The latest installment of Ryan Murphy’s FX anthology reframes the Clinton scandal from the perspective of the women it engulfed — including producer Monica Lewinsky: “As hard as it might have been for us, it was harder for her.”
When word first leaked that Ryan Murphy would be centering an upcoming installment of his American Crime Story on the events that led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Monica Lewinsky couldn’t help but panic.
It was early 2017, and the former White House intern turned Clinton paramour had only recently reclaimed her narrative, a herculean task that began in earnest with an empowering Ted Talk and an essay in Vanity Fair. And though she had devoured the first season of the FX series, which rehashed the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, she wasn’t too keen on having her own past revisited — and really, who could blame her? She’d been only 22 when she entered into a secret and ultimately profile-destroying affair with the president, who was 27 years her senior and infinitely more powerful.
“You go to bed one night a private person, and the next day you’re a public human being and the whole world hates you. And you might go to jail. And you’re going to bankrupt your family. And, and, and …” she recalls over Zoom in late July. “And just because I wasn’t on the news every night for 20 years in the same way that I was in 1998 doesn’t mean that this story ended. Ten years on, I still could not get a job. I couldn’t support myself.”
Over time, and at least one run-in, several phone calls and a dinner in Manhattan, Murphy urged Lewinsky to reconsider, insisting that the series would recast the late-1990s saga from the perspective of the women involved. He’d make her a producer, too, and have her weigh in on sets and scripts and whatever else she had strong feelings about. He’d even throw in a development deal. In fact, Murphy vowed not to move forward unless she was on board; of course, once she was, he larded the cast with recognizable names, from Beanie Feldstein (as Lewinsky) and Sarah Paulson (Linda Tripp) to Clive Owen (Bill Clinton) and Edie Falco (Hillary Clinton).
When the part of Linda Tripp was first proposed, Sarah Paulson (with Feldstein) told Ryan Murphy he was insane. Then she read the pilot: “It was an opportunity to do a deeper dive into the stories we thought we knew.” Courtesy of Tina Thorpe/FX
When the finished product — a 10-episode season titled Impeachment: American Crime Story — begins rolling out Sept. 7, it will attempt to show how Lewinsky and others on the margins of power lost control of their narratives and, later, their entire identities. And though she has a few quibbles with what made it or was left out, she’s genuinely pleased with what will unfurl — which is not to suggest Lewinsky has stopped panicking. Watching a stable of actors reenact the darkest period in her life has been enormously triggering, so much so that she’s employed a therapist simply to sit with her on Zoom as she does her notes on the series so that she’s not alone. “Because it’s hard,” she says. “It’s really hard, especially with the dramatic license that needs to be taken …”
The first Crime Story installment, 2016 Emmy winner The People v. O.J. Simpson, was still deep in production when its producers, Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson, became enamored with Clinton’s impeachment as a potential next subject. “It had all the hallmarks of Crime Story,” says Simpson, rattling them off one by one: “A national scandal where you think you know everything about it but you actually don’t; a broad, Altman-esque cast of characters where you can do a big tableau; and a crime that America is guilty of, too.” That they could leverage another Jeffrey Toobin book as source material, as they had on O.J., made it that much more compelling.
Determining what their way in would be, and how, exactly, the Clintons would fit, would take years, however, and at least a few false starts. “You have to remember, when we began work on this, we thought Hillary was going to be president,” says Jacobson, who insists they were prepared to move forward regardless: “I mean, we were, who knows whether they [the corporate bosses] would have been.” At one point, there were discussions about never actually showing Bill Clinton, relying instead on an assumption that he was perpetually just out of frame — that idea was scrapped, along with a few others.
“Every time we’d get it up the hill, it would roll back down,” recalls Murphy, who was more willing than his partners to walk away. In those days, he was much more invested in Andrew Cunanan, the 1990s spree killer who’d murdered designer Gianni Versace, and the story it told about the internalized homophobia of the period. At Murphy’s urging, they’d do the Cunanan season first. Not long after it debuted — and, like O.J., cleaned up on the awards circuit — Murphy inked a sweeping deal with Netflix and, at least for a time, took a back seat on the franchise. Still, the team continued to workshop other possible subjects, from Hurricane Katrina to a 1970s Mafia story, neither of which got liftoff. All the while, Brad Simpson, in particular, refused to let Impeachment go.
