Impeachment stars Sarah Paulson and Beanie Feldstein break down the tense wire tap scene
Warning: Spoilers from episode 5 of Impeachment: American Crime Story are discussed in this article.
Tension fills every second of Linda Tripp's lunch with Monica Lewinsky in Impeachment: American Crime Story's fifth episode.
After months of secretly (and illegally) recording their phone conversations, Tripp is coached by the FBI and independent counsel Ken Starr's team to legally record her Pentagon colleague over a meal at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C. The recording of that lunch, presented to the House Judiciary Committee in 1998 during Bill Clinton's impeachment trial, ran almost three hours — the team behind Impeachment: American Crime Story (airing Tuesdays on FX) had to somehow distill that down to just seven minutes.
"The momentum from episode 5 into episode 6 was really striking to me when I watched it," says Beanie Feldstein, who plays Lewinsky on the drama. "It's an underlying sense of anxiety that permeates through the entire fifth episode, culminating in the [wire tap] scene. There's just a knot in your stomach as you're watching it, which I obviously felt as Monica when we were filming it."
Impeachment executive producer Sarah Burgess, who wrote the season's story, was "intimidated" tackling the scene. Specifically, "taking this real event that I knew I had to wrestle with for a long time" and condense it into a dramatized sequence. She cherry-picked specific quotes from the actual recording to sprinkle throughout, while taking artistic license when accuracy wasn't possible.
"It was one of their final times together," she says of Tripp and Lewinsky. "This very important relationship, which dominates the first half of the season. I struggled with episode 5 in a lot of ways. I returned home to New York to write it because I was struggling with feeling connected to Tripp. What she was doing, it was tough, morally speaking."
Feldstein and her costar Sarah Paulson (Tripp) pored over the recording as if it were their latest podcast obsession. Paulson felt more interested in "the parts of the conversation that took place upstairs" — as in, "the preparing that Linda was doing with the FBI."
"And most significantly her comment, 'I hope I don't let you down,' which was really something she said," the Emmy winner adds. "I thought that was such a telling indicator of what was motivating and driving her. Once I was listening to the actual conversation between Linda and Monica, where I could hear Linda trying to negotiate with herself in a way, it was just apparent to me that she was nervous much more so in the home conversations where she's taping Monica. I can feel how much she knows is at stake. It was a confirmation of what I had come to believe was guiding her. She believed she was doing the right thing."
Paulson felt incredibly "vulnerable and exposed" while filming this sequence, largely due to her hair. Tripp, she points out, never wore her hair up. But, sure enough, in the real photographs taken of the two of them by the FBI, her hair was up that day.
"I felt so much of my look as Linda had to do with this '90s hairdo. And when that was gone, I didn't fully feel like Linda," she explains. "I thought, 'Instead of me fighting this as an actor, why don't I lean into this reality."
Feldstein believes she and her costar had two opposing tasks in the wiretap scene: "[Tripp] knows everything and has to pretend she knows nothing, and [Lewinsky] knows nothing, but I, as Beanie, know everything. It was an interesting push and pull."
The actress didn't realize the real Lewinsky searched through Tripp's purse at one point during this lunch, but it was one of those "incredibly specific details" she says gives you "so much insight into how she was feeling in that moment." When Tripp feels her microphone fall down her blouse, she frantically excuses herself to go to the bathroom to fix it, leaving Lewinsky time with her panicked thoughts.
"She can feel the walls closing in on her and yet, because everyone is denying that, it makes her feel like she's going crazy," Feldstein adds.
The quick micro-cuts and diopter shots all enhanced the characters' growing paranoia. Feldstein credits their director, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, for bringing "such energy" and "a specific pacing."
Paulson, who worked with the filmmaker on FX on Hulu's Mrs. America, "trusted her completely" with Tripp's "knife's-edge dance" in the scene. "You want the audience to see what I'm feeling, but I can't have Monica see it too clearly," she says. "Laure helped me balance how much to show."
Impeachment: American Crime Story airs on FX Tuesday nights.