Sarah Paulson Dares to Play the People You Love to Hate

Sarah Paulson still doesn’t fully understand why fans call her “mother.”

At first, when she started seeing the word used online to describe her, she was bewildered and a bit irritated. She was in her 40s and childless. Did these people really think she looked like their mother?

Once she began to understand it as an age-neutral compliment — a term Gen Z likes to use for famous women they adore — she leaned into the meme, appearing on “Saturday Night Live” last year, alongside Pedro Pascal, in a sketch in which he was “father” and she “mother” to a group of enamored high schoolers.

“How did this happen to us?” Paulson wondered about her and Pascal, a longtime friend. “We were two 18-year-old kids who used to go to Sheep Meadow and smoke pot and go see Peter Weir movies. How did we become the mother and father of children on the internet?”

For Paulson, the answer is a 30-year career that has wound its way from television bit parts to meaty lead roles as fraught real-life people. It is animated by an eclectic cast of characters orchestrated by the television producer Ryan Murphy, including conjoined twins, a Craigslist psychic, a ghost with a past as a heroin addict, an evil nurse and two of the most ridiculed and obsessed-over women of the 1990s.

Paulson has long dared to play characters that viewers are liable to dislike — or downright loathe — and the role that has led to her first Tony nomination is one of her most provocative yet.

In Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s family drama “Appropriate,” her character is often the one audience members are rooting against: a sharp-tongued elder sister who lashes out against mounting suspicions that her recently deceased father harbored racist convictions.

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