Sarah Paulson | Meditations on Pessimism and Coca-Cola
As an editor at Flaunt the job is rarely straightforward. They say jump, you say how high? If the boss says, “We’ve got confirmation on the motorcycle for the Paulson shoot tomorrow, we need to find a kitten ASAP,” you say, “What breed?” I admit, this was a tall order even for Flaunt, but come 9 a.m. the next morning I am signing adoption papers. Full disclosure, I lied to the Pasadena Humane Society. I adopted a kitten with no intention of keeping it—but don’t be so quick to judge me. Within an hour of putting that orange tabby in my car, I was holding him in my arms and crying, “I promised I wouldn’t let myself fall in love with you,” like he was the most beautiful prostitute at the Moulin Rouge.
An hour later, I arrive at the chateau-style mini-mansion anachronistically located in the heart of Koreatown, Los Angeles. I’m holed up in the foyer bathroom with the cat, keeping him well out of clawing distance from the thousands of dollars of Rodarte tulle in the hallway. There’s a knock on the door, our fashion assistant tells me Sarah wants to meet the kitten. I present him, arms outstretched with the fanfare of The Lion King. Paulson takes him in her arms. Lots of purring and awwwwws coming from both Sarah and her partner Holland Taylor; two women I’ve just about worshipped for nearly a decade. They each give him a little smooch goodbye before Sarah departs for hair and makeup. I feel like the pope just kissed my newborn son.
I meet Paulson again three days later at a restaurant in the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, this time with no livestock in hand. It’s 82 degrees, and she’s wearing a sweater, overcoat, and beanie. “I like to be cozy,” she says, calling it out before I have a chance. “I’m from New York. I’ve lived here for years but I haven’t figured out the whole LA thing.”
We take a table outside as we both decide the restaurant is overly air-conditioned. I sheepishly pull three pages of printed notes out of my tote bag. “I know it’s dorky, I just have a lot of questions.” She looks defiant. “That’s not dorky! That’s called being prepared! What if you were like, ‘So tell me what you’ve done?” Validated, I laugh, “You’re right! Now tell me, who are you again?”
When the waiter arrives, Paulson orders a coke before she’s handed a menu.
So, how is Sarah Paulson? She is tired. “But the good kind of tired,” she assures me. “The tired you feel when you’re actually doing things. There was a real part of my career when I wasn’t tired at all because nobody was calling, so I prefer this. I feel like a bit of a worker bee. I do best when I’m in motion. I’m still finishing American Horror Story...”
She pauses as the waiter pours a bottle of Coca-Cola into her glass. Inspecting the label she says, “Original taste? How about original flavor? Taste sounds very odd to me.” Without so much as an anyways to bridge the thought, she continues, “Horror Story has always been my day job. I always know I’m going to go away for five months to work really hard with people that I love, telling a story that’s always new. We’re kind of racing against the clock trying to make airdates. The episode I directed is on tomorrow night. I just finished episode 9 on Sunday and we’re just three weeks away from that being on the air. It feels like I don’t have time to pee. Oh pee? Eat?” She laughs. There is no time for such luxuries.
Paulson is certainly in a constant state of motion. Her words possess an unparalleled velocity; a bullet train she conducts with effortless precision. It’s almost hard to keep up—she’s powering through questions I haven’t even had a chance to ask. As I follow up on her first experience as a director, we are interrupted by a congenial server. Sarah asks for a plate of French fries “well done.” Having forgotten to look at the menu I order the same.
“She has such a pretty smile,” Paulson says, watching the server walk away. “I always marvel at people that just seem genuinely happy. For all I know she’s a miserable person, but she puts forward such a lovely energy. It’s just something I notice, when someone seems genuinely happy, not sort of tortured... do I seem that way? How do I seem?” Usually people have to read the article before they get an articulate answer, but I try my best on the spot. “You seem friendly and sharp. Like there’s a lot going on behind the eyes.” I’m embarrassed, but she nods, “I’ll take friendly and sharp. So, I had always wanted to direct...” I’m relieved she isn’t pressing for details. “I was always telling Ryan, ‘I want to do it, I want to do it,’ but I only ever felt I could try it for the first time on Horror Story, only because it feels like my home.”
