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Monica Lewinsky apologizes in advance for the number of times she will inevitably employ the term “weird” or “surreal” in the roughly two hours we have together over Zoom. It’s just that she can’t seem to find a more apt pair of descriptors for the experience of revisiting her very complicated, very public past with an actress — in this case, Impeachment: American Crime Story star Beanie Feldstein, who’s also present — portraying a younger version of herself. With their FX series set to debut Sept. 7, the collaborators turned friends opened up about the process, wigs, therapy and all.
Monica, your fellow producers have described the process of making this show together as “really, really complicated.” Is that a fair characterization?
MONICA LEWINSKY Very. For me, it was challenging to come to the script process and the dramaturgical process not only having had my own experiences but particularly because I did testify so many times and had to talk to the FBI and do so many interviews over and over and over again, it’s all hammered into my brain, and so it was this process of me going, “Well, how can you leave this out?” or “But it didn’t happen that way.” It was really about me coming to understand that this is about “emotional truth,” and there’s emotional truth in every scene that I’m in — or Beanie’s in, playing me …
BEANIE FELDSTEIN We’re a “we” at this point.
LEWINSKY Exactly. I’d be writing my notes, like, “Well, Monica, blah blah blah.” And it’s me. It’s just “I.” It’s a very weird thing. (Laughs.) But I also hope there are ways that I challenged the process that made it better.
How do you emotionally prepare yourself each time a draft or cut came in?
LEWINSKY It is incredibly surreal. I’m very lucky to be in Beanie’s hands in that way, but it’s very challenging. There are many moments where I’m transported to a memory from the show. But also, there’s the kind of bizarreness that when we relive a memory in our head, we don’t see ourselves. So, I found in watching it that there were moments where I was just thinking, like, “Oh God, don’t talk to her. Don’t smile at him. Don’t wear the beret — just don’t wear the beret.” (Laughs.)
But also to see the chemistry between Beanie and Clive [Owen, who plays Clinton]. There are aspects of Bill that I think Clive has captured that people haven’t seen before, and it’s like, “Oh, as a producer, I should be able to speak to something like that.” But as a person who lived some of this, it’s very surreal. Also, I think something that’s been hard for people to understand, and I hope we’re able to capture this in episode 10, is just because I was not on the news every night for 20 years in the same way that I was in 1998, doesn’t mean this story had ended. This has a very, very long tail.
The series explores the perspectives of other characters, too, from Linda Tripp to Paula Jones. Did you find yourself weighing in on others as well, and if, so when?
LEWINSKY In terms of weighing in, obviously there might be certain nuances or ways that Linda was, or a way a situation was, or there were certain words that they had for Bill that I was like, “Well, I think he’d say this, not that.” With Paula, I felt very protective of her. It’s not like I was pushing back, but I think my experience and my perspective, being someone who’s a public person but wasn’t trying to be a public person, is a very unusual experience. Beanie, you wanted to be an actor, and to be an actor meant you were going to have a public life. For many of us in the story, it’s different. And so there are certain ways that I felt that I’d just put on the table, like, “If this were in there and it were me, I would feel x, and so maybe there’s a way to not have this because you get at it [another] way, and maybe that might feel humiliating to this person.” The one area where I felt less comfortable weighing in for myriad obvious reasons was on the more personal scenes with the Clintons. I just felt that that was better left to other people.
Beanie, you signed on to play Monica knowing Monica herself would be involved. At the very least, it seems intimidating. Did you have any reservations?
FELDSTEIN No. It was an instant yes. Playing someone real is a huge undertaking — playing someone who texts you is a completely different thing. I mean, I’m playing someone who sends me videos, and I’ll go to respond, and I’m fully wearing her hair. (Laughs.) But of course it was daunting because I just want to do right by her. All that matters to me is what she thinks.
That’s often the reason real-life figures are not involved — producers don’t want their work swayed.
LEWINSKY Listen, I had no idea how this was going to work, and neither did they. It was a bit like an arranged marriage. They’re these people who are excellent at what they do, who have won tons of awards and who have made incredibly compelling programs that have taught us something as a society. Then here comes me, who hasn’t done anything in scripted TV but is supposed to have a role here, and I could see from their perspective why it would be both valuable and terrifying — in the same way that it was for me.
Monica, you went to dinner with writer Sarah Burgess and the producers early on in the process. What did you take away from that meeting?
LEWINSKY There was a moment in that dinner where they said that what they had been thinking was that they really didn’t ever want to show any of the sex, and that it would come later in the season. It was such a sign of, “Oh, I’m with the right people.” This story has been told through a sexual lens. I mean, sure, I was aware of those aspects, but that’s not what it was to me at that time.
