“What I found with Sarah is that she has an amazing ability to shift gears and do multiple things at the same time,” says “Swimmers” director-writer Doug Sadler. “ She brought the depth, complexity and dangerous seductiveness to the Merrill character that I was looking for. As an actress, she is wildly gifted and able to turn on a dime.”
In “Swimmers,” Sarah Paulson tackles her most challenging film role to date as the mysterious, kohl-eyed beauty who suddenly turns up in town in a desperate attempt to understand her own emotionally-troubled past.
As the story unfolds, she and 11-year-old Emma Tyler – who is shattered by her own recent loss – form a delicate bond that becomes their sanctuary from the personal crises that threaten to drown both. As Merrill becomes an oasis for Emma, who feels invisible at home, she in turn finds herself growing ever dependent on the unconditional friendship the child provides.
“Merrill and Emma are very similar, despite their ages. They’re kindred spirits who find each other – because Emma lives underwater, and so does Merrill essentially, and they sort of end up being breathing tubes for each other,” says Paulson.
The role required a physical as well as emotional transformation for the enigmatic character. “This is the first movie I ever did where I literally wore no makeup, except for a little bit of eyeliner at the very beginning of the film. It was very important that I didn't look like someone who spent a lot of time thinking about the way she looked. When you first see her, I have a lot of dark eye makeup on, and then as the movie goes on I have less and less of it. I didn't wear anything else,” she explains.
A major emerging American talent, Paulson recently scored rave reviews as Jessica Lange’s co-star in the Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.”
USA Today called her a “revelation as Laura [Wingfield], as heartbreaking in her shyness and lack of self-regard as she is radiant in her generosity.” The New York Daily News wrote that Paulson “conveys Laura’s pain intensely and beautifully.” And TheaterMania.com noted that “hers is a performance lit from deep within….Paulson is so affecting that, perhaps for the first time, Williams’ early masterpiece becomes Laura’s story.”
Working with Lange was “pretty much the most exquisite experience of my life. Jessica Lange is my absolute acting idol,” Paulson says, pointing out that she is such a fan that she has long had a “ Frances” poster hanging on her bedroom wall in Los Angeles.
Paulson says she never dreamed she’d one day be “acting on Broadway with her. And doing a Tennessee Williams’ play, playing the most beautiful, heartbreaking part imaginable. It’s the kind of thing that when we were done, I thought, ‘Oh, I wish we could just go right back into rehearsal and I could start again. That's the great thing about a play. The more you do it, the more you can actually try to perfect something, the better it can be, and it's just really exciting.”
In another enviable stage turn, Paulson will co-star with Annette Bening in the Mark Taper Forum production of Chevhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” in the spring of 2006.
Born in Tampa, Paulson’s parents divorced when she was two. Then, when she was five, her mother moved her two daughters to New York to start her life over.
“My mom was 27 years old. She didn't know a single person in New York City. She got a job at Sardi's Restaurant. We lived in Queens briefly on a mattress on the floor, and then we moved to Gramercy Park. We lived on West 11 th Street for a long time, which is now like the hippest place,” Paulson says.
“She was so brave to be basically a debutante in Tampa, Florida, having a cotillion and a coming out ball – and she picked up and brought her two kids to the greatest city in the world, not knowing anyone. My mom's kind of my hero that way.”
How did Paulson get into acting? “Oh, God, I feel like I've always done it,” she says with a laugh. “It was in the fourth grade, and I was in a program in Florida. We moved back and forth, my sister and I – between seeing my father, who remained in Florida, and my mother in New York – and I just was always in theater programs.”
While attending PS29 in New York, Paulson twice appeared in the annual city-wide production sponsored by Jacques d’Amboise’s National Dance Institute. After transferring to a private school in Park Slope, Brooklyn, she appeared in more plays. “And then somebody told me I could go to a high school where I could take five hours of acting classes a day. I wanted to know about that promptly, and I auditioned for it and got in.”
The school was the famed High School for the Performing Arts – for which 3,000 kids auditioned for the drama department alone, out of which only 60 (including Paulson) were accepted.
She graduated in 1993, and her first big break came only six months later – as an understudy in the Broadway production of Wendy Wasserstein’s Tony Award-winning “The Sisters Rosensweig,” starring Jane Alexander and Madeline Kahn. “I was barely 19 years old, and all my friends had gone off to college while I stayed in New York and was trying to get a job.”
The following year, Paulson landed a guest appearance on “Law & Order,” followed by a role in the world premiere of Horton Foote’s ‘Talking Pictures” on off-off-Broadway. Returning to television in 1995, she co-starred with Kathleen Turner in the Hallmark movie, “Friends At Last,” then received her first big break, as a series regular in the CBS thriller, “American Gothic.”
She has since starred in three other primetime series – the WB’s “Jack & Jill” (1999-2001), NBC’s “Leap of Faith” (2002; as the lead), and ABC’s “The D.A.” (2004) – as well as a recurring role on HBO’s “Deadwood” (2005).
Since making her motion picture debut in “Levitation” in 1997, Paulson was Juliette Lewis’ sibling in Garry Marshall’s “The Other Sister” with Diane Keaton, Mel Gibson’s secretary in “What Women Want,” and Renee Zellweger’s frenetic book editor sidekick in the Rock Hudson-Doris Day style comedy, “Down With Love,” among other roles.
Meanwhile, she has returned often to her stage roots – including in the 1998 off-Broadway hit, “Killer Joe,” with Scott Glenn and Amanda Plummer, where “Swimmers” casting director Ellen Parks first spotted her.
“When Doug was going through the names of people and casting people, Ellen said to Doug, ‘I think there's an actress you should really meet,’” she remembers hearing, adding that Sadler later told her that the moment he saw her head shot, he had a strong feeling it was going to be her. “He didn’t know why, but it was just a strong feeling.”
When the offer to play Merrill came through, “I said yes, and we went off to the eastern shore, where we were hit with a hurricane. We lost half the dock where we were supposed to be shooting. The land where the Tyler house sat was completely flooded. It was just – anything that could go wrong on this movie did go wrong while we were shooting. It was really wild,” she says with a laugh.
Paulson is particularly taken with the “Swimmers” cinematography. “Rodney Taylor, to me, is like the most untapped, divine cinematographer. The movie looks so beautiful. I wish he could shoot everything I ever did.”