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If I learned anything from my interview with the actress Sarah Paulson in New York on a recent afternoon, it’s that she’s one fun chick. She’s smart, sexy, laughs easily, imitates voices, dishes out high-fives, and, as it turns out, even gives great subway directions!
Ask her about Jessica Lange, whose work inspired her to pursue acting and with whom she has since worked with on multiple occasions, and she says that she’ll never allow the actress into her home for fear of her being creeped-out by the Frances poster in her bathroom. Bring up Michael Fassbender, whose wife she’ll be playing in Steve McQueen’s highly-anticipated Twelve Years a Slave, and she — like just about every other single woman in the world who has seen Fassbender’s work and junk in Shame — gets giddy. And quote to her a critical review of Game Change, the HBO film that debuted on March 10 in which she portrays Nicolle Wallace, a senior advisor to and spokeswoman for John McCain (Ed Harris) and frustrated tutor of Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) during the 2008 presidential campaign, and she will admit that she has already read it — “I Google myself!” — and is all too happy to have the opportunity to issue a rebuttal to “Mr. Magoo.”
In short, she’s a real character.
Paulson has been based in New York since the age of five, when her 27-year-old mother, a waitress who dreamed of working as a writer, packed up her two young kids and relocated them from Tampa to Manhattan. She developed a passion for acting while in elementary school and has been acting professionally since the age of 19 in dozens of critically-acclaimed Broadway plays (including the 1995 revival of The Glass Menagerie with Lange), TV series (including Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which attracted a small but cult-like following, but was canceled by NBC after just one season, for which Paulson received a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress in a TV series or mini-series), and films (most recently as Elizabeth Olsen’s older sister in last year’s critically-acclaimed indie Martha Marcy May Marlene, which played at the Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, and New York film festivals).
Now, at 36, she feels grateful to be a working actor, if not a household name or face, who consistently gets to be a part of projects about which she feels passionate — including and especially Game Change, for which she has her best shot yet at scoring an Emmy nomination. (She is eligible in the category of best supporting actress in a miniseries or a movie.)
Paulson recalls that she was a real political-junkie during the 2008 presidential campaign, “as well versed as a civilian and non-politician can be.” She says, “I remember watching [Palin] be a colossal disaster on national television, and then seeing her at that vice presidential debate and thinking, ‘Wait a second, she actually seems like she’s on top of things. What happened?’” She found the extensive answer to her question—which she learned in John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s book Game Change and Danny Strong’s script of the same title—to be “just mind-blowing,” and jumped at the possibility to bring them to a larger audience when her agent called her one day and said that producer Gary Goetzman (the co-founder, with Tom Hanks, of the Playtone production company) and director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) wanted her to audition for the part of Wallace in the film.
She was asked to tape herself performing two scenes — the one in which Palin blames Wallace for her famously disastrous interview with Katie Couric, and the one in which Palin becomes almost catatonic and refuses to respond to Wallace at all — and submitted five takes of each. “I was happy to do the movie if I had just those two scenes,” says Paulson. “And then I realized that there was a much a bigger part.” She got the part, and quickly headed off to Baltimore, where most of the film was shot.
Paulson, who was told by the filmmakers that she would not be permitted to speak with Wallace before the cameras rolled, says that she felt a heavy burden about playing the part. “I’m not a Republican,” she says. “But my job is to believe what she believed in—to make the case for my candidate, which is what Nicolle did. So, to me, I felt a great deal of responsibility to not screw it up.”
She knew that it was much less important for her to look like Wallace than it was for Harris and Moore to look like McCain and Palin, but she still tirelessly studied YouTube clips of Wallace’s media appearances, looking for clues about how to perfect her performance. Eventually, she approached Roach to see if he thought she should impersonate Wallace’s voice (something she had previously done on Studio 60), which, she says, “is a little higher than mine and it’s pitched in the front of her mouth more than my voice.” Roach, however, discouraged it, telling her: “What I want is for Nicolle to be the audience—Nicolle is the eyes through which the audience is viewing this story—and if you’re doing something ‘charactery,’ even if it’s technically right, it might be a barrier. It might be hard for people to get inside, and I want them to be able to get inside through you.”
She appreciated that advice, and found the entire experience of making Game Change to be unlike any of her previous experiences in television. It was much more like making a regular movie — having advance time to research her character; shooting three or four pages a day instead of 10; and working closely with others who valued her input. “I would turn to [Jay] sometimes and just say, ‘Can I just have one more?’ And he said, ‘You can have 10 more.’ There was a real collaboration. He was interested in why I wanted another take.”
Only once she was on the set did Paulson learn that she would have to perform a scene that wasn’t in the original script — indeed, a scene that become her most memorable in the film: when — soiler alert — on election night 2008, Wallace makes a tearful confession to her friend Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson), the McCain campaign’s chief strategist, that she hadn’t been able to bring herself to vote at all. Says Paulson, “It was easy and hard. Easy because Woody is an incredibly generous, emotionally available actor, so he was right there with me… [but, nevertheless,] crying on cue is a hard thing to do.” She remains grateful for the sensitive way in which her director handled the set that day. “Jay literally made anybody who didn’t need to be on the set leave the set; he kept it very quiet. He let me go into a room prior to shooting… I had a half an hour in a room by myself to kind of get there.”
By the end of the filming, Paulson had a newfound respect for Wallace. “I was really moved by Nicolle’s commitment and passion for what she did and what she believed in, and how brokenhearted she was that it wasn’t going to work, that she couldn’t get behind it.” She met Wallace for the first time at the New York premiere of Game Change, and it meant the world to her that Wallace had kind things to say to her on that night, and also when she told ABC News that the film was, “True enough to make me squirm.” Paulson says that Wallace is “somebody that I would call a friend now. We email from time to time, and I’ve had dinner with her when I was in town.”
I can’t say that I’m surprised that Paulson endeared herself to Wallace. I, for one, wouldn’t even put it past her to win over Palin, if she is ever given half a chance.
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