Sometimes, a metaphor just works. For Sarah Paulson and her career, it’s a train comparison — something that came up multiple times during our chat about her Emmy nomination for portraying Linda Tripp in “Impeachment: American Crime Story.”
“It was the most entirely unexpected thing in the world,” she says of her nom for lead actress in a limited series or anthology — the sole acting mention for the FX series. While she never expected any of her accolades, when she portrayed Marcia Clark in “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” there was a different lead-up: “It was like a train running that was very clearly headed in a particular direction.”
This time around was different.
“The Linda train left the station really empty-handed with a whole haul. This one, I guess, just didn’t resonate with people and that’s fine — painful, but fine,” she says. “I was surprised I was there at all. Let’s be frank. The show divided critics and audiences alike in a way that is always strange to be inside of, so the idea that anybody got nominated was thrilling.”
This marks 10 years since Paulson’s first Emmy nomination; in 2012, she earned recognition for her portrayal of Nicolle Wallace in HBO’s “Game Change.”
“It feels like a moment ago and a lifetime ago. At that point in my career, if you could call it that at that point, I was down to a very small sum of money in my bank account, living in a one-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood. When I got ‘Game Change,’ it was really a life-saving opportunity in a lot of ways,” she says. In fact, that job allowed her to keep her health insurance.
Skip ahead a decade, one Emmy and seven more nominations later, Paulson finally felt comfortable taking a year off and has said no to certain projects to really figure out what she wants to do next. That could mean more “American Crime Story,” as a fourth season titled “Studio 54” is in the works — or not.
“The shows are always extraordinarily well-crafted and things I’ve always been so proud to be part of. So, never say never, but I’m sort of in this new space of seeing what comes and not pre-planning, which is very unlike me,” says Paulson. “I’m not saying I’m comfortable there yet, but I’m experimenting.”
The same goes for “American Horror Story,” the show that led to five of her Emmy noms.
“It’s not that I’m not open to it. I’m always open to it, but I feel like I’ve been doing it for a long time, and people might start getting sick of me in that world,” she says. “Let someone else scream and run and cry for a second. Other people can do that too! Also, my nervous system. There was a time when I was younger when I was like, ‘I can do this all night. I love it!’ Now I’m like, ‘Momma’s tired!’”
Now, she’s been able to take some real time off for the first time in her career.
“I’m sort of in this very interesting place where I’ve taken the last year off, which has been wild. Believe me, don’t think I don’t know what a privileged place it is to sit in and know that I can take a year off and still be able to live my life and not in a fearful way and that is a real really lucky thing,” she says. “I’ve said no to some things, which is a wildly new thing. I think the shows are always extraordinarily well-crafted and things I’ve always been so proud to be part of. So, never say never, but I’m sort of in this new space of seeing what comes and not pre-planning, which is very unlike me! I’m not saying I’m comfortable there yet, but I’m experimenting.”
Regardless of her future projects, a post-Tripp break was extremely necessary. While Paulson’s changed her appearance for many parts — to this day, she gets stopped and asked where her second head is, referring to her roles in 2014’s “AHS: Freak Show” — “Impeachment” was different.
“I do believe there is more of a spiritual alignment — and some people would be surprised that I would admit that — but I can really connect with an idea of wanting to matter. I think there’s a universal experience that we all have of wanting to matter,” says Paulson.
When taking on the role, she was aware that Tripp had been destroyed by the public for exposing Monica Lewinsky’s affair with President Clinton. But that didn’t affect how she played her.
“I was not approaching it with any desire to change anyone’s opinion about her. I feel like if you’re approaching your work as if it has that much weight and gravitas in terms of how it’s held or received, I don’t know how you even begin,” she says.
Instead, she found a way to understand what Tripp was going through and why she did what she did. “I just thought, if I can come up with a reason that I can get behind, that I can understand — not necessarily defend — but understand from a human standpoint, without judgment, then I think I have a shot at having the desired result.”
Rather than judging Tripp, Paulson reminded herself that every human has made mistakes. “She got in way over her head in a way that I don’t think she expected. It was like the train left the station at a very fast pace. She didn’t exactly know where it was gonna go, and it landed someplace that was ultimately really, really, really scary,” she says. “She may have even been the conductor, but then she’s like, ‘Oh, shit, I want to get off,’ and there was no way to do that.”
The actor adds, “I do believe that Linda really, really, really thought that the president was abusing his power and that he was taking advantage of a young woman and that someone had to stop it. She’d had so many experiences where nobody ever stood up for her, did the right thing where she was constantly passed over even though she was more qualified. We carry those kinds of early experiences with us, and it totally affects the way we react to all kinds of things. So, I could understand how she found herself there, and how she thought she was helping.”
The challenge of portraying real people is something that Paulson has embraced for much of her career — as is the process of physically transforming. When the “Impeachment” prosthetics team began planning the transformation, they piled on a nose, chin, neck and full cheeks. When Ryan Murphy saw footage, he pumped the brakes.
“It was really one of his many, wildly smart calls because it’s already a lot to ask an audience to sidestep their knowledge of an actor,” Paulson recalls.
“Impeachment” didn’t receive the outpouring of love “People vs. O.J.” did; still, it landed five nominations including for hairstyling, non-prosthetic makeup, prosthetic makeup and writing. That, Paulson believes, is because of other actors.
“I don’t know if it connected to audiences. My sense is that actors responded to what I did,” she says. “What it means to me is, critics schmitics. Every single actor in the Academy has been either on the receiving end of a mixed response to something they’ve worked their butt off and on the other hand, had real wild success sometimes with things they didn’t expect. It runs the gamut.”
The nomination feels as if actors were commending her for being brave enough to attempt the role “because when you do that you always run the risk of people going, ‘No, thanks.’”
She notes, “Some people may have said, ‘No, thanks,’ but some actors seemed to say, ‘Yes, please.’ That was really gratifying.”
With the nomination, she says, it’s exciting to get off the Tripp train, which has been “an empty car for over a year,” and be with her friends. “And this Emmy nomination train? I don’t want to get off. I enjoy it and I’m happy to be here.”