‘Impeachment’ Focuses on the Women Behind Clinton’s Scandals

‘Impeachment’ Focuses on the Women Behind Clinton’s Scandals

Ryan Murphy’s anthology series “American Crime Story” debuted in 2016 with “The People v. O.J. Simpson.” A second installment, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” arrived two years later. In these initial series, which won 16 Emmy Awards between them, the crimes at issue were obvious: the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman; the killing of Versace.

In “Impeachment: American Crime Story,” which premieres Sept. 7 on FX, the offenses are more ambiguous.

Set in the 1990s, the 10-episode series revisits the miasma of scandal and innuendo that shrouded the Clinton White House: Paula Jones’s sexual harassment lawsuit against President Bill Clinton; Clinton’s sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky; Lewinsky’s friendship with Linda Tripp; and the tangle of lies, half-truths and illicit recordings that were ultimately detailed in the Starr Report, the infamous and lurid document prepared by the independent counsel Kenneth Starr. The report led the House of Representatives, in 1998, to impeach President Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. The Senate, declining to remove him from office, found him not guilty.

But those high crimes and misdemeanors didn’t especially interest the creators of “Impeachment.”

“To me, the crime is that Monica, Linda and Paula had no control over how they were perceived,” said Sarah Burgess, an executive producer who wrote most of the episodes. Burgess, a playwright, studied the media coverage of these women: the late-night punch lines, the drive-time banter, the scathing opinion columns. “It was unbelievable, the hate,” she said.

Burgess was speaking on a recent Monday afternoon from the gleaming reading room in the cellar of the Whitby Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Murphy joined her, alongside the executive producers Brad Simpson and Alexis Martin Woodall and four of the actresses in the series: Annaleigh Ashford (Jones), Edie Falco (Hillary Clinton) Beanie Feldstein (Lewinsky) and Sarah Paulson (Tripp). Lewinsky, a producer on “Impeachment,” was not present. (No one else involved in the administration or its scandals worked on the show. Tripp died in 2020.)

The series delves into the lives of Lewinsky, Tripp and Jones — and, to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton. Its aim is not necessarily rehabilitative, but the creators and actors wanted to understand the ambitions, fears and desires that motivated these women.

“We all know what happened,” Murphy said. “But we don’t know how it happened.”

In a round-table interview, the cast and creatives discussed how the Clinton era’s swirl of partisan politics and fungible notions of truth resonates today, as well as why these scandals still captivate us, how the media came for these women and whether we would treat them any better now.

“I just hope when people watch this, they still feel implicated,” Simpson said. “We’re not that distant from it — this is a piece of history, but we are still living it.”

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What do you remember about living through these scandals?

ANNALEIGH ASHFORD I remember this era from a late-night comedy perspective. It was really dark and really chauvinistic, terrible to the women involved, so grossly sexual and inappropriate. And it was funny. We all clapped.

RYAN MURPHY Monica and Linda and Paula — I remember just feeling that their lives were taken away from them. I felt very sympathetic, because I was picked on in high school, I guess. Just seeing them attacked and constantly made fun of — it was a national sport — I felt bad for them. And I continue to feel bad for them. When I ran into Monica at a party, we had announced that we were doing this. She came up, and I said, “I want you to be a part of this.”

Why does this story still fascinate us?

SARAH BURGESS The Starr Report is a part of that; it’s still shocking how explicit it is. And then Monica, I can’t think of someone else who has had that seething hatred that she experienced, that delight in taking her apart.

BRAD SIMPSON The Clintons haven’t left us. We all remember the moment where Donald Trump brought the women who made accusations against Bill Clinton to the debates. It still haunts the culture.

ALEXIS MARTIN WOODALL But the end of the day, it’s still a conversation about the women. Even in 2021, we’re still talking about Monica and Linda and Hillary. Bill’s not really part of that conversation.

In some ways, the impeachment trial prefigured today’s partisan politics. The left argued that Bill Clinton was the victim of a vast right-wing conspiracy. The right held that they had a duty to investigate a fundamentally dishonest leader. How does the series grapple with these two opposing narratives?

MURPHY We present both points of view. That’s the interesting thing about the show, it lives in a gray world.

SIMPSON Both things can be true. What we’re interested in, really, is flawed individuals intersecting with these systems of power, especially these systems of male power.

Recently we seem to be re-examining the ways we treated women at the center of scandals in the ’90s and ’00s — Tonya Harding, Britney Spears. Is the series participating in that reassessment?

BURGESS Yes, of course. I think about that a lot. There was no constituency for Monica. There was no one on her side. There was a faint heartbeat of, like, three feminists, somewhere. To watch Beanie play her and walk in her shoes and hopefully put us in a point of view to understand how young she was, I hope that does reorient how people think about her. But do you think it would be any different now?

MURPHY If you look at the Britney Spears case, I think more people would come to Monica’s defense today.

SARAH PAULSON I think there would be more defenders. But there would be an equal measure coming down on her. We have so many platforms from which to do that now.

