When the first publicity photos for “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” were released, it was hard not to viscerally react to just how closely — thanks to a strong physical resemblance and some quality wigs — Sarah Paulson resembled prosecutor Marcia Clark. The cherry on the sundae? Paulson happens to be an incredibly talented, and also incredibly empathetic, actor.
When Indiewire sat down with Paulson, we were at the Langham Hotel for the TCA Winter Press Tour, and we were both freezing cold. (Yes, it was January, but we were in California, and we were also indoors.) Commiserating over the chilly hotel ballroom temperature, though, led directly into discussing her deep sympathy and affection for the real “incredibly strong, powerful” woman she was depicting; a person who never sought the idea of becoming a public figure, and yet still found her life forever changed. An edited transcript is below, beginning with Indiewire’s admission that thanks to the chilly hotel temperature…
…I gave up today and brought a hoodie.
I always say this when I go on any talk show: I’m going to go out there in a snowsuit. I’m so sick of wearing a dress and being freezing cold. I can’t even concentrate. What if you just went on David Letterman wearing a ski suit? No woman’s ever done that. You always go out there trying to look kind of sassy.
A ski suit sounds like a really good plan.
It’ll be good because then I’ll be comfortable, and that’s really all that matters.
You’ll give a better interview.
I will because my brain will actually work. Sparks will happen. I’ll be able to talk without my teeth chattering.
This is a random thought, but anytime I’ve ever been in a courtroom, it’s also always been so cold.
Well, they try to keep people awake — including the jury and all the lawyers.
So did they have that situation while you were filming the show?
We were having temperature trouble all the time. And I was the only one wearing a skirt because all the men were wearing big suits, so no one was ever as cold as I was.
[At this point, a publicist brings Paulson a cup of hot water to hold.]
So you were the only one having to wear skirts. I hope you reminded everyone of that.
I did. I would sort of go, “I get that you’re wearing a shirt, a tie, a pair of pants and a suit, but I’ve got stockings on and a blouse. So you can all go stick it. I need the heat on.” Although, I did have the wig on. The wig generated a certain amount of heat around it.
Apparently you release 90 percent of your body heat through your head.
Yeah, I had all that to work for me.
Digging in: From your perspective, when you first came into this project, what were your expectations?
I don’t even know if I had a lot of expectations. I had a lot of fear that I was going to get it wrong. It’s a very big responsibility to play a living person [and] certainly people who have any kind of attachment in the world or the society of people who watch these things. People have attachments to opinions of Marcia Clark. Memories of how she looked and sounded.
Initially, before I had begun any research about her, I just thought, “Oh my God, what if I can’t pull that off? It will be incredibly humiliating.” It’s not like I’m playing a person where nobody even knows who I’m talking about. I’ve done that a couple times. I played Nicole Wallace in “Game Change,” and people weren’t well versed on what she looked like, sounded like or acted like. So I had a little bit more freedom there.
But when I played Marcia I really had to base it on Marcia. The more research I did and the more I came to know about her, the more I became obsessed with her and I revered her both as a human being and as a lawyer. Then I became fearful that I was going to let her down because she’s still walking around the planet. I felt like, “Oh my God, even if she were only to see a piece of it.” I had no idea if that would be something she’d even be open to watching. Just the idea that I would be out in the world representing her and that she may not approve of it, may not agree with it or feel embarrassed for me was a big concern.
It reminds me that there was so much heaped upon her, in terms of what she represented and what she had to do. Did you feel that weight as well?
Oh, yes. I did. Episode 6, in particular, was a very hard episode to do because it was very emotional. I didn’t know Marcia had a three-year-old and a five-year-old when I said yes to doing it. I didn’t know that her husband was divorcing her and pursuing full custody of the kids in a public way. That was humiliating and embarrassing to her. He was going to hold a press conference to say that, in his mind, she was completely available to pick up the kids that day, which wasn’t true. The humiliation, the scrutiny and the terrible sexism that was hurled in her direction was really a harrowing pitch to be living at, and certainly in such a public way.
