Why Are We Still Putting Actors in Fat Suits?

Sarah Paulson won an award for her portrayal of Linda Tripp in Impeachment: American Crime Story--a portrayal that required her to wear a fat suit.

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Why Are We Still Putting Actors in Fat Suits?
Photo:Kevin Winter, WILLIAM PHILPOTT/AFP (Getty Images)

There is one thing that this era of unrelenting body positivity cannot kill—Hollywood putting thin actors into fat suits.

On Sunday, gay icon and incredible actor Sarah Paulson took home the Best Actress in a Broadcast Network or Cable Limited Series, Anthology Series, or TV Movie statue at the second annual Hollywood Critics Association TV Awards for her work as Linda Tripp in Impeachment: American Crime Story. It’s a mouthful of a pretty unimportant award that really doesn’t need reporting—except that seeing Paulson praised for this fat-suit-required-work annoyed me to no end.

Tripp was Monica Lewinsky’s close friend. A former White House employee under George H.W. Bush, she worked for the Clinton White House and later for the Pentagon. When Lewinsky started confiding in Tripp about a secret relationship she was having, Tripp tried to be supportive. When she found out the man was Bill Clinton, Tripp started to record the conversations. Tripp died in April 2020 after a cancer diagnosis.

When the show was announced, my immediate thought on who should play Tripp was Yellowjackets star Melanie Lynskey or Melissa McCarthy. Paulson’s casting felt like a copout from the start. Not to mention, the use of copious prosthetics for her role was in direct contrast to casting Beanie Feldstein, a noted average-sized actor, to play Lewinsky. And it’s pretty jarring to see the pair in scenes together, because you can tell Paulson isn’t actually that large. She’s a twig!

Paulson, to her credit, has vaguely acknowledged how people might be annoyed that one of Hollywood’s thinnest leading ladies spent hours putting on a plump costume. In an interview with IndieWire published on Monday, Paulson defended her use of ample fake poundage, emphasizing that the people who applied the pounds are Emmy nominees. “When you have people you’re working with who are extraordinary artists like the people I was working with for my hair and my makeup—all of whom have been nominated for Emmys, which is just an incredible recognition—it’s so wonderful. I was able to really immerse myself inside this character because I looked in the mirror and I didn’t see me at all,” she told IndieWire. “That was totally thrilling.”

I bet it was “totally thrilling” to merely play being fat and disliked because your body is too big and doesn’t conform to societal expectations. Though in Tripp’s case, maybe the personality was a compounding issue. This is not about Tripp, though! This is about Paulson and her fat suit.

Paulson added on mannerisms and affectations, but not too many. “There were just a lot of physical, idiosyncratic behaviors of Linda’s that I incorporated, and I didn’t even use all of them because if I’d [have] used all of them the audience would have been like, ‘Jesus that’s really doing a lot,’” she told IndieWire. So having too many mannerisms is “doing a lot” but wearing a fat suit is totally fine. Got it.

Another thing Paulson said was important was getting the manicure correct, “the way she used her hands to talk; she had pretty hands that she always had manicured.” While the nails looked nice, it doesn’t mean they got Paulson’s hands correct. When an actor is playing fat, the prosthetics on the hands rarely look real —maybe the wrist is the proper size, but the fingers are usually still bony or too knuckly. This is exactly what happened with Paulson’s Tripp.

“I wish I had been more aware of thinking about all of that in a responsible way,” Paulson said in the interview. “Obviously, at the same time, you look at Sean Penn on Gaslit and you look at Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, Christian Bale [as Dick Cheney]. Transforming yourself is one of the joys of the craft.”

The arts need to be protected. Actors should be defending their craft. But a fat suit is not dotting up for Avatar’s green screen or being transformed into a battle-tested orc. It’s fine to be thin—but it’s 2022. It’s tired to still have actors play being fat.

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