FX’s Monica Lewinsky Series ‘Impeachment’ Not Out to Vilify Hillary Clinton or Linda Tripp
The new “American Crime Story,” which Lewinsky produced, aims to finally give her redemption and a voice. But how it portrays the Clintons and Linda Tripp is more complicated.
For the first time, the subject of Ryan Murphy’s Emmy-winning FX anthology series American Crime Story, which based previous iterations on the O.J. Simpson trial and Andrew Cunanan’s murder spree, was involved in its making. Monica Lewinsky is a producer on Impeachment: American Crime Story, which launches on FX Sept. 7, and consulted on all the scripts.
Sarah Burgess, the series’ showrunner, executive producer, and writer, said that she went through every page of every script with Lewinsky to confirm the telling of events according to how she remembered them. “I added a couple of moments that Monica told me about and went through all of that with her to make it as accurate as possible.”
During a Television Critics Association press conference Friday afternoon, the series’ producers and stars were asked about Lewinsky's involvement and how the series gives voice to her experience and perspective, especially when it comes to the way the show characterizes the Clintons and Linda Tripp.
The goal of the creative partnership was to course-correct for the reality of decades earlier, when Lewinsky wasn’t afforded the opportunity to defend herself against a public shaming. “She did not have a voice during this entire, unbelievably overwhelming series of events that happened,” executive producer Nina Jacobson said. “There was no way we could make the show and not give her a voice. It would have felt utterly wrong.”
While everyone involved praises Lewinsky’s feedback in finding truth in scenes involving her character, played by Beanie Feldstein in the series, she did not have a heavy hand in scenes about others in the narrative. “In terms of veracity, that was mainly about her story,” said executive producer Brad Simpson.
Impeachment chronicles the events leading up to the impeachment of Bill Clinton through the experiences of the three women central to the events: Lewinsky (Feldstein), Tripp (Sarah Paulson), and Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford). The series depicts the misogyny and sexism the women experienced and how they navigated—and saw their reputations destroyed by—the country’s sexual politics, partisan conflict, and an increasingly invasive media landscape.
Closed-door interactions between Lewinsky and Clinton, played by Clive Owen, are dramatized, as well as private moments between Bill and Hillary (Edie Falco). But according to Feldstein, “The central relationship is not Monica and Bill. The central relationship is Monica and Linda.”
Asked by The Daily Beast if there was any feedback, comment, or interaction with the Clinton camp about the show, the producers said they never reached out to them. They also never spoke to Paula Jones or, before her death in April, Linda Tripp, who recorded Lewinsky’s private conversations about her relationship with Bill Clinton.
If the idea of Impeachment is to offer some redemption for Lewinsky, the natural question is who, then, becomes the villain of the story.
Asked by The Daily Beast what input, if any, Lewinsky had on how Hillary or Bill Clinton would be portrayed, Jacobson said, “I think Monica was actually incredibly mindful of not wanting to speak to rooms she had not been in. She had a very smart and sophisticated understanding of what felt right to her or not, and that was an area where I think she did not feel like [she could] speak to anything that happens between them that I don't have access to.”
Simpson said that the show approached dramatizing scenes involving Hillary Clinton “with the same level of honesty and empathy that we do to all our characters.” He added that no one from the Clinton camp has seen the show but reminded that, initially, Impeachment began development before the 2016 election, when it seemed like Clinton would be president. “Of course I’m curious what they would think, but I don’t imagine, especially with everything I’ve read about Hillary Clinton, that she’ll watch—no matter how empathetic we are to her.”
When it comes to its portrayal of Tripp, however, reporters at the TCA press conference were quick to question just how empathetic the show is. One reporter asked if the show’s presentation that “there was absolutely nothing likable about Linda Tripp ever” reflected the truth about her, while another reporter simply said, “That woman is heinous. She’s just heinous.”
Paulson seemed startled by the immediate judgement of character and her portrayal of Tripp. “If you hate Linda, that’s great…” she stammered. “I mean it’s interesting to know. It’s interesting to get that feedback right out of the gate. I don’t feel that way. Obviously Sarah [Burgess] doesn’t feel that way. I certainly think her choices are questionable, at the least of it. In terms of her being unlikable, I just don’t share that view.”
Jacobson echoed Paulson’s sentiment and rejected the idea that the show is villainizing or portraying Tripp as entirely unsavory or monstrous. “For us, we have always been fascinated with these women who exist in the margins of power. They are not in the driver’s seat of their own careers or lives.”
“They are all trapped in their proximity to power, and certainly for Linda and for Paula, they are so constrained,” she added. “The fact that Linda has very passionate feelings about the institution that she has devoted her life to, and that the most that she will ever be is not even a footnote in anybody’s story because the women are not driving their own lives… I can’t hate a woman who rebels against that. I can only really appreciate a woman who rebels against that prescribed role, and just can’t stand how unbearably irrelevant she feels.”
Impeachment marks a bit of a departure from previous American Crime Story installments in that it relies heavily on prosthetics to transform Paulson into Tripp and Ashford into Jones, whereas other iterations let wigs and makeup create a lighter illusion of physical likeness. Paulson spent an average of three and a half hours getting her prosthetics placed, while it took about 30 minutes for Ashford.
It was important, Ashford said, because, while in some series or movies, imagination can go a long way when it comes to an actor’s resemblance to a real person, “the way that these women were treated publicly for the way that they look is such an important part of the story.”
The lens of evolved modern perspectives on how society treated these historical characters has been a tenet of both previous American Crime Story series, and is central to Impeachment. Simpson marveled that a New York City event that Lewinsky attended to promote the show had lines of teenagers waiting to meet her.
“She represents something very different to them,” he said. “The thing she speaks out about, her platform. She was the first person to be publicly shamed by the internet. So I think there is a generational divide.” He hopes that the series shows “who really is at fault here and who had the responsibility to be mature.”
And when it comes to who may be the villain or unlikable, Jacobson pointed out there is one person who recognized what happened to Lewinsky as the abuse of power it was, and which society took 25 years to see, too. “Ironically, Linda is the character who actually does see that.”