On a cool, early fall day in Los Angeles, the actor Sarah Paulson, a person of palpable charm and sincerity, pauses over lunch to consider how she came to embody a series of unlikable, and occasionally truly awful, women. (Her CV includes roles like 12 Years a Slave’s harrowing Mistress Epps, Linda Tripp, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s Nurse Ratched.) “I try not to judge them,” she says finally. “I try not to think about how they’re going to be perceived, because I don’t think many people are thinking about how they’re coming across in any given moment. People are, myself included, reactive and reacting to the environment around them.”
If this sounds pretty elementary, you are probably not a Hollywood star, with all of the correlating concerns about likability and marketability that particular occupation entails. “There are a lot of incredible actresses out there who are stars because they play themselves,” the Obie Award–winning playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins tells me on a phone call a few days later. “Sarah’s not like that. She’s a legit actress.” He calls himself a Paulson “early adopter,” admiring her in New York stage productions like The Gingerbread House and Crimes of the Heart in the aughts. “And then of course she became the queen of Ryan Murphy land.” (In the Murphy-verse, Paulson is a central figure and fan favorite, having starred in nine out of 11 seasons of American Horror Story in roles as varied as Hypodermic Sally, Tuberculosis Karen, a villainous Mamie Eisenhower, and a pair of conjoined twins.)
Now Paulson is appearing in her first stage production in a decade, Jacobs-Jenkins’s 2013 play Appropriate, which begins previews November 29 and opens December 18. The play, which is directed by Lila Neugebauer, follows the dysfunctional Lafayette family’s return to their ancestral seat in Arkansas to settle the estate of their recently departed paterfamilias. There are grudges, and wounds, and a terrible racist secret in the attic, as there is in much of American life. The choice to acknowledge that rot—or not—forces the remaining family members to decide what kind of family, and what kind of people, they are. There are moments of levity, but the play is not a light lift—Paulson’s role, the eldest sister, Toni, furious and bitter in measures, perhaps especially. (Corey Stoll plays her brother Bo, and Elle Fanning is River, the fiancée of the youngest of the Lafayette siblings, Franz.) For Neugebauer, it made Paulson a dream casting. “She has an electrifying kind of command—a combination of technical virtuosity and an appetite for excavating the furthest reaches of the human capacity,” the director writes in an email. “She is one of the few actors that can push their limits and completely surprise us,” says Fanning. “I look up to how daring and adventurous she is in her choices. They are for herself and no one else.”
For Paulson, who is clad in a dove gray overcoat by The Row, a pale blue button-down shirt, wide-legged B Sides jeans, and loops of Irene Neuwirth and Jessica McCormack jewelry when we meet, relocating to New York will be something of a homecoming. She grew up there, attending Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn’s Park Slope before LaGuardia High School, and made her Broadway debut right after graduation in the 1994 play The Sisters Rosensweig. She has returned to the city about once every decade, she says, but still, everything about this time feels new. Her last stage run was Lanford Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning comedy Talley’s Folly, a two-hander opposite Danny Burstein at the Roundabout theater in 2013, and during that time she says she lived “monastically,” on continuous vocal rest and with little social life to speak of. This time, her three rescue dogs will be with her; her partner, the actor Holland Taylor (herself making waves as a difficult woman on the ropes in this season of The Morning Show), will go back and forth between New York and Los Angeles.
The pair are famously low-key, preferring long walks through the hills and small dinners with friends to the scene-ier aspects of LA. (They’re also good at living apart: Paulson has partly credited the health of their eight-year relationship to keeping separate houses.) It may be that this production requires a glass of wine and a bath to decompress after the curtain falls or a Taylor Swift soundtrack for the way home. “I didn’t take my Eras Tour bracelet off for, like, a month and a half,” Paulson says. “I’ve never been 48. I’ve never been in New York doing a play with three dogs. You know how they say your cells all turn over every 10 years? I’m a whole new person since I last did a play. I’m interested to meet who I’ll be.”