Why Annaleigh Ashford was 'protective' of her character Paula Jones on Impeachment: American Crime Story
Comedy. Drama. Musicals. Period pieces. Wigs. Acting is all the same to Annaleigh Ashford. Some of her fellow craftspeople don't share this perspective, but it's what she believes.
The vibrant and inviting actress expounds on this as she drives through Los Angeles one Friday morning in September, on her way to work on the Chuck Lorre show B Positive, which has a pretty sobering premise for a CBS sitcom if you think about it. On it, the 36-year-old Denver-born L.A. transplant plays a senior center bus driver who volunteers to give her kidney to an old high school acquaintance.
"When you're doing comedy, the stakes have to be the highest they possibly can or it's not funny," she says, her turning signal heard clicking through the phone. "It has to be so organic and so real. It's sort of like the ultimate test. That's why some of my favorite dramatic actors are great comedians, too."
Ashford is more like the reverse: She's an established comedienne with stellar dramatic chops, and she has finally gotten a meaty role to showcase that other side of the acting spectrum.
For years, we've seen her popping up in various roles across mediums: as a wannabe Carrie Bradshaw intern pining for a career in fashion in the Sex and the City movie; as the original Margot in Broadway's Legally Blonde musical; as Essie Carmichael in You Can't Take it With You, a role that won her a Tony; and as the young sex worker Betty DiMello in Showtime's Masters of Sex. In Impeachment: American Crime Story, which dramatizes the events of the Bill Clinton scandal of 1998, Ashford shines through an elite ensemble — including among transformative performances from Beanie Feldstein, Sarah Paulson, and Clive Owen — as Paula Jones, the Arkansas state employee who sued Clinton for sexual harassment.
"While it is absolutely a more dramatic turn as an actor, I just always go in with the basics," Ashford says of her strategy for embodying Jones. "What do I want in the scene? How am I going to get it? What's her obstacle? I approached it the same way I do all my girls."
"All my girls," she repeats. "It's so crazy that I just called the characters I play 'all my girls.' Am I doing my one-woman show of follies? What's happening here?"
For the newest addition to Ashford's clique of characters, the star wanted to evoke a sense of "childlike, overwhelming, heartbreaking vulnerability." She had a lot of time to sit and think about this.
Ashford first heard the names Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp, and Paula Jones as a young teen in the '90s, mostly in the context of late-night comedy shows. Lewinsky (played by Feldstein) worked as a White House intern before gaining a full-time position at the Office of Legislative Affairs, and Tripp (Paulson), her closest confidante at the Pentagon, secretly recorded her conversations with the young twentysomething in which she described her sexual relationship with Clinton (Owen). Tripp later handed those tapes over to lawyer Ken Starr's impeachment investigation, which expanded because of Jones' lawsuit.
Impeachment's 10-episode story features real clips from Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, the kinds of programs that "brutalized the women" at the heart of these events, Ashford says. "I specifically remember Paula Jones being made fun of because of her nose and her looks, and often being called trailer trash, even though she never lived in a trailer park, which I find fascinating. It was like her accent and her looks made her a target."
Viewers this season will be surprised by what they learn, Ashford adds, just as she was when she began her research after boarding the project on Father's Day 2019. Most people remember Jones as a blip within the larger story of Lewinsky, Tripp, and Clinton, but, the actress explains, "She was the first domino that knocked down the house of cards."
She paints Jones as a woman born into a "Church of the Nazarene" type of family with a pastor for a father whose main goal at that time was to make her husband happy. Then, Jones found herself "pushed and pulled and bullied, if you will, by all of these people that were surrounding her," Ashford says. "I find her to be much more heartbreaking than I would have imagined."
Ashford, however, did not speak with Jones before filming began. (Lewinsky was the only figure involved in the scandal who consulted on the show.) She didn't think she needed to, thanks to the "outrageous wealth of material" already out there. It was also important for her to divorce the Jones of that era from the Jones of today — the woman who endorsed Donald Trump's presidential bid in 2016 and aligned herself with the alt-right. Ashford does not share those politics or ideals, but she found herself becoming "protective of the origin story of Paula Jones."
"I can have empathy for the fact that she came from a very conservative family," she says. "She came from a world where the man was the leader of your house and the king of the castle, and you followed his directives. I also have a great deal of empathy for the way the media treated her and the way she was seduced by right-wing operatives to make certain choices at the same time."
In Ashford's mind, as is depicted in the show, Jones was groomed by her spokesperson Susan Carpenter-McMillan, both literally (makeovers ensue) and figuratively. Impeachment chronicles how Carpenter-McMillan's services were funded by conservatives with axes to grind. In a 2000 interview with Penthouse magazine, Jones revealed how the right "used" her.
Ashford points to a specific moment from Jones' story: the day she appeared alongside her husband at a press event during the Conservative Political Action Conference during which reporters made crude comments at her expense. Impeachment recreates this moment by incorporating some of those remarks into the script. "You can just see in her eyes that she is uncomfortable in a world that she doesn't know," Ashford says.
That, at its heart, is what Impeachment, written by executive producer Sarah Burgess, is all about. It's a story about how these women lost their agency and were manipulated by the power-hungry animals of Washington, D.C. Even Tripp, to some extent, couldn't escape this. She recorded Lewinsky and turned her over to Starr after being warped by the dog-eat-dog political arena.
"Looking at this with the lens of the Me Too movement and this sudden social awareness of toppling the patriarchy, I really feel like this story is not just one of the catalysts for us to change things and make things better, but, even more when I started digging into the story, I realized that this was the seed that planted our political tribalism," Ashford says. "We are really watching the origin story of where we are today and this 'my team, your team' world that we're living in, politically and socially. It was really magnified by the 2016 election, compounded by the 2020 [election], and then made even worse by the pandemic. And a lot of the key players in the [Clinton] impeachment are still playing the game."
Impeachment was initially set to air on FX before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, but it now premieres Tuesday night. In that sense, Ashford feels the series will hit differently.
"Now we can really focus on the story and how it connects to today," she says. "If it had come out earlier, I think there would have been so many distractions that would have impeded the narrative and really gotten in the way of the themes that are so important. I always think there's a sort of kismet when it comes to art."
Impeachment: American Crime Story premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Impeachment was originally planned to air before the 2016 U.S. election. It was actually planned to air before the 2020 election.