Then came a cultural reckoning, spurred on by the #MeToo movement, which made a planned reframing of the impeachment story from the perspective of three women — in this case, Lewinsky, Tripp and Paula Jones — feel timely and fresh. FX chairman John Landgraf was all in. “We’d never seen a political thriller centered on those who don’t have political power,” he says, “and doing so would be the kind of radical shift in perspective that American Crime Story is known for.” They’d need a female writer, and Sarah Burgess, a young, in-demand playwright whom Simpson had met a few years earlier, was suddenly available. She was still in New York, nursing a broken heart over a failed TV pilot and a play she hadn’t quite nailed, when a note from Simpson landed in her inbox. Its subject line read, simply, “Monica.”
But Burgess wasn’t initially convinced she was right for the project, and not just because the first installment of Crime Story was one of the best seasons of television she’d seen in she couldn’t remember how long. Her relative unfamiliarity with one of the biggest political and cultural stories of the 20th century also gave her pause. She was only 14 when Clinton was impeached, and despite her D.C.-adjacent upbringing, she hadn’t been engulfed in the saga of Jones’ sexual harassment suit against the president or the secret recordings Tripp made of her conversations with Lewinsky. At Simpson’s urging, Burgess began reading a curated collection of books and articles, and soon she was down a rabbit hole with tapes, emails and FBI interviews.
“That’s when I realized it was really a story about these sort of invisible office ladies — the people whose desks you walk by to see the person who actually matters,” she says, having homed in on Tripp and Lewinsky, both White House exiles who bonded as employees at the Pentagon, where Burgess’ own mom once worked. “Then I started to write in that voice, and it just came natural.” By the time she’d mapped out the first few episodes, with an assist from a tiny, largely female writers room and the heavy hand of Simpson and Jacobson, Murphy had successfully wooed Lewinsky. In late summer 2019, Burgess sat face-to-face with her subject for the first time. She says now, “I’ve never been more nervous to meet anyone in my entire life.”
Murphy had read only 30 pages of Burgess’ pilot when he grabbed his phone and texted Paulson. “The Crime Story script came in great,” he told his muse, who promptly read what he had and wholeheartedly agreed. Then she slipped it to her partner, Holland Taylor, who read it and reacted as she had: “She took her glasses off and said, ‘I think that might be the best thing I’ve ever read,’ ” recalls Paulson.
Before the project had stalled the first time, Murphy had floated the idea of Paulson playing Tripp, but the actress was hardly convinced, much less enthusiastic, until now. “I’d had my own opinions about who Linda was,” she says, “and I thought, ‘What could possibly be interesting about diving into that story and that woman?’ ” By early 2020, prior to the pandemic pushing the production’s initial start date, Paulson had perfected Tripp’s voice and, with medical supervision, put on 30 pounds for the role. She relied on additional padding for her shoulders and prosthetics for her nose and worked closely with a movement coach to complete a transformation that should put Paulson squarely in next year’s awards race.
Feldstein was Murphy’s next call, and the only actress he considered to play Lewinsky. What he didn’t know when he tracked her down in London, where she’d been staying with her girlfriend, was that Feldstein had just cited Lewinsky when asked in an interview which real person she’d love to play. Now that it could become a reality, with the aid of wigs and some shapewear, she couldn’t sign on fast enough. It was a different type of role than the actress had ever had — dramatic and sexualized — which made it that much more enticing. “I’m normally with my backpack against a locker just trying to get through a high school day,” says the Booksmart star. Lewinsky had seen her in the latter and says she remembers thinking to herself as she watched the film, “God, she reminds me of me at that age.”
