How 'Impeachment: 'American Crime Story' Documents Bill and Monica's Affair
The second episode of the season shows that fateful meeting between the former President and White House intern.
The first episode of Impeachment: American Crime Story doesn't really spend all that much time with Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein). Of the triad of women the series places at its center, that initial hour is more preoccupied with introducing the audience to Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson), a civil servant whose recorded conversations with Lewinsky were at the center of the scandal, and Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford), who worked for the Arkansas government and sued Bill Clinton in 1994, alleging that he exposed himself to her while he was governor of the state. But that all changes in Episode 2, which aired Tuesday night on FX. (Unfortunately, Impeachment is not in the FX on Hulu, next-day streaming drop deal.) With a title as explicit as "The President Kissed Me," you know what you're getting: a documentation of the courtship between President Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
On screen, we hear how it happened through Monica, starry-eyed as she spills to her new confidant Linda about their courtship. As for picking out what to depict, showrunner Sarah Burgess, the playwright tasked with bringing the story to life, had some choices to make. Would she show some of the more salacious stories from the Starr Report, the official federal report on the affair? Would she explain what happened linearly, or jump back and forth in time? For support, she relied on both her research and the consultation of the real-life Monica Lewinsky, an executive producer on the series herself. Burgess walked Thrillist through how she brought it all to life.
Thrillist: Episode 2 is where we see the start of the relationship between Bill and Monica. What were the early discussions about how you wanted to tackle seeing them on screen together?
Sarah Burgess: It was a bit of a tortured process, particularly between me and [executive producer] Brad Simpson as we developed this episode because there was a choice to make. Do you tell the story of Monica Lewinsky's arrival in Washington and her meeting Bill Clinton and then the ensuing months of seeing each other in the halls, but nothing happening in a linear fashion? Do we drop out of the timeline of our story? Or do you inevitably play with time a bit and have flashbacks, but root the story in 1996? Essentially, after we met Monica when she arrives in the Pentagon, things are not going great for her, to put it mildly. She'd been in limbo waiting to return to the White House. She was told she would return when [Clinton] wins the reelection. Because the build of the relationship between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was something that happened over many months, you always are going to have to condense time there. And it ended up becoming clear after a lot of discussion that it's very important to me to show Monica at work, having a normal morning and being told that she was going into the West Wing—this glimpse of Monica before everything happened.
This is a story about Monica's point of view and not Bill Clinton's point of view. My intention was to elevate Linda, Paula, and Monica to be equal to the most powerful couple in the world, and that was a choice that I will strongly defend and stand behind. And so, I became very interested in Monica really telling the story of Bill Clinton to Linda, and then we see and experience those scenes through Beanie taking us through it and then those flashbacks. And then the question became, of course, which flashbacks? How to show them, which ones to write? Monica was involved in that process, and that was a whole other layer of conversation.
How did Monica shape which of these flashbacks you wanted to see?
It's a really good question. To name one example, of course, there's this moment that became a huge deal because it was in the Starr Report in the late '90s—which is this almost mythical event that everyone who was an adult in 1998 seemed to have known about—which is that she slightly showed a little bit of her thong to him in an office. And I did not initially put that into my script until Monica Lewinsky was like, "Look, everyone knows this happened. I think you need to put it in." So that I wrote really in collaboration with her.
And then, there was another moment that really came from Monica, which is, there's a flashback where we see Monica and Bill accidentally encountering each other in a hallway, but actually it feels like it was kind of intentional, which it was. That also is something that happened that Monica contributed that she told me about. We ended up with a lot of different flashbacks on the page, but then as we shot the lunch scene with Linda and Monica and then shot these flashbacks and it was assembled, it really felt like there was a place for a lot of them. So those two events, I would say, really came from Monica.
I had initially written the scene together in George Stephanopoulos' office when it's the first time Bill and Monica are alone in a room together. The pizza scene and stuff like that are all based on real events. I had written some of those and then showed them to Monica and then she noted those things. So it was a combination, the two scenes that came from her suggestion and the others were things that I drafted and then revised based on her notes.
How did you want to portray the complicated power dynamic between them?
My task was to write the scenes from the point of view of Bill and Monica. Because I could speak with Monica and also she has written about this so specifically—even recently, she wrote in Vanity Fair in the last few years about reconsidering [the events]. I don't want to speak for her. People can go read that article. But obviously, the power that the President of the United States has ended up acting upon Monica in a very difficult way. You can't call him. So in the '90s, you end up stuck in your house, waiting for him to call. That's how the abuse of power would land on this character. It does actually kind of imprison you.
The feeling that there was a back-and-forth is based on research and things that were written at the time, but also in speaking with Monica, it was important for me to depict the emotional truth of that dynamic as it felt at the time, which is enormously complicated, [especially] after the events of the Me Too movement, and how we might look at it today is, of course, very different in some ways. But I think you're always trying to write from a point of view of, how is this person feeling at this time? It's partly based on real events, it's partly based on a character that you create and letting the character's internal logic drive how you write the scenes. Whatever moral place that takes the scene to, the higher truth is how is this person actually feeling on this day, and you have to follow that as a writer.
I wanted to talk about casting Clive Owen as Bill Clinton.There is a gravity to Clive Owen, and I think we expect interpretations of Bill Clinton to play into the trope of "the politician you want to get a beer with."How did he shape the version of Clinton that you wanted to see on screen?
