Entertainment » Movies

Sarah Paulson's Cinematic Moment (Thanks to Steven Spielberg)

by Frank J. Avella
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jan 12, 2018
Sarah Paulson
Sarah Paulson  (Source:Associated Press)

There is a scene in Steven Spielberg's hypnotic new film, "The Post," where Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), tells his wife Tony (Sarah Paulson) about owner Katherine "Kay" Graham's (Meryl Streep) decision to allow publication of excerpts of the Pentagon Papers. Tony expresses admiration for Kay's bravery. Ben, slighted, points out his own courage. Tony, while allowing him his pat on the back, goes into detail about exactly how much Kay has to lose by making this life-changing decision. It's a powerful scene, one of the most moving in the film, made much more potent today with the daily revelations about just how much women have been undercut, mistreated and power-bullied in the recent past.

And Sarah Paulson plays it beautifully. It is her moment.

The film, written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, could easily act as a prequel to Alan J. Pakula's seminal "All the President's Men." The Redford/Hoffman vehicle focused mostly on the journalists, Woodward and Bernstein. "The Post" tilts more towards Graham (who is strangely absent from the Pakula film) and her journey.

And while the two leads, especially Streep, carry the weight of the story, the supporting cast does tremendous work.

Sarah Paulson in "The Post"

Golden Globe, SAG and Emmy winner (for the role of Marcia Clark in "American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson") Paulson is part of the gifted ensemble playing Antoinette "Tony" Bradlee, DC's preeminent '50s/'60s social hostess who was said to have been "admired" by JFK. "She was a ceramicist, and she wasn't all that interested in the political scene," Paulson explains. "She did it well-she put on the dress and she'd have the people over to parties-but she wasn't going slave away in the kitchen. She had her own life."

"The Post" continues Paulson's involvement in critically acclaimed ensemble movies ("Carol," "12 Years a Slave") as well as Emmy-nominated TV projects ("American Horror Story," "Game Change") and acclaimed stage work ("The Glass Menagerie" opposite Jessica Lange on Broadway, "The Cherry Orchard" opposite Annette Bening).

Two years ago, Paulson bravely announced to the world that she was in a same-sex relationship with actress Holland Taylor.

EDGE spoke with the sincere and dedicated Paulson while promoting the Oscar-bound Spielberg film.

Sarah Paulson at the 2017 Tony Awards. (photo: AP)

EDGE: Talk about making an impression. You have a potent moment that really resonates with today. How did you feel when you read the scene, played it and then saw it onscreen?

Sarah Paulson: Well I have yet to see it onscreen because I'm a big, big fan of not watching my work! But I can speak about what it felt to read it and to play it. It was the reason I said yes to doing the movie. There was obviously a lot to recommend my doing that movie, 'cause I don't know if you've heard of Steven Spielberg or Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep. (Laughs) That was reason enough. Then I got to that moment in the script and I thought, well this is the moment-I just loved that it was the wife [of] the powerful editor-a man-and that character was able to distill the basic driving force behind Kay's choice, which is her bravery and how much she has to lose. How much is at stake. How much is at risk.

I think a lot of times men don't always realize their particular vantage point is one of great luxury in terms of having the confidence and ability to speak up and know that they'll be heard. Women don't always feel that and sometimes it's nice to have a woman shed some light, [give] their perspective.

Sarah Paulson at the 2017 SAG Awards.

EDGE: How did the part come to you?

Sarah Paulson: What happened was when we were promoting the O.J. Simpson series, John Travolta told me that he had been getting text messages from Steven Spielberg saying how much he loved the show and that he mentioned, "Oh, Sarah's great." And I made him show me the text because I didn't believe him... it was obviously a big thrill.

Then I got a phone call from my agent saying that Steven Spielberg would like to sit down with you. There's a part or two if you're interested. You could meet him and see if we could make it work because I was about to start shooting "American Horror Story" at the same time... but it all worked out. It was one of the more exciting moments in my career where you realize, wow, I got offered a role in a Steven Spielberg movie, opposite Tom Hanks, and I didn't audition. I went into a room and sat across from Steven Spielberg, and he told me about the character and about the movie. And he told me how much he loved watching me on "People vs. O.J." It was all kind of a mirage-y, pinch yourself, bucket list moment.

EDGE: Can you speak about your process and did it meld well with Spielberg's?

Sarah Paulson: The thing about Steven that I find so refreshing-you don't always find this-is he does know exactly what he wants... I knew I was in such good, safe, capable hands that I should just trust him and take that running leap and do that vault and just have confidence that someone was going to put a big net under me to protect me if I fell. So there was something exciting, live wire about it because we didn't rehearse a lot. It was a new experience for me in that way, but if I was going to have that experience of not having a lot of ramp up, the person you want to do that with is Steven Spielberg because you just know it's going to be okay.

Sarah Paulson. (photo: AP)

EDGE: Would you share your thoughts on these hopeful changing times for the industry in terms of blowing the lid off the sexual misconduct and power abuse that has been going on forever. Did you ever felt discriminated against for being a woman?

