By Chis Azzopardi
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, reviewed in this week’s Hollywood Issue of Dallas Voice. 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.
Dallas Voice: How do you reflect on your accidental coming out? Sarah Paulson: 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 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. 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.