Sarah Paulson on an Actor’s Self-Worth

August 26, 2018

American Horror Story actress Sarah Paulson shared nuggets of wisdom concerning an actor’s sense of self-worth during an interview with Off Camera’s Sam Jones. The Florida native started working as an actress as soon as she graduated from high school–first, in theater, and then she landed an episode of Law & Order in 1994. Just a year later, she nabbed a starring role in Sam Raimi’s American Gothic and has worked consistently in the industry ever since. But still, the actress has experienced her share of moments in which she second-guessed her talent and career prospects.

Paulson talks about her ambivalent feelings of self-worth as an actress as a result of casting professionals praising her talent and yet ultimately booking other actresses. She explains that much of an actor’s future is wrapped up in what others think of his or her work, and so experiencing rejection can really take its toll. When the industry keeps passing on what you bring to the table, it can be easy to confuse your value in finding work within the industry with your value as a person. But Paulson makes clear that if actors aren’t booking jobs, it does not mean they’re not talented or of value. She says:

“People want to be seen and want to feel that you matter and that you count. And when you’re constantly being told, ‘No, no, no,’ and that your work isn’t speaking to anyone or nothing you’re doing is making a difference to anyone, and you’re not being chosen, it’s hard to not personalize that–very hard to continue to strive.”

The entertainment industry is not based on a “meritocracy,” she argues. Indeed, when casting selections are being made, talent is just one element in the decision-making process. Other factors might include an actor’s chemistry with another actor, exhibiting energy that’s either too large or too small, or too soft or too hard, or being the opposite height for which they need; the reasons to reject a talented actor are endless. But, such is the business. 

As for Paulson, in addition to enjoying a steady stream of roles over the years, she’s earned many accolades to boot. She’s celebrated for her performances in the NBC television series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the HBO film Game Change, the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave, the film Carol, the political-thriller The Post; she played Marcia Clark in The People v. O.J. Simpson, and Paulson has starred as several different characters in American Horror Story.

Paulson describes herself as “self-critical,” and speaks with somewhat of a lisp, but she exudes an inner strength and ease, and she exhibits a natural, accessible personal quality. “I’m still the same actress I was when I wasn’t getting hired. Had nothing ever happened for me the way it happened for me, wouldn’t mean that I weren’t of value and that I didn’t have something to contribute artistically.” She’s certain she’d still find ways to perform even if she hadn’t “made it” in the biz.

However, rejection can take its toll. Paulson says, “It’s hard. It’s not for the faint of heart being a person–I’m not talking about just being an actor– it’s not for the faint of heart.”

On a similar note, motivational author Louise Hay has accumulated decades worth of experience counseling people, and many of her clients have been aspiring actors who were afraid of auditions because of the rejection inherent within the entertainment industry. In helping these actors see the bigger picture, Hay says, “My mantra was: ‘Whether you get the part or not has nothing to do with your self-worth!’ I wish this principle was the very first thing that actors were taught in acting classes. It would save so much pain and agony later on when they begin to go on auditions.”


Sarah Paulson Is Glad She Didn’t Succeed When She Was Young

October 3, 2016


Sarah Paulson’s celebrated portrayal of Prosecutor Marcia Clark in FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson just earned her an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie. The 41-year-old star is also known for her assorted creepy roles on American Horror Story as well as playing Mary Epps in 12 Years a Slave.

Now reveling in her career success, she expresses gratitude for the all the challenges and detours she experienced along her acting journey. Things certainly took longer than what she had originally hoped when just starting out. But in a recent GQ interview, Paulson discusses the advantages of succeeding later in life. After all, her first aspirations were to become some version of Julia Roberts, and she equated a successful career as achieving that Pretty Woman kind of mega stardom. But now she reflects:

“If my career had turned out like the fantasy I had of what it was going to be, it would never have made me happy. But I couldn’t have known that until it didn’t happen. I found a success that is so much bigger and deeper and better, and it’s because it happened later. If any of what I’m having happen now–the successes–would have happened to me when I was younger, I would have been ruined. Because when you’re young, and things come super easily to you, and you have success right out of the gate, you’re liable to think that’s how it actually works. You start to think you don’t need to be fully prepared or committed to have these things meet you.”

Rather than roles coming easy to her, Paulson insists, “I muscled a lot of what I’ve achieved by sheer force of will and relentless determination.” Like so many other actors, she experienced the frustration and uncertainty of going without work for extended periods between roles. She watched a promising role dissolve into nothing at all, and witnessed an actor win an Oscar for a part she came close to landing–along with other similar disappointments.

But equipped with her gritty spirit, she kept moving forward until she landed a role–albeit the contemptible wife of a slave owner, Mary Epps–that some of her actor friends had passed on. “To me, I ‘made it’ when I got the part in ’12 Years a Slave’ and played a really hideous woman in an unapologetic way,” Paulson says of the milestone.

But Mary Epps was not exactly the fun-loving Julia Roberts kind of role she would have hoped for in her younger days. Now Paulson asserts, “I was so busy wanting to be Julia Roberts that it never occurred to me that my career could be something else. And that it could be equally rich, and–the most important thing–it would be mine, whatever it was.”

Sarah has certainly continued making her career her own. In particular, the opportunity to play Marcia Clark proved to be a pivotal moment in Paulson’s life. Not only did she receive accolades for her performance, but she formed a strong bond and appreciation for the real Marcia Clark. They are very close now.

You never know where your career detours will lead you. But wherever they do, enjoy making them your own!