Beanie, what did your preparation process for the role entail?
FELDSTEIN I was in a great place because so many people had to undo or unsee the lens through which they’d learned the story and then relearn it — but in that way, I was a blank slate. I’d learned the basics of the story through history classes and casual conversation but that’s it. So, first, it was your biography, Monica, even though it wasn’t written by you, you did sit for it.
LEWINSKY It was authorized, yes.
FELDSTEIN It’s the book that I’ve had in my backpack every single day that we’re shooting, and it’s the thing that I always go back to because it’s as close as I had to you at that time. And then once you were allowed to do interviews, there were a lot, like the Barbara Walters interview. And then the tapes, which I don’t know if I’ve ever said this to you, but I found them extremely difficult to listen to, as someone who cares very deeply for you. I also knew that I had to. There was no way I could play this role without listening to them.
And how often were you two in touch?
LEWINSKY We [sent videos via] Marco Polo, we texted, and then I had this cockamamie idea to spend several hours on Zoom going over my family pictures. I just thought, I’m not going to sit down with Beanie like a new therapist, “OK, let me tell you the story of my life,” and this way she’d get to understand my world in a more organic way since we couldn’t hang out [due to COVID-19]. But I haven’t done any of this before, and it was hard for me — I’m a total control freak.
FELDSTEIN But you’ve been so giving with me. You never asked me to do something a certain way or you never said, “How were you planning to do this or that?” You let me find my own you in a very beautiful way — and you’ve been very open with all of us throughout this whole process. And yeah, there were times where I’d text her, like, “So, what nail polish color were you wearing here?”
As the premiere approaches, what are you both most excited and most worried about?
FELDSTEIN I’m most excited about the return of her story. The thing I don’t think people understand about this story is the depth of pain that Monica had to go through during it. Like, episode six is all about when Monica was with the FBI in the Ritz-Carlton. [Baited by Linda Tripp, Lewinsky was detained for about 11 hours by prosecutors and FBI agents of the office of the independent counsel.] I don’t think most people know that that happened.
LEWINSKY I disagree.
LEWINSKY Well, OK, I think you’re right, there are a lot of people who don’t know it happened. But I also think what’s interesting, and it’s reflective of what the purpose of American Crime Story is, in a way, is that that’s not new information. That information was equally available to people as whoever I dated or whatever I wore was. That information was there — it just wasn’t as clickable as “oral sex” or “tart” or “tramp” or “slut.”
Fair enough. And what are your fears, Beanie?
FELDSTEIN From a deeply selfish, personal perspective, this is a very different world for me. I’m not singing or dancing or making people laugh here. I’m hopefully presenting Monica with the depths of her humanity, and there’s so much pain that she had. It’s completely different from anything I’ve ever done, and that’s very scary.
How about you, Monica?
LEWINSKY One of the things that’ll be compelling to me is to see the generational reactions. A very important part of my transition over the last six or seven years has been the younger generations, who were not even born yet, who’ve said, “We’re coming to this not having lived through it, but through this female gaze of looking at these women’s narratives and how they were woven into history and objectified, and going, ‘Wait, what?’ ” So it’ll be interesting to see if people have changed some of their views — and there will be people who don’t.
What are you most afraid of?
LEWINSKY I have anxiety about the process being week to week. That was very challenging for me with the scripts — to understand the arc of this story. There was an enormous amount of trust that I’ve had to have with the scripts and the actors and the show, and there’ve been many places where I was scared and doubted and then I understood once I saw it onscreen or I saw later episodes. But I’m nervous about being misunderstood again. I’m also just nervous because this story is connected to many layers of people in power, and the scaffolding and the structures that are around power and protect power can sometimes be very overwhelming if you’re on the wrong side of it, and I’ve experienced that over the years.
After you participated in the 2018 documentary, The Clinton Affair, I heard you say you needed to take time to be offline and heal once it was released. Are you preparing for something similar with this?
LEWINSKY There’ve been some really, really difficult periods in this process for me, so I’ve been creating a patchwork of support in a different way than I’ve had before. I have somebody who’s a therapist — not my traditional therapist, who’s a trauma psychiatrist, but someone who’s both a friend and one of my helpers — and I pay her and she sits on Zoom while I work on my notes so I’m not alone. Because it’s hard. It’s really hard.
LEWINSKY The first time that there was all this attention on this story, in 1998, I wasn’t prepared in any way. And now there’s going to be a lot of attention on this story again, but I’m in a very different place in my life. I just turned 48, I’ve now been a public person for half my fucking life. So … we’ll see.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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