Before long, Feldstein, who was barely out of diapers when Lewinsky was embroiled in scandal, had thrown herself into research; and unlike her co-stars, a who’s who of Hollywood that also includes Billy Eichner (as Matt Drudge), Cobie Smulders (Ann Coulter) and Margo Martindale (Lucianne Goldberg), Feldstein had the woman she was portraying available as a resource as well. The two met for the first time in March 2020 at Lewinsky’s New York City apartment, where they bonded over their love of show tunes and their Jewish upbringings in L.A., and have Zoomed, texted and sent scores of videos back and forth in the year and a half since. Historically, the show’s producers have opposed such a dynamic; in fact, beginning in season one, they strongly discouraged their actors from reaching out to the people they’d be portraying, at least not early in the process when their performances could still be influenced. Here, however, they insist that Lewinsky’s participation was not only important but also meaningfully additive, particularly because she’d been under a gag order and thus without a voice during much of the period the series explores — they also insist that there were certain precautions in place. Lewinsky was never on set when Feldstein was in character, for instance; in fact, she came to set only once during production, on a day devoted to Paula Jones (played by Annaleigh Ashford), because, as Jacobson says, “it was less fraught.”
Still, Feldstein likens her role to that of Lewinsky’s “deeply protective” bodyguard and says, often, “All I care about is what Monica thinks.” Burgess, too, has grappled with a desire to do right by her subject, so much so that she kept an infamous scene featured in the Starr Report, in which Lewinsky flashes a sliver of her thong to Clinton, out of her initial script for fear of, as she puts it, “retraumatizing Monica.” Ironically, it was Lewinsky who read the draft where it would naturally fit and convinced Burgess to reconsider. “Listen, I would’ve loved to have been really selfish and said, ‘That’s great that you guys think we don’t have to show that, fantastic,’ but I’m incredibly experienced in understanding how people see this story,” says Lewinsky, who also acknowledges that she’d be blamed for its absence regardless of her involvement. “So, ultimately, I felt two things: One was that I shouldn’t get a pass because I’m a producer; and two, that it was unfair to the team and to the project because it would leave everybody vulnerable.”
At this stage, Lewinsky has had the opportunity to weigh in on every scene in the series, which she did in often highly emotional sessions over Zoom. Her most extensive notes were almost always on those scenes in which she’s portrayed and typically would center on the moments that were cut or left out for time or dramatic reasons. She visited the writers room early on to field questions — “If I feel comfortable with people, I have no problem talking about anything,” says Lewinsky, “and I also knew that the deeper I dug, the more valuable it was” — and then she worked closely with Burgess to infuse more of her personal backstory into what, with her help, became considerably more revealing monologues for Feldstein to deliver. Along the way, Lewinsky also suggested tweaks to the language that Clinton would use with her and advocated for a kind of gentler treatment of Jones (who, like everyone else depicted, was not consulted). In fact, the only place where Lewinsky didn’t feel comfortable offering notes was on the more intimate moments between Bill and Hillary — for, as she says, “myriad, obvious reasons.”
No part of the process has been easy, and certain scenes, particularly those that depict Lewinsky being secretly recorded by a woman she considered a close friend, were especially hard for her to have to rehash. That she’d become close to Paulson, the actress playing Tripp, added an additional layer of complexity. “It’s been really, really complicated,” says Simpson, who’s been in the trenches with Lewinsky for nearly two years now. “To be actively talking to somebody about what is a trauma for them and turning it into a narrative product is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. There’s been fights, there’s been tears, there’s been moments of great joy — and all in the service of trying to be authentic and also trying to give fair shake to everyone in the story. And as hard as it might have been for us, it was harder for her.”
For a project that’s had Hollywood buzzing for months now, there’s palpable anxiety as its early September premiere approaches.
Certainly some of it’s natural, coming off of a long, tough shoot, made longer and tougher by a global pandemic. What would have been five or six months became roughly double that as the series navigated a maze of surges and shutdowns. “It was an endurance test for everyone,” acknowledges Murphy, who directed multiple episodes. At a certain point, those involved say the complications became almost comical in their abundance. They couldn’t get Clive Owen out of the country to see his family, or later back in; then Paulson tripped and broke her wrist just days before she was supposed to shoot the “tapes” episode, which largely consisted of her character holding a telephone.
