Sarah Paulson on Why Her Emmy Win Is Also Justice for Marcia Clark

Debra Birnbaum

“Hello, friend.”

It’s the morning after the Emmy Awards, and ensconced in her hotel in Beverly Hills, a still-beaming Sarah Paulson can’t stop looking at her new accessory: the golden trophy she has long coveted. After five nominations, she finally heard her name called on Sunday evening, then stood on the stage of the Microsoft Theater to accept the Emmy Award for lead actress in a limited series for her role in “The People v. O.J. Simpson.”

But this wasn’t just a win for herself, she says; it was a triumph, two decades in coming, for Marcia Clark, the prosecutor she played to critical acclaim in the FX show.

JOSÉ MANDOJANA for Variety

Paulson used her acceptance speech to offer an apology to Clark, whom she’d brought along as her date for the ceremony.

“I, along with the rest of the world, had been superficial in my judgment,” said Paulson in her speech, “and I’m glad that I’m able to stand here in front of everyone today and say, ‘I’m sorry.’”

It was the first time Paulson had ever prepared a speech, despite all of her previous nominations.

“I don’t think I’m one of those girls who can get up there and wing it,” she says. “I have too many feelings that would get in the way of knowing how to speak eloquently.”

But as much as she wanted to thank every writer and crew member by name, she knew there were two people she needed to use her precious 45 seconds to praise: executive producer Ryan Murphy, who has championed her career, and Clark.

“The thing I kept coming back to was I wanted to cut to the quick of how abandoned I felt she was by women, almost as a collective,” Paulson says. “It just felt like everyone wanted to drop the hot potato that was Marcia Clark. I so felt for her, having only played it. Multiply that by a million, and also have it be your actual life.”

Paulson brought Clark with her backstage to watch as the trophy was engraved with both of their names: “Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark.”

She’s been reading that plaque a lot this morning, she admits in her hotel room, surrounded by bouquets of congratulatory flowers from the likes of her “American Horror Story” co-star Matt Bomer and her partner, Holland Taylor.

“I didn’t know it was going to say my name and the character I played,” she says, as she steals another glance at the trophy. “But it was incredibly appropriate.”

Paulson, 41, has long joked that she’s wanted to be an actress since she was in the womb. But her path to fame was a long, slow burn: She endured a string of failed pilots and aborted series like NBC’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”

“I never was on a show that lasted more than a year,” she says.

Growing up, her sister, Liz, predicted that her success would be a long time in coming. “She always said to me, ‘It’s not going to happen for you until later in life,’” says Paulson. “‘I know you want it now. I know you feel you should have it now. But you’re going to have to wait.’”

Back then, Paulson would simply tease her sister for being “a little psychic” and dismiss whatever she forecast (even if she was uncannily able to guess whatever number Paulson might have in mind).

It was when she saw Liz at Fox’s after-party that the win finally sank in — and Paulson let the tears flow. It wasn’t just that Liz’s long-ago prediction had been right; it was that seeing her newly married sister struck a chord, reminding her of their struggles growing up.

““I had a front-row seat to one of the best performances of the year. I knew she’d be victorious. She wouldn’t believe me, but I told her!”
Sterling K. Brown

“I started to think about where she had been in her life a few months ago, and what we had endured as the child of a single parent,” says Paulson. “I know what it was like to be the child of someone working and trying to mother, and being the sister of someone working and trying to mother. Playing Marcia gave me a whole panoramic view of what that was like.”

Collapsing into Liz’s arms at the party felt like a validation of everything she has worked for the past two decades, she says. “My sister probably wanted that win for me more than anyone in the world.”

One man may beg to differ: Ryan Murphy. There’s little question that Paulson’s partnership with him has transformed her career. Ever since he first cast her in “Nip/Tuck” in 2003, he’s found a role for her in nearly every project he has worked on.

All of her nominations — save 2012’s “Game Change” — have come from his projects. And their union shows no sign of slowing down: She’s currently filming season six of “American Horror Story” ; she’ll play Geraldine Page in his upcoming limited series “Feud,” opposite Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange; and she’s on deck for the second installment of “American Crime Story,” which will focus on Hurricane Katrina.

Murphy calls Paulson’s win “the proudest moment of my career,” on a night that saw “The People v. O.J. Simpson” collect five trophies. “I was always disappointed when Sarah didn’t win,” he says of prior years. “But it was meant to happen this way because Marcia won.”

