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[This story contains spoilers for “Man Handled,” episode six of FX’s Impeachment: American Crime Story.]
Beanie Feldstein did exhaustive research before playing Monica Lewinsky in FX’s Impeachment: American Crime Story. She also became friends with Lewinsky, who’s a producer on the limited series, during the making of the show.
Yet when it came to filming Tuesday’s installment — “Man Handled,” chronicling the day FBI agents and attorneys from Ken Starr’s independent counsel’s office detained and interrogated Lewinsky for more than 11 hours — Feldstein opted not to ask too many questions of Lewinsky.
“As someone who has experienced difficult, shocking, traumatic things in my own life, I couldn’t imagine if someone was playing that day of my life. It’s sort of unbearable to think about,” Feldstein told The Hollywood Reporter. “I really wanted to be very strategic and careful about what I wanted to ask her. There’s so much research that can be done with this [story], there are so many books. … I wanted to make sure I had done all of my research so that when I went to her as the subject, I wasn’t making her rehash for me every minute of this day. That is her trauma, and I didn’t want her to have to go through that.”
Directed by American Crime Story executive producer Ryan Murphy, “Man Handled” took more than three weeks to film — an unheard-of length for shooting a single TV episode, even in the COVID era when productions move somewhat slower than usual. The episode details the intense and occasionally surreal moments of the interrogation, from hardball tactics by independent counsel lawyer Jackie Bennett Jr. (played by Darren Goldstein) to another attorney, Mike Emmick (Colin Hanks), and an FBI agent taking Lewinsky to dinner at a chain restaurant in the Pentagon City mall adjacent to the hotel where they conducted the interrogation.
Feldstein talked with THR about the emotional process of filming the episode, some things she did ask Lewinsky about and how Monica’s life changed starting with that day in January 1998.
I have to imagine this was a pretty intense experience.
To say the least, yes. It was a 23-day shoot, which for a television episode is, I think, unheard of. I’m not too experienced in TV, but from what I heard from everyone it was sort of unique in that respect. I think it was because we had to get it right — no moment could be rushed, and thank God we were helmed by Ryan himself directing it, which was a huge honor for me. He directed the first episode of the series as well, but it’s an honor for me to work so closely with him on this episode. Of anything I’ve ever done in my working life, it’s the thing I’m singularly most proud of and nervous for.
What was it that stretched the shoot out for this long?
We didn’t shoot every single day; our schedule with COVID was all over the place. It wasn’t contained. But also she’s in a room with anywhere from six to 10 men at any given moment, so it’s not just a two-person scene or a person alone in a room, which is much faster to shoot. It’s a great number of people and almost like a play, we had to all move as one and move together throughout the scenes. It was an incredibly emotionally visceral and intense episode for Monica, for my character, and we would do each scene countless times because we had to cover Colin Hanks and Darren [Goldstein] and Agent Fallon [Brian Maillard] and all these FBI agents. There was just so much to take in, and you really wanted to see Monica feeling all these guys around her. And Ryan never shot any scene the same, so even though we’re in that same space for a great chunk of the episode, the vantage point from which we’re viewing the room changes scene to scene.
For me as an actor, I feel so much responsibility playing Monica — moral and personal responsibility — and this episode was sort of the pinnacle of that. “Prom Night,” as the office of independent counsel so disgustingly named it, because they thought it would be 30 minutes in a hotel room with a young girl, was the turning point for her. It was the day her life changed forever, and to this day it’s still the day she thinks of as the most terrifying day of her entire life. I felt a lot of pressure to do right by her and have people understand what she was feeling and what she had to go through and how brave she was. And then responsibility to my other actors — it wasn’t just my job to do that when the camera was on me but to replicate the emotionality for them too so they had the correct level to react to and be present for them as my scene partners.
I’m so grateful to those boys. They were remarkable. Colin Hanks and Darren, all of them. We had some background actors who were in there every day with all of us who were so present and so gifted. When the cameras were off we were a bunch of pals. Darren, who plays Jackie Bennett on screen, is the guy you want to smack across the face the whole episode. But he’s like a big teddy bear — between takes we would just talk about musicals and his kids. We’re good pals off-screen, but some of my scenes with him were the most horrifying things to film in the episode. And Colin is so gracious. It was a real group effort.
It seemed like with his direction, Ryan really was emphasizing not just that you were the only woman in that room, but physically how much bigger these guys are than you.
And in reality, I’m five inches shorter than Monica, so it’s even more so (Laughs.) I’m a very short person, and I love being short, but yeah, it was even more stark. This is the reality of what actually happened, but Monica had just come from the gym and was in her workout clothes. Even just that vulnerability with all these men in suits who are armed compared to a young woman who’s on the way home from the gym when her friend makes her go to the mall. She’s reading a magazine, waiting for her friend, and all of a sudden men are flashing their badges and guns at her.
