Sarah Paulson
Photo by Robby Klein

Sarah Paulson: “It’s the way you come up”

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Short Profile

Name: Sarah Catharine Paulson
DOB: 17 December 1974
Place of birth: Tampa, Floria, United States
Occupation: Actor

Sarah Paulson stars in the Netflix series Ratched, streaming now.

Ms. Paulson, looking back, what would you say has had the biggest influence on your creative journey?

Well, my mom had me at 22 and my sister at 24. When I think about her trying to raise these two young girls in Manhattan, having grown up in an incredibly conservative family and her having a more progressive calling for a more liberal life… It was my mother's bravery, and my mother's pursuit of her creative life that made it possible for me to have the one I currently have. My sister and I talk about all the time about how we wouldn't be where we are in our lives if it weren't for her sort of selfish pursuit; she wasn't moving to New York to give us a better life. She was moving to New York to discover her creative life. But subsequently the consequence of that was enormously positive for both my sister and myself. There's no question about it.

Even today, that kind of pursuit takes a certain amount of daring.

And I think my sister and I both have that kind of ferocity… We're like dogs with bones, we just won't let them go. And that is absolutely who my mother is and the life choices she made. I share her DNA in that way. She did this herculean thing of moving from the only world she knew at a very young age with two very small people that she was responsible for guiding and rearing and raising. She just kept living her life and kept putting one foot in front of the other and kept showing up. And she did it on her own as a single woman.

“There is always that nice moment between saying yes and knowing that they want you to do it that I love the most because it’s the only time I feel peaceful about it.”

That tenacity must also be something you inherited from her.

Witnessing that every day absolutely has to permeate in ways that are cellular! Ways in which I can't even understand… Things weren't always easy, and it wasn't always the easiest of relationships. But there was no way for me to not look at my mother and think, “Oh, I can do anything.” Because look at her, she's falling and getting back up and succeeding and failing.

Are there still times in which you doubt yourself as an actor, even though you’ve been working professionally since the nineties?

Oh God, yes. Every single time I set foot on a set! I do begin every project with the dread, “Oh my God, they’re going to find out…” Because there was a time when I would audition for every job that I got. So you would walk onto a set knowing that you really fought hard to get this; they saw a lot of people, they chose me to do this particular role. But when you are in a very fortunate position of getting offered projects without having to meet or read, then you think: “They are offering me this predicated on work I have done before. They don’t know if I am going to be able to pull this off. I didn’t have to prove anything to them prior to the beginning.”

Some actors wouldn’t consider that a problem…

(Laughs) Believe me, it’s a champagne problem. “Oh, I’m not sure if I can do my job.” There is always this beautiful, peaceful moment when you decide to do a job, or even before when you’ve got the script and someone says, “I want you to do this,” there is the wonderful moment where you are reading it and you are not doing it yet, but the fact that they want you to do it feels so special and validating. There is always that nice moment between saying yes and knowing that they want you to do it that I love the most because it’s the only time I feel peaceful about it.

What do you mean?

Like everything in life, it’s the way you come up, the way you develop. I was an actress that didn’t work much until later in my life — I was just able to make a living, but I was not working in a way that was exciting and made me feel like maybe I’m going to get to do this for as long as I hope to until I was in my really late thirties and early forties. So I had a lot more time to think about and a lot more of me, mentally and emotionally, was living in a place of paucity and fear and a place of, “Will this ever happen?” So every time I would get a job, that feeling was more familiar to me than confidently diving in. I have plenty of work to do with my shrink because I would like to get to a place where I can trust myself enough to know: they have asked me to do this, they must believe I can. I would like to get to the place where I believe I can from the outset.

“Any time you can do a deep dive inward is only going to help the way you deal with other people in any work environment, but certainly in a creative environment.”

How has working with a therapist been helpful for you in your professional journey?

It has been vitally important because not only does it create a pathway towards confidence for myself, but it helps me to stay connected to how I am working. The crux of it is always asking why is the character behaving in the way that they are behaving? What do they want? What is getting in their way? That is one of the most fundamental acting processes. Traditionally you are asking yourself these questions, and if you can’t do that with your own psyche, then for me it would be very hard to imagine how to think about the character and what drives them with the same commitment and interest. With Ratched, for example, as you get deeper into the series, more gets revealed about how my character Mildred became the way she is. She was on the fringes of society as a young person, and I did have that information at the beginning of the shoot so it informed the choices that I am making in the scenes.

And it’s the same thing for you in life?

It’s the same thing! I feel like the more time I spend trying to figure out what motivates me to do something, even if it’s something I regret or something that I question about myself, if I can understand why and how I’ve done it, then I am likely to not repeat the pattern. And for me, to think about the ways in which the characters behave means you can go a little bit deeper and hopefully something about that permeates and resonates with the audience. It’s bubbling underneath the surface. Any time you can do a deep dive inward is only going to help the way you deal with other people in any work environment, but certainly in a creative environment. It’s very useful.

Have you also been able to just let all of those considerations go and jump into a role without thinking about it too much?

Well, I was absolutely terrified and scared to play Marcia Clark in The People versus OJ Simpson, I didn’t want to do it, but Ryan Murphy said to me, “You’re doing it. You just have to figure out a way to get excited about it, because you have to do it.” And the same with with Ratched, he called me up and said, “What do you feel? Do you want to do this? This will be unlike anything you have ever done, it’s going to be exhausting. Are you willing to do that?” Sometimes you find yourself doing things and you fall into those things. So I do think part of the magic of a creative endeavor, and the thing that you learn and take with you and put it into practice while you are doing it is that you can’t really know what you are capable of sometimes until you are in the throes of doing it!