'I Was so Angry That It Was Making Me Shake': Sarah Paulson on Playing Marcia Clark in Harrowing Episode of 'The People v. O.J. Simpson'
Tuesday night’s episode of “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” left me absolutely furious when I first watched it. It’s a brilliantly done episode, a portrait of prosecutor Marcia Clark, called, fittingly, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.” The title’s playfulness, and its reference to another television show, is characteristic of the show'stongue-in-cheek nostalgia, its joy in being both referential and knowing while trying to lay bare the truth of this episode in American history.
But the story of “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” is anything but, a portrait of sexism and misogyny that puts all of American media in 1995 on notice, as we watch Paulson’s Clark endure humiliation after humiliation as she just tries to do her job. Some viewers may already know where her story is going; others, like me, might be increasingly horrified to learn just what she was subjected to in tabloids and on talk shows. Paulson delivers a moving and tragic performance as Clark, a woman caught in the very cruel space of media scorn.
Paulson is a passionate and thoughtful actor who has been in productions all over the critically acclaimed universe, from Todd Haynes’ indie darling Carol, opposite Cate Blanchett, to “American Horror Story,” where she has been a regular in every season. Her versatility and gravity made her an excellent choice for Clark, but in “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” Paulson throws herself into the prosecutor’s little-seen vulnerability, and it is heartbreaking.
I spoke with the actress about her role, and this episode, including the “reverse makeover” scene with the terrible perm, and how her own relationship with Hollywood fed into the portrayal of this civil servant thrust into a media circus. Along the way, we discussed her character’s relationship with Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown), and what it was like to drink tequila with the real-life Marcia Clark.
Sonia Saraiya: When I first watched this episode, it made me so angry.
Sarah Paulsen: Yes.
SS: How did you feel when you first read this script?
SP: It just made me cry, actually. That’s a reaction I have, whenever I get really mad—sometimes I cry. [Laughs.] And the doing of it was even more intense than the reading of it. When I had to stand up and explain to the court that I could not stay late because I had no childcare. And then when I had to face Johnnie [Cochran, played by Courtney B. Vance] saying all of those very derogatory—totally lacking in any awareness or compassion for Marcia’s circumstance, and immediately throwing her to the wolves and accusing her of using lack of childcare as a way of having more time to present something in front of the court. And then I just stand up and do that little speech that she makes to Johnnie and to the court.
That, to me—as much as there are so many other emotional moments in the episode—that I just remember really having to fight through tears. I was so angry that it was making me shake, and because of that I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to give in to that feeling I had internally—me personally, Sarah—and I certainly didn’t want Marcia to do that. But at the same time it was making me shake with rage, it really was.
I felt that way when I read it, but when I did it, I just thought I don’t know—I actually don’t know how she woke up every day and dealt with this. With what was going on in her home life, her private life, and her responsibility caring for her children. And being present in that regard, and working as hard as she was working, while not having as much help as she could have. And I don’t even mean childcare help in terms of someone being there. I’m talking about emotional support from her husband, from people within the office. She just had been completely abandoned, I thought, and it was a very, very stark, bleak place to be living for that time we were shooting that episode.
SS: No one is on her side, except for Chris Darden.
SP: Darden, yeah. Well, he was the only one in the trenches with her. The only people who can truly know what it was like at that time are the people that were there, and Darden and Marcia spent a lot of time together. He was the one who was bearing witness to all of this and who absolutely had her back, no question. That was a comforting reality for her but at the same time—he’s also a man. So knowing what all that was like was not possible for him. Ultimately, as much empathy and compassion as he had, he couldn’t possibly know what it was like.
SS: One of the things that is so great about the show is that it gives you insight into characters that are villainous in other episodes. “The Race Card” is Johnnie Cochran’s humanizing episode, but in this episode, he’s infuriating.
SP: Of course. The main thing people forget about this trial—because it became such a circus and there were so many sideshows—is that everyone involved was an actual person, a human being with a beating heart and a brain. What they chose to do with those brains and hearts were independent choices, and person-specific choices. But these are real people. As much as we like to imagine that they weren’t, because it’s then easier for us to stick any number of stereotypes to them.
SS: Let’s talk about the hair montage in “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” where the episode goes through the recognizable beats of the makeover scene but then has this terrible conclusion where everyone hates the outcome. It was very humanizing, as you say, and perhaps this is the shared feminine experience, but I just know that I would burst into tears if a roomful of people made fun of my hair.
SP: Oh yeah! Oh yeah.
SS: So, what was it like to have that hair? You’re a very beautiful person, and having that hairstyle is … a different experience.
SP: My favorite wig was actually the short one [in the episode]. I don’t know whether it was because I had been playing Marcia for a few months, at that point, by the time we got to Episode 6. I had been deep enough into it at that point, when I put that wig on, which truly is the most iconic hair that she has. Immediately when I think of Marcia I think of that short, very, very curly, Chia Pet, broccoli-looking hairdo. So somehow when I looked in the mirror and I had that, I felt more vulnerable and more … I felt very connected to her, and very inside of the character.
