Sarah Paulson on The Goldfinch: ‘I live in terror Donna Tartt will hate it’

The chameleonic actor on working with John Crowley and playing Nurse Ratched

Oakes Fegley, Sarah Paulson and Luke Wilson in The Goldfinch

Oakes Fegley, Sarah Paulson and Luke Wilson in The Goldfinch


John Crowley, the Irish director of Brooklyn and The Goldfinch, has described Sarah Paulson as a “protean and transformative” performer. He’s not wrong. Paulson is one of those actors who sneaks up on you with her capacity for textured work; she’s as careworn and complicated in Martha Marcy May Marlene and she is glacial and complicated in 12 Years a Slave. She can disappear into a role or under a perm.

Just ask Marcia Clark. The former prosecutor in the OJ Simpson trial has described Paulson as a genius and her performance as the former Los Angeles County prosecutor in the true-crime anthology series American Crime Story, The People v OJ Simpson as “an enormous gift”.

Paulson returned the favour by inviting Clark as her plus-one to the 68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, where she praised Clark from the stage: “The more I learned about the real Marcia Clark, not the two-dimensional cardboard cut-out I saw in the news, but the complicated, whip-smart, giant-hearted mother of two, who woke up every day, put both feet on the floor and dedicated herself to righting an unconscionable wrong – the loss of two innocents, Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown – the more I had to recognise that I, along with the rest of the world, had been superficial and careless in my judgment, and I’m here today to tell you I’m sorry,” she said.

Paulson retained two Marsha props from the shoot: a replica of Clark’s lighter engraved with the words “Truth and justice”, and the perfume she wore during the trial. 

“It was really hard to let Marsha Clark the character go,” says Paulson. “I wept like a baby when I was done playing her. I was very, very sad for a long time.”

That’s the attention to detail and affection that the 44-year-old seems to bring to every project. So naturally, as a self-confessed Donna Tartt superfan, she was going to go all out to land a role in The Goldfinch. 

“I read the book, even before it won the Pulitzer Prize,” says Paulson. “I was an early devotee of The Goldfinch and of Donna Tartt. I’ve read all three books. But I love Secret History and The Goldfinch in particular. I thought it was a very moving meditation on grief and how it can absolutely change your life.I actually sat up in my bed while reading The Goldfinch and I said out loud: if they ever make a movie of this I want to play Xandra.

Xandra is not an obvious fit for Paulson. A wicked stepmother character to The Goldfinch’s young hero, Theo (played by Oakes Fegley as a child and Ansel Elgort as an adult), Xandra is one of the sleazier bit players in Tartt’s sprawling novel. 

“I’m her biggest fan,” Goldfinch director Crowley says at the film’s recent Toronto premiere. “But when [Paulson] was mentioned for the role of Xandra I thought: that’s odd.” 

Wig and tan

“I don’t think John saw me in the role initially,” says Paulson. “Which I do understand. So I put on a wig and spray tan and brought some cigarettes into the audition. I screamed in my car for an hour before to try to get a rasp in my voice as described in the book. I made a big, fat, greedy play for it.”

For the actual shoot she went one step further and became the most tanned version of herself. “I was just as brown as I could possibly get, much to the dismay of my dermatologist,” she laughs. “I was on the tanning bed an awful lot. That’s not make-up; that’s real skin damage. I went to see my dermatologist when I was done with the movie and she said: I noticed you haven’t been here for five months and I told her what I done. She talked about the amount of superior fake tanning products that are on the market. I didn’t want to seem streaky. I wanted to look real. I found out too late that I could have bought that on a shelf.”  

To date Paulson has appeared in several biographical films in her career, having played pin-up girl and photographer Bunny Yeager (The Notorious Bettie Page), businesswoman Luci Baines Johnson (Path to War), Hollywood veteran Geraldine Page (Feud: Bette and Joan), and Linda Tripp in the forthcoming Clinton exposé Impeachment: American Crime Story. Appearing in The Goldfinch brought a similar feeling of responsibility.

