It was the first day of shooting on FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” and Sarah Paulson was anxious.
Why? Because she had not auditioned for the role. Her “American Horror Story” executive producer Ryan Murphy, who is also behind “American Crime Story,” had offered her the part.
Now, Paulson is considered the frontrunner for Outstanding Actress in a Limited Series, and “The People v. O.J. Simpson” has been nominated for a whopping 22 Emmys. And in hindsight, it’s hard to believe that Paulson, who has been plying her craft as a working actress for 20 years, was worried that she would pass muster as Marcia Clark.
“I really fear walking onto the set and having them go, ‘oops!'” she confessed during our video interview at the recent Television Critics Association confab, held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. “When you’re auditioning, you know you’re the one they chose—not that you were hired based on your previous work, on their faith and belief in you. I like feeling and knowing that I earned it.”
What elevated “The People v. O.J. Simpson” to another level not only for Paulson, but for her fellow cast and crew members? She’s given it a lot of thought: “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, why now? Something about this feels elevated in terms of awareness or kudos. I wonder if I do best when I have an incredibly clear blueprint to build the house from: the writing, a fact-based story. When I am left to my own devices and imagination, that kind of freedom is not helpful for me.”
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On “People v. O.J.,” Paulson and co-star Sterling K. Brown (as her associate Chris Darden) shared an actors’ work ethic. During their prolonged courtroom scene, the duo would both scan their iPads for footage from the Simpson trial or read books on the subject. They’d quickly shove those devices under the table before the director called “action.”
“There was so much reading,” said Paulson, “and I’d watch physical behavior to see or pick up something [Marcia Clark] wasn’t intending to put forward. It made my overactive mind quieter, I was more focused.”
Paulson recognized that Clark’s strength as a prosecutor, her confidence and certainty “that was galvanizing and can create velocity in a performance,” was the prosecutor’s Achilles’ heel in this particular trial.
“Sometimes our greatest strength is the weakness that can get you,” said Paulson. “Her commitment and belief that facts do not lie, the evidence does not lie —she couldn’t get out from under that understanding. Sometimes on a case, you’re lucky find a fiber or a drop of blood.” With the overwhelming volume of evidence, “Clark kept thinking that if she put it in front of a jury, they couldn’t deny it. She wasn’t able to let that go. The defense was able to bring in circus tricks that were very useful.”
Many of us who watched the trial at the time were surprised by Clark and Darden’s chemistry and behind-the-scenes relationship, which “The People v. O.J. Simpson” revealed as almost romantic. (There is one almost-brush with a kiss during a weekend out of town.)
“I consider it more like a bromance,” said Paulson, who chose to remain respectful of Clark and Darden’s refusal to publicly admit if they had an affair. “There was almost a moment— that Chris did not close. In that moment, Marcia was ready to receive. They are work colleagues, people in the field together, in the trenches fighting a battle experiencing something that unless you were there, nothing could translate or properly express what that was like to them. It was binding, rare, they used each other, needed each other’s brains. I like to think something happened.”
It was also unusual for Paulson to be able to play a brunette, and one without vanity. “I was never labeled anything,” she said. “I’ve been lucky that way. But with almost all the TV shows I’ve played a leading lady with long blonde hair. I may have auditioned as a brunette, but I had to change it. That’s a disquieting thing, as though the way I naturally came into the room wasn’t attractive or alluring enough.”
But “The People v. O.J. Simpson” was “the only time I’ve ever been on film in any capacity without any light on my face ever,” she said. “It was source lighting. It was a grid of fluorescent lights within the courtroom, built and planned for the show. No bounce card, not once. In the moment that Sterling almost kisses Marcia: ‘let’s give her a tiny eye light.’ ‘Gee thanks!’
“That was Episode 7! I’m a woman over 40 playing a woman over 40. It’s a scary thing, not having any movie magic to soften things. Marcia didn’t have it, so I embraced it. I went out wearing that wig with under-eye circles painted under my eyes. In court people would run after her with lipstick and concealer, ‘Please! It’s for your benefit!’ She’d say, ‘get out of here.’ Which was kind of an unusual attitude.”
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Besides Brown, Paulson’s other close on-set relationship was with director Anthony Hemingway, one of four helmers on the anthology series. Hemingway was a second assistant director on Paulson’s first TV series, “American Gothic,” when she was 18 turning 19. Paulson said she was thrilled “when I saw him saying ‘action,’ and coming up to me with an idea.” And on Emmy morning, when he landed his first nomination, “it was one of those weepy moments.”
And yes, as long as Claire Danes has a lock on spy Carrie Mathison in “Homeland”—the juicily androgynous role Paulson most covets in the premium cable universe— the actress will likely return to the next seasons of Murphy’s anthology series, “American Horror Story” and “American Crime Story,” without knowing exactly who she will play. “Crime Story” is next turning to “Katrina,” which the same team of producers and writers are currently researching and assembling. The script is based on what really happened to the heroes and villains involved in that 2005 hurricane disaster. This time the actress—in all likelihood with an Emmy in hand— should feel more confident.