“Impeachment: American Crime Story,” the third installment of Ryan Murphy’s limited series, looks at the first impeachment of a U.S. President in over a century. The story is told through the eyes of the women at the center of the events: Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein), Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson) and Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford).
Jeffrey Toobin’s book, A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President, was the initial source for the production that launches at 10 p.m. Sept. 7 on FX. But, it is Lewinsky who had the most input into telling how a White House intern could become involved with the President of the United States.
Executive producer Brad Simpson says, “Monica Lewinsky was our main consultant in terms of outside consultants on the show this season. Once she became involved we relied on her for specificity and veracity.
“We also relied on the many, many, many, many books and documentaries and grand jury testimonies that were written and processed about this.”
Lewinsky’s DNA is all over the production. Executive producer and writer Sarah Burgess wrote the first draft for the script of the second episode – where the Presidential seduction gets heated – based on Lewinsky’s memoir, Monica’s Story, which she wrote with Andrew Morton. Burges went through every page of that book with Lewinsky and added some elements that she was told by Lewinsky that were not in the book.
Lewinsky was one of the three women thrust into the public spotlight during a time of corrosive partisan rancor, shifting sexual politics and a changing media landscape. The series shows how power lifts some and disposes of others in the halls of our most sacred institutions.
The way Nina Jacobson looks at having Lewinsky so involved is a way of making up for what happened to her during the impeachment hearings.
Jacobson says, “She did not have a voice during this entire, really, unbelievably overwhelming series of events that happened. And the thought that she was literally muzzled by Ken Starr, by her own lawyer, and that she cannot speak.
“She’s told, ‘You can’t even talk to your friends because they could be subpoenaed.’ To have been silenced and really culturally banished for 20 years, there was no way we could make this show and not give her a voice. It would have felt utterly wrong.”
The executive producers and writers went through every script with Lewinsky to get her seal of approval. That was enough for Feldstein to be comfortable enough to take on the role knowing that the person she was playing had signed off on the work.
Feldstein and Lewinsky had one in-person meeting before the pandemic shut things down. Safety restrictions made it impossible for Lewinsky to be on the set during the filming. But Feldstein and Lewinsky stayed in contact.
“Honestly, we had more of a friendship than we do a working relationship. She was really giving with me, in that she would answer anything I had questions about,” Feldstein says. “But it was easier and more useful for me to just kind of be around her spirit and text her, and we would send videos to each other.
“We have more of a friendship than it was ever me calling her to consult her on a specific scene or anything like that. I made it very clear to her when we started filming that I saw myself as her bodyguard.”
Annaleigh Ashford – best known for her role on the CBS comedy series “B Positive” – didn’t get a similar opportunity to kindle such a relationship with Paula Jones. She didn’t make a connection to talk with the woman who was one of the first to raise sexual assault accusations against President Bill Clinton.
Her preparations for playing Jones was to look at any written material available and study the few video clips she could find. The main thing Ashford learned for the videos was how different the body language of Jones changed as time passed.
Despite the lack of first-hand knowledge or coaching, Ashford is certain the way Jones is presented in this short-run series will surprise a lot of people who think they know her story.
“I think that Paula Jones’s perspective is going to be sort of surprising to people. They have no idea how many people were pushing her and driving her and sort of ultimately making her do what she did and make the choices that she did along her journey through this story,” Ashford says. “I sort of think that the four women in this show really had a hardship.
“This must just be like such a source of trauma for them. We keep saying this, the way that they had no voice and no agency.”
“Impeachment: American Crime Story” has given them a voice.