Somehow, despite their long careers in the industry, Sandra Oh and Sarah Paulson have never met. They’ve both worked for two of the most prolific creators on television, Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy. They’ve both done the Emmy dance before — Oh’s nomination for “Killing Eve” is her sixth, while Paulson won the trophy back in 2016 for “ The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” and just earned her seventh nom overall for the latest iteration of “American Horror Story.” But television is a peripatetic business, which found both on sets all over the country, if not the world, throughout their working lives.
After “geeking out” over each other, the two actresses settled in for a revealing conversation with Variety about the changes they’ve seen in the industry, the toughest moments they’ve faced during their career — and a potential crossover between their series.
What do awards mean to you?
Sarah Paulson: I could pretend it’s meaningless. I couldn’t pretend it doesn’t thrill me because it’s cooler and you don’t want to give too much weight to these things, because to me the work itself has been the reward. But I can’t deny that doing any work that is recognized or appreciated is meaningful to me, and to be recognized by other actors is obviously very meaningful and also maybe it means I will get to continue doing it for more years, which is always going to be the goal. It sure doesn’t suck! I can put it bluntly like that.
Sandra Oh: Can I say copy that? Roger that! I’m really grateful that there are these types of recognition because they can have meaning not only for the individuals that are involved but a larger recognition for a community or a project that we find ourselves a part of, a family member of, a symbol of. A recognition, an award shines light on projects on people and issues that are bigger than the individual. For me it’s not only about celebration and wonderful joy. I always think of the larger context of how it can illuminate potentially larger issues.
What makes you say yes or no to a given role?
Oh: I once met someone who said, “I will only do what moves me.” And that just blew my mind, that you could ever get to the place where you worked just because it truly moves you. I thought one day, I would really love to be able to exercise that kind of choice, and so now the yes comes from the place of does this move me, can I grow. Can I find meaning in this project. And that’s the initial kernel. After that, there are many things that go along with — circumstances, where it is, who’s a part of it. Mostly, though, it’s about what moves me. As for saying no, it’s areas I feel like I’ve already explored. It’s just what’s interesting and what’s not interesting to me.
Paulson: I feel similarly to what Sandra said. I feel there was a long time in my working life where my opinion about it mattered not because I needed to work to live and I could not imagine making a choice that was predicated on anything other than I want to work and this is an opportunity to do that. I personally have felt in my working life that the only way to do better is to do it. And when you’re not doing it, it’s very hard to hone your craft in any way. That has shifted somewhat in more recent times where I have had more opportunity. The idea that anyone has ever come to me and said, “We have this script, would you like to do it”— for a very long time in my career, none of those choices were made with any sort of plan, in terms of what I wanted to project and what I wanted the world to know I was capable of doing. It was really born out of I went in, I auditioned, someone decided they wanted me to do it and I was so thrilled. It was never governed by anything other than my desire to work. It has shifted. But that’s an incredibly luxurious place to operate from and it isn’t afforded to all actors. I do try to then approach things from, what have I touched on already. What can I move away from? I like to be a little bit scared. I don’t mean in a thrill-seeker way. I mean in the way where I actually question whether or not I’ll be able to pull it off. Internally, am I excited enough at the prospect itself. And can I do this? And how much time do I want to spend trying to find it out? And then quickly, how humiliating and embarrassing will it be if I do a big face plant in front of everyone? I like to be a little unsure about my own abilities.
Over the course of your careers, how have roles for women changed? Have they improved?
Paulson: I certainly feel because of where we are right now, we are in the moment in the world and the attention and focus is appropriately being placed on this topic. I think there has been forward motion. But I fear that we are going to get mired in the conversation about it and more action won’t be taken. I want the conversation to spur the doing. I certainly feel in television, particularly, there has been an enormous movement forward toward female stories and I happen to work in an environment that has for the last eight or nine years been with a person for whom that is of paramount importance. I think I’ve been very, very lucky that way. And perhaps so lucky that I haven’t even experienced directly the paucity of roles for women. There has been forward motion, but I think we have a long way to go.