What I love about Clive agreeing to play this role is, in a weird way, just to be honest, Bill Clinton is kind of the girlfriend part in this show. In some ways, he is the object. There is a mystery to him, because I have privileged the point of view of Monica and of Linda Tripp and Paula Jones. Now, as the show goes on, and of course, we will see more of how these events really land on and disrupt Clinton's life. But this does not appear in Episode 2. It simply isn't.
There is something intentional about the feeling that Bill Clinton is, to some degree, this very alive presence with Monica, but there's a mystery to him, too, because he is inaccessible. You can't just call him, you can't just show up and see him. So Clive is playing the scene in that way, in a really smart, fearless way too, because Clive is not afraid of the morally complicated edges of his character. And this is someone who is significantly older than Monica, who has way more power than her, obviously, and so I think you feel that from what you're describing.
You said you're privileging the point of views of Linda and Paula and Monica rather than Bill and Hillary who are two of the most powerful people in the world. How were you thinking about employing Hillary as a character in this, and why hold off on focusing on her until later in the series?
Honestly, I would have included Hillary alongside those three women. The reality of the story is that I know exactly what Hillary Clinton was doing on those days. The facts on the ground are, this is a real woman with a real job and the obligations of being First Lady, who was simply not involved in his affair. I believe that Hillary Clinton did not know about this when it was happening. And we will see the reaction she has, particularly in Episode 8, as it becomes clear that something really did happen. It's the demands of the story because we're inside the experience of Linda, Monica and Paula. Hillary gets pulled into the story when it lands on her life.
You mentioned this idea of telling the story of the blooming of the affair through Beanie as Monica telling Sarah as Linda. How did you want to instruct the actors to play it and how did you want to define the friendship through these moments of sharing?
I think a connection forms between Monica and Linda, because they've both been exiled to the Pentagon and they separately had very different, intense experiences in the West Wing. But it was always very important to me that—unless a woman has an incredibly, undeniably impressive, important job—the jobs of women and the pride women take in their work is often treated as unimportant. And honestly, I see that somewhat in the reaction to the show, which is fascinating to me.
It's not a joke to me that Linda Tripp would feel crushed to be kicked out of the West Wing when I believe that it is a humanizing detail for an admittedly very complicated character. But I just think if we're honest with ourselves, we all would feel horrible to have this incredibly impressive institutional job and then you'd just be kicked aside like we're not important. And taking that pain seriously was always a big part of my writing of the show. I love that about Sarah's performance, you feel her frustration and vulnerability and anguish and loneliness and all of that. It's a very human emotion that's not often depicted, especially for a female character, especially for a frustrated bureaucrat of 20 years. But that pain is real. So that is one thing that was, I think, important to bond Monica and Linda, they both know this place.
It was ambiguous in real life, by the way, when Linda really figured it out. It seems to have been sooner than when Monica told her, but it's a bit ambiguous when Linda was certain that it was Bill Clinton that Monica was having a relationship with. And so, of course, there's an interest Linda had is a human thing, in that gossip. I'm sorry, what would you do? I really love the way Beanie and Sarah play that lunch scene. It's one of my favorite scenes between them. I love Beanie's raw vulnerability. I just love when she says, "Linda, I feel so stupid." It just hits you. And then the way Sarah is engaged and curious and feeling for her. And the facts of this, you feel them landing on Linda in these complicated ways, including the moral complication of it. But then also, that human interest in this incredible gossip and the way you see some of Linda's appetite for that.
One reason I love that performance so much is that it's not a noble emotion, but it's a real human emotion and you feel it there. Part of the connection in the writing of it is, Linda does say some encouraging words to Monica at a time that she wants to hear them. And who among us has not been in that dynamic? You have a friend who's maybe giving you the hard truth you don't want to hear, but then you have the friend that's saying, "It's going to be OK, you should keep on this path that you instinctively want to go on." And that's something else that bonds them too, Linda's words of encouragement, morally complicated as they may be.
I did want to ask about the moment with Linda and the Christmas decor, because so many of us know that after everything, she opened up a Christmas store. What was the thinking about including that?
I'm, of course, just flat out dead obsessed with Linda's Christmas store. I've been on that website many times. I have real affection for Linda Tripp. I loved writing that character. She is a very complicated, real human being who obviously did some very complicated things. I think I was always mindful of the fact that her mom was a German war bride—that's what Linda would say. The German Christmas aesthetic, and all that entailed and all that brings with it: Linda loving to surround herself with those things always just fascinated me and clearly adored it.
And I also knew that in the real story, Linda had a Christmas party in December of 1997 Monica attended when things were really going haywire with the law and things were starting to become quite frightening. And so I knew especially then, Linda's adoration of Christmas was actually a part of this story a bit too in that regard, because it was apparently a very serious Christmas party with an incredible amount of wonderful food. It's obviously kind of fun, but I also I loved how much Linda loved that stuff. There's so many different ways to be a Christmas enthusiast and the specific way that Linda is—that colonial aesthetic, because there's also Virginia, but also it's her German aesthetic, and especially Bavarian things. And I learned so much about that stuff and I held onto that a lot as I was working. So it was automatically going to be in the script as much as possible.