Then throughout the many, many hours, it’s really a testament to the idea that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. It’s sort of unbelievable to follow their journey throughout that day. Everything from her running through the department store to call Betty Currie in the bathroom, to the dinner they all have — all of this is real. All of this happened, and it’s truly stranger than fiction. (Laughs.)
I can’t imagine being in anyone’s shoes like that, where you’re being interrogated and then the interrogators take you out for dinner.
Totally, and I think navigating as a young woman [and deciding] when to sort of smile through it and try to charm and placate — trauma is not a singular feeling. When you’re in shock, it’s not a constant state of numbness or a constant state of terror or profound sadness. It’s a combination of all that, and there’s a tremendous roller coaster of emotion that comes with experiencing shock and trauma. Ryan was so remarkable at guiding me through that dance. There’s so much documentation of what happened in that room, and there are so many times where she was uncontrollably sobbing, and there were other times where she was catatonic, and then there were times she was making conversation because they’d been there for 12 hours and at a certain point you have to take a deep breath and try to navigate from a different vantage point.
What did Monica tell you about that day and what she was going through?
She was incredibly open with Sarah Burgess and the other producers during the writing process, and I had the tremendous gift of knowing everything on the page had been sanctioned by her. And specifically with this episode, it was very important to Sarah Burgess and myself to be as emotionally specific about what Monica was going through in addition to being as historically accurate on the facts. Monica was so collaborative with Sarah that by the time I got the script, I knew that journey was already mapped out for me. So the things I asked Monica were often very specific details, things you can’t find in a book. From the beginning I was like, what color nail polish were you wearing? What did you call Catherine, your best friend — did you call her Cat or Cathy? Was the grandma on this side the one you called Bubbe — these little, specific things where there was no one else to ask but her.
But when it came to “Man Handled,” I understood what my task was very deeply. I had done a year of research, if not more, by the time we shot it. It was more — it was over a year of research, closer to two. I knew what my job was, and I didn’t want Monica to have to go through that again.
One thing that’s struck me throughout the series so far is that Monica has been really guileless. Even here, her first move is to try to protect Betty Currie and the president over herself. But her scream at Linda through the door seemed like the start of a shift — did you see it that way?
Monica at that time — although it still applies — was a tremendously loyal person. Every account of her at that time said she gave thoughtful gifts, she’s reliable, she’s incredibly warm and loyal. I’ve never been in Monica’s shoes as far as the specifics of what she had to go through in that circumstance, but I understand what it’s like to be a 24-year-old who just wants to do right by the people she loves. She was trying to protect Bill and trying to protect Betty Currie and Vernon Jordan, and she was unwilling to betray them, which I think is an incredibly honorable, deeply brave act when you’re standing in front of armed men who are threatening you with 28 years in prison — not jail, as she said in the episode.
I’m only 28 now, so the idea of someone saying to me that I could be in prison for the entire length of my life so far — and at that point she was 24, so that was longer than she’d been on Earth. And she still was willing to stand there and say, “I will not be wired and call them.” It’s remarkable, it’s unbelievably brave. And understandably, when her mother, Marcia [Mira Sorvino], finally gets there, it’s her job as her mother to insist that she put herself first.
All of us know about Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp, and the audience thinks they understand what happened between them. But I don’t think people understand that the moment she found out about [Linda’s] betrayal was in front of 10 men in a hotel room being threatened with 28 years in prison. It’s an unimaginable circumstance and so heart-wrenching.
I really liked the moment when they see one another in the mall and Monica looks down at Linda’s Body Shop bag. It’s not funny, but it’s kind of funny.
I really believe that Monica and Linda were truly good friends. I think that’s part of the story people really do not understand, but it was very important for us to portray that they really were good friends and counted on one another. Monica was very open with Linda — obviously, we know that through the tapes. To see the woman she found out has just worn a wire and betrayed her behind her back, after she’d been in a room with armed men for hours — to see that woman shopping, it’s painful on a sort of unconscionable level. It’s past pain, it’s sort of surreal. It’s almost to the point where it can’t be real. And that’s the last time they ever saw each other, and it’s such a haunting moment.
We know how the real-life story plays out, but what can you say about Monica’s emotional throughline for the rest of the season?
Episode six is where Monica’s life changed, but really it’s sort of a double beat in that episode seven is when her name is given to the world. So it changes in a completely different way. The rest of the series explores the way that Monica and Linda particularly, in addition to Paula Jones, whose name was already public, the way that it affected them in the immediate aftermath of this story being given to the media.
I’ve truly never experienced anything like filming episode six. I’m not usually an actor that quote-unquote takes it home with me. I can usually leave it at the door. But this one, I couldn’t get it off me. It got under my skin in a way I’ve never experienced and haunted me for a long time — and that’s me as an actor. Imagine actually living through it. The same can be said of the rest of the season. Monica was actively silenced by the independent counsel — due to her immunity deal, she wasn’t permitted to speak, so the world was spinning this narrative of her that she had no control over, and she wasn’t allowed to speak out against it or claim her humanity at all. So the rest of the series explores that journey and the aftermath of the affair being made public.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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