Ray Mickshaw/FX
Tim Stack
March 08, 2016 AT 12:00 PM EST

Tuesday’s episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story is all about Marcia Clark. The title for ep is even “Marcia Marcia Marcia.” It’s a powerful, tragic hour showcasing the blatant misogyny and cruelty Clark was subjected to during the trial. The episode is also a triumph for actress Sarah Paulson, who portrays Clark. EW sat down with the actress on the set of Story last September to talk about the playing the real-life lawyer and why she wanted to pay tribute and change Clark’s legacy. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When were you initially approached to play Marcia Clark?

SARAH PAULSON: It was during Freak Show and Ryan [Murphy] was directing the first episode. He’s like, “I don’t know what next season of Horror Story will be. Wouldn’t you rather play Marcia Clark than do Horror story again?” I remember looking at him in the make up mirror and going, “Yes I wanna do it but I wanna do both!” And he was like, “Oh lady. You can’t do both!” And I was like, “Yes I can! I’m playing someone with two heads — I can do it!”

Then maybe three months [passed], I hadn’t heard anything about it and he called me on the phone and said, “If I send you the first two scripts of O.J. you have to read it and you have to tell me if you wanna do it and you have to tell me now!” I was like,  “Okay.” First of all I thought there’s no way I’m not gonna wanna do it. I don’t care what it is. It could be slop on a page and I’d still want to play Marcia Clark. But the truth of the matter is it wasn’t. The scripts were so good and she seemed like a real, three-dimensional human being and not some sort of media-fed thing I believed about her. I think a lot of people have misperceptions and perceptions about who she is and was. I was very intrigued by it. I called him back and said, “Yes of course I want to do it.”

Were you captivated by the trial?

Yeah, but I was young. I was 19, 20. I remember where I was when I watched the Bronco chase. I was obsessed by it, but not in the way that I would be if it happened now and I was the age now. Just all the political ramifications, all the societal ramifications. I wonder what would happen if this all happened now.

Do you remember having an idea of Marcia Clark?

I remember believing what was fed to me. This was all pre me being involved in anything in a professional capacity as an actress and having to deal with that myself. I, of course, was completely susceptible to believing what was fed to me about her. After all the research I’ve done, I’ve come to learn a lot more. I personally think there’s going to be a different view of her when this is over, I hope a more accurate view of the full person. I think it’s a very hard thing to be thrust in that kind of limelight and you’re a civil servant and all of a sudden people are talking about your hair and whether you need concealer and your bad clothes. It’s a pretty horrendous thing to imagine going from downtown courthouse to millions of people watching you on TV.  

Ryan and the producers discouraged you from meeting her, right?

I really wanted to. The more I read about her the more I just completely fell in love with her and I thought I have to talk to this woman. I went through sorta funky routes and found out little things like what her perfume was during the trial.

How did you find that out?

We have a mutual friend. When she found out I was playing it, the friend sent me an email and she said something very nice to me about Marcia’s thoughts about my playing the part. And she said, “If you ever wanna have dinner or something, lemme know and I’ll tell her and see if we can’t organize it.”  And I was like, “No, no I’m too nervous.”

Then I emailed her and asked, “Can you see what perfume you wore?” She just wrote back and she said, “I think it’s called Pissed Off or Outrage.” She was making a joke. And then she said, “I think it was Magie Noire by Lancôme.” It was very funny. I found it on eBay. I did a lot of research about it. And apparently it’s been reformulated many times and I wanted the formulation that was the formulation in the ’90s. Who knows if that eBay person was lying but I do have it. I do try to wear just a little bit of it because it doesn’t smell lovely. But I actually find it kind of moving, the smell. Sometimes when I’m doing a particularly challenging scene I find myself smelling my pulse points to see if I can get a good whiff at it because it makes me feel a silly actor simpatico with her at the time.

So you did finally meet her. What was that like?

It was a very extraordinary thing. It felt like I was meeting Meryl Streep or something. Somebody that I truly admired and someone that I had come to revere from sort of an intellectual standpoint. I had a great deal of sympathy for her. When I first saw her, I just sort of started to squeal and I hid my face. I thought I was gonna start to cry or something. And I was right in the middle of doing “Marcia Marcia Marcia.” I felt an enormous amount of feeling for her. We had a lovely meal. It was a very wild thing.

And was she concerned about this project? Excited?

I wouldn’t say excited. I think anybody who goes through something like that and you’re basically asking them to relive it from a vantage point of having all of this time go by and having went through whatever you went through to get through and move through it and over it and then its about to be on billboards everywhere and on the cover of a magazine.

I’m not playing someone like Marcia Clark — I’m playing Marcia Clark. I’m sure there will be many things about this that she might go, “Well it didn’t happen like that.” We’re telling the story as told by Jeffrey Toobin, which is all based on fact. Everyone is bound to have a different version of what those facts are if you talk to them. So I wouldn’t say excited but I think accepting.

It sounds like you feel a responsibility to give Marcia her due.

I do. I myself was victim to believing the hype about her, like that she had all these failings and this was her fault and that was her fault. From my standpoint, what more could the woman have done? It was a perfect storm of fails. The climate in this town after Rodney King and those cops getting off…that alone. Then you add O.J. Simpson into the mix who was beloved and adored by millions of people. It was a very, very serious tornado of things that I think made it a very impossible…I think she did everything she could. I think they did everything they could. They were actually fighting a case in the court of public opinion and not actually in that courtroom. That was something I think maybe they weren’t as equipped for because they weren’t focused on that. They were focusing on trying the case and presenting the facts. The other side was really presenting the story that went down easily. They were trying to paint something and people ate it up.

I do feel a responsibility to honor the circumstances. She had two young children. She was going through a terrible divorce. There was a human being behind the person you were watching on TV everyday, that you were making assessments about and deciding if she was failing or succeeding and a good hair day or a bad hair day. It’s a person who had to withstand all this scrutiny. She was on the cover of tabloids. Like I said, to be a civil servant all of a sudden in the middle of this maelstrom, you just sorta go, “How does one survive?”

To me it’s a great testament to her tenacity, her spirit and her dedication to the task at hand. That to me is of paramount importance that become clear and something that is evident to the audience. I don’t know that people walk away thinking about Marcia Clark as a person, as an actual person. She became a cartoon or a caricature. You think about a silly haircut. We’re talking about a person with a beating heart and two young boys to take care of. 

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