Oh: I want to echo that. I wholeheartedly agree. I almost feel like the question is too narrow. Has the opportunity, has the people who are filling that opportunity, has that expanded? If THAT is the question, who are the primary storytellers at this moment and is that diversifying or deepening, then yes, I do feel that. There’s a lot further we need to get. It’s the depths of it. Yes, there are plenty of roles, but we have to think about where we are. Just the medium of television has changed so incredibly that the need for content provides opportunity. Where we are right now, there is a shift and an interest. What we need to do build is the voices to step into that opportunity. That is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. And that development takes time. That’s where we need to focus on. With “Killing Eve,” frankly speaking last year we had three male directors and it was really terrific and also disappointing. Because of a lot of things like union rules and money and stuff like that, the pool is smaller so I want that pool to grow. I want to be a part of growing that pool so that when the opportunities come, we are ready to meet it.
Paulson: For the second season, will you have women behind the camera?
Oh: Yes, yes! We will have half.
Oh: The willingness at least — I’m not saying the results are the same as the willingness — but the willingness to search for diversity is the highest I have ever experienced in my career for sure. And then coming to set, seeing new faces and seeing the effort there, I find it very heartening. Sarah, you must feel it, too. Where you are in your career now, how much do you feel like you have to be a part of those changes?
Paulson: That’s the thing. It’s about making the well of talent so full and ready that when the gates are opened in the proper way, the flood will happen and there will be no stopping it. The environments in which I’ve been working so much have been with Ryan who created the Half Foundation. Half of our directors are women. It’s incredibly important. It’s extraordinary and powerful and it’s not the norm. I feel lucky to be working with someone who makes that a priority.
Oh: It’s interesting to be working in another country. It is different. I went from Shonda’s shows, where it’s mandated. It’s not even mandated, it’s the way it is on a Shonda Rhimes show. And then I worked on a John Ridley show, it’s one of the most diverse crews I’ve ever worked with. It’s just fantastic. I had two female directors, who were women of color. Sarah and I, we’ve both come from these families where that’s just how things are run.
Paulson: I don’t think it’s representative of other environments.
Oh: Correct! Can I ask Sarah a question I have always wanted to ask her? I’m fascinated. Can you speak a little bit about your creative relationship with Ryan? How does it work practically? But also what is your emotional or psychic or creative bond?
Paulson: I think that comes from two people who had childhoods that were similar in the way they were broken. He and I had a similar way of moving the world in terms of survival. And I think we noticed that about one another immediately. It’s like when you find a member of your tribe, you find your person, you cling to them. Because it’s rare. It’s rare in any environment, but to find that in a working environment, that kind of relationship where you can have a shorthand, an unspoken communication, based on your own personal history that is immediately recognized by the other one. It’s about feeling seen, which I think it’s the single most important thing for an artist of any kind. To truly feel seen by another person makes you feel so peaceful. And when you feel peaceful internally, I actually feel like that’s where some of your most beautiful work can come from. The mythology is that from chaos comes great work. I actually used to think that when I was younger, and I no longer think that anymore. My relationship with Ryan helped me sort that out for myself because there is such a knowingness, an understanding, and more than anything, an acceptance. He was the first person I felt in a creative situation I felt being seen and known and accepted. I think therefore the soil was fertile for the work we wanted to do with another to be born.
Oh: I think that’s beautiful. That’s what I imagined your relationship with Ryan. I just watched your relationship and the work that you produced together with a lot of admiration because what you say, I can feel. I want you to know that, you can see that on the screen. You can see the writer’s and the director’s trust in the actor because how they write for them. You can tell that person knows how to help that person sing.
Sandra, have you ever had that with any of the creators you have worked with?
Oh: Yes. A lot. Strangely enough, and maybe not so strangely enough, they’ve all been women and primarily women of color. I felt a very strong bond with Shonda. And I feel a strong bond with Phoebe Waller-Bridge as well. All of these are different. I know that I have had deep bonds with a lot of female creators. I also think that because those are the women who gave me the opportunity.
