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The Transformation Of Sarah Paulson From Childhood To AHS

Sarah Paulson is one of the biggest stars to come out of the "American Horror Story" franchise, though her acting career started years before she first appeared as Billie Dean Howard in the horror anthology's first season. In a conversation with Julianne Moore for Interview Magazine, Paulson described how she landed a regular role on the hit series: "The first year I did only a handful of episodes and I've been in every episode since then. I had never really had the ball thrown at me quite in that way. I mean, nobody else had given me a shot at holding the series in the way Ryan [Murphy] had me do the second season. For whatever reason, he saw something in me ... It's been the greatest job that's ever come my way thus far. That is for sure."

Paulson has continued to have a successful and diverse career apart from "AHS," with stunning performances as the lead prosecutor Marcia Clark in "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story," a suburban profiteer named Tammy in "Ocean's 8," and most recently as Nurse Mildred Ratched in Netflix's psychological thriller series "Ratched." Let's take a look at Paulson's transformation through the early years of her career, from childhood up until her breakout role on "AHS."

Paulson always wanted to be an actor

Sarah Paulson has often discussed how she knew she wanted to act since childhood. In an interview with Broadway World, she described how her family moved from Tampa, Florida, to New York City before she enrolled in a performing arts high school. She reflected on her love for acting, saying "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."

Thankfully for Paulson, one of her teachers realized her potential early on. "I was going to a private school in Brooklyn called the Berkeley Carroll School and I had an incredible acting teacher named Robert Stallworth, who, for whatever reason, just decided that I was an actress," she explained to Moore for Interview Magazine. "It was, of course, what I wanted to do, but it was just sort of a dream. I didn't think it was something that I could really do." In the same interview she described how she started auditioning right out of high school, and has been working ever since.

She credits Law & Order as a career-defining moment

Though Sarah Paulson's first gig was in "The Sisters Rosenwing" on Broadway, her first TV role was in "Law & Order" (via IMDb). She appeared in Season 5 Episode 4 titled "Family Values" as Maggie Conner, the daughter of a murder victim. In the episode we can already see Paulson's impressive acting chops that featured plenty of real tears and a strong performance.

In an interview with Collider, Paulson described how the audition experience for "Law & Order" gave her the confidence needed to continue her career. She explained how she was supposed to cry for the audition but was too nervous to produce tears. Instead of stopping the audition, director Ed Sherin gave her some acting direction and asked her to give the audition another go — which led to her nailing the scene and getting the part. "But that, much like the Ryan Murphy stories of later, that's the difference between an actor who gets to work a lot and a person who doesn't," she told Collider. "For whatever reason, Ed Sherin took that extra moment with me, didn't let me leave the room. I to this day could ask him what made him do that. Maybe it was total luck. Maybe there was something he saw. But he's why I got that job, which then allowed me to continue to pursue the career because I was able to make a living and getting some communication that it was the right choice. It's these little tiny moments where you just go, 'God, what would have happened to me if he hadn't done that?'"

Sarah Paulson appeared in tons of other shows before AHS

After landing a role on "Law & Order," Paulson continued to get small parts in several shows throughout the late '90s and early 2000s. She played "Janice" in two episodes of the crime drama "Cracker," Agatha Ripp in an episode of "Nip/Tuck," and Zoe in one episode of the fantasy series "Touched by an Angel." She also appeared in longer stints on shows like "American Gothic" as Merlyn Temple, "Jack & Jill" as Elisa Cronkite, and "Deadwood" as Miss Isringhausen.

When asked by Collider which of her earlier roles made the biggest impact on her, Paulson replied: "On 'Jack & Jill,' I met my best friend Amanda Peet, who has — both my life and my working life — been the person I tend to go to the most for an assessment of what I'm doing or not doing. She's the person I'll go read something with before I decide what I'm going to do — she does the same with me. Our lens is exactly the same. So we tend to respond to the same music, or book, or poem, anything, and we also tend to reject the same kinds of things. So if she thinks what I'm doing is good, I tend to feel confident and can go forth into the night ... So that has been a big, huge, huge, huge part of the way I work and the choices I make." 

In fact, Peet helped Paulson land a role on a show that would earn her first Golden Globe nomination years after "Jack & Jill" ended.

She was nominated for awards for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

In 2006, Paulson was cast in the comedy-drama series "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" which was based on the talent behind the scenes of a sketch comedy show à la "Saturday Night Live." Paulson credits her best friend Amanda Peet with helping her get a part on the highly-anticipated show. She told Collider "It was a really, really, really big deal and a lot of actresses wanted this part. And I was coming off, as I said, a time of really not working. And it was Amanda who insisted that they see me, because Amanda was also already cast. I think I had actually gone in for her part and they said, per Amanda's suggestion, 'Will you come in for Harriet Hayes?'"

The show only lasted one season, mostly due to the success of another popular sketch comedy-inspired show by the name of "30 Rock," which ultimately cost less to produce (via New York Post.) Nevertheless, "Studio 60" earned Paulson a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress in Television as well as a Satellite Award nomination for Best Actress in a Television Series Drama. Of the failed show, she told Collider she's still grateful for the experience, saying "But look, at the end of the day, I got to do Aaron Sorkin speak. I got to have his dialogue live in my mouth and come out of it! That's something that nobody can take away no matter what, you know?"

Paulson was in several films in the early 2000s

Aside from her several television roles, Sarah Paulson had plenty of movie experience up until landing her starring role on "AHS." One of her first movie roles was in 1998, when she starred alongside Jack Lemmon in a Hallmark film titled "The Long Way Home." She told Interview about her experience working with the iconic actor, saying "It was one of the last movies he did. He was so funny and so dear. He would keep chocolate in his pocket — dark chocolate for him and milk chocolate for me. It was my first time working with someone who I had admired so much, and he was so kind to me. One of the last things he said to me was, 'Don't ever forget how good you are, and don't ever let anyone tell you different.'"

Paulson also appeared in the fantasy drama "Levitation" as Acey Rawlin; several romantic comedies including "The Other Sister" as Heather, "What Women Want" as Annie, and "Down with Love" as Vikki Hiller; and Joss Whedon's space western "Serenity" as Dr. Caron, among tons of other film projects. Her long and successful career comes at no surprise once you see just how hard she's worked to hone her talent.