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.
How do you reflect on your accidental coming out?
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. And so I want that to be of paramount importance – it’s of paramount importance to me that you believe the story I’m trying to be a part of telling you, and if my personal life is going to get in the way of that, I don’t like that at all.
Have you been strategic, then, in what you reveal to the public?
The thing with Cherry was very accidental. And, again, I was very young. If it happened to me today, I don’t know what I would do necessarily. I really don’t. I think what I’d like to think is that I would just be who I am and whomever I was with, if I had won an award or they had won award or if it was some kind of public thing, I would not do what I would do simply because I was afraid of being revealed. I don’t think that would be a choice I would make. But I think it was hard a bit because when she and I broke up (in 2009) there were some public statements said by her in, I think, an accidental way that ended up being hurtful to me, so I’ve been very kind of careful now about what I’m willing to talk about in terms of specifics.
So, 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.
Did working on a movie about repressed sexuality have you reflecting on your own sexuality?
What it really made me think about is the power of love and how, at the end of the day, love is love, period. The end. It sounds cliché, but I think most clichés are clichés because they’re very, very true. And it’s very interesting, because I’ve been with men and women, and (the movie) puts a very fine point on that truth, which is that it’s very personal and that love is love, and sometimes you love a person you weren’t expecting to love – and how glorious is that?
How would you describe Abby’s relationship with Carol?
Carol and Abby were former lovers, for sure. But it was brief and it was much more meaningful to Abby than it was to Carol. In the scene with Cate at the bar, when we’re having our martinis and I say, “I hope you know what you’re doing,” about Therese, I basically say, we can just go back and have that furniture store in New Jersey and Carol basically says no. That is my 1952 way of saying, “Let’s try this again.” It’s code for, “Let's make out.” Carol doesn’t want that with Abby. For me, what I was interested in portraying and making sure was there was that sort of sadness that Abby has – that light and love for Carol that’s not reciprocated – but still, that she would rather be in Carol’s orbit in any way that she can be, so she will be a friend to her no matter what.
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. I don’t let having been with a man make me think I am heterosexual, or make me want to call myself that, because I know I have been attracted to women – and have lived with women. So, for me, I’m not looking to define myself, and I’m sorry if that is something that is seen as a rejection of or an unwillingness to embrace (my sexuality) in a public way, but it’s simply not. It’s simply what’s true for me, and that’s all I can speak to.
I can’t speak to how anybody’s experience about this works for them or how they got there or where their comfort zone lies. I would never want that for anyone, and I would never want anyone to ask that of me. And simply because I’m somewhat of a public person doesn’t mean that I then have a responsibility to give you what you want simply because you think I should.
Do you think there is pressure on LGBT celebrities to be activists?
I do, and I think sometimes within the community itself people are like, “You have a responsibility to it – young people need the voices, we need the voices, we need people to see it.” And I get it. But my reality is different than your reality. I have had different experiences. I can meet a man tomorrow and fall in love with him and marry him and I wouldn’t discount any of the experiences that I’ve had with women, or vice versa. I just don’t think anyone is in a position to dictate what that is for me. I understand why the call is what the call is, and that’s also why I don’t hide it. I don’t pretend it’s not true. It’s just, I have to be honest about what’s true for me, that things kind of coexist.
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!”
Why is anyone making assumptions about anything about anybody’s life? It’s a funny thing when actors complain, like, “I didn’t ask for this; I just wanted to act.” Well, in a perfect world we’d all just be able to act and none of this would be part of it, but it is a part of it – this is part of it – and on some level, it comes with the territory. But on another level, you can be responsible and you can control what you will talk about and what you won't talk about. Either you live your life in a very private way or you don’t, and I never have done that – ever – and I won’t do it going forward. I also won’t serve it up on a platter for someone to feast on, because it’s mine.
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.
I can’t believe you still have to audition.
With some things I don’t! There are a lot of things on TV I don’t. And there are some movies I don’t have to. But for Carol it was a sought after role and many people wanted it and I had to fight like a dog to get it.
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 www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).