‘Impeachment’ Star Annaleigh Ashford Wonders Whether We’d Treat Monica Lewinsky Differently Today

The latest season of "American Crime Story" touches on the apologies being made toward women who spoke up about sexual harassment and assault.
Impeachment: American Crime Story "Exiles” Episode 1 (Airs Tuesday, September 7) -- Pictured: Annaleigh Ashford as Paula Jones. CR: Tina Thorpe/FX
"Impeachment: American Crime Story"
Tina Thorpe/FX

Amidst all the discussion surrounding the recent release of FX’s “Impeachment: American Crime Story” is the universal acknowledgment that the series attempts to tell Clinton/Lewinsky scandal through the eyes of women. Within the last few years, television has taken off the nostalgia glasses to illustrate how audiences didn’t necessarily know everything as history was being made, and that’s how showrunner Sarah Burgess wanted to look at “Impeachment.”

Series creator Ryan Murphy always envisioned the series as being told through the eyes of Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson), Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein), and Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford), Burgess told IndieWire. Though she was a child when the scandal originally started she always noted how adults of that era reflected back on it. “There’s this incorrect belief that Monica Lewinsky enjoyed wanting the story to become public,” Burgess said. “[In fact], she did not want this to come out. She worked hard for it not to come out, and risked a lot to conceal what had happened.”

For most millennials, especially in the post-#MeToo era, watching “Impeachment” touches on a lot of the apologies being made toward women who spoke up about sexual harassment and assault. Burgess and Ashford both remembered cruelties being lobbed at Lewinsky, Tripp, and Jones, mostly through late night comedy shows like “Saturday Night Live.” “I find it so apropos that I’m playing one of these women [who] I watched be brutalized in the comedy space,” Ashford said. “[Paula Jones] was just made fun of mercilessly for her accent, from the place that she came from. She was constantly referred to as ‘trailer trash’ by her adversaries.”

In diving into the series, Burgess was struck by the rampant sympathy for former President Bill Clinton (played in the series by Clive Owen) and for special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. “[Society] chose him as their avatar and people felt he was being treated unfairly,” said Burgess. With our current outlook on how victims of harassment and sexual assault are treated, Ashford wonders if we’d respond differently today to Lewinsky’s story and she’s, sadly, mixed on the subject.

“You’re reminded that Monica Lewinsky was the first person bullied on the internet,” said Ashford. “We try to imagine that she wouldn’t be bullied now and we would be better as a culture and society […] but I, unfortunately, think she would be just as bullied on the internet now as she would be then.” At the same time, Ashford felt extreme empathy for her character, Paula Jones, doing extensive research and watching interviews with her. “It was so clear that her first and foremost objective, which she wanted more than anything in life, was to please her husband,” Ashford said.

Impeachment: American Crime Story "Exiles” Episode 1 (Airs Tuesday, September 7) -- Pictured: Beanie Fieldstein as Monica Lewinsky. CR: Tina Thorpe/FX
“Impeachment: American Crime Story”FX Network

Much of the series focuses on how others, as well as the women at the center of it, respond to their looks. “If you say a woman is ugly, she’s essentially invisible,” said Burgess, and in doing research both her and Ashford noticed how so much of the scandal boiled down to these women’s appearances. Burgess said most people’s memories, at this point, are reliant on photos. She saw aesthetics as a point of connection between Lewinsky and Linda Tripp. To tell a story set in the ’90s, Burgess recalled the decade’s obsession with low-fat foods like Snackwells. Those messages were internalized in the showrunner as she got older, to the point she went on a diet of just cereal in high school in the hopes of being thinner.

Ashford said the costuming and makeup for her performance was crucial. “I found it very helpful to lean into her physical appearance,” she said. “And make sure we were matching up the hair specifically with the eye makeup. I felt personally like the nose was so important because it was almost like another character in her life. It was a piece of her that was so just constantly ridiculed.”

There’s a hope that audiences will walk away from “Impeachment” with a grander understanding of all three women, both their convoluted motivations and the ways they were pawns in a government that failed to support them. “They were jokes,” said Burgess. “They are not a joke. We’re in their shoes and we understand.”

“Impeachment: American Crime Story” airs new episodes on FX every Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET.

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