Gaining weight for a part is good but wearing a ‘fat suit’ is bad? Unpacking the Sarah Paulson backlash
30th Aug 2021
Prosthetics are ok but fat suits aren't: the latest controversy surrounding Sarah Paulson's casting as Linda Tripp begs the question of where exactly Hollywood draws the line on such matters.
The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal has been drawn back into the limelight recently thanks to the latest instalment of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story.
One of the most infamous improprieties of the late 1990s, there’s been plenty of renewed interest in the story but while most eyes have been on the season lead Beanie Feldstein (she’ll play Monica Lewinsky herself), it’s Sarah Paulson that has found herself in the bad books.
IMPEACHMENT: AMERICAN CRIME STORY | Power | FX
— Sarah Paulson (@MsSarahPaulson) August 24, 2021
Cast as Linda Tripp, a civil servant who secretly recorded phone calls between Clinton and Lewinsky at the time, she was a key component in The Starr Report that led to the then president’s impeachment. As is often the case with movies/programmes based on real people though, Sarah Paulson looks vastly different to Linda Tripp and so the actress had to undergo a dramatic physical transformation for the role.
Morphing into the character by way of a blonde wig, a prosthetic nose and false teeth, Paulson also gained 30 pounds for the role – completing the look courtesy of 4.5 pounds of additional padding. The decision to wear a “fat suit” did not sit well with some viewers though, many of whom pointed to Hollywood’s long history of fatphobia as the reason behind their anger.
Later addressing the backlash in a subsequent interview with The Los Angeles Times, the American Horror Story star said, “It’s very hard for me to talk about this without feeling like I’m making excuses. There’s a lot of controversy around actors and fat suits, and I think that controversy is a legitimate one. I think fatphobia is real. I think to pretend otherwise causes further harm.”
Acknowledging that the controversy is warranted in one breath, but trying to rid herself of blame in the next, Paulson admitted that she doesn’t think the onus lies completely with the actor in such a situation. “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. 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.
“Was I supposed to say no [to the part]? This is the question,” she pondered. Noting her own privilege in being able to reflect on the experience after having “already gotten to do it and having had an opportunity that someone else didn’t have”, she finished by saying, “Should I have known? Abso-f*cking-lutely. But I do now. And I wouldn’t make the same choice going forward.”
Her comments seem to have had the opposite effect than intended though, and much of the public has only been further agitated by her sort of blasé response. Hiring a fat actor to play the role would have been the obvious solution – it’s “the challenge of a lifetime”, by Paulson’s own description so no doubt there would have been a queue of hopefuls more than happy to step up to the plate.
Let’s stick with Paulson as Tripp for a minute though. As previously mentioned, she already put on 30 pounds for the role… what if she had gained just 4.5 pounds more and no additional padding was needed, would there have been such a backlash to her casting in that case? Actors are often lauded for the extreme efforts they go to for their art but unhealthy habits are fostered in the name of authenticity. Strict filming schedules mean that celebrities employ dangerous tactics to speed the transformation process up, with that then feeding into diet culture and the toxic ideology surrounding how men and women are “supposed” to look.
Christian Bale lost 63 pounds in four months for his role in The Machinist. Matthew McConaughey shed 50 pounds for Dallas Buyers Club, eating fish, tapioca pudding and “as much wine” as he wanted to drink. Beyoncé dropped 20 pounds on a juice cleanse for Dreamgirls. Reneé Zellweger put on 30 pounds to play Bridget Jones. The list goes on. It’s notable too that Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey’s performances were lauded for their dedication and “method acting”, while Beyoncé was lauded for her new physique and too much was said of Zellweger’s weight. It’s always about the appearance of their bodies rather than their commitment to the role. Leo DeCaprio won an Oscar for basically filming his own Bear Grylls film, living as an 19th-century trapper so he could act as a 19th-century trapper.
Each of the above transformations has been talked about over and over and over again, but are such drastic measures really necessary? “Suffering” should not be synonymous with “success”. Young people are brought up seeing more emphasis placed on entertainment value and authenticity than health and therein lies the problem.
If ensuring the onscreen Linda Tripp looked the part was so critical to the show, then an actress who more closely resembled her physically should have been cast. Not only would this have saved Paulson having to change her body for a temporary part, but practically speaking, it would have saved the costume department a whole lot of time and money too.
Hollywood is an industry obsessed with authenticity but not with equality though and hiring a fat actor, despite being the most authentic option, probably was never really a valid option at all.
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