Sarah Paulson: I can't speak about it in terms of a specific incident that was particularly alarming to me or a time when I felt particularly unsafe, but I think there is something that is ingrained in me from my childhood simply by virtue of being a woman living in the world that I always felt unsure about how safe it would be to communicate any experience I was having to any powers-that-be, particularly if they were men. Not because of anything they were doing per se but because of a societal culture that keeps women more reserved in their communications.

Certainly, when I played Marsha Clark I thought about this a lot in terms of being discriminated against because of your gender. And all the positive words used to describe men become real negative when you use them to describe women. And that's a scary world to inhabit. It feels like something is shifting on its axis. And it feels like it's being done with a lot of muscle with a lot of women all supporting each other and I have high hopes that this is going to be the real move towards a real new world.

EDGE: Speaking of bravery earlier, it was rather brave of you to publicly announce you were in a same-sex relationship close to two years ago. Was that an easy call for you? And do you feel things have gotten more accepting in the industry?

Sarah Paulson: Because I've always marched to the beat of my own drum, I wasn't really thinking about it in terms of how it would or could affect my career negatively. And I have spent so much time in the Ryan Murphy world where you couldn't feel more supportive for being an individual... There's a certain amount of acceptance that is very liberating so I had a very safe launching pad, personally, into the galaxy of recognizability. So I felt very safe and very protected.

But I did have people in my life, not necessarily in my work life, some friends who were a little concerned that it could be troubling. Not just that I was with a woman but that she was so much older than I am. Sometimes I think people really don't know what to do with things they don't understand or things they can't fathom. So they decide something about it is untoward. I was just so happy and so excited to be with this person that I wasn't really thinking about what other people thought.

Sarah Paulson and Holland Taylor. (photo: AP)

EDGE: "The Post" very eerily evokes today's political mess. Do you think that art can change people's minds?

Sarah Paulson: I think anytime you put a particularly potent story in front of people and you give it to them with Spielberg behind the lens and Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in front of the camera, you are automatically inviting more people to think about what the movie is positing. And I think anytime anyone is doing something true and real and honest you're liable to open some minds and eyes that perhaps were closed. I think any artistic expression that has truth in it-and I don't just mean in the factual sense; I mean anything that resonates emotionally or spiritually-when you deliver it in a package like this one I think people will pay attention. And I think your job as an artist is to try and bring as many stories and as many different types of lives and experiences forward so that people can see things they never saw before.

EDGE: You're enjoying a much-deserved Sarah Paulson moment right now on both the big and small screens. Have you been able to stop and just enjoy it?

Sarah Paulson: (Laughs) It's funny that you ask that. I am moving at a pace these days that makes it kind of hard to stop and smell the roses. But there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think: I cannot believe that you wanted to do this as a child and you're getting to do it. I've made this joke before. I have a very good friend who's also an actress and sometimes we'll just go to lunch and eat a sandwich and think, I bought this sandwich with acting. And that's a kind of incredible thing to be able to make your living doing something that you are incredibly passionate about. It's so rare. I have plenty of people in my life who are doing things that don't stir their soul. So I am grateful every day. But I haven't had time to let any of it really sink in, which is a good thing. It means I'm showing up every day and doing my work, which can only be good.

Sarah Paulson in "American Horror Story: Cult".

EDGE: Are we going to see you on the New York stage anytime soon?

Sarah Paulson: I'm desperate to make that happen but I have some television and film commitments that might see me busy for the next year or so. I have my eye on it. There have been a couple of things I've been talking to people about, but it's about trying to find the right time.

EDGE: Todd Haynes' "Carol" is an EDGE favorite and you were an important part of that ensemble. What was it like working with Haynes and do you have a takeaway from that film?

Sarah Paulson: Working with him was another bucket list, dreamy, pinch-me kind of moment. I had admired him for so many years. I remember where I was when I saw his movie "Safe" for the first time. It was seminal in my movie-going experience that defined my own artistic taste so I couldn't believe I got to work with him. It was just extraordinary on every level. We had an extraordinary DP, we had an incredible script by Phyliss (Nagy). Cate and Rooney were at the top of their game. And Todd. So it was just a real embarrassment of riches for me, again, to be part of an ensemble of people trying to move a story along and perhaps open some people's eyes about the power of love.

"The Post" opens in limited release on December 22 and goes wide in January.

Watch the trailer to "The Post":

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for Edge. His film column can be read at newyorkcool.com. Frank is also a proud Dramatists Guild member having written a slew of plays including "Consent," which confronts bullying and homophobia and was a 2012 semifinalist for the 2012 O'Neill National Playwrights Conference, "Vatican Falls," a play set against the backdrop of the Catholic sex abuse scandal which received Special Mention at the 2013 O'Neill (and will be produced next season) and his latest, "Orville Station." Ten of his plays have been produced (seven in NYC). Frank is the recipient of a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts for his play, CONSENT.


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