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Sarah Paulson earned her eighth Emmy nomination this season for her portrayal of Linda Tripp on FX’s Impeachment: American Crime Story, delivering a nuanced and compelling portrait of the civil servant whose involvement in the Clinton-Lewinsky affair made her a household name after she handed over taped phone calls between herself and Monica Lewinsky (played on the limited series by Beanie Feldstein) to independent counsel Kenneth Starr — conversations in which the latter reveals her sexual affair with President Bill Clinton while she was an intern at the White House.
For showrunner Sarah Burgess, who is also Emmy-nominated for outstanding writing for a limited or anthology series, Tripp was not the villain of the piece, despite her infamous betrayal of her onetime friend and former Pentagon colleague Lewinsky.
“Not that she’s not responsible for her actions, but the slur on Linda at the time, in the late ’90s, was that she loved the drama of all this,” says Burgess. While there are times throughout the series in which Tripp is portrayed as the embittered government employee who has notions of a higher purpose — and holds an extreme contempt for Clinton, whom she sees as partly responsible for her own unsatisfying career trajectory — the character in Impeachment is far from the nosy, attention-seeking busybody that she was made out to be.
Instead, Tripp is a woman with an impassioned, patriotic crusade: to reveal the truth about a leader she despises, who she thinks is bad for the country, in addition to using his power to take advantage of the then-24-year-old Lewinsky. Tripp doesn’t see herself as a villain, particularly in the early moments of her surreptitious recordings of the private phone calls between herself and Lewinsky. From her perspective, Lewinsky needs protection from a predator — and, as Impeachment shows, the destruction of her friendship was an event that affected Tripp deeply.
“I don’t believe Linda was like a psychopath who was just going to forget about this the moment it happened,” says Burgess.
Her nominated episode, “Man Handled,” depicts the moment that Tripp realizes the gravity of her actions — not just their effects on the president’s legacy, but also their effects on the young and naive Lewinsky. The episode sees Lewinsky ambushed, and detained, by the office of the independent counsel after Tripp’s tapes reveal that Lewinsky perjured herself in an affidavit in the Paula Jones case denying the affair. The night before, Tripp meets with Jones’ attorneys, and she begins to realize that her grand vision of patriotic duty is outweighed by her betrayal of Lewinsky.
“Linda, at the beginning of the show, is someone who wants to feel important and be in the mix on everything,” says Burgess. “When she’s actually in a very consequential meeting with these lawyers, [one might think] she should love it. But actually, she was suffering. This is the thing that she’s been working toward the whole time. She has this deep anger and grievance toward this president, and she has a chance to help them get him. But the person she’s thinking about and fixating on is Monica.”
That sense of regret, Burgess says, is set against the glee that “the Republican elves” like Ann Coulter (played by Cobie Smulders) express about Clinton’s impending downfall. “They have no skin in the game,” says Burgess. But for Tripp, the moment sets up the almost tragic turning point that would cement her own legacy in American history. “This is the beginning of Linda living in his anticlimactic aftermath,” adds Burgess, “where she’s going to have to explain herself for the rest of her life and tell her story.”
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
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