get through an anecdote without sharing at least one unrelated aside. (As Kaling puts it: “Her mind works so quickly, and she has a million threads of conversation and opinion and anecdote going at once.”) “I get really metaphor-heavy sometimes and I don’t know why,” Paulson says on one of her characteristic detours. “And really sports-metaphor heavy. I’m so not a sports person, but I’m like, [as if we’re in a huddle] ‘Look, if he gives you the ball, you gotta run down field. You don’t want to be benched.’ I’m like, What’s my problem?”
There is no problem — Paulson is a thrilling conversationalist. The type who will slip into a Kathleen Turner impression at the mere mention of Turner’s name, or recall dancing to Michael Jackson, perhaps under the influence of a little alcohol, after losing the Emmy to “the great Ellen Burstyn” in 2013. (“I was sad about it,” she admits. “It was one of those moments where I had sort of believed the hype and drank the Kool-Aid.”) She might even tell you about the time she sneaked into an exclusive party in the back of Benedict Cumberbatch’s SUV. “There was another year where I was actually invited,” she says. “It’s almost impossible [to get in] and my talking about this will ensure that I’ll never be invited ever again.”
Her best friend Amanda Peet remembers meeting Paulson for the first time. “Within three minutes, I was on the floor of the makeup trailer, laughing so hard that I thought someone was going to have to call an ambulance,” she says. The two met on the set of Jack & Jill, which aired from 1999 to 2001 on the then-WB. (Paulson starred in four canceled series in the span of 10 years, including Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, in which she played a devout Christian performer loosely based on Sorkin’s ex Kristin Chenoweth.) “I saw the pilot and called my agent and said, ‘I just want to make sure this girl is still going to be on the show,” Peet recalls. “Because I thought she was the best thing on it. People are starting to realize what a lot of us have known for 25 years: Sarah can do anything.”
As the story goes, Murphy recognized Paulson’s potential long before he became the king of television that he is today. (He recently signed a $300 million deal with Netflix, a deal that Paulson was aware of before it closed, but not in the sense, she jokes, that Murphy was asking her “should I do it for $250?”) He cast Paulson in a 2004 episode of Nip/Tuck, gave her a small part in his languished FX pilot Pretty/Handsome (“so ahead of its time,” Paulson says), and offered her the role of Emma Pillsbury on Glee, but she passed to finish her Broadway run in Collected Stories. It was Jessica Lange, with whom Paulson starred in the 2005 revival of The Glass Menagerie, who encouraged Murphy to find a part for Paulson in American Horror Story.
“Listen, for a long time, nobody could get between Ryan and Jessica Lange,” Paulson tells me. I’ve asked if Murphy’s acting troupe ever feels like a bunch of kids vying for their parent’s attention. “That was a real love match and a real artist match that was, you know — she was queen. And she probably still is for him.” (About a week after our interview, The New Yorker published a story that recounted Murphy playing “a high-stakes game in which he was forced to immediately choose one person in his circle over another; he demurred only when the choice was between Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson.”) Overall, Paulson says, “He loves us all differently and he loves us all in unique ways. It’s like he’s got 50 children, and he tends to all of us remarkably well.”
Now is as good a time as any to mention that this conversation is taking place over a glass of water. Not tea. Not wine. Not Paulson’s drink of choice, tequila. Water. “I have a dinner after this,” she says when we meet. She’s wearing a white Dôen top, a gray plaid Sandro blazer, and wide-legged jeans by The Row. As for her sneakers, they’re white Célines with a platform sole. “I like an orthopedic shoe,” she says, her foot extended from under the table and her grin proud. “A full-on orthopedic situation.”
She’s fresh off a visit from her facialist, a “fancy lady” named Georgia Louise, and she’s not wearing a lick of makeup, not even mascara. “Go right over there,” she advises. “She’s on 71st. Do whatever she says. Serums and potions and lotions. I have a big fantasy about not ever injecting or cutting my face, so anybody tells me to go to a particular facialist, to get lasers from the dermatologist, to burn off dead skin cells, I’m going to do it.”
That’s not to say she’s consumed by her appearance. Earlier, when explaining why she doesn’t bristle at being considered a character actress, she says it’s because, as a result, “I don’t think my career has anything to do with the way I look, good, bad, or otherwise. If someone likes my face, they hate my face, they think it’s weird, they think it’s crooked, they think it’s fat, they think it’s skinny — whatever they think, I don’t think I’m getting jobs predicated on my attractiveness or lack of attractiveness.”
Still, she hesitates to say she’ll never get cosmetic surgery. “In my heart of hearts, I feel pretty strongly that I’m never going to. But I also am not at the moment where I look in the mirror and go [gasps]. I don’t judge anyone who does it. It’s just, for me, I actually have panic. Some people’s faces really take to it well, other people’s faces do not. And you kind of don’t know until you do it. As an actress who wants to work when I’m 80, if I mess it up in my early 40s, then I’m f*cked.”
Paulson’s hunger for work means she hasn’t had any time off in two years — “I mean any,” she stresses. And while that’s not exactly about to change (to recap: she has three shows and four movies on the horizon), she’s learning to better protect her free time. She goes to spin class (“I like the community, even though it’s also disgusting because there’s so much sweat and I know people are farting. You’re breathing in, like, atomized — it’s just not good”); she watches The Real Housewives of New York (“They’re like my friends”); and she hangs out with loved ones, including her girlfriend, Holland Taylor, whom she refers to as “my sweetheart.” Since news of their relationship broke in December 2015, the couple has made headlines for their 32-year age difference as well as their effortless displays of affection on Twitter. (Their charming public banter might come to an end sooner than fans would like: “I think I’m going to get off [Twitter] very, very soon,” Paulson tells me offhandedly. “[It’s] the meanest place on earth.”)