“They kept saying, ‘We’ll just get a hand double,’ and I’d say, ‘Over my dead body,’ ” recounts Paulson, who jokes that it was the ghost of Tripp who kicked her up the stairs. “But with all the work I’d been doing on my physicality, I said, ‘No, I’ll be picking up the phone, I’ll be pressing the buttons, I’ll be smoking the cigarettes, I’ll be doing the close-ups, you’re just going to have to wait.’ “
Some of the anxiety is just jitters, mostly about how the Clintons might react, though scenes with either have been vetted and vetted again by the series’ producers. To date, nobody involved with the show has heard a peep from the Clinton camp, and few, if any, expect to. The consensus: “Bill and Hillary have both spoken and written books about this time in their lives, and they’ve had the opportunity to weigh in meaningfully and thoroughly with their feelings,” says Walt Disney Television chairman of entertainment Dana Walden, a self-proclaimed “Hillary fan,” who, via Hulu, distributed her 2020 documentary in which the scandal was broached. “I also think that it’s fair and it’s right for there to be an opportunity for the women who were involved in this scandal to be able to have their truth told, beginning with Monica.”
Cobie Smulders’ husband, Taran Killam, also in the show, was enlisted to help persuade her to play controversial conservative commentator Ann Coulter. Courtesy of Tina Thorpe/FX
While Falco’s Hillary is barely in the first six episodes of the series, Owen’s Clinton is central to the story, even if his is not the lens through which it’s told. And though, ultimately, he was lured by the scripts and the challenge, he’s said to have had his share of concerns about portraying the former president — not the least of which were, “I don’t look like him, and I’m English,” says the actor, who relied on an accent coach, prosthetics and an on-set routine of listening to Clinton deliver his more famous speeches or read his biography aloud. Simpson praises Owen simply for taking on the role. “Here’s a male actor who signed on to a show where he understood that the framing device was the women, and he’s brought such intensity and focus to it,” he says, careful to add: “But there are few white hats in this season — a lot of people exist in the world of gray and moral ambiguity.”
There’s also the uncertainty of a rapidly changing television landscape, where a prestige series being rolled out weekly on a traditional cable network is suddenly a risky proposition. “I don’t remember the last time that there was a really watercooler show that was scripted on a linear cable channel,” acknowledges Landgraf, who isn’t able to put his crown jewel on Hulu, next day or otherwise, care of a preexisting deal with Netflix, which will exclusively stream Impeachment in 2022. “I just don’t know whether the pipes are still there to galvanize people’s attention … but we’re going to find out.”
Landgraf’s concerns about the viability of the cable model shouldn’t be confused with enthusiasm he has about the franchise, for which he’s already readying more installments, including one centered on Studio 54 and the epic rise and fall of its backers. (If they can figure out exactly how to do it, Murphy would love to see one on the pharmaceutical industry, too.) In fact, earlier in August, he ordered two more spinoffs — American Love Story and American Sports Story — via Murphy’s former home, 20th Century Fox TV, which only led to more speculation that Murphy could return to what is now Disney when his Netflix deal expires in a few years. Walden, who counts 20th TV within her purview and Murphy among her closest friends, would like nothing more. “I don’t think there’s any point in being coy about the fact that my dream would be for Ryan to come back to work with us at our studio,” she says. “I hope that’s an opportunity at one point, and that’s said with no disrespect to our competition. I think they were brilliant to pick him.”
For the time being, Murphy’s focused on trying to keep Lewinsky positive as the series inches closer to the finish line. “My mantra to Monica has been, ‘Just hang on,’ ” he says, confident that viewers will see her in a new light once all 10 episodes air. Lewinsky’s hopeful that will happen, too, though she insists it’s not her only motive. “Of course I have a number of selfish reasons for wanting to participate,” she says, “but a big goal for me is that this never happens to another young person again.” And though Lewinsky is still making peace with the process, she’s considerably more prepared for the spotlight than she was two-plus decades ago. Still, she says, shortly before the first trailer drops, “I’m nervous about being misunderstood again.”