Oakes Fegley, Sarah Paulson and Luke Wilson in The Goldfinch

“I live in total terror that Donna Tartt will watch it and hate it,” says Paulson. “That’s on my mind for sure. It’s not lost on me that Donna Tartt writes a book every 10-12 years and that she writes them longhand and takes a great deal of time to work on them. From a publishing standpoint, she is not a prolific writer. But she writes these books that are totally living, breathing things. I kept thinking what it must be like for her to hand it over to people who are going to interpret it, having lived with these people for so long. I know how I felt when I closed the book for the last time. I found it hard to say goodbye. I can’t imagine what she must feel now that there’s a film of her book going to be out in the world and she’s going to see posters for it all around.”

‘Kind’ Crowley

Working with John Crowley, she says, did a lot to reassure her: “I had seen Brooklyn, which I loved,” says Paulson. “It was extraordinary. And I found him to be the most kind, gentle, generous person to work with. He has such a wonderful way of speaking to you as an actor. I’ve worked with so few directors who really speak that language and care about the psychology the way he does. John, having come from the theatre, is just so perfectly articulated about what he wants. He never made anything feel results-oriented. He’s never looking for an end beat: like cry here or laugh here. He’s thinking beyond conscious things and how they might manifest in her behaviour. It was just a totally thrilling way to work.”

Paulson’s ascension to leading roles and starrier projects has been a relatively recent development, with notable parts in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Todd Haynes’s Carol, Steven Spielberg’s The Post and the A-list caper Ocean’s 8. 

Some time around 2016, when her portrayal of Marcia Clark landed her a Primetime Emmy and Golden Globe, people seemed to realise that they had been watching Sarah Paulson quietly doing great work forever. 

And they have. Right out of high school, she scored a role on Law & Order. Watch out and you’ll spot her in the margins of the Mel Gibson comedy What Women Want (2000), HBO’s much-admired Deadwood ensemble and Joss Whedon’s space opera, Serenity (2005).  

She was a bigger player in the throwback 2003 comedy Down with Love and in Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. 

Murphy partnership

She has a fruitful creative partnership with showrunner Ryan Murphy, a relationship that began when she guest-starred in the medical melodrama Nip/Tuck. To date she has appeared in all series of Murphy’s American Horror Story, as a medium in the first series, then a journalist (Asylum), a witch headmistress (Coven), conjoined twins (Freak Show) and a junkie ghost (Hotel). 

She has been Emmy-nominated five times for her work on the show but will miss American Horror Story: 1984, the ninth series of the anthology series, in order to fit Ryan Murphy’s Impeachment: American Crime Story and Ratched into her crowded schedule. 

Ratched, which will premiere on Netflix next year, is a prequel to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with an origins story pitch: “Beginning in 1947 [it] will follow Ratched’s journey and evolution from nurse to full-fledged monster.” I note that the last time I watched Miloš Forman’s film, I found Louise Fletcher’s nurse to be far less villainous than she used to be. 

“I had a similar experience when I rewatched that movie,” says Paulson. “At the start I thought, Oh my God; she’s such a villain. And then I thought: wait a minute. I don’t think she is. She’s a product of a particular environment. She’s a person living at a particular time, working in psychiatric medicine at that particular time. There’s a conversation in the film where they are talking about kicking Jack Nicholson’s character out of the hospital and sending him back to jail. And she’s the one who says: I think I can help him. She’s not there to torture him. She’s there to prevent the patients from endangering themselves or behaving recklessly. The other thing about the movie is that we all fall so deeply in love with all those men and she’s the one stopping them from having fun. So she automatically becomes this person that we want to stand down because we want these guys to have an opportunity for happiness. But that doesn’t make her the enemy. The story we are telling predates the film. And I loved her. It was very painful to say goodbye to Nurse Ratched even though I know I’ll be doing another season.”  

The Goldfinch is released on September 27th

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