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Sarah Paulson wants us all to know 'Marcia Clark is a thinking, feeling person'

A still from the
A still from the "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia" episode of "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story." Pictured: (l-r) Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden.
Ray Mickshaw/FX

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The new FX series "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story" takes pains to dramatize some of the more overlooked aspects of the O.J. case — like the travails of Marcia Clark. Clark's story leads episode six, airing Tuesday night.

Clark, a public prosecutor with a strong record, was vilified by the media. Her hairstyle was debated ad nauseam; a tabloid published a nude photo of her. The type of scrutiny that Clark received encapsulates the sensationalism of the Simpson trial, but it also highlights the way in which, along with race, sexism came into play. It's a theme the show's creators didn't shy away from — and one that Sarah Paulson, who plays Clark, embraced.

Paulson told The Frame that she was 19 at the time of the O.J. trial, and she didn't pay much attention to the way the media discussed Clark.

"I certainly think I was prey to what was being reported. I didn't do any deeper thinking and I think it's what we do now, politically. And it's what women were doing then."

Now, Paulson describes herself as "enraged" on Clark's behalf. But she didn't go into the role intending it as a referendum — she was only concerned with portraying Clark as "authentically" as she knew how. Paulson met with The Frame's John Horn to discuss the role, the issues of the case and what it was like to meet Marcia Clark in person.

Interview highlights

Where were you in your life during the trial?

I was 19 years old, so I was decidedly self-interested, and very focused on beginning my acting career. I remember the [trial] highlights, believing what I was told by the media [about Clark]. About her appearance, her so-called "ambition," her relentlessness. The word "b----" I remember being in my mind and brain.

I certainly think I was prey to what was being reported. I didn't do any deeper thinking and I think it's what we do now, politically. And it's what women were doing then.

So did you have an epiphany about your understanding of Marcia Clark, as a woman and a lawyer?

I certainly didn't approach it about how to think of her differently. I read Toobin's book. I read Marcia's book. I read Darden's book. Everybody wrote a book. Chiefly I took my role from the scripts. I was trying to represent her authentically. The goal was not to have a re-examination of who this woman was, but to tell the truth as I saw it.

How did you decide, with the creators of the show and director Ryan Murphy, what to focus on for this character?

It wasn't a conversation at all. It was clear to me, on the page, who this woman was: an incredibly dedicated, competent, really tough, relentless — she was relentless in her pursuit of justice. And she was being stymied at every turn. She was like a dog with a bone, but for a very, very noble cause, which was to put a man she believed guilty behind bars. What was she supposed to do? Come flouncing into the courtroom with a bow in her hair? It's an interesting question for those people who wonder, 'why couldn't she just be softer?' 

These are issues we still talk about. There are modern corollaries to women in show business. A woman director who is strong is a "b----," and a male director who is strong has a "vision." Do you think the show is as contemporary as it could be?

I absolutely do, and when you say it that way, I find it to be totally horrifying. But absolutely true. There's no question about it. Any words that you could use in a derogatory manner to describe a woman who is strong would be considered positives in describing a man. And that is a scary thing to contemplate. 

And the other thing that was certainly true then, and is true today, is the way women are described in terms of their looks. That Marcia Clark is described as "frumpy." There were online polls about her hair. These are not conversations held about men. The woman is judged by her appearance, and not her aptitude.

Well, that's sort of the culture in which we live, isn't it? And it always has been. Women are there to be appealing and attractive. I wish that weren't the world we're living in. It's partly been furthered by movies, since the beginning of movies. It's very distressing.

In that way it's not too dissimilar to what happens in politics, and the way in which Hillary Clinton is judged based on her hair, what she's wearing.

The tone of her voice.

Whether or not she's "shrill."

Bernie can put the same spin on something he's doing in terms of how angry he is. Somehow when she's doing it, it's considered unappealing, and when he's doing it, it's considered as strong. I don't know what to say about it. It's certainly something I have witnessed. I wish I could say I have an idea of how to fix it. 

