The Impeachment producers made a show that would 'infuriate you'
Warning: Spoilers from the Impeachment: American Crime Story season at large, including the finale, are discussed in this interview.
"I'll be okay. I'll be okay."
Beanie Feldstein's Monica Lewinsky repeats this to herself through frantic breaths, a room away from a mass of fans eagerly awaiting autographs. The flashing camera bulbs and chanting crowd at the first book signing for her memoir, Monica's Story, triggered a panic attack. She struggles to gain control of her nerves. "I'll be okay. I'll be okay." She continues this mantra as if trying to convince herself she'll be okay, though deep down she knows she won't.
Nearby, Sarah Paulson's Linda Tripp is attempting to do the same. Lewinsky's former friend who outed her affair with President Bill Clinton (Clive Owen) by secretly recording their phone conversations now sits before a reporter for George magazine in a restaurant. She changed her appearance through plastic surgery, having endured a nonstop barrage of insults and jokes at her expense in the media. And having been labeled the villain of this story, she has one hope: that Lewinsky can someday realize that she saved her.
It's a line that trips her up.
"Linda needs to tell herself that she's not the villain of the story, that Bill Clinton is," executive producer Brad Simpson tells EW over the phone. "What we're trying to circle around in the end is the way these women are both trapped in these versions of themselves and will never really be able to escape them."
On a conference call with producing partner Nina Jacobson, who together helped develop all seasons of American Crime Story with Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, Simpson mentions how they set out to make a show "hoping that it would infuriate you no matter what side of the political divide you were on, partially because you get to see how these women were chewed up by the system and spit out" — including Annaleigh Ashford's Paula Jones, whose sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton was the first domino to fall in the impeachment investigation.
"When you look at some of the things that we're willing to accept from a president, it really starts in the 1990s," he says. "We're able to set up this notion that, yes, there was this web set up to try to catch the president doing something wrong, and then present the overreach of prosecutors in the way they would casually destroy a young woman in pursuit of the president. But also in the ways that people took sides and people on the left excused his behavior because they didn't want to see him out of power. I think this is an origin story for where we are today."
Of all people, it's Cobie Smulders' Anne Coulter who gets some of those lines woven with modern threads.
"We showed this country exactly who they are," she says in reference to the Clintons, "and America said, 'Yes, please. We want some more.'"
To those in the government exposed for illegal actions with no consequences, she remarks, "We have no rule of law anymore." Meanwhile, Billy Eichner's Matt Drudge, a Fox News commentator at this point in the story, acknowledges the birth of a new age of conservatism.
Simpson and Jacobson continuously asked themselves if they were "actively making Anne Coulter into a folk hero." Their own political beliefs couldn't be further from the incendiary right-leaning talking head. "But there were things she was pointing out at the time that people should have considered," Simpson notes.
The Impeachment season was originally meant to hit screens ahead of the 2020 election race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Both producers feel the show would've hit differently if they had met that early production goal.
"When we first started working on the show and talking about when we would make it, we thought that Hillary Clinton would be president," Jacobson says. "And by the time we did make the show, she had been completely usurped by Trump-ism and this huge cultural force which has solidified that divide that erupted in our story."
Hillary's arc in Impeachment, she adds, is the arc they always wanted to tell for that character, no matter when the season premiered. It was about exploring what the situation would've been like for her. Instead of depicting a first lady blissfully unaware of her husband's indiscretions, they met her at the moment Clinton comes clean about the accusations. Edie Falco appeared as Hillary in the early episodes of Impeachment but becomes a more prominent figure by the final episodes.
"One of the guiding forces for us were the ways in which Hillary Clinton constantly had to use her body to rescue her husband and to 'stand by her man,'" Simpson recalls. "She was one of the most complicated figures in our writers room. Our writers were mostly women, they were all Millennials, they met Hillary in a different way than Nina and I did. We're Generation X."
What remained for that character was the idea of "public humiliation." It's only after Hillary endures the humiliation of Bill's scandal that she's offered to become a New York senator.
"We were always very struck by this notion that the only thing that could make America like a strong woman like Hillary Clinton was to see her utterly humiliated," Jacobson adds. "That's so disturbing and hard to miss."
The producers' main goal was to have empathy for all the characters, particularly the women. Discarded by the political animals using her for their own gain, Jones turned to Penthouse magazine to make money, another instance of a woman trapped in a version of herself she cannot escape (the nude photoshoot). And by the time Ashlie Atkinson's Juanita Broaddrick finally got the opportunity to share her allegations of being raped by Clinton, the American audience was more concerned with catching the Grammy Awards ceremony, and her story was lost in the footnotes of the impeachment proceedings.
Perhaps it was this empathy that made Jacobson surprised to see how many people saw Tripp as a "loathsome" character. She points to the Television Critics Association tour when reporters brought up the fact in a virtual press conference.
"No one in our show seeks to excuse any of the choices she made," Jacobson continues. "We certainly try to be in her shoes and understand those choices. From the beginning, you could see that people still would consume the show so differently based on who they are, what their perspective is."
The producers were also aware of the criticisms lodged at the casting of Tripp. Many on social media decried Impeachment for not choosing a plus-sized actor to fill the role and instead used prosthetics on Paulson. It's something the actress herself grappled with, telling The Los Angeles Times that the controversy is "a legitimate one."
"I think that Allison Tripp's statement where she couldn't believe how much Sarah captured her mother — it was like having her mother back on screen in front of her from the littlest nuance — shows why we cast her," Simpson says of Tripp's daughter's comments to Vanity Fair. "Linda was a woman who had a complicated relationship with food who was different sizes at different points in her life who went through radical transformations with plastic surgery. Sarah did have prosthetic padding assistance as part of that. I think that she gives one of the best performances of her career."
"I will also add that, generally speaking, when men transform for a role, people love it and talk about what an amazing transformation," Jacobson says. "Like Christian Bale was in his transformation in Vice. I do think that our double standard and our cultural misogyny that a very, very different perspective was applied to Sarah. She put on the weight and then she embodied with a movement coach this performance. We went to her because she's an extraordinary talent who is able to completely disappear into a role in a way that very few people can. Had it been a man playing a male figure with prosthetics, I don't even think the conversation would have been remotely at that same pitch."
It's already clear the story of Impeachment won't change every person's mind. Jacobson recalls "how much abject misogyny was still directed" towards Lewinsky in the comments section of a New York Times piece, her first big interview to promote Impeachment.
"Sometimes you're reminded that the more things change, the more things stay the same," she remarks. So, was Impeachment made more for Lewinsky than anyone else? Jacobson doesn't necessarily agree with that.
"Her involvement was critical as we looked at a woman who has been muzzled during the time that all of this took place," she says. "None of these women had control over their own narratives. I think we wanted all of them to be given dimensionality and complexity that none of them were given at the time. Certainly because we want to go with the person at our side, we were always very mindful of what the experience was for her. But we were compelled by the story and these characters and this play of women in the margins of power."
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