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Beanie Feldstein recounts 'shocking and painful' prep to play Monica Lewinsky in 'Impeachment'

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Beanie Feldstein was just 4 years old in January 1998, when then-President Bill Clinton notoriously declared in a televised address to the nation, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

Now the "Booksmart" actress, 28, is helping bring the infamous sex scandal to the screen, playing former White House intern Monica Lewinsky in FX's "Impeachment: American Crime Story" (premieres Tuesday, 10 p.m. EDT/PDT). The 10-episode limited series is the third installment in Ryan Murphy's "American Crime Story" anthology, which previously chronicled the O.J. Simpson trial and the murder of fashion mogul Gianni Versace.

Given her age, Feldstein only vaguely remembers her parents discussing the story as it unfolded in the news, which allowed her to be a "blank slate" coming into the project.

"I feel like I'm in between the two perspectives that I take note of in our world right now," Feldstein says. "There's the younger generation who only really knows Monica from her incredible TED Talk and all of her anti-shaming, anti-bullying work. Every young person I meet is over the moon talking about Monica. And then there's the older generation who lived through all the misogyny and the way she was portrayed at the time and had a different view of what was happening."

"Everyone described Monica (Lewinsky) as a bundle of contradictions," says Beanie Feldstein, who plays her in "Impeachment: American Crime Story." "She was incredibly confident yet very insecure, deeply savvy but also naive. Monica herself confirmed that was very true to how she felt at the time."
"Everyone described Monica (Lewinsky) as a bundle of contradictions," says Beanie Feldstein, who plays her in "Impeachment: American Crime Story." "She was incredibly confident yet very insecure, deeply savvy but also naive. Monica herself confirmed that was very true to how she felt at the time."

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Rather than rehash the scandal's more salacious details, "Impeachment" seeks to humanize the women who orbited Bill Clinton (an unrecognizable Clive Owen). There's Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford), a former Alabama state clerk who sued him for sexual harassment in 1994, a year after he became president; Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson), who recorded her conversations with Lewinsky about the affair and turned them over to federal prosecutors; and of course, Hillary Clinton (Edie Falco), who was dragged by the media for standing by her husband throughout his trial and acquittal.

It's easy to forget that "underneath each of these people, there's a person there who loses sleep because of these things, who has people they love and families," Falco says. "I like that Ryan and his team put an internal life to these people we just knew as cardboard cutouts: the wife of the president or the intern. It's important that people have an understanding of the (figures) behind these stories."

"Impeachment" is peppered with conservative media figures including Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders) and Matt Drudge (Billy Eichner), whose site scooped Newsweek with the story of Clinton's affair. In addition to the scandal, it explores how Tripp was vilified for betraying Lewinsky: She was parodied by John Goodman on "Saturday Night Live" and roundly mocked for her "I am you" speech on her final day of grand jury testimony in July 1998.

"There's a crime we're all guilty of, in terms of the country coming together and making fun of Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones and Linda Tripp," says executive producer Brad Simpson. "We devoured them and then moved on our way."

Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson, left) befriends Monica (Beanie Feldstein) after she's transferred from the White House to the Pentagon.
Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson, left) befriends Monica (Beanie Feldstein) after she's transferred from the White House to the Pentagon.

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"This is also an origin story about the death of truth," executive producer Nina Jacobson adds. A Pew Research Center survey taken shortly after Clinton denied the allegations in January 1998 found that his approval rating was 10 points higher than before the scandal broke. His approval rating hovered between 62% and 71% throughout the year, even after the House of Representatives voted to impeach him.

"No matter whether you feel he should have been impeached or not, Clinton lied about the affair, he lied in his deposition, he lied to the public, and his support went up," Simpson says. "There is a real analogy to Donald Trump lying about things and his support only solidifying among his supporters."

The series is based on Jeffrey Toobin's 2012 book "A Vast Conspiracy" and is executive produced by Lewinsky, who was 22 when the affair began. She proved an invaluable resource for Feldstein throughout production when the two would text and video chat regularly.

The real-life Monica Lewinsky, left, and actress Beanie Feldstein attend the "Impeachment" premiere in West Hollywood earlier this month.
The real-life Monica Lewinsky, left, and actress Beanie Feldstein attend the "Impeachment" premiere in West Hollywood earlier this month.

"I didn't want to make her talk about things I already knew about, so I only asked very specific questions like, 'What nail polish color did you wear at the time? Did you get this necklace from this grandma or that grandma?' " Feldstein says. "And there was an intense amount of research, a lot of which was very shocking and painful to do because I was completely uninformed of what she had to go through. It was a very eye-opening experience for me."

Another eye-opening aspect: all the ’90s technology Feldstein was introduced to on the set.

“Everybody hated me because I was often the youngest one in the room and would be like, ‘I don't know how to work a pager. When I'm using a phone card, which number do I dial first?'” she recalls with a laugh. "It was lots of those types of questions. But you know, a lot of the fashion is coming back. It doesn't look too dissimilar to what we see now in 2021, so that was funny to see a lot of current silhouettes and things like that."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Impeachment: American Crime Story' draws Clinton-Trump parallels