Back in 2019, Sarah Paulson, who’d just been cast to play Linda Tripp in frequent collaborator Ryan Murphy’s next installment of American Crime Story, said she wouldn’t don a prosthetic suit to play Tripp, a key figure in the Bill Clinton impeachment saga.
"I'm going to gain some weight to play her, and I don't want to wear a suit because I think it will feel very strange," she told the audience at the New Yorker Festival. “I don't feel like it would be a great idea for me to come to work putting on some kind of faux suit and just all mucked up and not being able to move my face nor feel the feelings that she might have been feeling," she said.
However, when it came time to film the series, Paulson doubled back on that decision and wore the prosthetic suit after all. It’s a choice she says she regrets (even though she seemed to know better than to do it in the first place).
The confusing suit saga comes in the wake of a multitude of interest groups speaking up about representation (or the lack thereof) in Hollywood. The entertainment industry has been called to task over casting sighted actors to play blind characters or straight actors to play LGBTQ+ characters or neurotypical people to play neurodivergent characters, and even white actors to play characters of colour.
The list of offenses is as long as the issue is old… by now, everyone should know better.
"It's very hard for me to talk about this without feeling like I'm making excuses," Paulson told The Los Angeles Times when questioned about the decision. "There's a lot of controversy around actors and fat suits, and I think that controversy is a legitimate one. I think fat phobia is real. I think to pretend otherwise causes further harm.”
And while Paulson agrees that this one is “a very important conversation to be had," she seems torn over whether or not she should have taken the role.
“That entire responsibility I don't think falls on the actor for choosing to do something that is arguably — and I'm talking about from the inside out — the challenge of a lifetime," she said. "I do think to imagine that the only thing any actor called upon to play this part would have to offer is their physical self is a real reduction of the offering the actor has to make."
"I would like to believe that there is something in my being that makes me right to play this part. And that the magic of hair and makeup departments and costumers and cinematographers that has been part of moviemaking, and suspension of belief, since the invention of cinema. Was I supposed to say no? This is the question."
Of course, this is a false equivalency. Yes, Paulson offers more to a role than her physical self but casting directors would never choose an actor to play Linda Tripp just because they were Tripp’s same dress size. It is, however, within the realm of possibility to find an actor who is both talented and physically similar to Tripp.
The problem is that this isn’t an issue of Sarah Paulson getting to play Linda Tripp in a prestigious, proven-to-be-successful series — this isn’t an isolated incident. The problem is that actors who don’t conform to a Hollywood ideal (thin and young and toned are the bare minimum requirements) aren’t given a wide array of roles to audition for to begin with so when one comes up that allows for an actor to exist outside the mold of a Chris Hemsworth or a Natalie Portman or, yes, a Sarah Paulson, and that role is still given to the idealized Hollywood type, it feels like (and is) adding insult to injury. And it further narrows the representation of diverse people on screen.
As for Paulson, who at 46 and female is herself in a category underrepresented in Hollywood, it’s wearing the suit that she truly regrets.
“The thing I think about the most is that I regret not thinking about it more fully. And that is an important thing for me to think about and reflect on,” she explained. “I also know it's a privileged place to be sitting and thinking about it and reflecting on it, having already gotten to do it, and having had an opportunity that someone else didn't have. You can only learn what you learn when you learn it," she added.
"Should I have known? Abso-f—ing-lutely. But I do now. And I wouldn't make the same choice going forward."
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