Murphy was the first person Paulson saw when she got back to her seat, and she says he pointed to his face to show that he’d been crying. “Now we don’t have to leave the country,” he told her.

“There’s always going to be a mystery around why he’s chosen me,” she says. “What made him give me Marcia? I don’t know. He’s just always believed in me, and he’s always said, ‘You’re gonna have it.’”

His support of her goes far deeper, though, than just hoping she collects trophies. “He wanted [success] for me because I think he really sees me,” she says. “He knows the why of it. He knows it’s going to make me feel that I’m tethered to something in this business that we’re in. He knows that I come from a fractured home and that this is going to make me feel more linked to something in my family of choice — this community that I work in.”

She adds, “He wanted it for me because deep down he’s one of the more vulnerable, caring, gentle people you could possibly meet.”

That, she says, is the secret of Murphy. (Along with the fact that he’s “a great dancer,” she adds with a sly smile.)

JOSÉ MANDOJANA for Variety

Murphy says he’s simply tapping into Paulson’s preternatural talents as a “chameleon,” able to disappear into whatever role he imagines for her — be it a drug addict, a witch, or conjoined twins. He learned that about her over many glasses of wine at the Chateau Marmont, where she would entertain him with her imitations.

“Who doesn’t want a boss and a mentor and a collaborator who actually sees what you come to the table with and what you don’t — and how to pitch things your way that you can actually hit?” she says.

“Not only did he give me a creative home, he gave me a literal home,” she says. Thanks to her steady work with him, she just bought her first house.

The buzz on “The People v. O.J. Simpson” production — and Paulson’s performance — was deafening almost from the moment the cameras rolled.

“I definitely felt an ease that I had never felt before,” she says. That said, she still hasn’t been able to bring herself to watch any of it. “I’m incredibly self-critical, and really hyper-vigilant in all aspects of my life. In some ways, that works very well for me in my work life.”

At the awards show, she started to get a sense that momentum was building toward a triumphant night when D.V. DeVincentis won as writer for Paulson’s standout episode, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”

Paulson tears up talking about the standing ovation that Sterling K. Brown received when he was recognized for his work as Christopher Darden.

“It’s the one award that if nothing else happened, even my own, I wanted that for him,” she says. “There are actors in that room who have been doing this forever, who have been coming to the Emmys forever, standing up for this man. His work was that powerful.”

Yet she was slow to accept those same sentiments for herself, even as stars came up to her throughout the ceremony with compliments.

“As an actor, you’re always afraid that you don’t belong, especially when you keep getting let into rooms that you’re not sure you should be in, with more people that you respect and admire,” she says. “You say to yourself quietly, ‘I hope they don’t realize that they let me in here and make me leave.’ Somehow, standing there with all of those people, their reaction made me think that I belonged.”

As much as she used to practice giving speeches into the bathroom mirror when she was young, she says nothing prepared her for the moment when Claire Danes called her name.

It was “surreal” when she was escorted up the stairs of the stage by Bryan Cranston, who handed her the award as well as the envelope bearing her name, saying, “You’re gonna want to keep this.”

“I’m never going to forget that he handed it to me, and that he reminded me to take a breath,” she says. “It really is a fairy-tale kind of thing.”

The biggest payoff, she says, is more opportunity. “This means someone else will ask me to do something great.”

They already have. The last time Variety interviewed Paulson, she jokingly said, “I want to be in the all-female ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ with Sandra Bullock. Call me up, Sandy!”

Indeed, Bullock did.

Now Variety can confirm that Paulson has officially signed on for “Ocean’s Eight,” with Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, and Awkwafina. The film will be directed by Gary Ross.

Among the flood of congratulatory messages she received after the Emmys was a text from Bullock.

“I had an emoji from Sandra Bullock!” she laughs. “That’s a really good day.

“To be 41 years old, approaching 42, and to have all of this?” she adds. “We all know what goes up must come down, right? I’m just trying to keep my eye on the horizon.”

She hasn’t done a play in three years, and she’s itching to get back to the stage — which she calls her “holy place” — perhaps in “A Doll’s House,” she muses, or “The Goat.”

But for now, she’d like to head behind the camera: Angela Bassett helmed an episode of “American Horror Story” this season, and Paulson’s working up the courage to ask Murphy to give her a shot.

“I understand the tone of the show. I know what Ryan responds to and doesn’t respond to, and I’m very interested in story,” she says. “I think it would be a safe place for me to try — where I would have a really big cushion around me, that if I fell, it wouldn’t hurt too much.”

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