A few months ago, the actress Sarah Paulson was at a restaurant in Los Angeles, waiting for a woman she had never met. She had spent weeks obsessing over her dinner date, even wearing the same fragrance.
“I remember her coming through the revolving door, and there was this dappled light coming through the windows, so I couldn’t quite see her face,” Ms. Paulson said. “But I had studied her physical mannerisms so much that I could tell by her walk and her hands, the way she was pushing. And then, of course, the one thing I could see was that mole, illuminated and kissed by the sun.”
In walked Marcia Clark.
They ate, ordered tequila and talked for so long that they closed the place down.
“The whole thing had this date quality,” Ms. Paulson said, still sounding giddy, as she recalled the rendezvous over lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York. She felt “an incredible sense of kinship” with the prosecutor, whom she plays in the FX series “The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story.”
The 10-episode series has returned the Simpson trial to the cultural foreground two decades on, and has helped redeem the image of Ms. Clark, a public punching bag at the time. As played by Ms. Paulson, she is recast as a chain-smoking feminist underdog, hounded by the news media unfairly fixated on her perceived shrewishness and (questionable) perm.
“That’s the first thing people say when they hear ‘Marcia Clark,’” Ms. Paulson said. “They don’t even think ‘lawyer.’ They just think ‘hair.’” Next week’s episode, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” covers Ms. Clark’s midtrial makeover, which only brought her more criticism.
As an actress, Ms. Paulson could relate to the scrutiny. “Every time that you go anywhere on the red carpet, now there are websites dedicated to picking you apart, like Tom and Lorenzo or whoever those guys are,” she said. “And they are so mean.”
But not long ago, she experienced something new: becoming the subject of a hot tabloid story, not out of mockery but out of widespread delight. In December, news got out that Ms. Paulson, who was about to turn 41, was dating the actress Holland Taylor, who is 32 years her senior.
The online reaction was immediate and (rare for a celebrity dating story) almost entirely positive, as if pop culture were craving a couple that so entirely broke the mold. A typical headline, from BuzzFeed: “Sarah Paulson and Holland Taylor Are Dating and It’s Everything.”
Ms. Paulson, for her part, found the sudden attention “surreal.” She has tried to keep her distance from the hubbub but acknowledged, “My choices in romantic partners have not been conventional, and therefore the idea that it is ‘other’ makes it compelling.”
Before dating Ms. Taylor, she was in a seven-year relationship with the actress Cherry Jones, who is 18 years older than she is. Before that, she dated men, including the actor and playwright Tracy Letts, who is nine years older and to whom she was engaged.
She never kept her same-sex relationships secret, smooching Ms. Jones on live television at the 2005 Tony Awards and, more recently, appearing hand in hand with Ms. Taylor at the 2016 Critics’ Choice Awards and the Broadway opening of “Fiddler on the Roof.” (People Magazine declared it an “adorable PDA parade.”)
But she has been wary of labeling her sexuality, for fear of being “skewered” should she change her dating habits later on.
“If my life choices had to be predicated based on what was expected of me from a community on either side, that’s going to make me feel really straitjacketed, and I don’t want to feel that,” she said. “What I can say absolutely is that I am in love, and that person happens to be Holland Taylor.”
The women first met at a dinner party about a decade ago, when Ms. Paulson was still with Ms. Jones. Nevertheless, she thought that Ms. Taylor was “probably the most exquisitely beautiful woman I’d ever seen.”
They crossed paths again a few years later, when the actress Martha Plimpton asked both to record videos for her reproductive-rights organization, A Is For. Ms. Paulson was filming “American Horror Story: Asylum” at the time, and Ms. Taylor was working on her one-woman play, “Ann,” about the former Texas governor Ann Richards.
After that, they followed each other on Twitter and exchanged direct messages before finally deciding to go out for dinner. They have now been together for a little more than a year.
Ms. Paulson said she had never seriously dated anyone her own age. “There’s a poignancy to being with someone older,” she observed. “I think there’s a greater appreciation of time and what you have together and what’s important, and it can make the little things seem very small. It puts a kind of sharp light mixed with a sort of diffused light on something. I can’t say it any other way than there’s a poignancy to it, and a heightened sense of time and the value of time.”
