Though she’s absolutely killing it on American Crime Story: The People Vs. OJ Simpson, people know who Sarah Paulson is from her work on the creepy American Horror Story, and rightfully so. What the actress does on that show is so electric, that she can make even the most unwatchable moments (I’m looking at you Freak Show) seem compelling. Even when the show’s Queen Bee Jessica Lange faltered or chewed the scenery just a bit too much, Paulson was always there to reign her, and the show, back in.
After being given a returning role in Murder House, Paulson was promoted to lead in Asylum. It’s no coincidence that this is the show’s best season; Creator Ryan Murphy gave the actress the role of a lifetime. As reporter Lana Winters, Paulson cleared every hurdle that the show’s very tumultuous plot pushed in front of her, including satanic possession, aliens, serial killers and questions of sanity. To say she cleared those obstacles would be putting it lightly, and while she lost the Emmy that year, it’s hard to remember a TV actress creating such a memorable, strong character in a show as crazy as AHS.
Since then, Paulson has played a witch, a two headed woman, and the ghost of a drug addict haunting a hotel, and every single time has been the best thing about the show. But even though she made her name on the anthology series, she was delivering A-grade performances before she started working with Murphy, namely in the underrated Martha Marcy May Marlene.
The film was largely heralded as Elizabeth Olsen’s Hollywood coronation, and while her performance in the film is a staggering achievement, Paulson’s is no less monumental. As the sister to a young woman who has just escaped from a cult, the actress had the difficult job of playing it straight to Olsen’s character’s histrionics. But despite being saddled with the less showy role, Paulson is the film’s MVP. Despite maintaining an admirable chemistry from Olsen, she steals entire scenes right out from under the star without having to resort to flying off the handle. In fact, Paulson maintains a calm, cool and collected air about her throughout the film, which only makes the performance that much more impressive. She conveys a sisterly affection, but makes the frustration and estrangement that bubble beneath the surface clear in each and every scene.
Shortly after Marthy Marcy May Marlene and the first season of American Horror Story, Paulson suited up for Game Change, a retelling of the 2008 Presidential election. She played Nicolle Wallace, a senior advisor for the John McCain-Sarah Palin campaign, and while Julianne Moore’s take on Palin is what people walked away discussing, Paulson once again took a supporting role and knocked it out of the park. Acting against an actress of Moore’s stature is no easy feat, but Paulson didn’t look like she was even breaking a sweat.
There’s also her work in the Academy Award winning 12 Years A Slave. Paulson played Mistress Epps, the wife of a cruel slave owner. 12 Years A Slave‘s cast is so starry, it’s easy to get lost in the big names turning up in cameos like Brad Pitt, Alfree Woodard, Paul Giamatti and Benedict Cumberbatch, never mind the star making turn from Lupita Nyong’o and the film’s anchor Chiwetel Ejiofor. And while it was onscreen husband Michael Fassbender’s performance that won an Oscar nomination, Paulson’s remains the more chilling portrait of pure evil with less screen time.
It takes a very skilled actor to make their presence felt in every frame of a film, even in the one’s they’re not in. One of the things that makes 12 Years A Slave such a powerful experience is that Paulson plays Epps with subtle iciness, that the audience feels her chill at every second. Even though it’s Fassbender’s Edwin Epps who says he’s in charge, we know Mistress Epps is holding the reigns. Of Paulson’s performance, film critic Nathaniel Rogers had this say:
Paulson’s acting instincts are as sharp as Epps’ nails as she lays for self regard, free range hostility, and (curiously) morbid death-wish fantasy bare haunting even when she’s out of focus.
Paulson took that same knack for crafting a memorable supporting performance in Todd Haynes’ masterpiece Carol. As Abby, the best friend and ex-lover of Cate Blanchett’s character, the actress once again more than holds her own against a starrier name. The chemistry shared between the two makes the premise believable, but it’s Paulson’s extreme actorly precision that gives this role its gravitas. It’s so easy to imagine Abby and Carol’s history, despite knowing nothing about it. In Paulson’s performance, we have an entire film’s worth of history that’s conveyed entirely without words.
And so that brings us to American Crime Story. Once again, Paulson is playing a real life person in the midst of a larger than life personality. Only this time instead of Sarah Palin, she’s up against OJ Simpson and his dream team of defense attorneys. Though we’re only 3 episodes in, the actress is the grounded epicenter of the others chaotically brilliant series. Even when she’s silently smoking a cigarette, she demands that everyone’s attention be paid to her.
How she has not received a major acting award by now is beyond me; she’s deserved an Emmy several times, at least for American Horror Story‘s second season. And even though she’s largely known for her work on television, her film performances are jaw-dropping. I think (and hope) that The People Vs. OJ Simpson will be the project that launches Paulson into an entirely new phase of her career. Filmed back to back with season 5 of American Horror Story, the level of dedication and the strength of the performance are too grand to ignore. It’s time for this underrated actress to finally be rewarded.