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Actor Profile: Sarah Paulson

Sarah Paulson fits the criteria of great actors. She has range and stamina, two incredibly important things to have in Hollywood.

Actor Profile: Sarah Paulson

More often than not we equate the greatest actors with those who have the leading roles. But for me, I’ve always been compelled by the supporting cast of a production; whether it was a play, television or a film. It was the supporting cast members that would raise the stakes for the story line and who would challenge or support the leading cast.

Sarah Paulson spent most of her career in supporting roles. But it was in her supporting character work where she shined and essentially fought her way to her leading roles to come.

Paulson’s Beginnings

Sarah Paulson was born in Tampa, Florida in 1974. Her parents divorced when Paulson was young and she relocated to New York City with her mother. Paulson was a student of the theater from a young age and began booking roles in theatre and television shortly out of high school. While Paulson was fortunate to be a working actor at a young age, it wasn’t without some struggle.

Throughout the ’90s and early 2000s, Paulson appeared in supporting roles in television shows like Jack & Jill and Nip/Tuck. Her appearance on Nip/Tuck would start a long lasting friendship with creator Ryan Murphy, who is responsible for a lot of Sarah Paulson’s later work.

Television Career

American Horror Story

Actor Profile: Sarah Paulson

American Horror Story – source: 20th Century Fox Television

Paulson appeared on television shows like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Grey’s Anatomy and Game Change. But it was in 2011 when her career began to skyrocket, when she appeared on FX’s American Horror Story. Her role of Billie Dean Howard in the first season was a supporting role. But starting with season two, she became the lead in the television series.

If anyone were to questions Paulson’s range as an actor, just look at the roles she has played on this series: Lana Winters, a reporter who is wrongfully institutionalized. Cordelia Foxx, a witch who runs an academy for young witches. Bette and Dot, a pair of conjoined twins in a freak show circus. Sally, also called Hypodermic Sally, a drug dealing ghost locked in a hotel. Shelby, the housewife who is tortured on a television show. Audrey, the British actor who played Shelby. And Ally, the restaurant owner who suffers from multiple phobias.

Co-creator, Ryan Murphy, has said in interviews that all of the seasons have a connection. Many fans have speculated on that topic, but one of the undeniable factors that carries the show is Sarah Paulson’s ability to bring very strong and very different performances to each season.

American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson

Actor Profile: Sarah Paulson

American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson – source: FX

In another Ryan Murphy production, Paulson was cast as Marcia Clark in the docu-drama, American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson. The anthology followed the OJ Simpson trial and documented the drama that goes on behind the courtroom doors. The series recounted some of the famous points of the trial, such as the glove. But it also exposed things that the regular person might not have known, like the personal life of Marcia Clark. Paulson portrayed a woman going through a divorce and trying to be a single mother while also trying to uphold the law and bring a man to justice. And all the while, she is criticized for her appearance instead of her professional performance.

The series does discuss the racial tension of the trial as well as the sexism that Clark suffered from. Paulson’s performance definitely mirrored that of the real life Clark. I watched the trial as a child, and in watching the series Paulson brought back to life the images from my memory. Sarah Paulson’s performance was far from a parody or mimicry; it was an embodiment of the persona that we all thought we knew.

Film Career

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Actor Profile: Sarah Paulson

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) – source: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Some of my favorite films are ones that make me feel uncomfortable. I know that seems odd, but in my opinion, a level of uncomfortable shows the authenticity of the performance. Needless to say, Martha Marcy May Marlene left me feeling uncomfortable. The film follows Martha, played by Elizabeth Olsen, as she escapes a cult. She calls her sister, Lucy, played by Paulson, to help her. Lucy and her husband Ted take Martha in to help her get her life back on track. But it is not an easy task. Martha begins lashing out and puts a strain on Lucy and Ted, who are attempting to start a family.

Sarah Paulson has a gift of switching between her theatre trained roots and knowing when to convey an understated performance. That’s a rarity, and is one of the reasons that she is one of my favorite female actors. In Martha Marcy May Marlene she shows the hardships of being a caregiver, a person whose patience is tried time and time again.

12 Years A Slave

Actor Profile: Sarah Paulson

12 Years A Slave (2013) – source: Summit Entertainment

Steve McQueen is one of my favorite directors and I was giddy to see 12 Years A Slave when it was released. I went to the movies by myself, which I often do, and watched the haunting story and beautiful cinematography of the film. At the time, I was studying character work under the Meisner method and was closely watching each actor’s choices.

Sarah Paulson stood on the balcony of her plantation home as Mrs. Epps and I froze in my seat. She had her hands on the banister and as she lifted them she immediately dusted them off, disgusted by the filth. My mouth gaped open and I found myself starting to slow clap in the movie theatre. I didn’t realize what I was doing until I noticed the people around me starting to stare. In that one small movement open wiping her hands, she described her entire character. One who is disgusted by filth, or what she perceives to be unclean or dirty.

The film follows the like of Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a free man who is mistakenly put into slavery. Solomon ends up at the plantation of Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, where he suffers under horrendous conditions. Solomon meets another slave, Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong’o, who Mr. Epps regularly rapes and tortures. Paulson only appears in a few scenes, but her presence is unforgettable. She embodies a woman who does reprehensible things while also making the audience inadvertently sympathize with her. 

Blue Jay

Actor Profile: Sarah Paulson

Blue Jay (2016) – source: Netflix

If there were a certain type of movie that I would love to make the rest of my life, it would be along the same vein of Blue Jay. The main characters, Jim, played by Mark Duplass and Amanda, played by Sarah Paulson, cross paths at the grocery store, spark up conversation and do a tour of the town; going to places they visited as teenagers and ending up at Jim’s mother’s home, who had recently passed away. They look through old photo albums, try on old clothes and listen to old recorded cassette tapes. Familiar feelings begin to ignite and that’s where things get awkward, as Amanda is married to someone else.

All of the actions up to this point seemed relatively predictable to their circumstances. Jim begins to get emotional, Amanda second guesses what she is doing in the home of her high school lover, and a secret from their past is addressed for the first time. In the scene of this reveal, Jim is overcome with grief and drops to the floor having a panic attack, while Amanda is left to comfort him. In this scene, Paulson and Duplass give the most raw, organic performances. You will watch how acting, in my opinion, was intended – as if you were a mere fly on the wall watching a real life couple. And that scene alone is my reasoning that more films need to be like Blue Jay – the organic element.

What’s Next for Sarah Paulson

Sarah Paulson is continuing her partnership with Ryan Murphy for the next season of American Horror Story and American Crime Story, with both shows yet to release their return dates. And to add to her penchant for wonderful ensemble casts, Paulson will soon be seen in Ocean’s 8, starring alongside Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett.

I stand firm in a couple of beliefs when it comes to actors: 1) the best actors got their training in the theatre. 2) the best actors started off their careers in rich supporting character work. Sarah Paulson fits the criteria in my book. She has range and stamina, two incredibly important things to have in Hollywood. She paid her dues for many years and is now on a streak that doesn’t show any sign of slowing.

Do you agree with my beliefs on acting and does Sarah Paulson fit the bill? What makes her a powerful actor, in your opinion?


Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

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Michelle Sabato is an actor and writer from Cleveland, Ohio. By the age of 2 Michelle had memorized all the words to The Wizard of Oz. So, yes, she can carry a conversation with just using movie quotes.