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Sarah Paulson is having an out-of-body experience. Tucked behind a velvet rope and smooshed into a corner booth at a packed New York Fashion Week party at L’Avenue at Saks, the decorated actress has shed the costume and identity that, for months, commandeered her life: the body and mind of Linda Tripp, one Monica Lewinsky’s ex-best friend. Now, the Impeachment: American Crime Story star has returned to her signature blonde bob, which she pairs with a poofy feminine skirt, a striped sweater, and a diamond earring cuff that glints when she inclines her head. Tonight, she feels more herself. Maybe.
The Midtown venue is stuffed with revelers sipping champagne and ducking beneath giant disco balls, each shouting to be heard over the thumping bass of Paris Hilton’s DJ set. Paulson struggles to conceal her mild alarm at this tableau. She hasn’t been in such close quarters with this many (now vaccinated) people since before the start of the pandemic. She accepts, gladly, a cocktail from a passing tray.
Yes, tonight is surreal for Paulson. She’s only recently had time to process her complicated emotions around her Impeachment character, a former White House staffer who betrayed a friend in, supposedly, deference to her country. Hearing Paulson discuss Tripp, you can tell she’s developed no small amount of wonder—if not necessarily affection—for the now-deceased Pentagon employee. It’s hard, as the series finally airs on FX, for Paulson to give up this deference. And yet she’s also eager to return to her actual self, to dance and dress up again; it’s a feeling to which many of us, after months indoors, can relate.
She’s here tonight as a fall campaign star and ambassador for Saks Fifth Avenue, a brand she adores. The first item Paulson ever bought with her own money was from Saks, back when she was an understudy on Broadway and had little clue where a fashionable New Yorker should sink her first paycheck. Well, duh: Saks.
“There’s something about Saks that feels totally eclectic and constantly evolving,” she says. “I always feel it’s unique. I rarely leave the store without either coveting something, or wanting to buy something and just fucking doing it.”
It’s fitting that Paulson—the sort of actress who’s always looking to change, to shed a skin and crawl into another—would find kinship with a brand that adopts the same attitude. As Impeachment rolls out week by week, she’s finally had enough time to peel off the layers of Tripp that stuck to her. She can look at the show with some distance, finally. But after last night’s episode, in which Tripp makes the fateful decision to tape Lewinsky’s phone calls, Paulson knows it’s all too likely she can get sucked back in.
Below, the acclaimed performer discusses whether or not she feels defensive of Tripp, how she curates a closet, and why now is the right moment to revisit this chapter in our country’s history.
Do you feel that, over the years, you’ve developed a signature style, or are you inclined to shift your tastes every season?
I think the thing I’ve discovered over time is what actually works on my body. As you get older, you get more confident with the choice and are less subject to following trends. Sometimes I’ll look at things that are [trending], and I just know it’s not right for me.
Classic style is so individual. If I just stay true to what moves me, I’m always going to feel better than if I’m trying to keep up with the fashion Joneses.
When was the moment that you actually decided to do Impeachment: American Crime Story? You knew [creator] Ryan Murphy wanted you; he always does. So what convinced you that you needed to play this role?
I first thought Ryan was crazy, and then I read it, and I thought I would be crazy to not do this. I do try to do the thing that seems impossible to me—though there are plenty of other people who [thought this] was impossible. I do tend to be drawn to the riskiest thing, where the most is at stake.
This is a real woman who did a hideous thing, who I ultimately think was not a hideous person. [Taking the role] wasn’t about [giving her] redemption, but about the opportunity I was given to explore the psychology of a woman who did something I think is very hard for all of us to understand. As an actor, it’s a very rich huge opportunity for exploration, that is making me expand as a performer and learn things about myself.
It’s the most wonderful consequence of doing something dangerous.
The show is poised as Monica Lewinsky’s story, but in reality it’s largely Linda Tripp’s story as well. Why did you feel this was an important storytelling decision in the making of this series?
Linda never wrote a book. Her book was published posthumously…It’s still such a mystery. Monica has shared some of her story and her TED Talks and her Vanity Fair pieces that she’s written. She did have a book. Not that it can all be known, but [Lewinsky] has been somewhat communicative of her experience. Linda wasn’t. So I think [showing her perspective] was an interesting way into this story in a way that you maybe wouldn’t have imagined.
Do you feel it was your duty as an actor to find empathy for this character? And do you feel you’ve accomplished that, watching the finished show now?
I came to feel a tremendous amount of empathy, more than sympathy, for Linda. I feel a lot of compassion for what she endured. It doesn’t matter that it was at her own hand. I can still feel badly that she had to experience that because I think, in my heart, she didn’t know the extent of the fallout. I think, if she had known what would have happened to Monica, I believe in my heart, she would not have done it. That’s what I think.
I don’t know if anyone else agrees with me, but I’m the one who spent the last year and a half living inside of this mindset. So it’s what I’ve decided is true.
Apart from the physical transformation into Linda Tripp, what was the most challenging part of embodying this character, especially given she’s something of a villainous figure?
Probably to try to let go of my fear that audiences wouldn’t open themselves up to the possibility that she’s a multidimensional person that might be worth a second thought. It’s hard when audiences have preconceived notions, even if they’re right to believe what they believe. It’s still an opportunity to shed light on a human being that has not been misunderstood, but that maybe has been dismissed too completely.
I know that you had some conversations with [Lewinsky] herself. I’m curious what those conversations were like, if she gave you any advice or it is was too sensitive a topic to dive deep into.
I was very worried about picking a scab with Monica. We became friends, and I did not want to ask her too many personal questions, because I felt like, at the end of the day, it was my job to figure it out independent of Monica’s experience and feelings. It would not be pleasant to try to dig too deep and take more from Monica than had already been taken.
What do you feel is the point of a show like this in 2021? We have some distance from the event of Clinton’s impeachment, in terms of how many years have passed. Why is now the right time to rehash this story?
I think post-MeToo era…Linda herself talked about this in the Slow Burn podcast, about how she believed if it happened today, it would have been a very different outcome. At the end of the day, there was an abuse of power. This is a story about women on the margins of that power who had very little recourse. Linda was one of them, making some very bad decisions in an effort to do what she believed was the right thing.
In a post-Trump, post-MeToo era, to look at what the potency of the presidency pulls, and the consequences that can have on a young life, and on everyone just outside that circle… I think anytime you can shine a light on lives that have been overlooked, it’s an interesting opportunity. You may not come out of it with a different opinion, but you might at least understand. I think there is such value in pursuing anything artistically with the idea and the hope that people have just a tiny bit more of an open aperture, so they can see a wider, broader view of things.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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