A Conversation with Actor: Sarah Paulson

By: Feb. 04, 2013

Before starting rehearsals for Talley's Folly, Sarah Paulson spoke with Education Dramaturg Ted Sod about preparing to play Sally Talley.

Ted Sod: Can you give us some background information on yourself?

Sarah Paulson: I was born in Tampa, Florida, but my mother moved us to New York City when I was five years old. I lived in Queens, Gramercy Park, on West 11th St, and we ended up settling in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for many years. I went to Performing Arts High School, right behind Lincoln Center. I feel like I wanted to be an actress in the womb-I just came out that way. I don't understand how or why we have these impulses. Being able to make a living doing it is such a gift.

TS: Was your mom supportive?

SP: Absolutely. I remember she hooked me up with some friend of hers whose son went to Performing Arts High School. He walked me around the school when I had to audition there. I was all of 14 years old. My mom was very supportive. Although, I will say, when I got my first job and I told my mother I got the job, her reaction was, "Oh no, you're actually going to do this?"

TS: So, you went right to work after high school?

SP: Yes, right out of high school I did Talking Pictures, a Horton Foote play at the Signature Theatre. I did a "Law & Order" episode, and then a movie of the week for Hallmark with Kathleen Turner playing my mother. I went to North Carolina for a TV series entitled "American Gothic", which was cancelled rather quickly. But then I was flown to LA to audition for a pilot for CBS, and I remember testing against Hilary Swank. I got the job, but things worked out well for her so I don't feel too bad.

TS: Why did you want to play Sally in Talley's Folly? I know you're still quite busy working on TV.

SP: Well, that's precisely why. I've been playing an incredibly dark and brutalized character on "American Horror Story" for the last five or six months of my life. I've always been a huge Lanford Wilson fan and have worked at Roundabout before, so when Talley's Folly came along, I wanted to do it. I haven't been onstage for about two years, which is about as long as I like to go without doing a play because I start to fear that my muscles will atrophy and I'll become a person who can't be onstage-I would never want that to happen! I think you end up taking on each job that comes your way because of where you are in your own life. There's just something about Talley's Folly that spoke to me. I'm a little older than Sally, obviously, but I have no children-not because I can't have them, I just haven't yet and I don't know if I will-but there's something about this woman, the time period, and this love story-her commitment to believing that there was something wrong enough with her that she would never be able to find anyone. I think there's something very moving and poignant about her story. It struck a chord in me. Sally is someone I wanted to explore for a few months. And, of course, it was appealing to work with Danny Burstein and Michael Wilson. So, there is a myriad of reasons for choosing to do Talley's Folly, all of which are equally important to me.

TS: You haven't started the rehearsal process yet, but can you talk about the dynamic between Sally's independent spirit and her relationship with her family?

SP: I've yet to discover a lot of it. And sometimes with great plays you don't completely figure it out until you are finished with the run, if ever. Seven months later you'll think, Oh, I forgot to think about that when I was doing the play!-that happens all the time. At this particular point, before we've started rehearsing, I think Sally is completely in love with Matt. But I think she's convinced herself that she doesn't love him. In the beginning of the play she's so angry at him for coming to her door and making everything harder for her with her family. She wants to get out of that house and just can't seem to do so. In Talley & Son, her Aunt Lottie says it's because she doesn't have the courage to do it and Sally says that if there was anywhere to go, she would have gone. Of course, she probably could have rented a room somewhere, so what is it that really keeps her from doing it? It's her family. She's tied to them, and as much as she thinks they are ignorant fools, she's a member of that tribe. For all of her bravado and desire to leave, she's 31 years old and hasn't done it. Why hasn't she done it? I think that's going to be very interesting to figure out.

TS: Can we talk a bit about the research you have to do in order to play this role?

SP: Well I've done some, but topics will come up in rehearsals and I'll take my cue from there. For example, I didn't want to read Fifth of July because it is set near the end of Sally's life. I didn't want to know about that yet. I didn't want to play the ending. Talley and Son is different because I think it's brilliant that Wilson features Sally in the beginning of that play, and then off she goes to basically do Talley's Folly and then comes back into the house to say, "I'm leaving with him'." Sometimes as an actor you wonder what your character was doing the moment before the play starts-where were you? I actually have Sally's moment before in Wilson's writing. She's up at the house, says how angry she is, and goes out to the boathouse right from the house. It's also helpful to know that every time I tell Matt, "Lower your voice, they are going to hear you", I am thinking about all of Sally's family. I think Sally's behavior is a result of the time period and how different she is from most women of that period. She's just not your typical 31-year-old woman in 1944. I will find out more about the 'typical' woman of 1944. I like doing that kind of initial research and then I put most of it away.

TS: If you ran into someone who never read or saw Talley's Folly, what would you tell them it was about?

SP: It's a love story, in all that a love story encompasses. It's not just a saccharine, sweet romance. It's a real love story in the truest sense of the word-it's complicated, moving, funny, thought provoking, and frustrating.

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