Sarah Paulson Lands Lead Role in “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”

Sarah Paulson Paulson with girlfriend Cherry Jones at the Tony Awards Paulson and Amanda Peet

30-year old actress Sarah Paulson has been cast in the much-anticipated new Aaron Sorkin-Thomas Schlamme series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The drama about the behind-the-scenes workings of a variety sketch show is reportedly based on Sorkin’s experiences working on Saturday Night Live, and has already secured a 13-episode commitment from NBC.

The series has generated considerable buzz due to the strength of its creators (Sorkin was behind The West Wing and Sports Night, and Schlamme won an Emmy for his collaboration with Sorkin on an episode of The West Wing and has directed, written, or served as executive producer on several other shows), the cast, and the script, which reportedly ignited a bidding war between NBC and CBS last fall.

NBC reportedly won only after it agreed to pay a fee of more than $3 million for the pilot, and a massive penalty that virtually assures the show a spot on the fall 2006 schedule, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Paulson will play Harriet, one of the two female leads in the new drama. The other will be played by her longtime friend Amanda Peet (A Lot Like Love, Something’s Gotta Give), with whom Paulson starred in the short-lived 1999 TV series Jack and Jill; in Studio 60, Peet plays the newly appointed president of the network, who is speculated to be based on former NBC president Jamie Tarses.

The male leads will be played by Matthew Perry (Friends), and Bradley Whitford (The West Wing), with D.L. Hughley (The Hughleys), Nate Corddry (The Daily Show), Timothy Busfield (The West Wing), and Steven Weber (Leaving Las Vegas, Wings) rounding out the cast so far.

Paulson has several other television credits under her belt: she starred in the 2002 sitcom Leap of Faith, and most recently, had a recurring guest role on Deadwood in 2005. Her film credits include a scene-stealing role in Down with Love (2003) and the Joss Whedon movie Serenity (2005), but much of her efforts in the last few years have been on the stage. Earlier this year, she starred in the Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie with Jessica Lange, and currently, she stars in The Cherry Orchard.

Although she hasn’t made any public statements about her sexual orientation, she hasn’t made a secret of her relationship with her girlfriend of a few years, Broadway actress Cherry Jones. The two women attended this year’s Tony Awards together, where the two were shown on-camera holding hands and sharing a kiss. Jones thanked Paulson from the stage when she accepted the Best Actress award for her role in Doubt.

Paulson’s character in Studio 60, Harriet, is officially described as a “gifted performer and master sketch comedienne, who went on The 700 Club to hawk her CD of ‘spiritual music'”.

Harrietis the ex-girlfriend of Perry’s character, Matt, which figures heavily into the series when, in the pilot script, Matt and his writing partner Danny (Whitford) are asked to come back and take over the SNL-like show they used to write for. This forces Harriet and Matt to work together after a rather messy break-up prompted in part by Harriet’s decision to go on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club: Matt accuses her of pandering to a bigot, and Harriet accuses him of stereotyping Christians.

The character of Harriet is believed to be very closely based on Sorkin’s ex-girlfriend Kristin Chenoweth (The West Wing, Broadway’s Wicked), a devout Christian actress and singer who has been publicly supportive of gays and lesbians despite backlash from some of her Christian fans (Chenoweth is also set to play Dusty Springfield in an upcoming biopic, and gets romantically entangled with Annette Benning’s character in Running with Scissors, due out later this year).

Based on the pilot script, at least, Harriet is funny, smart, self-confidant, and open-minded–a refreshing change from the way most Christians are portrayed on TV. Paulson as Harriet may also be the only out lesbian actress in a prominent role on primetime TV next season, now that Arrested Development‘s run on Fox has ended.

Christian fundamentalists may raise a fuss at a lesbian playing Harriet, as they did recently when out gay actor Chad Allen played a Christian missionary in the independent film End of the Spear, and when it was announced last month by NBC that pop singer Britney Spears was going to be playing a Christian on Will and Grace (NBC quickly denounced the information as erroneous, and said Spears would not be playing a Christian).

But as shows like Desperate Housewives have proven, as long as Studio 60′s ratings are high enough, it won’t really matter what the religious right says.

For more on the actress, read “Sarah Paulson in the Spotlight”