She has always gravitated toward her elders, she added, beginning in junior high school. “I had a complicated home life, and my teachers, predominantly my theater teachers and my English teachers, were very dedicated to taking care of me in a particular way,” she said. “And in doing so, I think I developed a very easy rapport with people older than myself.”
Ms. Paulson was born in Tampa, Fla., in 1974. When she was 5, her mother, an aspiring writer, moved her and her younger sister to New York, leaving their father, an executive at a door-manufacturing company, in Florida. They got a small apartment in Queens and slept on a mattress on the floor. Ms. Paulson’s mother worked as a waitress at Sardi’s while taking writing classes on the side.
By the time Ms. Paulson was in seventh grade, the family had moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn, and she had discovered the stage at the private school Berkeley Carroll. A teacher there told her about a high school where she could study acting, and she enrolled at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan.
She booked her first professional acting job months after graduation, understudying for Amy Ryan in Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Sisters Rosensweig” on Broadway. “I opened the door and I said, ‘Mom I got the part!’” she recalled. “And her first response was, ‘Oh, no, you’re really going to do this?’”
She was at a friend’s house in Brooklyn in 1994 when the notorious white Bronco chase took over the airwaves. By then, Ms. Paulson was a fledgling 19-year-old actress whose focus, she admitted, was “decidedly self-interested.” She idolized Julia Roberts, whose image had been plastered all over her high school locker, and envisioned herself becoming a similarly “glamorous, glitzy, charming” leading lady.
But she quickly discovered that she was a character actress, able to metamorphose into people who are off-center, off-putting, damaged or cruel. Steadily, she made a career playing such divergent roles as the fragile Laura Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie” on Broadway and a conservative Christian comedian on Aaron Sorkin’s series “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”
“She’s effortlessly tough,” Mr. Sorkin said. “She’s always honest, there’s never a false note. She’s warm, sexy, incredibly funny and very, very smart. There’s no such thing as ‘a Sarah Paulson type.’”
Nowhere has her versatility been more evident than on “American Horror Story,” the anthology series on which she has played a lesbian journalist (“Asylum”), the headmistress of a witch academy (“Coven”), a heroin-addicted ghost (“Hotel”) and, perhaps most memorably, a pair of conjoined twins (“Freak Show”).
“She just has a real faculty for being somebody else,” said Ryan Murphy, a co-creator of “American Horror Story” and an executive producer and director of “American Crime Story.” “‘If I said, ‘Sarah, next year you’re going to play Pope Francis,’ she’d say, “O.K.!’”
Mr. Murphy first met her on his show “Nip/Tuck,” and was amazed by her dead-on impersonations of Kathleen Turner and Holly Hunter. “She does a hilarious impersonation of me, which I also love,” he said.
Her profile has risen in recent years thanks to a string of celebrated films including HBO’s “Game Change,” Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” and “Carol,” in which she played the former lover of the title character, played by Cate Blanchett.
So varied are her characters that it is hard to point to any quality they share, although Ms. Paulson offered that “they’re all survivors, in a way.” Ms. Clark, for instance, endured relentless taunts about her appearance and messy home life during the Simpson case in the days before Internet trolls.
“To me, her biggest mistake was being so ill prepared for the onslaught of circus activities surrounding the trial,” Ms. Paulson said.
During filming of the O. J. series, Mr. Murphy advised her not to seek out Ms. Clark so that she could arrive at a characterization on her own. But six episodes in, she got the green light. By then, she had already asked Ms. Clark, through a mutual acquaintance, what perfume she wore during the 1995 trial (Lancôme’s Magie Noire), then scoured eBay for a vintage specimen and wore it on set, despite its “fecund earthy dirt scent.” (Ms. Clark now wears Acqua di Gio and “smells “much better,” Ms. Paulson added.)
“I like it when I don’t recognize myself,” said the actress, who wears Le Labo’s Musc 25 when she wants to smell like herself.
To Mr. Murphy, she has been both muse and confidante. “Steve McQueen thinks she’s like Bette Davis, and I think that’s true,” he said. He also attested to her spunky social presence: “There is nobody who is a bigger life of the party than Sarah Paulson.”
Inevitably, her success has intensified the spotlight on her free-spirited romantic life. Like Ms. Clark, whose private travails were once splashed across the tabloids, Ms. Paulson never sought out the attention. But she does accept it as a fact of life.
“Marcia didn’t ask for any of it,” she said. “I didn’t ask for any of it, but some of it comes with the job.”