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Sarah Paulson Strives To 'Get It Right' As O.J. Simpson Prosecutor

Sarah Paulson plays prosecutor Marcia Clark and Sterling K. Brown plays fellow prosecutor Christopher Darden in the FX series <em>The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.</em>
Ray Mickshaw
Sarah Paulson plays prosecutor Marcia Clark and Sterling K. Brown plays fellow prosecutor Christopher Darden in the FX series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.

In 1995, the televised trial of O.J. Simpson riveted the nation. Lead prosecutor Marcia Clark made the case against the hall-of-fame football player, who was accused of the brutal double homicide of his ex-wife and her friend.

Throughout the trial, Clark faced tremendous scrutiny. She was criticized for courtroom decisions as well as for her hairstyle, clothing and her personal life. Many ultimately blamed her for Simpson's acquittal.

The feeling at the time was that "Marcia Clark is a strident shrew bitch-person," actress Sarah Paulson tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. Paulson portrays Clark in FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. While preparing for the role, she watched video footage of Clark during the Simpson trial and read her memoir. Later, she also met Clark in person.

"My impressions of her now, after portraying her, are incredibly, vastly different," Paulson says. "I now hold her to be a very competent, complicated, strong, deep-thinking, quick-witted, quick-draw, wonderful creature."

The People v. O.J. Simpson is co-produced by Ryan Murphy, who also co-created the FX anthology series American Horror Story, which Paulson has appeared in for all five of its seasons.

Though the O.J. series has been gaining a lot of attention, Paulson says she's waiting until some of the buzz dies down before watching. "I think it's the first time in my professional life I have felt a real swell of positive feeling about my work in something," she says. "I'm trying to just enjoy that, because I know that if I watch it I'm going to start picking it apart, and I think it would be a nice treat for myself to give myself a minute of enjoyment to celebrate the work."

Interview Highlights

On how much the truth matters when portraying real events in a television show

I think it's of paramount importance, and at the same time it is a television show and it is a dramatization. There is no way to know exactly what Marcia Clark was feeling ... and how she cries privately, and there are many, many things that cannot be known. ... I just sort of have to kind of get behind knowing that the bulk of it is all true, and the moments that cannot be known — except for by the people that were actually there and lived it — that's where the acting comes in and the clever writing, at least you hope. I think the whole thing in general — everything was incredibly well-vetted and all of that.

On how she prepared to play Clark

I read, watched and listened to any and everything I could get my hands on. The good news is there are copious amounts of videos on the Internet where I was able to watch a lot of her physical [mannerisms] — her carriage, the way she used her hands, the way she spoke, how she often tilted her head to one side, particularly in the courtroom when she was addressing the judge, the defense team or the jury. I read her book, I read [Christopher] Darden's book [In Contempt], I read [Jeffrey] Toobin's book [The Run of His Life], and of course I read our scripts, which was probably where I ended up holding most closely that stuff. ...

The more I read about her, the more I knew about her, the more I just wanted to get it right. That was my primary concern, was just to get it right — and by right I mean just for it to be authentic and truthful. I wasn't really looking at it as a way of trying to correct any perceptions or misconceptions about Marcia, I just wanted to try to do it in an honorable and a truthful way.

On why she wanted to meet Clark in person

I don't even know that I wanted to know anything specific, I just wanted to breathe the same air that she was breathing, in the same moment. I had so immersed myself in all things Marcia Rachel Clark that the idea that I could be sitting across from her ... I just kind of wanted to hug her. I wanted to look her in the eye and tell her that she didn't have to be fearful of the take that was going to be presented about her, given all that I knew she had endured.

I could've only imagined and anticipated that she was going to be terribly, terribly anxious about having to relive this experience that was a great trauma for her. She never went back into the courtroom to prosecute a case after this trial and she had won 19 out of 20 prior to this case, so it was obviously a great passion of hers and it was stolen from her. I don't know that I took anything away from it or expected anything other than I just wanted to be in her orbit.

On the scrutiny she has encountered over her appearance, which helped her relate to the scrutiny Clark faced during the trial

I have naturally brown hair and every time I've been asked to be a leading lady on television or in a movie I have often been asked to make my hair blonde. And that is a sort of a weird slippery slope where you start to go, "Gosh ... if my job on this particular program is supposed to be alluring or charming, thought of as a sexual creature, I have to have blonde hair? What does it mean that I don't actually have blonde hair? Does it mean that I am not any of those things without it?"

On playing conjoined twins on American Horror Story

Essentially, it was all done on a green screen and I would come in in the morning and prerecord my dialogue, because often the twins were speaking telepathically to one another and I wanted to be able to hear my own voice in my head. So I would record it and then wear an earwig so that I could talk to myself. I didn't want to have another actress off camera reading that didn't sound like me and didn't sound like my twin.

Paulson says that playing conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler on FX's <em>American Horror Story </em>was "incredibly challenging."
/ FX
Paulson says that playing conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler on FX's American Horror Story was "incredibly challenging."

It was a lot of lonely work, where I would have to look at a piece of tape and imagine my own head there. I never was able to look in anyone else's eyes to play a scene with myself. ... It was incredibly challenging and very, very technical. And everyone who ever did a scene with me on that season of Horror Story was always bemoaning the fact that they had to work with me because it meant their day was infinitely longer because it was just take after take, and we essentially had to do everything twice.

On making news after she kissed then-girlfriend Cherry Jones at the 2005 Tony Awards

I think I was a bit naive, actually, as to what it would mean. I was just doing what was instinctual to me, which was to congratulate and kiss the person whom I loved and who had just won a very fancy acting prize. It would've been strange for me to what, I don't know, pat her on the head, pat her on the shoulder, and I just did what it occurred to me to do. But I was very quickly made aware of it being a bit of a news [story] because I got a phone call from my publicist saying, "Why did you do that?" She's no longer my publicist, by the way. ...

I remember feeling like I was getting my hand slapped, that I had done something wrong, and I didn't feel very comfortable with that.

On whether she worries that being, as she puts it, sexually "fluid" affects the kinds of roles she gets

I wonder sometimes if being in the Ryan Murphy world — in that I get to play so many different types of characters within that one TV show — that there really isn't time to sort of typecast me as one particular kind of thing. I'm not a sex symbol, I'm not ... your typical movie star. And so I wonder if I've been sort of protected from having to worry about it preventing me from working in a way, because the public doesn't really have a particular attachment to me being one type of thing.

On whether society has become more accepting of fluid sexual orientation

The politicization of it is complicated for me, because I only know what to do according to what I feel and I only want to be governed by that. I try not to make any choices across the board that are dictated to me by someone else's idea of what [my sexuality] should be. So I do hope that the idea of somebody being fluid is no longer a covert or a euphemism for "Oh, gay, just don't want to say it." Because for me, I have been with men and I have been with women, and I don't know what lies ahead, and I don't want to be stuck with some kind of label that then makes me then a traitor to my people if I make a different choice. I want the freedom — my own personal freedom — to decide that as I see fit.

On her current relationship with actress Holland Taylor, who is about 30 years older

There is a very significant age difference. And when you love a person, the idea of losing them is terrifying, to put it mildly. So I have thought about it. But Holland actually put the best spin on it and said what I think was a very funny thing. ... We were at a dinner party and we were newly out and about as a couple, and a mutual friend of ours said, "Oh, Holland, I'm so pleased for you. I'm so happy, this is so great, you and Sarah." And Holland said, "Yeah, I know. Look, if she dies, she dies." It was so disarming. And Holland's point being: Yes, on paper, it looks like one thing, but anything can happen and you just don't know.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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