Sarah Paulson’s Most Dramatic American Horror Story Transformations

Sarah Paulson wearing a bra
Photo by Mona Kuhn, styled by Patrick Mackie. Hair by Dennis Gots for Kerastase at The Wall Group; Makeup by Jo StrettelL for Lancome at Tracey Mattingly.

There’s a reason why it’s long felt impossible to keep track of Sarah Paulson’s characters in American Horror Story: As of Wednesday night’s premiere of its 10th season, Double Feature, the actor’s relationship with the FX anthology series and its creator, Ryan Murphy, will have stretched a full decade. It all started back in 2011, when Paulson, then a longtime working actor but not yet a household name, portrayed the medium Billie Dean Howard in season 1, Murder House. She’s appeared in all but one of the nine seasons since—an accomplishment only matched by Evan Peters. (She even stars in another Murphy series, Impeachment: American Crime Story, that premieres in just two weeks.) You’d be forgiven for not realizing as much in some of the years throughout. Paulson and Murphy seem to have found delight in altering her appearance, a hallmark of the series—to the point that it once took 15 hours for the actor to film a single scene. Revisit her most notable transformations, and get a glimpse at her most recent, here.

Season 2: Asylum
Courtesy of IMDb

Paulson simply pared things down when she first portrayed the journalist Lana Winters, who resurfaced in season 8 (then decades free from the institution mentioned in the season’s title).

Season 3: Coven
Courtesy of YouTube

Paulson starts out looking ordinary enough as Cordelia Foxx, but isn’t long before her character, a headmistress of a school for witches, but it isn’t long before a witch hunter attacks her eyes with acid. (She later restores her sight with two eyes from a couple of her victims—one brown and one blue.)

Season 4: Freak Show
Courtesy of IMDb

Those prosthetics were relatively tame compared to Paulson’s the next season: The crew made two animatronic heads that could even move their mouths and blink to allow Paulson to portray both Bette and Dot Tattler, performers in the titular “freak show.” She recorded each twin’s dialogue, listening via an earpiece so that their correspondence would go smoothly—a process that, per Murphy, took 12-15 per scene.

Season 5: Hotel
Courtesy of FX

Paulson took something of a break to play the Hotel Cortez’s resident ghost junkie, Sally McKenna (aka Hypodermic Sally), with the most significant alteration of her appearance being the scars on her arms from drug use.

Season 6: Roanoke
Courtesy of IMDb

Paulson might as well have been the conservative terror her character idolized in another FX series, Mrs. America, when she again portrayed the journalist Lana Winters for the first time since season 2. And yet, her role as the prosecutor Marcia Clark in American Horror Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson was so fulfilling, she begged Murphy to permit her absence from this season.

Season 8: Apocalypse
Courtesy of FX

In stark contrast to those in her latest look, below, Paulson’s redhead character Wilhemina Venable took care to emphasize her eyebrows. And in an even starker contrast to her participation in the franchise thus far, Paulson was not immediately on board. “I felt really kind of trapped by my responsibility and my contractual obligation to do American Horror Story,” she said earlier this year. “As much as it’s my home and I’ve loved it always, it was the first time I felt like I wish I could have gone to Ryan and said, ‘Please let me sit this one out. You know, let me out.’”

Season 10: Double Feature
Courtesy of FX

Boy, does TB Karen look like she could use some rest. And so could Paulson: the mysterious character—whose full moniker is Tuberculosis Karen—is the actor’s 12th in the franchise. At least, so far. “We have had conversations about the show going 20 seasons,” Murphy said of FX in 2019.