Ocean’s 8 star Sarah Paulson is 43, gay and politically outspoken. Meet Hollywood’s alternative icon

Published by The Times (June 2018) – Interview by Sanjiv Bhattacharya.

She made her name in The People v OJ Simpson. Now the actress is quietly smashing Hollywood’s barriers.

I knew Sarah Paulson would be lovely. Watch any talk-show interview with the 43-year-old actress and she appears to be self-deprecating, funny and always game, someone who doesn’t have her guard up, but comes to play. She’s adored by everyone from Ellen DeGeneres and Drew Barrymore to Sandra Bullock, her co-star in next week’s Ocean’s 8. And in person, she is just as delightful, though quieter and more thoughtful than I expected. I start by congratulating her on winning a Golden Globe, an Emmy and a Screen Actor’s Guild award last year for her performance as Marcia Clark in 2016’s The People v OJ Simpson, the surprise hit TV series about the high-profile murder case that had viewers and critics raving (it was the most watched new cable show of 2016 in the US).

It’s fair to say Paulson is one of a number of Hollywood stars — think Tracee Ellis Ross, Tina Fey, Sofia Vergara — who found fame relatively late in life. “I really wanted those statues,” she admits. “I was nominated for, like, six years before! I thought winning would be this big exhale, but instead my brain’s going, ‘Now what?’ Awards don’t solve your problems.” She laughs. “But who’s got time to see a shrink these days?” We’ve got an hour right now, I say. She rubs her hands, excited. “Perfect, let’s shrink it up! And look, we’re on a couch and everything!”

When we meet in the lobby of a hotel in West Hollywood, Paulson has parked at a meter, not with the valet, and strolls in wearing a wool jacket, jeans and flats. “I know it’s, like, 80 degrees out there, but I’m always cold,” she says. “LA weather — it makes you feeble!” Paulson has quietly risen through the fashion ranks of late: off-duty she wears Céline and Isabel Marant; on the red carpet she wore Marc Jacobs to the Oscars this year and, days after we meet, Prada to the Met Gala — dressed by the most powerful celebrity stylist of the moment, Karla Welch (who also looks after Ruth Negga, Karlie Kloss and Justin Bieber). And, of course, starring in the all-female Ocean’s 8 meant wearing brands such as Burberry, Prada and McQueen. “It was so much fun,” Paulson says of filming. “I got to wear these fabulous coats and be cool and work with these incredible actresses.” She became firm friends with Bullock: “We’re incredibly sympatico in how we work, we both love to improvise. And, boy, is she fun.” The presidential election was playing out as they were filming: “I remember all of us in this trailer watching Hillary give her concession speech,” Paulson says. “Losing was one thing, but to him, that I’ll never understand.”

The victory of a candidate with a somewhat shocking record on gay rights is all the more personal for Paulson, who has been out since 2005. In fact, she is now half of one of the most glamorous power couples in Hollywood: her partner, Holland Taylor, is the acclaimed actress from Legally Blonde and Two and a Half Men. The couple first met at a dinner party 12 years ago, where Paulson found Taylor “the most exquisitely beautiful woman I’d ever seen”. When they went public with their relationship in 2015, the media went into overdrive, something Paulson has called a “funny dance”, and yet she isn’t shy about their bond, recently defending the 32-year age gap (Holland is 75) and calling her, “the most spectacular person on the planet”. Paulson’s Instagram account, with its 1.5m followers, is more about films and fashion, less about her girlfriend of four years, but you will find the odd reference (a snap of them in onesies for Halloween, for one).

 

Paulson’s parents divorced when she was growing up and her childhood was unstable but not unhappy. “I was always looking for some kind of grounding force,” she says. Her first relationship with a woman was with the actress Cherry Jones, her senior by 18 years. “People look at me and Holland and say, ‘Mommy issues’, but I parent her as much as she parents me, so that’s not it,” she says. “I’ve just always had older friends. I think a lot of people have a stunted way of looking at older people, it’s a way of distancing themselves from something that they think will not happen to them. I have the good fortune of being with someone who is older and wiser than I am.” She’s still undecided about children. “I love kids,” she says, “but I’m very impulsive and I was afraid that I would have children and then regret it. But that’s not something I feel entirely confident about either, because I might regret not having them, too. So I froze my eggs, just in case.”

Paulson came out by accident. When Jones, her partner at the time, won a Tony award during a televised ceremony, Paulson kissed her — “What was I going to do, slap her on the shoulder and say ‘Good job’?” — but it didn’t affect her career. “I wasn’t America’s sweetheart or anything,” she says. If Hollywood has a hard time accepting gay men, gay women are even more of a taboo. It wasn’t until 2007, after a lifetime of speculation about her sexuality, that Jodie Foster finally came out. When Ellen Page did so in 2014, she admitted: “I suffered for years because I was scared to be out.” Paulson escaped such scrutiny. “I was lucky. And I felt really protected. I never had to worry that my job was in jeopardy.”