I definitely felt the weight of it, and certainly, on the set, I had a lot of these men come up to me and say, “I feel so bad for Marcia.” I would look at them and say, “Thank you. Good. Me too.” Penny, our focus puller, came up to me and said, “This is breaking my heart.” I thought that this was a good sign, since they’ve been there since day one, we’re shooting the episodes in order. They’re coming to know her and experience all this. It means that we’re making her feel like a fully realized person and not a cardboard cutout. That what I certainly experienced her to be when I watched the trial. We were fed a particular kind of image of her, that she was a strident, hard bitch with a bad hairdo and outfit. Why couldn’t she be softer and more attractive and all these other things? When really, what was at hand was: Two people were brutally murdered and she believed that O.J. Simpson was the man responsible. Her goal was to put him in jail. Why what she looks like should have anything to do with any of that is still a mystery to me.
As an actress, you think about these things all the time. It’s part of the business, it’s part of the job — what you look like. I wish it weren’t part of it, but it is and sometimes the good parts are part of it in terms of transforming yourself, like I was able to do, since my look was so different. That part of it is really fun, but the part of it when you have to be very glamorous, attractive and appealing to people is very hideous, I think. Part of the business, part of what I’ve signed up for, is not what Marcia signed up for. She didn’t sign up to be ripped apart as a woman for these things. If someone wants to take issue with her style in the courtroom, or where they believe she failed in the courtroom, that’s a different story. I still would challenge them to say, “They don’t know they’re talking about.” That’s a different story altogether than picking apart the way she looks. It has nothing to do with the task at hand.
[Actresses] complain about that, being picked apart. I do get it, but I did know it going in. I wish it weren’t a part of it, but it is. But Marcia Clark didn’t intend to be in the public eye that way. That wasn’t her goal. She wasn’t prepared for it. She didn’t have a hard outer shell to protect herself against those kinds of attacks. So it was really rough for her. She can handle it now a lot differently. But she had to go through it and at such a cost.
What I wasn’t necessarily expecting, right from Episode 1, is the way Marcia connects so personally and emotionally to this case. She becomes an emotional hook right away because murder is bad and murderers should go to jail. It’s a very simple equation in that respect. From your perspective, were you aware of how fast you had to come out of the gate, in terms of that?
I think I got lucky, in that it was very smart and right of them to have the first time you see Marcia be at home with her kids, which is actually what she is — a woman and a mother, and then a lawyer. I thought it was a great way of immediately connecting her to motherhood and to her womanhood. Certainly in a sea of all those men, it was a very smart thing to do. Not in a sort of calculated way — it is what she is and was. She’s still a mother to this day. I didn’t think to try to angle this or portray it in a way that makes her likable or makes us feel something for her. I just felt something for her.
To me, it was just clear that this was a human being who was ill-equipped the world of a national spotlight. It was too much. You watch Marcia Clark’s early press conferences, it’s a totally new world for her, and she is unprepared. It was very clear to me who she was on the page and in all the things I had researched. I felt great affection and respect for her.
You may have a better perspective on this because you know what happens at the end of the miniseries, but do you see her as a tragic figure?
I don’t see her as a tragic figure. I feel that the main outcome was that there are two people who are no longer on this planet, and the tragedy of the case was that justice was not done. Everyone involved in that case was irrevocably changed by it; I think, for the most part, not for the better. The first tragedy is that two people were brutally murdered and the second tragedy is that justice was not done. Therefore, everybody involved suffered some sort of tectonic, plate-shifting, life experience.
I don’t see her as a tragic figure. I see her as an incredibly powerful, strong woman with an incredible moral compass and a great deal of integrity. If there was one flaw, which is hard for me to talk about because I have a great deal of affection for her, is that she wasn’t a showman. She wasn’t a razzle-dazzle prosecutor. She believed in putting the facts in front of a jury and letting them speak for themselves. The prosecution has a burden, whereas the defense just has to poke holes in our theories. So we have the real Herculean task. I think Marcia didn’t think it was at the beginning because she thought they had everything they need. But it was probably a case that could have never been won.
“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” airs Tuesdays at 10pm on FX.