There’s definitely moments when—certainly the industry that I’m in is beauty- and youth-obsessed. And there I was, going to work every day, inking under-eye bags on my face—by the time we were filming Episode 6 I didn’t have to paint very much, because I was very tired and it was all happening in real time on my face, let’s just say. But I think my own vanity—some of which has just been drilled into my head, because I’m a woman, and I have all types of responsibilities and societal expectations, and certainly the industry that I’m in that feeds on that—I definitely had a moment when I put that wig on and thought, oh my God, I’m going to be looking like this on national television. This is a little scary.
Then the very next thought in my brain was, how lucky I am, where I get to play someone where I don’t have to think about my appearance in a way that is, I think, a great hindrance to giving a good performance. If you’re worried about the way you look and you’re worried about whether you are charming enough looking, or beautiful enough looking. I’m not talking about anything that goes on in an interior way. I’m talking about just pure external things. I had to confront my own internal barometer for my vanity. And kind of check it at the door. I know I’ve fallen victim to my own thoughts about what it should be, what beauty is, what is expected of me when I’m playing some leading lady. Most jobs that I’ve had where I’ve been asked to play the leading lady made me change my hair color to blonde, as a sort of a subtle communication that my brown hair would not be as appealing, I suppose. Then it sort of gets into my own brain like, am I less attractive as a brunette? Is it less appealing? Do I need to stay blonde to work the way I want to work? So it’s a whole kind of mindfuck.
But there is a great liberating thing that can happen. I think Meryl Streep might have said this but I’m not sure, she said, “Vanity has no place in acting.” [Ed. note—Not on the record, that we can find.] It’s really true, because it’s impossible to move and live and breathe freely when you’re thinking about what you look like. Most people—we all have passing moments of thinking about that throughout the day but most of the time you’re just focused on doing what you’re doing, trying to do a good job of it and be a present person who’s focused on your work and your friends and your love life. So if you’re really focused on your beauty, or your perceived lack thereof, you’re not probably living in the way that you want to be. As an actress it’s not helpful to be doing that kind of thing. So it was very liberating to know that that wasn’t a requirement to be alluring. Really, the requirement for this part was for me to use my brain and keep that as sharp as I possibly could.
SS: I think one of the reasons this show feels so relevant and shocking is because it makes us wonder how we could have lived through this trial and missed all of this.
SP: You couldn’t possibly see any of those things, or hold any of it in the way it should’ve been held, because the circus—the band music was too loud around it. There was no way to see or know or hold it. There just wasn’t. The circus was so big—so much so that we as a country forgot really what was at stake; two lives were lost, were brutally murdered. What was actually happening was a pursuit of justice being served. And yet all of that sort of got lost in the noise. It’s a real shame, really and truly. It’s a very terrible, terrible thing.
SS: I read that you and the real Marcia Clark hung out. It sounded pretty great.
SP: It was pretty great. I drank a lot of tequila, because I was incredibly nervous, and very excited to meet her. I spent a lot of time focused on her—completely just immersed in the world of Marcia Clark—and to meet her live and in-person… Any person that you’ve come to really revere and respect and admire, meeting them is quite an experience.
SS: Is there something you learned about her experience that surprised you?
SP: All of it surprised me. I had only believed and known what had been told to me. About the trial itself. About who Marcia Clark was, and what she was, and the type of woman she was. I drank the Kool-Aid just like everyone else. So, as I was reading the [Jeffrey] Toobin book [The Run of His Life, which “The People v. O.J. Simpson” is based on], and as I read Marcia’s book, and as I was reading our scripts I just thought: This is going to be such an extraordinary thing, because if we do this right, people are going to have an understanding of who Marcia Clark actually was. And what she was actually about, and what she was contending with, both in her home life and in the workplace, and what it was like for her in the public eye. There was no way for any of us to understand that.
We were all led to believe that it’s what she wanted, that she was ambitious to the point of—that all of this had been orchestrated to give her some kind of fantastic career. And the truth is she already had a fantastic career. She’d already won 19 out of 20 cases [in her career prior to the Simpson case]. She didn’t need this trial to further any of that, she was doing just fine. So, everything. I didn’t know she had two small children when we started this thing. I didn’t really understand the rampantly sexist world she was living in at that time. All of it was news to me. All of it.
SS: You know what the word "shipping" means, right?
SP: Shipping? Yes, I do know.
SS: So, a lot of the show’s fans are shipping Marcia with Chris Darden.
SP: Aha. [Laughs.]
SS: What are your thoughts on that? Are you also shipping them?
SP: I certainly do ship them. I certainly do. And I certainly ship Sterling K. Brown—I think he is an extraordinary actor and an extraordinary person, and in this episode in particular I could not have gotten through it without him, I could not have. I know how much Marcia relied on Chris during the trial, and he relied on her, so it was an incredible, wonderful alignment that Sterling and I had as actors. We both approached the work in the same way, we both had enormous respect for one another and for our characters. And we were very, very committed to having that be part of the story. So, I’m glad that people are shipping it. In Episode 7 there might be some more to ship. Maybe, for a second. That’s all I’ll say.