Although “Impeachment: American Crime Story” has been described as being based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book, “A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President,” the greatest source the show had, the stars and producers noted during the Television Critics Assn. press tour panel for the show, was Monica Lewinsky herself.
“I had the great gift of that, when I received the scripts, I knew that every word that I was saying was approved by and had been to Monica first,” said actor Beanie Feldstein, who portrays Lewinsky in the limited series. She added that the producers “would go through the scripts with [Monica] 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 thought was real to her life, and felt represented her.”
Lewinsky signed onto the third installment in FX’s “American Crime Story” anthology as a producer and her memoir, “Monica’s Story,” became integral to writer and executive producer Sarah Burgess specifically for the second episode, when the show really starts to dive into the flirtation between President Bill Clinton (Clive Owen) and Lewinsky.
“Obviously this is Monica story, but it’s also like all ‘American Crime Story’ [in that] we’re showing a tapestry of characters and we always strive to have radical empathy and figure out what it’s like to walk in their shoes,” said executive producer Brad Simpson. “And so, she allowed us to go to some really wild places as you see from the [episodes] themselves, but also it’s not like she was having a heavy hand in other characters storylines. She gave us just regular producer notes on those.”
Simpson noted that the writers and producers ended up relying on “many, many, many, many books and documentaries and Grand Jury testimonies that were written and processed about this.” But executive producer Nina Jacobson noted there was a clear and imperative reason to give Lewinsky a voice both on-screen in having her story centered in this series and behind the scenes.
“Monica is a woman who did not have a voice during this entire, really unbelievably overwhelming, series of events that happened,” she pointed out. “And the thought that she’s literally muzzled by Ken Starr, by her lawyer, and that she cannot speak — she’s told, ‘You can’t even talk to your friends because they could be subpoenaed.’ And so, to have been silenced and really culturally banished for 20 years, there was no way we could make the show and not give her a voice.”
Other key women in the series are Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson) and Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford), but those real-life women were not involved in the production. Burgess confirmed she did not speak to Tripp before Tripp died in 2020. But those women had opportunities to speak out in the moment, unlike Lewinsky.
“It feels like in 1998 our culture created a second Monica Lewinsky that doesn’t bear any relationship to the real person,” Burgess said. “So I think for me and for Monica, [it was about] the understanding [of the] real human being who arrived in Washington and went through these experiences, understanding the pressures that she was under, the surreal experience.”
That experience also included her friendship-gone-wrong with Tripp. That relationship — not Clinton and Lewinsky’s relationship — is the central one of the show. (In fact, most of what occurs between Clinton and Lewinsky is only discussed by characters after the fact, not dramatized.)
Research became equally important to the actors, who each had different relationships to the story as it unfolded in history. Feldstein, for one, admitted “no one likes” when she mentions how young she was in the 1990s, but “because of my age at the time, I was really taking this in for the first time. So, in that way I didn’t have my own preconceived notions.” Her process was to meet Lewinsky (only once in person pre-pandemic, she said) and create a friendship.
“She would answer anything I had questions about, but it was easier and more useful for me to just be around her spirit and text her,” Feldstein said. “We would send videos to each other … She was incredibly giving, and I made it very clear to her when we started filming that I saw myself as her bodyguard. I was like, ‘I’m putting my body in for you. I’m going to protect you. I have your back. I know your heart.’ And that’s my job.”
Ashford relied on “finding every clip that we possibly could of her, which was extremely telling and it was such a shift in her body language. As time passed, you could see her getting more comfortable in front of people in front of a camera, you could tell that she was getting coaching and a little help as time went on, but I always felt that there was a childlike quality about her. That [there] was always somebody else at the wheel. So, it was really important for me to show that physically.”
Unlike the previous “American Crime Story” season, which started with the murder of Gianni Versace and then flashed back to explain the events that led to such a horrible act, “Impeachment” leads up to the “Impeachment,” origin story style, with some integral figures in the political part of it not even entering the show until the latter half. (Starr is an example of one such character.)
“When this impeachment happened, it was unprecedented at the time,” Simpson recalled. “There hasn’t been an impeachment since Andrew Johnson; it had been 100 years or over 100 years. Also during the administration, it was the first government shutdown. What we show in the show was the beginning of some of the hyper-partisanship and the tribalism that we see today.”
But, Jacobson added, “Impeachment has more than one meaning, and Bill Clinton is not the only character who was impeached over the course of this series.”
“Impeachment: American Crime Story” premieres Sept. 7 at 10 p.m. on FX.