If you caught Natalie Paul as dogged, intrepid New York Amsterdam News reporter Sandra Washington in HBO’s gritty series “The Deuce,” you’d be surprised at how soft-spoken she is in real life. Paul said she was aware of the historic significance of the paper her character works for, explaining, “I read about the Amsterdam News in a history book. I was very aware of it, and so it was fun to bring a little of that history into the show.” She said she was surprised about the history the show depicts. “The whole sort of prostitution market that is depicted in the show is something I wasn’t aware of and the progression of it and how New York City got cleaned up, so to speak. Who was being pushed out and pushed in and who was benefiting from all of that was really interesting to me.”
Created by celebrated television writer David Simon (“The Wire”), with all the flash and flare the era suggests, “The Deuce” chronicles the lives of sex workers in the Times Square area during the 1970s. Said Paul, “I think a lot of the themes of ‘The Deuce’ has to do with ambition and the old school New York City feeling. She was the kind of woman who was told growing up never to back down, never to give up and to be invested in the stories she was reporting on.”
The New York City native who counts Susan Kelechi Watson (“This is Us”) and Brian Tyree Henry (“Atlanta,” “If Beale Street Could Talk”) as her friends and mentors said she pictured the real-life character as “this incredibly ambitious girl who wanted to make a name for herself in the city.”
Though she won’t be on the second season of “The Deuce” (the first is available on HBO and its digital apps), Paul is embarking on another high profile acting project. She will play Heather, a detective in training, in the upcoming second season of “The Sinner,” one of USA Network’s breakout hits last year.
Though she wasn’t always sure she would be an actress, Paul shares that storytelling has always been her passion. “Growing up I always wanted to be involved in anything story related, whether it was acting, dancing, singing, writing, choreography. However, I didn’t really know how anyone could actually be an actor. When I went to Yale I learned more. Getting to know people like Brian Tyree Henry, I started to feel that acting was very possible with hard work and dedication.” Tyree, a celebrated young actor in his own right, is part of Paul’s support system as she navigates what can be a challenging industry. “Brian Tyree Henry was at the Yale School of Drama when I attended Yale and he is still a dear friend of mine. He’s like a big brother. He was just texting me about his amazing Emmy nomination!”
Paul spent much of her childhood in Connecticut at the prestigious Hotchkiss School. She explained, “I was lucky enough to be recruited by a great organization called The Oliver Scholars Program and that really put me on a great path. It got me to go to a really great high school and that led me to Yale.” While at Yale, she assumed leadership roles, heading up the Heritage Theater Ensemble, among other things. “We put on plays by African-American playwrights and had African-American casts. Doing Heritage enabled me to do more and learn more in terms of my craft and the study of theater.” Her years at NYU, where she got her Masters, were about getting into the details of acting. “When I got back to NYU,” she related, “it was about gaining real life experience. I got to focus on acting in a much deeper way. Although I had gotten a great education at Yale I wanted much more hours on my feet actually performing. I’d done directing and writing but I wanted a classical, conservatory training acting experience and I got that at NYU.”
About “The Sinner” Paul said, “Heather is a detective in training in a small rural town in upstate New York. It begins with her getting a call about what looks like a double murder. We find out that a child has killed his parents and we’re trying to figure out not whodunit, but why. She calls Bill Pullman’s character and they embark together on a journey to figure out why this child committed this crime.”
The show, which she describes as “dark and scary but a lot of fun,” films in upstate New York. Paul said, “I’ve gotten to do a lot of things that I’ve never done before. Even playing law enforcement has been interesting since I’ve never done that before. It’s gonna be an interesting ride.” Last season starred Jessica Biel as an attractive young wife and Mom who suddenly stabs a man to death in front of dozens of beachgoers. Because the show resolved why she did it, Beale will not appear in this season although she is still a producer of the show.
If the first season is anything to judge by, the second season of “The Sinner” will offer a lot of complex characters in some twisted, awkward, shocking situations. The characters are the opposite of “what you see is what you get,” said Paul. “Heather has a lot of baggage which we’ll see in flashbacks. She is much more on the shy side. She is much more contained than you might think. She is a detective in training and she wants to make detective so she feels an enormous amount of pressure on her being a sore thumb in this town. She is the only person of color, she is also a lesbian, she also has a lot of her own secrets and her own personal cases that need to be resolved.” Paul, who grew up in a lot of situations where she was “the only,” brings her own personal experience to this role. She stated, “My experience in terms of going to PWI institutions, you definitely feel the eye is on you to represent well, and Heather feels that way.”