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Sarah Paulson Was Scared of Being ‘the Weak Link’ in ‘Carol’

Sarah Paulson has been acting on film since the mid-’90s, but the past few years have been a boon for the scene-stealer. She’s been nominated for an Emmy four consecutive times (thanks to HBO’s “Game Change” and the FX anthology “American Horror Story”) and shined in “12 Years a Slave.” Now she’s sharing the screen with Oscar winner Cate Blanchett, in the period romance “Carol.” Paulson’s role as Abby — a confidante to Blanchett’s title character — isn’t huge, but it’s pivotal. If you ask her, that’s just the way she likes it. (As she tells Variety in this “Scene Stealer” profile.)

Paulson: “I’ve never looked at a part and said, ‘I don’t know how to do this, it’s too small.’ I can definitely say, ‘I don’t want to play this person’ or ‘There’s not enough on the page to mine anything worthwhile for me.’ But it never comes down to me counting lines. If there are two scenes in a movie with a director I want to work with and an actor I want to work with, and there’s something for me to discover about myself as a human being or there’s something for my character to offer to the story that is meaningful, I’ll do it no matter how small it is.

“I think it’s hard to make an impact in only a few minutes. Sometimes your responsibility is to be the connective tissue between people. Some of the story only comes out through your connections with each of (the characters) and little things that get revealed because of your connection. Sometimes when the main characters are hiding so much from each other, and certainly in this story, you need the more ancillary players to keep you connected. It’s almost like we’re buttresses — these supporting performances keep the building up.

“Todd Haynes told me he wanted me to learn how to drive a 1949 Packard stick shift. Stick shift! I don’t drive a stick shift in a car today, much less in a tank like that, much less with Cate Blanchett in the passenger’s seat.”
Sarah Paulson

“The whole experience was intimidating until we started shooting. Cate Blanchett had just won the Academy Award. When you work with people who you’ve been inspired by — I felt like, ‘I don’t want to be the weak link. There are all these incredible artists here and I don’t want to stand out as the thing that doesn’t belong.’ Slowly with the time spent together those nerves went away and they were replaced very quickly by the phone call I got where Todd Haynes told me he wanted me to learn how to drive a 1949 Packard stick shift. Stick shift! I don’t drive a stick shift in a car today, much less in a tank like that, much less with Cate Blanchett in the passenger’s seat.

“There’s a scene where I drop Carol off for a dinner party and (the d.p.) Ed Lachman was very specific about these marks I had to hit. I was thinking, ‘OK, you want me to barrel up the driveway with Cate Blanchett in a 1949 Packard, stick shift, and you want me to hit my mark?’ He was like, ‘I’ll give you a dollar (when you hit the mark).’ I think I made $10. I like a challenge.

“I, of course, thought Cate was going to be quite serious, and she is incredibly serious, but we laughed so hard, so much, all the time, that it was really one of the more joyful experiences I’ve had acting with someone. There’s an immediacy to her as an actress. You always have to be ready to go because she’s going to do something kind of magical.

“In terms of having to create a history of friendship and Abby’s real dedication and love for Carol, I didn’t have to work hard on that at all, it was an instinctual immediate thing that I had because Cate is so available and open, it was just right there. She didn’t have any of that kind of guarded, movie-star thing where you felt you couldn’t try something in a take without upsetting her. It was very inspiring to me.”

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