Hillary Clinton on her candid Hulu docuseries: 'I'd never done anything like this before'
The former First Lady, senator, secretary of state, and presidential candidate chats with EW about the four-part series, which sheds new light on the private side of her public life.
The opening title sequence for Hillary, a four-part documentary series that began streaming Friday on Hulu, features a quick-moving array of photos of Hillary Clinton from childhood to present day set to the rousing tune of the Interrupters “Take Back the Power.”
Although not a big fan of watching herself onscreen, Clinton was amazed at what director Nanette Burstein and her team were able to dig up, including home movies of her as a little girl. The sequence is the perfect precursor to a series that examines the Illinois native’s entire life, not just her public persona. Burstein sifted through 35 hours of interviews with Clinton, 1,700 hours of campaign footage, and a trove of archival materials to create a mosaic that represents not just Clinton’s story but dispatches from second-wave feminism, a strand of U.S. history, and an inside look at the 2016 presidential election.
Clinton, 72, says that over the course of those many hours of interviews, “it was so intense that I would sometimes go, ‘Whoa, I’ve got to go to bed. I’m exhausted.’ The range of emotion from the highs of talking about things that mean a lot to me to the lows talking about all the political challenges — yeah, it was a very intense experience all the way across.” Considering the positions she’s held as First Lady, U.S. senator, and secretary of state, that’s saying something.
That said, Clinton did enjoy making the series. “It was fun because it was something new to me. I’d never done anything like this before and I really liked her,” she says of the woman who has directed several feature films and documentaries including the Academy Award-nominated On the Ropes. “I just really resonated with her. So, when she went off with [the] campaign footage and came back literally after having spent maybe six months looking at it, she said, ‘There’s a much bigger story here,’ I was like, ‘Oh okay. Well I didn’t know that,'” says Clinton with a laugh.
Burstein notes that Clinton’s very large later life somewhat obscures her accomplishments as a young woman at Wellesley College and her part in the feminist movement of the ’70s. She hopes that this series will amplify that element of Clinton’s legacy. “That wast my intention from the beginning,” says Burstein. “I wanted to tell her whole life story and interweave it, because you have this opportunity to understand the history of feminism over the last 50 years, and both how she was influenced by it and how she influenced it, in ways that people don’t get.”
EW recently sat down with Clinton to discuss that story, why she decided to make Hillary now, and which of the many Saturday Night Live impressions she actually thinks were great.
On the themes viewers will see in Hillary beyond her own story
“One, the second-wave feminism — the arc of women’s lives from my young adulthood to where we are today. And the change in our politics — the influence of the right wing and big-money interests and ideological and religious forces. I think those are two of the themes that go through the documentary that people can begin to think about.”
On being a living example of these larger themes but not realizing it as she was simply living her life
“I knew that people thought of me that way. Academics have written books about me, and there’s been so much commentary about me…. [In the course of your life] you’re thinking about day by day, week by week. In my case, you get married, you become a mother, you end up being First Lady, something you never thought about. You decide to run for office, you run for office, you end up being secretary of state. I mean, these things are all part of my life, but they’re also part of that larger story [of feminism] that I think we should be telling each other. We are all part of history, and we all make our marks whether we realize it or not… Nanette really got it before I did.”
On why she’s doing the series now
“I’m not running [for anything]. I think I have unique perspectives on a lot of what’s going on today.
I also think there are lessons embedded in the film for what we’re going to face in this upcoming election. Because, to me, nothing matters but defeating this man [President Trump] and his mean-spirited, destructive brand of politics that puts his own personal interests ahead of the country’s. So, I’m laser focused on making sure that we nominate somebody who can actually win the electoral college. I don’t care about anything else. Every issue we care about it, it goes in the dumpster if we don’t win”
On knowing Hillary will start a new round of scrutiny
“It probably will. What’s been fascinating to me so far is that the people who have seen it [are] not political observers or writers. They’re entertainment people with many years of experience covering something other than politics. So the reaction that I’ve gotten from people is really about the film, and really thoughtful questions about what the film means. So yeah, when it gets into a larger audience, the noise level will rise and all of the political pundits will be spending countless minutes trying to analyze me. I could tell them a million times, ‘This was a good time for me to do this, and what did I have to lose? I already lost. I wasn’t going to run again. I’m not in office. I want to tell my story without you intermediating it and making things up about me.'”
On crediting her mother with her ability to compartmentalize and bounce back
“I’ve talked about what a miserable life she had and how I didn’t know that when I was a little kid, obviously. But as I became a teenager, I realized she was always pushing me to be brave. She was always telling me I had to stand up for myself. She sent me back out to face the neighborhood bullies when I was 4 years old. She was just adamant that you didn’t know what life was going to hit you with, but you had to be prepared to get back up and keep going. So I give her the bulk of the credit for giving me some internal fortitude and resilience, which I think everybody needs in life.”
On that opening sequence
“I thought this is like an archaeological dig because [watching it, I was thinking], ‘I had those glasses when I was in my 20s. Then I got into contacts when I was in my 30s, and then that hairstyle.’ It was just such a bizarre experience watching me through the ages. Again, some of the photos I’d never seen before! There was video of me as a little, tiny girl that I’d never seen before. So in that way, it was really a positive experience. It made me miss my parents. I wished that my mother and my father could have been there. Then during the [filming] process, my brother died. I thought, ‘Oh, I wish he were here to see it.’ So it was very poignant to me, the walk down memory lane.”
On the irony that this series might have had a helpful, humanizing effect on her image if it had been released before the election and if she thinks it will have people seeing her in a different light
“I think that is likely to happen with some group of viewers, because I think that, if you were in my position and you’re not asking for power, you are maybe mediating it. You’re standing up against it. You’re trying to employ it on behalf of helping people, then you’re seen in a sympathetic light. But if you are asking to be given political power, you really automatically have to expect all of these filters to start covering people’s eyes. When I got out of the Secretary of State office, I had a [high] approval rating. People liked the job I did for the United States. The Republicans and their allies did a very good job tearing me down, making stuff up, doing everything they did. So it cast doubt and people started saying, ‘Whoa yeah, I used to like her, but….’ It was also part of this whole ongoing internal dialogue that people have with themselves: ‘How much power do I really want a woman to have?’ It’s going to definitely be embedded in people minds as they watch this, how they think about that question.”
On whether she thinks a woman can be president in her lifetime
“Yes. I’m not going to minimize the difficulties because they are legendary, but yes. I’m going to do what I can to try to make sure that happens. Now, obviously, I don’t want just any woman. I want a woman that I agree with, who I think has the right values and worldview and sense of the future. But yes.”
On which of the Saturday Night Live impressions nailed her
“It’s a tie between Amy Poehler and Kate McKinnon. Amy got me right in formal settings. She was masterful in mimicking me in a debate or behind a podium answering questions. Kate got the nuance of it…how I was reacting as a human being. When we did our ‘Val’ skit, I just thought she captured that. She might not have resembled me quite as much as Amy, but she caught the essence. I would be proud to be represented by either one of them.”