From sadistic nurse to boundary-breaking lawyer: Sarah Paulson’s career-defining roles

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As Sarah Paulson returns to our TV screens as the titular (and terrifying) lead in Netflix psychological thriller Ratched this week, we look back on some of her finest roles. 

She’s one of Hollywood’s most versatile and accomplished actors, with an acre-long list of screen credits to her name, and an ability to stand out in the company of industry greats such as Cate Blanchett or Michael Fassbender. 

As Sarah Paulson commands the spotlight once more in new Netflix series Ratched, an eerie prequel to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest out this Friday 18 September, we revisit just a few of her eminently believable roles.

Ratched

Paulson puts in what may well be her best performance yet as sadistic Cuckoo’s Nest villain Mildred Ratched for Ryan Murphy’s hotly-anticipated new Netflix series. Gone are all traces of the loveable and dedicated campaigner we saw in her previous screen outing (below). 

Instead, in Ratched, Paulson embodies a cold and calculating monster who rules over a psychiatric ward with all the immaculately-dressed venom you could possibly imagine – and then some. Be afraid; be very afraid.

Mrs America

Even though Paulson’s character, Alice, is technically on “the wrong side” in this glorious TV drama about the fight for women’s rights in the 1970s – that is, she’s one of Phyllis Schlafly’s conservative groupies opposing the liberation movement led by Gloria Steinem et al – you just can’t help but fall in love with her a little.

At once endearing and smart, Alice slowly starts to see that she may have been duped all along by Schlafly’s right-wing campaign: and her trippy wake-up call during an ERA conference encompasses one of modern TV’s most genius, laugh-out-loud sequences.

American Horror Story

American Crime Story is Paulson’s best-known work. She’s appeared in all but one season of the hit crime series (it’s no coincidence that producer Murphy is also the co-creator behind Ratched), and is set to appear once again in series 10 later this year.

From a grungy and tormented ghost to a murderous cohort of the infamous Charles Manson, Paulson aces each and every scene she’s in. Whether good, bad or somewhere inbetween, her electrifying presence just cannot be ignored.

The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story

Funny, flawed and fiercely smart, the role of Marcia Clark – the prosecutor who led a double-murder charge against O.J. Simpson in 1995 – could have been made for Paulson in this 2016 dramatised true crime series. 

Clark and her team lost the case after a dramatic, media-circus trial during which Simpson was asked to try on a glove found at the crime scene. The glove did not appear to fit, in a huge blow to the prosecution’s case. 

 Paulson actually met her alter ego after wrapping filming on the show, and the pair ended up as firm friends. 

“Women, collectively, I feel, were very anti-Marcia,” Paulson told GQ at the time. “No one wanted to be that kind of woman because that kind of woman is perceived to not be liked by men, or desired by men, or wanted by men […] Which I think is such a shame. Because if there’s anyone in the world I could be like, it would be like Marcia Clark.”

12 Years a Slave

Paulson may have a penchant for horror; but no amount of gore could rival the believable terror of her character in 12 Years a Slave.

The cruel, frosty wife of plantation owner Edwin Epps (Fassbender), Mary Epps “behaves deplorably and does terrible, terrible, unspeakable things” as her jealousy over Edwin’s infatuation with abused slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) erupts time and again.

“I think in order to really know what they were enduring, Michael and I had to commit to going somewhere and not backing off of it or being afraid that someone was going to say, ‘She’s a bitch. I don’t like her,’” Paulson told IndieWire

Carol

Set in New York in the 1950s, Carol explores a forbidden love affair between an affluent woman in the midst of a messy divorce (Carol, played by Blanchett) and store assistant Therese (Rooney Mara). 

As Abby, a past lover whose relationship with Carol is partly to blame for the breakdown of her marriage, Paulson has only a supporting role to play here – but she is no less magnetising for it. 

Images: Saeed Adyani/Netflix 

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.