Sarah Paulson as Bette and Dot Tattler of FX series American Horror Story: Freak Show
Sarah Paulson as Cordelia Foxx of American Horror Story: Coven.
The randomness of an acting career is on Sarah Paulson’s mind as she explains how she ended up with a breakout role on FX’s American Horror Story.
It started with a friendship forged on Broadway with AHS star Jessica Lange, which led to a chance encounter with Ryan Murphy, co-creator–executive producer of the miniseries.
“Jessica threw her arm around me,” Paulson says, “and asked, ‘Can’t you find something for Sarah?’” He could.
A role as a psychic the first year gave way to “the part I waited my whole life for,” says Paulson of Lana Winters, the dark and brutalized character central to the second installment. “Ryan gave me an enormous gift. He threw me the ball in a way no one ever had.”
Murphy is once again challenging the actress in FX’s fourth and current American Horror Story, which focuses on a carnival sideshow in the 1950s. Sarah Paulson plays homicidal Siamese twins Bette and Dot Tattler.
The performance has already garnered praise from critics and viewers alike, with many of the latter taking to Twitter to profess their unyielding admiration and devotion.
This is fast becoming familiar territory for Paulson.
Her turns in the second and third years of AHS, which also doubles as an anthology series, earned Paulson consecutive Emmy Award nominations. Her first came in 2012 for playing a campaign strategist schooling Sarah Palin (played by Julianne Moore) in HBO’s Game Change.
Florida-born Paulson “emerged from the womb an actress,” she says, and grew up in New York City, attending a performing arts high school. At 19, she was “a lucky understudy” who got on stage in the final days of The Sisters Rosensweig on Broadway.
Now based in Los Angeles, her résumé is a hybrid of theater, film and television — some lightness, much drama. “I just go where the work is,” says Paulson, who gained notice in the mid-1990s on CBS’s American Gothic.
In the third installment of AHS, Paulson played the headmistress of a school for witches who gouges her own eyes out.
She’s played different characters in each go-round of the miniseries, with the network picking up a fifth year for 2015. The constant creepiness can be grueling, “but I thrive when it’s hard,” she says.
One of Paulson’s greatest challenges, she says, was portraying Mistress Epps, the wife of a monstrous slave owner in the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave. “She’s a tragic, tragic character defined by her station in life,” Paulson says, “who behaves horribly out of fear.”
But American Horror Story can be so disturbing that she will watch it only by the light of day.
She’s more likely to cue up reality television, if she's home alone after dark. “I’m fascinated by people and their innocence while being filmed.”
Originally published in emmy magazine issue no. 04-14.
Mekeisha Madden Toby also contributed to this story for TelevisionAcademy.com.