Paulson: You can do the same performance for five different people, and it’s always going to resonate with the person who has the right pair of eyes. I always think about that when you go into audition. You can do beautiful work or you can do medium work. But if it’s the right pair of eyes looking at you, your medium work is going to spark something in them that’s going to know you’re capable of something more. It’s going to feed you.
Oh: Speaking about where we are now, I think that the set of eyes is shifting. Who is holding on that gaze is now shifting. At least for me, the culture has to shift with you to be able to be open. That set of eyes who can see what you’re trying to do. You don’t even have to execute it perfectly.
Paulson: I do know that have had those experiences that have not been my best. But because that gaze was that gaze that could see me, I was able to stick my landing.
Can you talk about a particularly tough moment you faced in your career and how you got past it?
Paulson: As a young person, I had these fantasies about what success was and what it looked like and it was always attached to other people’s versions of it and what happened for other people, whether they were my classmates or people that were around my age and not being able to pinpoint or ascertain the one little magic juice that that person had that I didn’t have. Or what made something happen for someone else that wasn’t happening for me and by happening I mean just simply working. I think it became clear to me and it was born out of the feeling of not being seen or being rejected or not being chosen and so having to shift my own personal view about what success was, and move away from any attachment to what was supposed to look like, or how it was defined.
For me I thought what is it that I really want became more of an internal question for myself. I wasn’t trying to do “The Secret.” I wasn’t trying to manifest it. I was just trying to get quiet with myself and say, “what is it that you want to be doing with your work life.” And it does come back to something Sandra said earlier about wanting to be moved. And I don’t even mean only in the positive direction. I can move somewhere uncomfortable and still want to do it. I don’t need to move in an emotional way that’s only positive to me. It could be disturbing to me, something that makes me uncomfortable that would be used as something or can spot something about my psyche, I think part of our craft is to try to portray human behavior as accurately as possible and in all forms, not just in the ones that are suitable for viewership in a way. Or are only presented with a pretty bow. Once I got clear of that, I didn’t have to audition to play some best friend in some teen comedy because they didn’t want me anyway, they weren’t knocking on my door. Instead of trying to push myself into this costume that wasn’t fitting, I just decided to try to lean into it, and that’s the moment where my work life started to change. Who knows what came first, the chicken or the egg? There was nothing wrong with me that was preventing me from being cast. Maybe it’s that I was trying to contort myself into something that I wasn’t. The more I could bring my own point of view, my own self to the party fully, which is the only thing that separates me from any other person, instead of trying to deny it, I started to let that be the thing that led me. That may have dovetailed into the moment when I met Ryan. But it was free and liberating for me to stop doing the thing that I thought was expected of me.
Oh: “Sideways” and “Grey’s” came out at the same time. And then “Grey’s” became what it became. I don’t think people get the pressure of becoming famous and what it does for an artist. What does that for your creative self. And what that can do for your mental health. And I would say from year two to year six or eight of “Grey’s” it was extremely difficult and very stressful and traumatic, if I’m being honest. That was my experience because I found it very destabilizing to not have the deep human need of privacy. I truly believe that to actually be free and to be in place you can create from you have to be able to private. I think that many of us actually felt the safest on set. Because sometimes going out in the world was just very, very different. And it took a lot of multiple types of therapy just to be able to expand as a human being, to expand your own self as a larger container to be able to manage rejection, stress, anxieties.
Paulson: So then leaving the show was an act of self-care ultimately.
Oh: Absolutely! It was a such a creative gift. The making of that last year involved so many steps, from having the conversation with Shonda to all the amazing writers I worked with for years to write these scripts. To able to know what was going to happen and to be able to craft [Cristina’s] moving on was such an opportunity, such a gift, such a privilege.
So if Eve showed up on “American Horror Story” what would the storyline be?
Paulson: I can’t think beyond, “Hey Ryan, I want all my scenes to be with Sandra!”
Oh: Oh my god! Can we do it?
Paulson: Just the two of us sitting in a room. I don’t care what we’re doing. You can put a bunch of snakes on the ground — whatever floats your boat, vampires. I don’t care.
Oh: Sign me up! I’ll be on a plane.