Monica Lewinsky consulted on 'every word' of Impeachment: American Crime Story
It's no secret that Monica Lewinsky was involved with the Impeachment season of American Crime Story, which dramatizes the events of the 1998 Bill Clinton scandal. But some of the cast and crew explained just how involved Lewinsky was in shaping the story being told during a Television Critics Association press tour panel held virtually on Friday.
Lewinsky got a say in "every word" and "every script page" of the show, says actress Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart) who plays the former intern-turned-activist.
Speaking specifically to the second episode, Feldstein said, "When I received the scripts, I knew that every word that I was saying was approved and had been to Monica first... [The producers] would go through the scripts with her and [she would] give all her feedback and her notes. And by the time it got to me, I was sure that everything in there was something that she felt comfortable with, she felt was real to her life and represented her."
Executive producer/writer Sarah Burgess added how she and EP Ryan Murphy met with Lewinsky met privately. For episode 2, Burgess "added a couple of moments that Monica told me about, and went through all of that with her to make it as accurate as possible."
The producers of Impeachment: American Crime Story, including Brad Simpson and Nina Jacobson, first optioned the rights to Jeffrey Toobin's book A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President around 2015. Toobin was originally listed as a consultant on Impeachment when the season was first announced. However, Simpson skirted a question from a reporter regarding whether he was still involved in that capacity.
"Monica Lewinsky was our main consultant in terms of outside consultants on the show this season," he said, adding how they "relied on her for specificity and veracity." However, their sources spanned "the many, many, many, many books and documentaries and grand jury testimonies that were written" about the scandal.
The season's arc centers primarily on the perspectives of three women: Feldstein's Lewinsky, Sarah Paulson's Linda Tripp, and Annaleigh Ashford's Paula Jones. Tripp, a White House employee, was one of Lewinsky's closest confidantes in the '90s who secretly recorded their phone conversations. Jones had sued President Clinton, played on the show by Clive Owen, for sexual harassment.
Burgess said she did not consult with the real Tripp before her death in April 2020, nor did she consult with the real Jones.
"Monica, to us, always felt… There's just no experience comparable to that and [it] always just felt important and very clear that we would work with her and speak to her about every script page," Burgess explained. "It feels like in 1998, our culture created a second Monica Lewinsky that doesn't bear any relationship to the real person."
For her, and according to Burgess, for Lewinsky, it was most important to understand "that a real human being arrived in Washington and went through these experiences, understanding the pressures that she was under, the surreal experience she was in with this affair with the president, and then everything she went through as the story came out."
Jacobson noted that Lewinsky was "incredibly mindful of not wanting to speak to rooms she had not been in" and wanting to "access these characters through empathy." Therefore, she did not want to speak for how the Clintons were portrayed, including Edie Falco's Hillary Clinton. (Simpson remarked how Hillary won't watch the show despite their attempts to empathize with her perspective.)
However, Simpson said it was very important to Lewinsky that her relationship with Clinton be seen as "mutual and consensual."
"She had agency in it, unlike the way it was portrayed at the time," he continued. "It was very important she retained her agency… There was a power dynamic that she couldn't see. She was too young and too in love. It's amazing to me how many older people still make casual Monica Lewinsky jokes. I hope the show changes people's minds. At an event in New York, 17-year-olds lined up to meet Monica. She represents someone very different to them. She was the first person who was publicly shamed on the internet. [We show] what happened and who was really at fault, who had the responsibility to be mature, who had the responsibility not to have an affair with an intern. There are going to be some people's minds we can't change. This is America."
In order for a subject to be considered for the American Crime Story treatment, Jacobson said it has to be "a crime that we are guilty of collectively as Americans."
"I can't think of a story that fits the bill any better than this one as far as that goes because we are deeply, deeply implicated in the way that we represented these women, treated these women, and we are as guilty as the rest of them in any respects — minus the tape recorder."
Impeachment: American Crime Story premieres Sept. 7 on FX.