By MARK KENNEDY
NEW YORK (AP) — After an autumn in which Sarah Paulson went through some pretty harrowing stuff, the idea of doing a play this winter in New York didn’t initially seem like much of a reward.
What kind of stuff? How about being locked against her will in a lunatic asylum, being brutalized and raped by a serial killer, undergoing electroshock therapy and being thrown from a car?
It was all part of a grueling Season 2 of “American Horror Story,” the FX series in which Paulson played journalist-turned-patient-turned-celebrity-author Lana Winters.
After that season, she wasn’t sure if Lanford Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Talley’s Folly” provided the best holiday. She decided to study the script with her best friend, actress Amanda Peet.
“I was like, ‘Oh, damn it. I’m afraid. I don’t want to go to New York. And doing a play is so hard. I’m tired. I’m scared. I don’t want to,’” Paulson, 38, recalls whining.
The two met in Peet’s Los Angeles home, sat on her bed and spoke the script aloud.
Set on the 4th of July near the end of World War II, “Talley’s Folly” is the story of an unlikely middle-age romance between two people trying to overcome their emotional baggage and find love.
Paulson and Peet got through the play — sometimes alternating parts and once taking a break to do some online shopping — and then came to a conclusion. Peet spoke first.
“You just have to do it,” Peet told her.
“I said, ‘Damn it. I do, don’t I?’” Paulson says.
“Yeah, you do,” came the response.
Paulson bit the bullet and came back to New York, the place where her career began as a freshly minted high school graduate. Since then, she’s gotten an Emmy Award nomination for “Game Change” and a Golden Globe nod for Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” where she appeared opposite Peet.
Her film credits include “What Women Want” opposite Mel Gibson, “Down With Love” with Renee Zellweger and the recent “Martha Marcy May Marlene” with Elizabeth Olsen and Hugh Dancy.
She made her Broadway debut in “The Sisters Rosensweig,” understudying Amy Ryan and then going on for two weeks on her own. She later starred opposite Linda Lavin in “Collected Stories” and Jessica Lange in a revival of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” in 2005.
Blessed with a chameleon’s ability to switch looks — vivacious blonde one moment, icy brunette the next and yet always with a girl-next-door appeal — Paulson on this day wears her hair in a tight ponytail as she sits backstage in a thick, knobby sweater that hides her slender frame. She is funny, smart and refuses to take herself too seriously.
Her co-star in The Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of “Talley’s Folly” is Danny Burstein, a Tony nominee who has found in Paulson a kindred spirit. Both arrive 90 minutes before each show and run the first 20 pages together.
“I hit the jackpot. She is a tremendous colleague who is there for you 100 percent of the time,” he says. “She’s also brilliant and loving and constantly questioning things, which is exactly what you want.”
While the stage has often beckoned for Paulson — her first professional stage gig was in an off-Broadway production of Horton Foote’s “Talking Pictures” in 1994 — it’s not always comfortable.
“It’s something that really terrifies me, actually. I’m really scared out there. I get more comfortable as I go along but then sometimes on a random night I’ll just get completely petrified and I can’t feel my feet or my hands,” she says.
“I will text Amanda and be like, ‘Remind me again why this is a good idea? Who decided that this was a good idea to get up in front of people and perform? This is ridiculous. Put me back in a box in a black room with a camera and a microphone where everyone can edit it and make it look great.’”
Soon enough, she’ll be there, filming Season 3 of “American Horror Story,” details of which she can’t reveal. But she does acknowledge that she’ll be reunited with one of her childhood idols, Jessica Lange.
It was Lange who inspired Paulson to be an actress. At 15, she came across the film “Frances” playing on a TV and watched a scene in which Lange displayed, in turns, longing, hatred, fear and love.
“Nobody can do 15 things at once better than Jessica Lange and I was like, ‘What is that? If that is acting, that is what I want to do,’” Paulson says. “It was, to me, the most extraordinary thing I’d ever seen.”
Upcoming projects for Paulson include Steve McQueen’s film “Twelve Years a Slave,” where Paulson plays a nasty slave owner’s wife opposite Michael Fassbender, and Jeff Nichols’ film “Mud,” starring alongside Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey.
Her career is on boil right now but Paulson still has a regret or two. One has to do with a tattoo she had done a few years ago on her lower back. It’s of Thumper, the Disney rabbit.
Why? She had admired a friend’s tiny tattoo of Kermit the Frog’s head and tried to copy the impulse. She ended up with Thumper, and it’s in a pale blue that’s hard to remove.
“The quintessential thing about me is that my eyes are bigger than my stomach — about everything,” she says, laughing. “So I’m stuck with this goddamn Thumper who looks like he’s stoned. He’s giggling with his foot in the air like he just smoked a giant joint. It’s so not me. I’m such an idiot.”
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