‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’ Star Sarah Paulson on Playing Marcia Clark: ‘I Felt She and I Have a Lot in Common’

American Crime Story: The People v.
Courtesy of FX

This week’s episode of “The People v. O.J. Simpson” is titled “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” taking a look at the other trial going on during the O.J. Simpson case — the public flaying of prosecutor Marcia Clark. She was criticized for her hair, her wardrobe — all while she was going through a private, painful divorce and child custody battle.

“Marcia was trying to put a man she believed to be guilty for murder [behind bars] for taking the lives of two people who won’t walk the planet, and it was all forgotten,” Sarah Paulson tells Variety. “It was made about so many other things. That her performance in the courtroom, her physical appearance should be called into question — I just find it really scary.”

Paulson tells Variety that not only did she feel a tremendous responsibility in playing a real person — but also having let her down as a woman during the trial for not doing more to support her. Here, she talks about meeting Marcia Clark, what surprised her the most about her research, and the sexism she’s had to face herself in Hollywood.

One thing that the series and your performance really gets at is something I think many women can identify with — that we try to fit into the paradigms that are allowed or enforced by society, but we can never quite do it. It’s impossible to be accepted fully, no matter how hard a woman might try to meet whatever the expectations are.

I think at the end of the day, something I really had to confront in myself was how much I felt like I abandoned Marcia as a woman during the trial. I was 19, so I give myself a little bit of a pass, because I was hardly a human, much less a woman. I didn’t have full comprehension of what it meant to stand by your people.

But I don’t understand why other women in their 30s and 40s, other lawyers, judges, people within Marcia’s universe, were not coming around her and lifting her up, instead of trying to say, “Why don’t you make [yourself] more agreeable? Why aren’t you more TV-friendly?” Any of the words used to describe Marcia Clark, if they were used to describe a man, they would be things to celebrate.

But I think the world is different now, in a way. If this trial were to happen today, Marcia would have a community on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram — women that were supporting her. There would have been a platform where that dialogue would have reached her. Back then, there was nobody. She was alone. She had no allies. Darden was her lifeboat. They were the only ones who were in the trenches together. And yet they were in different trenches. He was being treated like an Uncle Tom, and nobody even understood what it was like for Marcia. She was surrounded by a sea of men.

She had succeeded in that world — and her reward was to be isolated and mocked.

This case was her 21st case in her 13-year career at the D.A.’s office. She had won 19 of those 20 cases. So Marcia is very good at her f—ing job. She believed O.J. Simpson to be guilty of murdering two innocent people — one was a woman who was married to him, and he had beat her senseless repeatedly. It was documented and never prosecuted, tried or convicted. [In the O.J. murder trial] they had more evidence than anyone could ever possibly hope to have. Jeffrey Toobin says this in his book [“The Run of His Life,” on which the TV show was based], you rarely find a hair and blood drops and all of that. But nobody could have prepared her for the climate [of the trial] — post-Rodney King, O.J.’s fame, Mark Fuhrman coming down the pike. She was the one chosen to lead the trial. And yet they sort of hung her out to dry.

This episode reveals all the personal pain that she was going through, the divorce, her custody battle with her ex-husband. Why do you think she kept that so silent?

I think she’s a private person. Johnnie Cochran is designed more for public than for private. It’s like my favorite line from “Postcards from the Edge.” I don’t think Marcia was designed for public life in that way. I certainly don’t think anybody could be designed for it, that didn’t have a lot of experience with it and have that be their first foray into that kind of glaring spotlight.

It wasn’t a question of her talent as a prosecutor. It was a question of how to muscle through doing her actual job, whilst being hung out to dry by her ex-husband, by women, you know, by the defense, by Ito, by all of them. To have to go through all of that so publicly, when she was having so much private pain going on with her divorce and custody of her children. I did meet her and I did say to her, “I honestly don’t know how you did it. I don’t know how you survived it. I don’t know that I would have been able to do it.”

She didn’t do a lot of interviews. I think it was very hard for her to say in the courtroom, to Ito, I can’t stay late. I actually have to pick up my children. She didn’t want to bring her private life into this world. That her husband would sort of come out and say that she used it and did it on purpose, just to be betrayed like that, it just shocked me, even now.

When you met her, was there one question you had for her? What did you most want to say?

The main thing I wanted to impart was that she didn’t have to worry that this was going to be a Marcia Clark slugfest and it was going to be another time where she was going to have to endure a public humiliation. I said we do address all of it, all the haircuts, all the makeover, all this stuff is part of it. You are going to have to witness that, if you choose to watch it.

I said I can tell you, certainly I know it’s on the page that way and certainly I know that it’s how I’ve approached playing it, but there is never even a tiny piece of this that is going after you, or that is trying to make fun of you or that is laying any blame at your feet. It’s just not like that. I’m sure there will be things you’re not happy with. I’m sure there will be things that you think were not how they were.

She was really gracious and said, I’m a writer. She said, I know, everybody’s memory of everything is going to be what it is. So I don’t expect everything to be exactly as I remember it. But I do feel a sense of relief to hear that it’s not going to be an opportunity to take a swipe at me.

I think, and this is not something she said, but something that I could intuit — and I could be wrong about this, and I really want to say that, in case she were to come out and say something differently than this — but it was not easy, I could tell that the trial wasn’t so far away from her. It was still something I could feel, that this could potentially not be the most pleasant idea, to have all of this kicked up.

It just was so clear to me that this is a person who was just trying to do her job. And who maybe, I think, didn’t have the kind of theatrical manner that Cochran had. She wasn’t interested in it. She was interested in putting the evidence in front of the jury and trusting that that should be enough.