When we were shooting, particularly during the "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia" episode, it was plain as day. Like when Marcia has to stand up in front of the court and says she can't stay late because she has no one to help her take care of her children. Johnnie Cochran spins it to make it look like she's using it as a way to gather time. I remember shooting that scene — I stand up to Johnnie and basically hand him his ass. But it was very hard for me to do it. There is footage of Marcia doing this in court. But my voice was practically shaking. I was so enraged on her behalf. 

She did not want to bring her private life into that room, but she did not have a choice. And the idea that it was being done to serve the people's case — it makes me inarticulate because I get so mad.

And yet, as a woman, when I was 19 years old, I did not think about it. And I was not alone. And I give myself a bit of a pass. I was essentially a child. It's more shocking to me that more women in their late 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond, were not rallying around her. That they were collectively abandoning her. There was so much community support for O.J. Simpson, and Marcia did not receive that. 

Was this something that attracted you to the character of the show — that this would be a corrective to the way in which Marcia Clark and other strong women are seen and judged?

Upon receiving the first two scripts, I didn't know the lengths they were going to go. So I can't say that was the reason why I decided to do it. But it certainly was something as we were going, where Sterling K. Brown — who plays Darden — and I would turn to each other, going, "I cannot believe this was their experience!"

That this is what happened in a trial about two people who were brutally murdered.

And that is the main thing I think was often really forgotten about. There was such a circus surrounding the trial. It's pretty horrible.

Were you able to meet with Marcia Clark?

I did. I wanted to meet her immediately, but I was properly discouraged to not do that for a lot of reasons. I did get the green light to do it after we finished ["Marcia, Marcia, Marcia."] I reached out to her. We had dinner. When I met her, it was like meeting a childhood idol. And she did not disappoint. It wasn't anything that informed my performance going forward other than confirmation that who I thought she was, is in fact who she was. She's incredibly smart, insightful. It was still hard for her to talk about the trial, all these years later. I could tell how painful the prospect of reliving this was going to be for her, which only sort of fueled my commitment to telling her part of this story as authentically as I possibly could.

Another part of this story is about domestic violence. Marcia Clark was convinced that women would identify with her case. And yet, that didn't go anywhere. 

So much of this is about perception. It's really a testament to the power of committing to one's set of ideas. That commitment had been made: that Marcia was a b---- and O.J. was innocent. And the climate of Los Angeles was so on fire — I don't think the case was winnable, no matter what they presented. They had more evidence to convict O.J. Simpson than maybe anyone has ever had. It's also a testament to the laziness of the human mind. Once the decision has been made, people don't want to investigate further.

This case changed the way in which the media saw celebrity. Personal details about Marcia Clark's life, nude photographs —

Can you imagine? Civil servant. Private citizen. 

Private life didn't exist anymore. Have you thought about how what you do as a person, and not as an actor, is now fair game? 

It was certainly the inception of tabloid television. It didn't exist prior to the trial. The difference for me and someone like Marcia Clark is it's part of the landscape when you're an actor. So, I don't love that part of this business, but I knew it was part of the equation. But Marcia was a civil servant. To expect her to navigate that world, is an implausible idea. The members of the Dream Team had been flying in private jets for years. Clark was way out of her comfort zone, to have that much attention and scrutiny on her. 

What do you hope audience members will take away from the show?

What really matters to me is to remember that Marcia Clark is a thinking, feeling person. It was as if she was a robot. We decided collectively that that wasn't a real person, and we could just use her as a punching bag. That is something I think we should be embarrassed about. 

Doing this project has changed how I receive information from people I don't know. Because often we're very quick to believe what's said. Like the 19-year-old version of myself that didn't ask myself to think about it in any other way. If watching this makes people see her differently, that would be so wonderful, because to me, it would be the justice Marcia deserves.

The sixth episode of "The People v. O.J. Simpson," "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia," airs Tuesday night at 10 p.m. on FX.

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