The Authentic Life: Sarah Paulson on defying labels, pressure to be an LGBT activist and missing Jessica Lange

By : Chris Azzopardi
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What does Sarah Paulson remember about the first time she kissed a girl? “Nothing that I’m going to tell you!”she teases, laughing as if to say “nice try.”

Not that the actress’entire life is a secret. It hasn’t been.

In 2005, when then-girlfriend Cherry Jones was named a winner at the Tony Awards, Paulson planted a sweet kiss on Jones’ lips. But the 40-year-old acting dynamo isn’t one to kiss and tell –a practice extending to many aspects of her public life, which she’s regulated for a reason: so as not to distract from the stories she’s a part of telling.

Those stories are wide-ranging. In addition to her chameleonic roles in Ryan Murphy’s FX hit American Horror Story, where she’s currently playing a hip ’80s-inspired druggie named Sally, she stars as Cate Blanchett’s former flame, Abby, in writer-director Todd Haynes ’powerful lesbian love story Carol. In the film, Blanchett plays a married woman with a passionate desire for a department store clerk named Therese (Rooney Mara). But it’s the 1950s –homosexuality is taboo, and the closet doors are closed.

Paulson’s story is a different one, however. And the doors? They’re mostly open.

WATERMARK: How do you reflect on your accidental coming out?
Sarah Paulson: I was very young, and I was in love. It was the reality of the person I was with. She just won a Tony Award –I’m not gonna pat her on the back, give her the big thumbs up and say, “Go up there and get your award, sweetie.” It was not a really conscious thought. I didn’t think of what the implications were gonna be. I just did what was true and honest to me in that moment.
The truth of the matter is it was early enough in my career that there have been no attachments made to me as a performer. I think the thing that makes it somewhat easier in terms of there not having been ramifications is that I’m a character actress –nobody is assigning a particular kind of sexual anything to me, I don’t think. Maybe that’s totally not true [laughs)]. But it just seems if you’re sort of known for being a sex kitten and that’s how you come on the scene, and then you end up being a total femme fatale actress, and then all of a sudden you make a statement about your sexuality, it becomes news. Whereas I’m a character actress; I can do a lot of things. I don’t think anybody’s made one particular association with me that would then make them go, “Well, I can’t see her this way now.”

You do seem to put your career before your personal life.
I do think it’s more important, and I know that Matt Damon got a terrible amount of flak for the way he phrased those things (earlier this year, he said: “People shouldn’t know anything about your sexuality because that’s one of the mysteries that you should be able to play.”), but the sentiment is still true: My personal life… I’m not gonna hide it from you, but I also don’t want you to think about that before you think about the character I’m playing.

Have you been strategic, then, in what you reveal to the public?
It’s not been strategic; it’s been life experience. I’ve learned lessons, and therefore I behave in different ways now, and they are not in ways I’m upset about or ways that I think are not good. But like for Therese in Carol, you live and you learn and you come into your own and you start to be responsible for your own power and your own choices and what you’re willing to reveal. At the end of the day, I put enough of my interior life on camera when I’m acting by giving as much of myself as I possibly can –I don’t have to give everything to everyone.

You’ve been so matter of fact about your sexuality since unintentionally coming out in 2005. How have you escaped becoming a pillar for the LGBT community?
Because I refuse to give any kind of label just to satisfy what people need. I understand that everybody wants to have a person to look toward that is actively making change around this issue, and I understand for young people coming out they want to attach that hope to a particular person, but I think that honesty is the most important piece of this for me. All I can say is, I’ve done both, and I don’t let either experience define me.

How do you feel about the way Cate Blanchett reacted to the idea that, because she’s playing a woman attracted to other women, she must have had relationships with women?
I think it’s very interesting –all of it, really. Is anyone asking George Clooney what he likes about having sex with a woman? Nobody does. It’s a foregone conclusion that it’s just an acceptable reality and nobody thinks to bother to ask. But you have a story about two women together or two men together and all of a sudden it becomes fair game and assumptions are made that are just never made in the reverse, and I just think it’s terribly unfair. I don’t know what her reaction was, but I hope it was, “Bugger off!”

Let’s talk about American Horror Story: Hotel, in which you’re currently starring. And you’ve been on the show since the beginning, in 2011. Are you seeing it through to the end?
If they’ll have me. They’re gonna have to drag me out of here kicking and screaming. It’s gonna be American Horror Story Season 720 and I’ll be an 80-year-old woman going, “This is the greatest job in the world.” I will be around as long as they’ll have me –absolutely.

Both AHS and Carol are associated with sexuality in some way or another. As an actress, are you drawn to roles related to sexuality?
As human beings we are very fascinated by sexuality and what it means and who we’re attracted and why, because I think there’s a really big mystery about it. There’s something so unknowable about it, which is part of what makes it so exciting. And I do think this about my career all the time: People think I pick such great jobs –that I picked 12 Years a Slave, I picked Carol, I picked Game Change. I auditioned for them and I got the jobs. And so I’ve been lucky –I actually give the credit to Steve McQueen and Todd Haynes and Ryan Murphy and people who saw something in me that they went, “You’re the girl. I want you.”And so, it’s less about choices I’ve made and things I’ve been drawn to –it’s what has been drawn to me.

How does it feel without Jessica Lange around for the first time this season?
She and I have been friends for a long time. We did Glass Menagerie on Broadway together in 2005, and the whole reason I’m on the show, really, is because of Jessica. I had been at a dinner for Project Angel Food where Jessica was presenting an award to someone and (show creator) Ryan (Murphy) was there, and I was gonna do a play in New York that fell through, and so I ended up staying in town. Jessica leaned over to Ryan and said, “Can’t you find something for Sarah to do on the show?”And Ryan, whom I worked for before, went, “Ah, yeah! Actually, I think there’s something coming up,”and it was Billy Dean, the psychic. So, I did it, and that’s how it all started. So I have Jessica to thank for a lot of things, including my run on American Horror Story.

We always shared a trailer. Basically, we have these banger trailers, and every cast member has someone on the other side of the wall. And, for me, it was Jessica for three years straight. Now I have one with Kathy and that’s wonderful, because I love me some Kathy Bates, but my personal history with Jessica is long, and so I miss having her around because she was my friend –she is my friend. That part isn’t so fun, but I think Lady Gaga is bringing a really wonderful kind of new energy to it –just different energy. It’s not better energy. It’s a different energy, and I think it’s really wonderful.

Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).

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