But the trial was being tried in the court of public opinion, even more than it was being tried in that court of law. So she had to play some of that and she didn’t want to do it. If there’s any Achilles heel or anything where anyone could go, “what do you think happened there?” to me, that’s what it is. She didn’t dance the dance. She has too much of a moral compass. There’s too much integrity there and she wouldn’t do it. I think it’s a kind of remarkable thing about her.

It feels like you’ve internalized this role, perhaps more than others you’ve taken on.

I felt she and I have a lot in common as people. Once we spoke, it turns out we really do. There was something about her that immediately felt familiar to me. She wanted to be an actress when she was younger. There was just a certain kinship I felt that I couldn’t have known if it was true or not. I don’t always feel that with characters I’m playing at all. But particularly with episode six, I thought how was this survivable? How did she get up in the morning? I really don’t understand. I don’t know anybody who could have. It really speaks to her internal strength. It’s all because she wanted justice to be served. It’s the only thing that guided her and what kept her going. I don’t always take every character that deep. But I couldn’t have known at the start that it would have affected me the way it did. As a woman it really resonated with me because I could imagine myself in a scenario like that and I don’t know if  I could personally be strong enough. I might have gone “Darden take over — I’m out.” But she didn’t do that. It’s just not her style.

All the rules of prosecuting cases, of celebrity — they all changed with this case.

Totally. The 24 hour news cycle began with this. All those tabloid news programs that became so popular, all began. Court TV started to get [big], all this stuff became what we have today. We have the Kardashians because of this case. I have nothing but positive things to say about those girls, because I’ve met Kim Kardashian and found her to be the most charming, lovely, gentle, generous girl ever. Robert was a man of great, great faith and goodness. Marcia even told me how much she liked him, that he was a good man. That man was their father, so there’s no way that those girls aren’t that. He became very famous from that trial and therefore that name became very famous. If this case had not been televised, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now. It would have played out completely differently. I wonder what the verdict would have been.

What surprised you the most as you did your research?

What surprised me was a couple things. What a broad [Marcia] was. She was a real woman who could hang with the boys. She was really comfortable. Not that she didn’t have plenty of girlfriends and close women friends, but she was not prissy. She was so not prissy. She was a real, to me, just the kind of woman I admire and sort of want to be. A woman with, forgive me, but with a sack, you know.

It’s such a tragic situation for Marcia, in that she thought she was doing a social good, and she was just torn apart for it. The world tells her “No.”

“We don’t like your hair. You’re too tough. Why don’t you be sweeter? You’re mean!”

I think the truth is that Marcia used and funneled all of her emotional pain and horror. Not only what she was dealing with at home, but about reading and learning all about what had happened to Nicole during that marriage. That there was so much violence and so much not done to stop it, to prevent it. 

You were filming “American Horror Story” at the same time. How did you balance the emotional intensity of both roles?

I think the good news is that both of them were supposed to look pretty tired. One of them being a junkie and the other one having two children at home and working insane hours, and then coming home and having to take care of them. I didn’t have to worry about being someone’s attractive love interest in either project and that was very helpful. Because I looked pretty scary. I was not getting a lot of sleep. I wasn’t getting rest between. The two productions were completely independent, so I wasn’t getting big turnarounds between each. Because one was keeping me late and the other one was asking me to come in early. They were independent, so I just had to kind of do it.

There was a kind of freedom in it, because I didn’t have time to overthink it and I tend to be a bit of an overthinker, in general. Being able to remove that very chatty part of my brain for Sally was very helpful. Sally will vomit her emotional s–t on whomever is in the way. She doesn’t care. She’s totally out for herself.

Marcia was not out for herself, at all, no matter what anybody says about her ambition. I don’t know why ambition comes to be known as a derogatory idea about a person. Certainly if that same word were ascribed to a man, it would never be considered a negative. No one would ever tell a man to get a different haircut and wear a better suit. Ever. 

This feels like it’s Marcia’s story almost as much as it is O.J.’s story.

Ryan had said that to me, too. I really do feel that she is the beating heart of the piece, for sure. I really do think she’s the audience, in a way … I really do feel that that’s who you connect with. I certainly felt it in the scripts. But I wasn’t sure if that was just because I was playing it, but it seems to me that people seem to be responding to the honesty of her. It’s just heartbreaking.

How do you deal with the sexism you face today in Hollywood?

There was something very, very, very liberating about playing Marcia, because the last thing I was thinking about was how attractive I was or wasn’t. it’s very liberating to go into work and not think “oh, my God, I hope they can paint and spackle and help me look somewhat appealing or attractive.” I want to basically be able to go to work and not have any of that. It’s not even part of the story. It was incredibly freeing.

Then you have to think about that for a second, where you go, now what’s that about? Why do you feel more free, because you just left your vanity at the door. Shouldn’t it always be at the door when you’re acting? Somehow you’ve got these things that are sort of forced upon you, by people who tell you … I think most jobs I’ve ever had, I was cast as a brunette and made to go blonde any time I was playing a love interest on any show. Cast as a brunette, made to go blonde. Shocking. I got the job as a brunette, but I guess I can’t be on TV as a brunette, if I’m going to be a romantic leading lady.  I’ve never made any sort of statements about any plastic surgery, about having it, not having it, where I stand on it or what I think about it. At the same time, playing Marcia, or painting these under eye circles on me, and sometimes, boy, they didn’t need to do that because I had plenty to work with. People think I’ve had plastic surgery. They think my lips are fake. They think I’ve had Botox and all that stuff. I’ve never injected anything into my face, ever.

Would you ever? 

I like the idea of being a Julianne Moore/Frances McDormand person, two people I admire, both as human beings and as actresses, who’ve said, we’re just never going to do that. We’re just never going to do it. I want to be that person. I don’t know, but I hope I never do.

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.