"I have Jessica Lange to thank," Paulson says of joining American Horror Story

By Patrick Gomez
Updated March 17, 2016 11:20 AM
Credit: J.R. Mankoff/August

Talk about a silver lining!

Sarah Paulson had been planning on doing a play in New York City, but when that fell through she found herself being presented with the opportunity of a lifetime.

Suddenly with free time, she accompanied actress Jessica Lange – who had starred with Paulson in The Glass Menagerie on Broadway in 2005 – to a Project Angel Food event in Los Angeles.

“She had just gotten into town to start doing season 1 of American Horror Story, and L.A. is not really her town,” says Paulson, who is featured in the current issue of PEOPLE. “She didn’t know a ton of people so we were spending a lot of time together.”

Also at the event was AHS creator Ryan Murphy, who had previously cast Paulson in a memorable guest-starring role on his FX drama Nip/Tuck.

“At one point, Jessica just threw her arm around me and said to Ryan, ‘Oh, can’t you find something for Sarah to do on the show? She’s going to be in town now.’ And he said, ‘Oh. Yeah. I think I could do that,’ ” Paulson recalls.

For more from Paulson – including what she sees for her future – pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

Murphy ended up casting Paulson as medium Billie Dean Howard in three episodes of the first season AHS but made her a series regular for the anthology series’ second season.

“I became, basically, the heroine of the season. Ryan gave me that very treasured part, and that was the first time in my life that I felt like I had something meaty to work on. I was playing a flawed person, a three-dimensional person,” says Paulson. “And then, Ryan kept throwing things at me. I’ve gotten to play a two-headed lady [on season 4 of AHS] and now Marcia Clark [on People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story]. He’s been my total champion.”

Her recent success has been a welcomed opportunity for Paulson, who also received critical acclaim for her role in 12 Years a Slave.

“There’s been a switch recently,” she says. “I’ve spent my whole career working toward this. Now my life has completely changed.”

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story airs Tuesdays (at 10 p.m. ET) on FX.