American Horror Story is a unique place to call home. Each season is a reimagined vignette of American, bump-in-the-night, slumber party lore; the seasons have spanned the territory of insane asylums, witch covens, circus freaks, you name it. “I can’t say enough about how lucky I got with Ryan.” Having worked with the show’s creator and producer, Ryan Murphy, since the first season of AHS, I ask her to describe their creative symbiosis. “Sometimes it’s like, why do you fall in love with someone? It’s hard to pinpoint. I feel like my and Ryan’s story is a love story of sorts, in a platonic sense and in a champion sense: having a real advocate and ally, and a deep respect and admiration for one another as human beings and all the things that involve artistry.”
Murphy offered Paulson the opportunity to direct an episode of Feud while she was in production for the heist-blockbuster Ocean’s 8. Recounting the conflict, she says, “I’m like you, I come with my notecards. There’s no way I can do that while I’m shooting something. Also to be totally transparent, that was too terrifying of a leap to make. I wanted to do something where I could put my toe in the water, but still be protected by people who were rooting for me.” Paulson’s wishes were granted in the form of AHS’s 6th episode of the newest season, entitled Apocalypse. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she explains. “It was a confronting experience. I had to come up against a lot of parts of my personality that were really...” she smiles to herself, “impossible to ignore in that environment. But I absolutely want to do it again.” I ask her what parts of her personality she’s referring to. “Hmmm,” she says, taking a sip of coke. “Let’s just put it this way: I’m an incredibly controlling person. I have a lot of opinions and I’m not afraid to express them.”
“That bread looks like the hat Aretha Franklin wore to the inauguration,” she adds, distracted by the breadbasket, but inadvertently proving her last point. “Directing requires so much more of my brain than acting does. It’s not that I don’t use my brain as an actor, but I use more of my heart as a performer. As a director, there is a kind of positivity that you need to lead with. Sometimes I struggle with that; I might be more of a glass-half-empty person than a glass-half-full person. As an actor, I traffic around in the business from the standpoint of what my feelings are. I have my feelings and it’s an occupational hazard in a way. When you go into the real world, you can’t really behave like that, in terms of letting all your feelings guide you... I mean you can, but you might get a lot of resistance from the woman behind the counter at Starbucks when you’re weeping and asking for a latte.”
Her newest collaboration with Murphy is a show called Ratched, based off the infamous Nurse Ratched from Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. If you haven’t read this book since high school, I will remind you that Nurse Ratched is the novel’s antagonist. Written in 1962, she exists in our canon as a metaphor for the fascistic, bureaucratic corruption of mid-century institutions like mental hospitals. A woman representing ‘The Man,’ to put it plainly in hippie jargon. “It’s a little too early for me to talk about it. I’ve only seen two scripts and we haven’t started shooting. But what I can say is that it takes place during a particular time in our country’s history, and you can’t deny that part in telling the story.” I ask her how this compares to her other upcoming, and coincidentally similar, role as a psychiatric doctor in M. Night Shyamalan’s film Glass. Due to the legendary shroud of Shyamalan secrecy, Paulson “can’t say too much about that project either.” As a longtime fan of Shyamalan’s work, particularly the Unbreakable trilogy, Paulson “accepted the role without ever seeing a script.” A script that, when she did finally see it, was delivered by hand to her hotel room via a covert messenger wearing a backpack and a baseball hat. Forbidden to reveal any details about the film itself, I ask her if she is allowed to describe her character in one word. She chooses: “empathetic.”