She’s hopeful that the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements are helping to launch a new era for women. In Hollywood, at least, “there’s a real sense of ‘Let’s fix this,’ so I’m optimistic”, she says. “There’s been enough of a shift culturally to support a feeling of security.” She tweeted strongly in favour of Time’s Up in January, though she uses Twitter less now and Instagram more, where she often posts in support of women’s rights and gun reform. “Twitter gets mean,” she says. “I’m very reactive, so I get angry very quickly. Not good for my soul.”

Born in Tampa, Florida, Paulson moved to New York with her mother when she was five after her parents split up. She has two sisters, one of whom, Rachel, hosts a web series celebrating the LGBTQA community and has interviewed Sarah about her own experiences (in which Sarah joked, “I do think Dad has the gay gene”). She worked as an actress straight out of high school — a line in a film here, a minor Broadway role there — then moved to LA in 1995, making a living, just about, on TV. “The universe was not telling me to keep going,” she laughs now. Then, during a stint back on Broadway in 2005, she met Jessica Lange. “I really owe it all to Jessica. When she did the first season of American Horror Story here in 2011, she said to Ryan [Murphy, the creator], ‘Can’t I have a friend on the show? Find something for the kid to do!’” Murphy made Paulson a co-lead with Lange in the second series. It was the show that catapulted her into the mainstream, leading to parts as the brutal plantation owner’s wife in 12 Years a Slave (2013), Cate Blanchett’s ex-lover in Carol (2015) and Tony Bradlee in this year’s The Post (for which she greeted her director each morning with “Hello, Steven Spielberg”). Yet she still refuses to watch herself on screen. “I don’t want to be disappointed,” she says. “I’d be, like, ‘Hello, Emmy? Sorry, I got to give this back.’ There’s probably some OCD in there, some control issues.” A sip of her peppermint tea. “I’m a mess essentially.”

Mainly Paulson seems happy that she’s old enough to appreciate the perks of fame without being derailed by the rest of it. “I like being 43,” she says. “You can’t have a drink without looking like someone punched you in both eyes the next day, but the trade-off is an awareness of how fast everything is moving. You really think about what you want to be doing with your time. In my twenties, I’d be, like, ‘I wanna go to the Palladium!’ Now it’s like a four-hour block of MSNBC and a bath.”

After Ocean’s 8 there’s another series of American Horror Story to promote, plus the lead in Murphy’s next American Crime Story, Katrina, to film. She has three more films in the can, including a reunion with her Ocean’s co-star Bullock in the post-apocalyptic Bird Box, schedule for release in the US in December. She still might leave to do theatre in New York — “I desperately want to play Nora in A Doll’s House” — but until then, she’s happy at home with Taylor. Paulson doesn’t pine for that naïve confidence, the boundless optimism of her twenties any more. “My life is in front of me,” she says. “I learnt that from Holland. I don’t long to be in my twenties at all. Every time I see an old interview, I just want to crawl into a hole and die. All I wanted back then was to be seen.”

It’s been 18 months since we saw the first cast photo of Ocean’s 8, showing some of the biggest stars in the world idly sitting on the subway: Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway, Rihanna, Cate Blanchett, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Helena Bonham Carter, and the rapper and newcomer Awkwafina. It gave little away, yet sent the internet wild about the film that had been the subject of speculation since it was announced in 2015. The gender-swap reboot of Ocean’s Eleven is expected to recoup more than half its £50m budget in its opening weekend alone. It was screened for the media in LA a week ago but at the time of going to press, reviews had yet to surface.

Of course, the juggernaut that is Ocean’s 8 had been in the works long before that photograph was released: studio boss Amy Pascal alluded to it in the notorious Sony email hack of 2014, urging her team to move faster on its own gender-swapped project, Ghostbusters, after she got wind of the competition. Starring Bullock as Debbie Ocean (the estranged sister of George Clooney’s character, Danny, from the original films), the heist comedy follows the same format: assembling the perfect crew for one big con. Only this time the team includes a suburban mother (Paulson), fashion designer (Bonham Carter) and jeweller (Kaling) — and the target is a necklace worth more than £100m, worn by a celebrity at the Met Gala in New York.

Warner Bros, the studio behind Ocean’s 8, is looking for a hit after lower-than-hoped-for returns for its blockbusters Tomb Raider and Ready Player One. And no expense has been spared: the Met Gala was meticulously recreated for the big scenes, reportedly costing Warner a £750,000 donation to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The film-makers dressed 300 extras as well as a roll call of A-list cameos (and Met Gala regulars) including Katie Holmes, Adriana Lima, Zayn Malik, Kendall Jenner, Kim Kardashian and Hailey Baldwin.

