Is that? No. It couldn’t be. But it is. That’s Sarah Paulson playing Linda Tripp, the government employee who secretly recorded Monica Lewinsky, spurring the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
If you didn’t recognize Paulson in the trailer for Ryan Murphy’s upcoming FX series “Impeachment: American Crime Story” it’s likely because the Emmy-winner looks noticeably heavier in the role – thanks both to weight gain and additional prosthetics, according to the Los Angeles Times. This has renewed the controversy regarding actors adorning fat suits.
“It’s very hard for me to talk about this without feeling like I’m making excuses,” Paulson told the LA Times in a recent interview. “I think fat phobia is real. I think to pretend otherwise causes further harm. And it is a very important conversation to be had.”
Experts say fat suits perpetuate biases against fat people – and beg the question of why thin actors are getting these roles.
“Why not just pick people that fit the range of actors and different body types that would be appropriate for this role?” asks Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, obesity medicine physician scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
Paulson, when speaking with the LA Times, acknowledged that point and expressed regret. (Representatives for the series did not return USA TODAY’s request for comment.)
“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 … I wouldn’t make the same choice going forward.”
‘Fat actors should be cast in fat roles’
In a perfect world, anyone would be able to play any role. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and many A-list actors are thin.
“In the meantime, at the very least, I think that instead of having thin actors wear our bodies like a costume, fat actors should be cast in fat roles,” says activist and Dances With Fat blogger Ragen Chastain.
Randy Sayer, business representative for the Make-Up Artists & Hair Stylists Guild – who isn’t connected to “Impeachment” – says “it is simply a ‘creative choice’ to utilize the artistry of prosthetic make-up to enhance (Paulson’s) appearance for this character; ditto for her hair (wig) and costume (padded).”
But Shira Rosenbluth, a body-positive style blogger and licensed clinical social worker, points out that words matter when discussing this topic. “It’s important to call it what it is. It’s a fat suit, not just a prosthetic,” Rosenbluth says.
Rosenbluth adds: “People of all sizes exist and it shouldn’t be hard to find an actor that has a similar body type to play (Tripp). Why hire a thin person to play someone in a larger body?”
Talent, naturally, plays a factor in casting – though the Casting Society of America is working to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in all areas. Not to mention that “American Crime Story” franchise (and sister series “American Horror Story”) often rely on a similar set of actors.
But “there are equally talented fat actors who will never have the opportunities that Sarah Paulson has had, because there are so few roles for which they will be considered,” Chastain says.
Stanford agrees. “Think about how many people are striving to be actors and actresses, and then a certain key few dominate in terms of getting roles. Even as we’ve seen a deviation to platforms like Netflix, and Amazon Prime, it’s still the same actors and actresses that get all of the roles. That’s problematic.”
Conversations have shifted over time as to who can play what part. As recently as this century, blackface (like Darrell Hammond playing Jesse Jackson on “Saturday Night Live”) was still prevalent onscreen, notes Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at the Newhouse School of Public Communications Syracuse University. Debates have raged over whether LGBTQ people should be played by straight and cisgender people.
Is a similar watershed moment brewing for fat people? Despite progress – Chrissy Metz’s starring role on “This Is Us” or Aidy Bryant on “Shrill,” for example – more work is necessary.
“Hollywood is bereft of diversity of all kinds and has a clear and longstanding issue with fatphobia such that most of us can likely name no more than two fat actresses in the industry at best,” says Sonya Renee Taylor, the author of “The Body is Not An Apology: The Power of Radical Self Love.”
“Sarah Paulson is a brilliant actress,” she says, but “in a truly fair and equitable world she would not have to wear a fat suit because equally talented fat actors would be abundantly available to tell fat people’s stories.”