With three upcoming projects based on novels—Ratched, Bird Box, and The Goldfinch—I ask her how it feels to embody beloved fictional characters. “Anytime you try to inhabit something that is already beloved, you always run the risk of people being disappointed.” It’s understandable. Books are such an internal experience, with characters fully forged in the flames of the reader’s imagination. That part is nerve-racking, but for Paulson, the indexical quality of a character from a book is incredibly liberating. “When you have a book to base someone on, you have all the information you need. I like rules. I like structure. I like having something to look at like a real blueprint. Within the confines of what you know is true, other things bloom. Like playing Marcia Clark...”
Marcia Marcia Marcia. I can’t really put into words the impact of Paulson’s performance as Marcia Clark on Murphy’s true- crime serial American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson it is simply a masterpiece of modern television. The fabric of Clark’s life—documented, televised, biographized (if that is a word)— gave Paulson more than a blueprint with which to build her performance. “I didn’t have to guess what year she had her first child or how long she was married. I had it all there. They became things I could turn into molecular, cellular fact, where I didn’t have to invent it. That made me feel more creative.” To say Paulson committed to the role would be an understatement. She wore Marcia’s perfume from 1995. Smoked her brand of cigarettes. Performed left-handed. Walked with a slight turn out because Marcia had been a dancer. Paulson describes the role as the most extraordinary experience of her career. The immense success of the show was merely a bonus—Paulson, in fact, refuses to watch the show. “I remember how extraordinary it felt to do it, so why would I want to sully that for myself? And I’m not usually like that, I’m much more of a scab-picker than a non-scab- picker—literally and figuratively. I told myself, ‘Let this thing live in you the way it lives in you, no matter what. Whether people like it or not; whether I was good or bad.’ I mean, I broke down like a real child when I was done. I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t going to just keep playing her. It was devastating to me that I wasn’t going to stay in that world with her.”
“Wow,” she says, interrupting herself. “It’s really evident that I’m really enjoying ketchup and you don’t care for it at all.” She looks meaningfully between her empty ketchup and my still- bountiful ramekin.
“Oh I’m just trying to pace myself,” I say, clearly missing her hint.
“Don’t you want to give me some of that ketchup? Cuz I’m a little afraid that I might have to get more, because all I care about is ketchup. Condiments are my life. That’s the truth. Mustard, vinegar, ketchup, sesame oil.” She dips two fries into my ketchup, “Two fries at once, see? Double bite.”
French fries. Ketchup. Coca-Cola. It seems like the right time to ask: “You’ve been in so many quintessentially “American” projects. American Horror Story, American Crime Story, Carol, and now Ratched and Goldfinch. They range from period pieces to unadulterated camp. What makes a work distinctly ‘American’?”
“It’s a very interesting question and I don’t know if I can answer it either. As a performer, I’m not in the writers room coming up with the themes of the seasons, and yet, you’re right, I do find myself in these quintessentially “American” stories. I think Americans do sort of worship American culture. The only word that comes to mind is ‘indulgence.’ I think Americans indulge in our feelings, we indulge in food, we indulge in our American-ness, for lack of a way of putting it, in our ‘we’re better than you’ superiority... and yet, as I say that I think, isn’t that such a disservice to all the other things we’ve done? I’ll probably get hate mail for saying that.”
“It might just be ‘original taste’ Coca-Cola. Selling us the ‘Real Thing?’” I offer, quoting the famous ad from 1971.
“Original taste,” she repeats with disdain. “God, it should really be original flavor. I love me a coke but I can’t get behind original taste. I really don’t know. That’s a great question, I love that question. We may need to have a follow-up conversation.”
We quickly pencil in a phone call. “I have a meeting at 2, I have to pee too,” she says standing up. “Look at me. I’m covered in French fries.”
My phone rings at 10:30am the following Saturday.
“Hi Sarah, how are you?”
“I’m exhausted!” This seems to be a recurring theme. “I got home at 4:30 in the morning, and not from a night of debauchery and good times.” I ask, “Did you have any more thoughts on that last question I asked you?” She laughs, “No! And I knew you would ask that. I haven’t even had a moment to think! Whatever connects the brain and the spinal fluid, whatever makes you walk and talk and stand upright, those things are not operating at the highest level at the moment.”