“It really did feel like the Met ball,” Baldwin told Style. “They filmed the one scene for three days in the museum, and we were all there super late.” Another “extra” for the scene, Olivia Munn, said that she even had to — shock, horror — do her own hair and make-up for her cameo. “It actually cost me money to be part of it,” she joked. Behind the scenes, Cartier, supplier of the on-screen jewellery, set up a booth should the actresses want to shop while they waited to film. (A source tells me that Warner Bros was apparently terrified of this detail leaking and demanded incredibly tight on-set security.)

Each actress had a bespoke gown created in just six weeks by one of eight designers: Alberta Ferretti (Bullock), Givenchy (Blanchett), Valentino (Hathaway), Dolce & Gabbana (Bonham Carter), Prada (Paulson), Zac Posen (Rihanna), Naeem Khan (Kaling) and Jonathan Simkhai (Awkwafina). It usually takes a year to craft one of these outfits, according to the film’s costume designer, Sarah Edwards. The Gala gowns are the only time the women are dressed head-to-toe in any one label; usually they wear a mix of high end and high street — a Burberry suit with an H&M T-shirt. “We wanted them to feel like real people,” Edwards says. “For Cate, we looked at pictures of Keith Richards in the 1970s — the three-piece suits with that shaggy hair.”

Behind the scenes, there are nine producers of the new Ocean’s: six men (including Steven Soderbergh, the director of the Ocean’s trilogy) and three women, working with the director Gary Ross. At 29, the co-producer and co-writer Olivia Milch is one of the youngest women on the crew, but the most senior female creative voice behind the camera. Is it an issue that a film with such feminist themes is directed by a man? “Gary is the biggest women of us all,” Milch says with a laugh, understandably unwilling to bite the hand that feeds. She sat next to Ross every day at the monitor. “He listens to women, he respects women. His vision for this film was so rooted in that.”

Ross had Bullock and Blanchett in mind from the outset: “We went to Sandy early,” he says, “and she said, ‘If the script is good and if you really do get the kind of case you are taking about, then I’m in.’ Each choice we made informed the others after it.” The Ocean’s franchise is known for its camaraderie — Clooney was famous for playing pranks on his co-stars — and apparently the 2017 version was a “group text chain” for the actresses — most recently used to co-ordinate their outfits for CinemaCon in April.

Hathaway recalls receiving an email from Bullock ahead of filming, saying: “We’re going to make this a really welcoming place for kids. I know you’re a brand-new mom, so don’t be afraid to bring your son. We love kids here.” Five of the eight are mothers: as well as Hathaway’s baby (who was just seven months old when shooting began), Bullock, Blanchett and Bonham Carter all have school-age children, while Kaling found out she was pregnant during the shoot. She batted away Friday-night cocktails in the time-honoured tradition of being on “heavy antibiotics”, Milch tells me. “It was so inspiring to see all those women on set, being mothers and also these incredible actors. Cate’s children would stand by the monitor and watch her scenes. Between takes or while they were setting up the next shot, she would hang out with them.”

Like Ghostbusters two years ago, Ocean’s 8 is a bold gender flip made before #MeToo, by an industry that is generally sceptical of female-focused film-making. Ross is still locked in a Los Angeles editing suite when he emails me weeks before the release. He’s been working on the film for six years, long before the October 2016 to February 2017 shoot. “I had the idea over dinner with a friend,” Ross says. “One of the things that struck me in The Hunger Games [which he directed in 2012] was what a difference it made to girls, seeing an action hero like Katniss on the screen. And at the centre of American movies is the outlaw trope, but those outlaws have mainly been men. I was intrigued by the idea of this group of kick-ass women laying claim to this genre that had always seemed off limits.”

Despite the consciousness-raising of #MeToo, the signs are that it will be years before Hollywood routinely hands over £50m-plus budgets to female directors. Ava DuVernay and Patty Jenkins, who made A Wrinkle in Time and Wonder Woman respectively, have changed the game, but are still exceptions. Even the female-centric films are largely directed by middle-aged white men: Bridesmaids and Ghostbusters were helmed by Paul Feig, while The Hustle, a fresh take on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, starring Hathaway and Rebel Wilson, released in the US this month, is directed by The Thick of It’s Chris Addison.

Still, a cast of leading women, mostly over the age of 35, is a significant step in the right direction, as is the fact that the two biggest films in the UK last year, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Beauty and the Beast, both had female leads. And who knows, if Ocean’s 8 proves as successful as fan buzz predicts, perhaps Milch will get to direct Ocean’s 9. Hollywood knows there is money to be made here.