MARTIN WOODALL People I know, closely, when I talk about the show, they still make jokes. And I’m like, “Hey, stop it with the jokes.”

Clinton’s popularity soared. Lewinsky became a punchline. Why did we hate this woman so much?

ASHFORD Some of it has to do with how uncomfortable people are with sex. People can’t handle not making a joke about it.

PAULSON I wonder if it’s what we’re unwilling to look at in ourselves, in terms of this hatred toward Monica. I would have gone into that back room [Bill Clinton’s Oval Office study, where he and Lewinsky engaged in sexual activity], without question.

MURPHY I would have done it, too.

PAULSON It’s just the whole patriarchal story of accepting his desire, and it being celebrated and understood. And she’s really punished for giving in to her own desire. There is something about vilifying that when it comes from a woman.

BEANIE FELDSTEIN To Monica’s credit, even in the Barbara Walters interview, she doesn’t shy away. She doesn’t apologize. She just states the fact. She holds her ground in saying it was mutual. Now we obviously see there was a deep imbalance of power and a very nuanced situation. But why should she be shamed for that, when he, the President of the United States, was never shamed for that? I’m getting a little emotional because I love her so much — I really care about her as a character and as a person. I think it’s just devastating. And it doesn’t get less devastating the more we talk about it. I hope that the show undoes some of the pain.

We don’t see the sex that the Starr Report details. We do see the famous thong reveal

SIMPSON That thong moment [when Lewinsky lifted her jacket so that President Clinton could see the waistband of her underwear] wasn’t in the original script. Monica asked for us to put it in.

BURGESS She said, “Everyone knows I did this. And I know you’re trying to protect me, but it needs to be in the show.”

But why don’t you show the sex?

MURPHY The behavior that led to the act was more important than the act. We spent a lot of time asking these questions, and also asking Monica, “What do you think and what do you want?”

What did she want? What was her involvement in the show?

MURPHY We would go through every page of a script. Sometimes she would have a lot of comments, sometimes nothing. I found the process fascinating and necessary. She never wanted the easy choice. She always wanted it more complicated, more nuanced.

What did you want to make clear about her relationship with Bill Clinton?

FELDSTEIN Monica, at that moment, was a bundle of contradictions. She was naïve yet savvy, sensual yet innocent. That’s been the wonderful struggle, playing both sides. Like any 22-year-old, she thought she knew the world. She had to learn the world. This was her learning.

SIMPSON The Hillary point of view is complicated, too.

BURGESS It was and still is. There’s a mystery at the center of that story, which is what happens when [Bill and Hillary Clinton] are alone together in a room. There’s no Tripp tape for that.

EDIE FALCO It is something that everybody I know has wondered about: What the hell was that like, when she found out? How did this woman make sense of any of this? There was nothing she could do that was right — her glasses, her last name, the way she talked.

You’re playing women whom viewers think they know. How important was it to perfect their speech, gait, gestures?

FELDSTEIN Her emotionality mattered to me more than her physicality or her voice. I just tried to focus on how she was feeling and what was motivating her, and really tune out everything else. But it’s one thing to play a real human being, and it’s another thing to play a real human being whom you text and call. I want her to watch it and feel validated.

FALCO Hillary is a woman who has been imitated on late-night talk shows and on “Saturday Night Live” by pretty much every cast member. So that was troubling to me. I was not interested in being another interpretation. And over the years, she changed a lot — her accent, the way she walked, the way she presented herself — as she evolved as a person in public life. I thought, this whole story is about getting at who this woman is. So for me, it was more about an inner life.

PAULSON I worked with a movement teacher, who was with me every day, to try to create a different physical shape than I have, in terms of my posture. It was helpful to look in the mirror and not see myself. I still consider what [Tripp] did to be beyond morally questionable. I’m not trying to humanize her; I’m just trying to be her in the situation and in the circumstances. I connect to a certain kind of internal rage that she has that I have a really easy time dipping into.

FELDSTEIN I call it the Tripp dip.

ASHFORD For Paula, it’s always about trying to please her husband, trying to please somebody else. It’s part of why she talks so high; it’s part of why she makes herself so small. There’s a real childlike quality. I also worked with a movement coach.

MURPHY I want a movement coach.

You had so much archival material to draw from — the recordings, the congressional records, the media response. The Starr Report alone runs to more than 112,000 words. How did you decide what to include?

BURGESS It’s character first. In the ’90s, Linda and Monica were afterthoughts in the ways this was perceived and reported. They were these idiots who talked about Macy’s on the phone. It was the lawyers and the men who mattered.

SIMPSON The way this story has traditionally been told is the story of these great powerful men facing off: Bill Clinton versus Ken Starr, Newt Gingrich versus Bill Clinton. Then off to the side are these nutty women. We decided, from the beginning, we’re going to start with these women.

FELDSTEIN These characters, in different ways, have never been given full humanity. What the show does, it prioritizes the humanity over the plot.

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