The night before, I had taken copious notes on the episode of Horror Story that Paulson had directed. The episode itself was ethereal and delicate, especially for a show of such renowned camp. I noted the frequent use of tilted camera angles. Like a pretentious chump, I ask, “There were a lot of German Expressionist angles in the episode. What kind of style were you going for?” She kindly corrects my lofty assessment. “I tried my best to do as much research as I could, not in terms of German Expressionism, but what I was trying to do was to go back to season one and really think about the most iconic camera angles.” As much of the episode is a return to events in the first season, her treatment was deliberate. “It was the only way to make the audience feel safe. Even if it was subconscious. I wanted them to feel they could exhale, that they were in the hands of someone who could take care of them by bringing them back to the origins.” Recalling her self-assessment as someone that leads with her emotions, I could feel this tenderness in her direction. There was a loving lens treated on each character, even as the spawn of Satan was skinning cats.
I learned a lot about Paulson from our last chat: She’s a glass-half-empty person. She’s a ‘scab-picker.’ And she loves ketchup. There is a certain streak I’ve seen in people that are constantly digging under the surface. It’s a streak of dissatisfaction with the quotidian that gives one an insatiable appetite for more information. More books, more films, more condiments. Anything to satisfy that nagging curiosity. When I present her with this idea, she says, “That’s a 100% astute assessment of what that is. I’m a consumer, and I don’t mean it in a literal sense. I’m an ‘intake’ person. It’s very fortifying for me to observe. Part of our job is to observe human behavior and reflect it back to people so they can feel less alone in the world.” She details her life-long obsession with film. “Because I was a latchkey kid, and because I was home by myself more than I wanted to be, it was probably a way to quiet that part of myself that would get very anxious or frightened. My imagination became very large in terms of how to quiet my fears. If I had to go to bed by myself before someone was home, I would imagine a metal fortress above my bed and increasing the size of it so that Freddy Kruger couldn’t hack into the place where I was sleeping. I created a world in my mind where I was safe. As a young person, my imagination was fed a lot. I never went hungry in that department.”
In her years as a self-described ‘latchkey kid,’ Paulson lived in seven different Brooklyn apartments in the span of five or six years. “I feel like I was a transient being.” She adds, “but not by choice.” I ask an obnoxious Rorschach blot of a question: “What does the word ‘transience’ mean to you?” She mulls this over. “Well, I think of the term literally as constantly moving or changing. Isn’t that the definition?” Sitting in front of my laptop I ask, “Do you want me to look it up? I can Google it?” She kindly commands, “I want you to look it up. I want the exact definition right now.” I quickly type ‘transience definition’ and read aloud: “The state or quality of being transient? Oh geez that’s not very helpful is it?” She laughs, “No, it isn’t.” Typing feverishly, I say, “Ok, here we go! ‘Transient’—the state of passing quickly into and out of existence. Passing with only a brief stay.”
“Exactly.” She concurs with Merriam Webster. “I think of it literally because it was so much a fabric of my everyday life. As a child I moved constantly. It ended up serving me very well in my working life; the moment where you alight somewhere and then fly off. The idea of ‘hearth and home’ has only recently been of value to me. I’m 43 years old and I’m still not even in the house that I bought two years ago. It’s a very interesting word, and one that doesn’t bother me. A lot of people don’t like that feeling of shapeshifting and moving on, but I like that sensation of brevity.”
Her publicist is eager to wrap up the conversation, so I reluctantly begin my good-bye-thank-you-so-much speech. “Oh wait, wait!” Paulson interrupts. With a kawaii- sweetness in her voice, she asks, “How’s the kitty?”
“He’s been asleep on my lap this whole time. He’s been watching all your films with me. He was probably thinking, ‘Hey, I know her!’”
“Yeah, I know her!” she laughs, “I scratched the shit out of her at that photo shoot!”