'People v. O.J. Simpson': Sarah Paulson on Her "Out-of-Body" Marcia Clark Makeover

Paulson talks with THR about how Clark was reduced to a "punching bag" — plus, will she be back for season two of the FX anthology?
Courtesy of FX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the sixth episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson, "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia."]

Between her curly hair, pantsuits and lack of public personality, Marcia Clark was at times publicly prosecuted just as much — if not more so — than O.J. Simpson during his infamous mid-'90s "trial of the century." As she fought Simpson's defense team in court, the single mother of two was also facing a more personal battle, with an ongoing divorce and criticism from the media about everything from her looks to her parenting skills.

That all took center stage during Tuesday's Ryan Murphy-directed episode of FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, in which Clark's plight was showcased by the formidable Sarah Paulson.

THR caught up with Paulson to dissect that intense makeover and subsequent courtroom scene and her take on the infamous lawyer as well as balancing two projects at once.

How much did you know about Marcia Clark's public struggles before you took on this role?

Only so much as what was public knowledge at that time, which was that she was the lead prosecutor on the case and that she was a woman. And that she was reduced to that stereotypical, barracuda woman. That's all really, because it was what was presented. I didn't look any deeper. Everything that we learned as we were preparing to shoot, and by reading both Jeffrey Toobin and Marcia's books, I became increasingly aware of what she was really [dealing with] during this time and how harrowing it was really for her, both personally and professionally.

Did your perception of her change after meeting her — especially after having already filmed most of this series?

Meeting her didn't change my feeling about what I had come to believe about her from all my research and time spent playing her. It only deepened my affection for her and respect for her. She's a real broad in the great sort of Hollywood throwback kind of way. She's capable of using a really good four-letter word. She's incredibly witty and funny and a great time. She's everything I thought she would be and more.

What's been her reaction toward the finished project?

The prospect of watching was something she didn't believe she could do; it would be too difficult and painful. I think she was able to see what care and attention and respect everyone involved had for her and how much care was taken to make sure that [the characters were] accurately represented. There was a lot of care and interest in not doing what had been done to Marcia during the trial, which was painting her as a two-dimensional person. It was almost as though no one thought of Marcia as a human being. She was a kind of punching bag for people, and I hope this has been an opportunity for people to be reminded that this was a real human being. A mother to two young children. She's someone's daughter. She's someone's sister. She was really raked through it and lived to tell the tale. And did so with a great deal of class and grace.

Was the tampon scene dramatized or something that actually happened?

I think that's a dramatization; it was a very sort of extreme example of what she was going through. I can't say whether that moment happened — the only person who could would be Marcia herself. She was the only one there. I think that was one of our hyper-dramatized moments to get the point across, which I think it does successfully.

What was it like to film the makeover and subsequent courtroom scene?

It was one of those out-of-body experiences that happened to me one other time, when I was doing The Glass Menagerie with [frequent collaborator] Jessica Lange on Broadway. She had done this thing where she picked up one of my glass figurines and was sort of holding it above her head and shouting at me for not having gone to class. When she put the figurine down on my bookcase, the leg of the figurine popped off. It was an unscripted moment that wasn't part of Tennessee Williams' play. The reaction when I saw it was nothing I could have planned for, but I had projectile tears. It was one of those things that I felt enough inside of the thing that when the accident happened I responded to it as the character would.

It correlates because I couldn't have planned for what happened in the courtroom that day. Ryan Murphy just said, "Walking in here, I want you to feel good. You're ready to take on the day." Even without my haircut I was ready to take on the day. People were calling on me to be softer, and I thought I was taking care of some of that business with the haircut. Then I walk in to take the day on and Judge Ito [Kenneth Choi] makes that crack. There was a tittering of laughter. And I could feel the temperature rise in my neck and the color change in my face. Something happened very organically because I — like Marcia — felt quite vulnerable. I was walking into a roomful of people. It was like doing a play with the lights on. The people who were watching the trial and the reporters, everybody that was there in the courtroom every day, plus the jury, plus the defense team. All of them staring at me as I walked in. So I felt incredibly embarrassed, humiliated, ashamed. What happened to me was incredibly organic. But it wasn't a Sarah reaction, it was a cellular Marcia thing that happened. I like to think it was a moment where I don't know where she stopped and I began. I don't know if it could have been planed.

Looking back, how much of an impact did Marcia's looks and personal life have to do with the outcome of the case?

I don't think her looks had anything to do with it. The focus and the interest in her physical appearance speak volumes about where all the focus and attention was — [it was] on the wrong goddamned thing. There were two people whose lives were snuffed out. Two children lost a mother. A young girl lost her brother. These two people were dead and the circus surrounding all of these things was such an embarrassment. It took the focus off the task at hand, and the case was being tried in the court of public opinion and not as much in the courtroom as it should have been. On that level, it had an impact.

Was it a challenge to balance this and the latest season of American Horror Story?

It was a very useful thing but it was very, very hard. There was probably no one more exhausted during that trial than Marcia Clark. She had two young children at home, she was working from home after being in court all day, and it was going on for so very long and they didn't have a lot of time. Everything was happening very fast. Her level of exhaustion was somewhere that I don't know that I've even been to. But somehow because I was playing Sally [on AHS: Hotel] at the same time, my level of exhaustion was a place I had never been to before, ever. The problem was I really needed my brain to be functioning as Marcia particularly at its highest level. I tried to stay in a place of gratitude and use my exhaustion to my advantage as Marcia. Because God knows she was tired. It was hard on the long courtroom days, and I had a lot to say. Those were really hard things to do, but I know that Marcia was as tired if not — actually, I probably can't even touch how tired she was.

Is there a chance you could be back for season two of Crime Story?

God willing, I hope so. I would love it more than anything.

The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX. What did you think of "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia?" Sound off in the comments below.

Twitter: @amber_dowling

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