The FX 10-episode limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story delves into the O.J. Simpson trial told from the perspective of the lawyers. It explores the chaotic behind-the-scenes dealings and maneuvering on both sides of the court, and how a combination of prosecution overconfidence, defense shrewdness, and the LAPD’s history with the city’s African-American community gave a jury the reasonable doubt that it needed. The series stars Cuba Gooding Jr. (O.J. Simpson), John Travolta (Robert Shapiro), Sarah Paulson (Marcia Clark), David Schwimmer (Robert Kardashian), Courtney B. Vance (Johnnie Cochran), Sterling K. Brown (Christopher Darden), Nathan Lane (F. Lee Bailey) and Kenneth Choi (Judge Lance Ito).
During this exclusive interview with Collider, actress Sarah Paulson talked about talking on Marcia Clark, wanting to sign on without even reading a script, how Ryan Murphy has changed her life and career, how she approached bringing this woman to life, her own guilt about what she thought of Marcia Clark when the trial was actually happening, the surreal courtroom scenes, the dynamic with Christopher Darden, and actually getting to meet the woman, herself.
Collider: This series is very interesting because you have characters who are very iconic, in their own right, being played by actors who are very recognizable, and you wonder how well it will all work.
SARAH PAULSON: Believe me, there was nothing more terrifying to me about saying yes to it. Everyone is like, “What made you want to do it?,” but what would make me not want to do it. It’s one of the greatest complicated, layered parts for a woman on television. I would never say no, in a million years. And it was Ryan [Murphy]. But the part about it that was really scary and did give me pause was, how the hell am I going to pull this off and what if I don’t? This is a recognizable person, with the way she looks and the way she talks. I was 19 when it all happened, and if I could immediately conjure her body position in my mind, people who were really obsessed with the trial would be able to hold that closely. Just the whole idea of it made me really panicky. It’s a big responsibility to play a living person, especially an iconic person who everybody recognizes. Marcia is still alive. I just thought that was a really heavy thing to contemplate.
No matter what you thought of everyone involved, everyone has an opinion on the O.J. Simpson trial and the outcome of it.
PAULSON: Everyone has an opinion on all of it – on who they are and what they think they were. It was really important to me not to see her as a two-dimensional character. I feel like so much of the media and so much of what we were fed about her, during the trial, was about her strident, hard, unfeminine way. That was never how I saw her, and it certainly wasn’t what was written on the page, and that was just the last fucking thing that I was gonna do. I hope that all comes across.
When you first heard about the possibility of this, did you want to read a script before saying yes, or would you have just said yes to Ryan Murphy, no matter what?
PAULSON: Ryan called me on the phone when were in New Orleans. I was shooting the twins, Bette and Dot, and he said, “Do you want to do this O.J. thing?” I was like, “What do you mean, do I want to do this O.J. thing?” He was like, “Do you want to play Marcia Clark?” And I was like, “Marcia Clark. Yes, I do want to play Marcia Clark. Of course, I do.” He was like, “I want you to read the first two scripts.” And I said, “I really don’t need to read the first two.” He said, “I actually need you to. I don’t want you to say yes without reading them.” So, he sent them to me that day and I read them the next day, when I got them. I blazed through them very quickly and I called him and said, “Not only do I want to do it, if you don’t let me do it, I will never be able to recover.” It wasn’t a hard thing. It was more about my fear that I wasn’t going to be able to pull it off. It was never a question of whether or not I wanted to do it.
You’ve always been a great actress who’s done great performances, but the roles that you’ve done with and for Ryan Murphy have just been incredible.
PAULSON: Yeah, come on! I played a lesbian reporter in 1964, who was incarcerated, and ended the series as a 75-year-old woman. And then, I was a witch blinded by acid who became the Supreme, and took my mother’s energy and life, so that I could live and she would die. And then, I was conjoined twins. And then, I played a heroin addict. Now, it’s Marcia Clark. If Ryan ever stops throwing things my way, it will be a very sad day for me, indeed. For my creative life, it would really be a bad day.
How has that changed you and made you evolve, as an actor?
PAULSON: He’s ruined it for me, in a way. He always gives me something with so much at stake and with so much to play. It’s always incredibly challenging. It’s always just outside of my comfort zone. In Season 2, when we had to do that aversion-conversion therapy scene in Episode 4, after he watched it, he called me and said, “I think that’s the most upsetting thing we’ve ever done. Why didn’t you call me and ever say that you didn’t want to do it?” And by the way, that was only Season 2, so I’m sure he doesn’t feel that way anymore. But I just said to him, “Ryan, I have been sitting around waiting for an opportunity to get to do something that matters for so long. Not just that matters in the world, which I think that season, in particular, had a very important meaning for a lot of people, but for me, as an actress. I would never call you and tell you that I didn’t want to do anything that you asked me to do. I just see the value in all of it and I know how lucky I am that you’re asking me to.” He’s completely and utterly changed my life, in every single way, and chiefly in my belief in myself. You have to have one person, who’s either a teacher in school or a parent, who sees you in a way that you don’t see yourself and champions you and says, “I know you can do it,” and therefore you think you can, so you do. And I feel Ryan has been that for me, absolutely. He’s ruined me for all other things, so thanks a lot, Ryan!
