With a distinct focus on the stories of the women involved, the latest Ryan Murphy-led anthology launches
FX CanadaMany of the facts surrounding President Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment may be indisputable to this day, but the narrative surrounding one of the biggest scandals to rock the White House throughout all of U.S. history looks much different through a 21st-century lens.
Despite casting heavy hitters like Clive Owen as Bill and Edie Falco as Hillary, the third instalment of producer Ryan Murphy’s Emmy-magnet American Crime Story examines this national crisis through the eyes of the women at the centre of the events; Monica Lewinsky (played by Booksmart’s Beanie Feldstein), Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson, American Horror Story) and Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford, Masters of Sex). All three were thrust into the public spotlight during a time of corrosive partisan rancor, shifting sexual politics and a changing media landscape.
In the first two seasons of American Crime Story—The People v. O.J. Simpson and The Assassination of Gianni Versace—the actors were encouraged not to contact the real-life people they portrayed. In Impeachment, this approach is turned on its head. Indeed, the real coup for this season was hiring Monica Lewinsky herself as the main consultant. “That was important to Ryan from the beginning. Monica did not have a voice during this entire unbelievably overwhelming series of events. She was literally muzzled by Ken Starr, her own lawyer and culturally banished for 20 years. There was no way we could make this show and not give her a voice,” says executive producer Nina Jacobson. “It would have felt utterly wrong.”
FX CanadaIn writing the 10-episode series, Sarah Burgess used Lewinsky’s memoir, Monica’s Story, as the jumping-off point, afterwards going through every page of her script with Lewinsky. “I added a couple of moments that Monica told me about and went through all of it with her to make it as accurate as possible,” Burgess explains.
By the time the scripts came to Feldstein, the actress (also an exec producer) knew every last word was approved by the woman she was playing. “I was sure that everything in there was something that she felt comfortable with, she felt was real to her life and felt represented her,” says Feldstein, who developed a close friendship with Lewinsky throughout the process. “We had a complete trust in one another. I made it very clear to her when we started filming that I saw myself as her bodyguard. I was like, ‘I’m going to protect you. I have your back. I know your heart. That’s my job.’”
FX CanadaReliving the years that destroyed her life was emotionally fraught for the former White House intern who had an affair with the president of the United States, even if she welcomed the opportunity to impart her side of the story. “It was a challenge for her and it was a challenge for us, because you’re always having to find the balance of how to drive your narrative forward while staying true to the emotional truth and, in our case, a heavily documented series of events,” says Jacobson. “But it was worth every moment.”
Impeachment gives a voice to the women who in the claws of the media and ruthless legal teams were largely used as pawns throughout the impeachment process. For her role as Jones, Ashford wanted to portray the powerlessness of the Arkansas woman who accused the president of sexual harassment in 1994. “Paula Jones’ perspective is going to be surprising to people. They think they know what her story was, and they have no idea how many people were pushing her and ultimately making her make the choices that she did,” says Ashford.
FX Canada“We have always been fascinated with women who exist in the margins of power,” says Jacobson. “They are not in the driver’s seat of their own careers or lives. They are all trapped in their proximity to power. Certainly, Linda has very passionate feelings about the institution that she has devoted her life to, and she [realizes that she] will not even be a footnote in anybody’s story. I can only appreciate a woman who rebels against that prescribed role and just can’t stand how unbearably irrelevant she feels.”
Impeachment is a reminder of the life-altering decisions made by these three women, which might surprise even the most well-read viewer. “Linda believed so wholeheartedly that she was doing something for a greater good,” says Paulson. In protecting the institutions that she finds fundamental to our way of life, Tripp brings to light the ultimate abuse of power, an act for which she will never be praised. “One of the great ironies that’s always jumped out at me is that, although she does many things that are quite rotten, Linda is the one character who does see it as an abuse of power the way that we would today,” says Jacobson. “We cannot divorce the structural power dynamic, no matter how much agency you feel you have, in a setting in which all of the power belongs to the other person. I think Linda is the character who actually sees that. This is a conversation that we would not yet have culturally for another 20 years.”
Impeachment: American Crime Story airs Tuesdays at 7 p.m., 8:15 p.m., 10 p.m. & 11:15 p.m. on FX Canada