You certainly weren’t new to this business.
PAULSON: No, I had been doing a lot of things, and things that I was proud of. I just couldn’t get into a rhythm. One thing was not leading to another thing. I was just waiting and waiting and waiting.
Did you always know that you had that in you?
PAULSON: I could never have thought, “I wanna play a two-headed woman.” That just never would have occurred to me, in a million years. That’s another reason why I love him. He thinks of things for me to do where I’m going, “Why did he think of me for that? I don’t even want to know.” Maybe the answer is that the next thing I do would be to play someone’s girlfriend. That would be the ultimate challenge, actually, to have absolutely nothing going on, but to be someone’s girlfriend.
Where did you start with Marcia Clark? Did you want to find her humanity first?
PAULSON: I never thought of it that way, even though people have been saying how you feel connected to her and how you’re on her side. For me, it was just how I felt about her. I was aware of what I had thought of her, when the trial was actually happening and I was too young to know anything about anything. And then, once I read all the things I read and watched all I watched on her, about her and with her in it, I just came to have such a dizzying amount of respect for her and real actual heartbreak for what I thought she had to endure, all the while trying to mother these two boys and being publicly humiliated by her husband, and then scrutinized for her lack of lipstick, lack of concealer and her hair-cut when what she was trying to do was put a man she believed to have murdered two innocent people behind bars. That, to me, was something that I couldn’t shake.
Talk about a lack of justice. It was unjust that her want, her desire and her need was for justice, and she was having to constantly bat away these tennis balls being thrown at her head with ludicrous things about the way she looked, that she was too hard, that she was too strong, and that she was not feminine enough. It was so maddening and enraging to me that I probably felt just a little bit of what she felt. So, I wasn’t ever looking for her humanity or trying to find any kind of way into all of that. She just seemed like a fully realized person who was under the most intense scrutiny, and she was the most ill-prepared for it.
Johnnie Cochran had been giving press conferences for years, doing speeches here and there and doing these high profile cases, all over the place. Marcia Clark was civil servant who was a prosecutor with the county of Los Angeles. She wasn’t giving press conferences. I watched so much footage of her, in the beginning, and I could see how totally nervous she was. She didn’t know anything about how to fare in that. There were no tools in her toolkit for being in the public eye. She was out there without any protective gear. She was in a battle, in a war, without any armor on and no artillery other than her brain, and no one was really interested in that.
Obviously, she went into this with the best of intentions and thought this was an open-and-shut case.
PAULSON: Absolutely, and it should have been. It’s not that Marcia didn’t win the case. There was no way to win the case. The climate in Los Angeles after Rodney King, his fame, and some of the bungled police work, there just was no way. No one was going to win that case. People want to put that at Marcia’s feet for having lost it, but no one could have won it. That’s my opinion. If anybody could have, it would have been Marcia Clark. That’s my opinion, but I did play her, so I have a lot of fondness for her.
Has learning what you know now changed the way you thought about it when it was happening?
PAULSON: I have actual guilt about not understanding why I didn’t choose to rally around Marcia, in my own brain, as a woman. I was so quick to drink down what was being handed to me by the media and by who she was. I was going, “Why does her hair look like that?,” and all sorts of picking apart. Where I sit now, I just go, “My god, what a failure we all were, in not surrounding her, rallying around her, and defending her.” No man ever would be accused of being too hard, too strong, too tough, or too smart, ever. He wouldn’t be told to put on a tie, comb his hair or wear better shoes. It’s pretty horrifying, when you think about it. How she survived it, to this day, I still don’t know.
Was it surreal to do the courtroom scenes and see everybody in their characters while you were playing your character?
PAULSON: Oh, yeah. Those first early days, when we first walked into the courtroom, were amazing. It was a really wild thing. And some of those speeches were directly lifted from exactly what was said. It was so well done. We knew it when we were doing it. Hair and make-up people would take continuity photos off the monitor. I wouldn’t watch any of the footage, but I’d look at the pictures and it looked just like court TV. It was pretty wild and amazing.
What was it like to explore the dynamic between Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden?
PAULSON: They were each other’s ally, which is why when the stuff happens later with the glove, it’s a real brutal blow to what they have. They really relied on each other and counted on each other and had each other’s backs. In that particular circus, everybody seemed so cutthroat, particularly on the defense. Everybody was out for their own necks. And Marcia and Chris had each other’s backs in such an extraordinary way. As far as romantically, I can’t speak to what actually happened because that’s the kind of stuff we have no concrete proof about, so it’s never going to be presented in the show as something definitive. But, there are definitely things to come. There are moments where you go, “Is something happening here?” But more than anything, they just had a really deep respect and an abiding love and friendship. Darden would talk about how he would call Marcia at the end of the day, and she would be on her exercise bike, reading a brief, after she put her kids to bed, after having been at the office later than everybody else. I think he really revered her and respected her, and she felt exactly the same way about him.
What was it like to actually meet Marcia Clark?
PAULSON: It was one of the more exciting things that’s ever happened to me. I’d come to think she was the greatest thing ever, and I was proven correct. Meeting her was certainly not a disappointment.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story airs on Tuesday nights on FX.