The activist and writer had to navigate two different roles on the FX anthology series, which chronicles Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment following allegations that he committed perjury and obstructed justice related to an affair in the Oval Office. First, Lewinsky is the subject of the dramatized series as a White House intern (played by Beanie Feldstein) who falls in love with the president, and mistakenly shares her secret with work confidante Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson).
Second, Lewinsky is also a producer on the show, working with the series’ creative team of Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Nina Jacobson and Sarah Burgess. It wasn’t always easy to juggle both parts for Lewinsky, who’s turned down millions of dollars, valuing her privacy above all else — especially over a quick paycheck.
“I don’t make decisions to work on things that are connected to my past lightly,” Lewinsky says. “I’m very aware that they impact people, and that it brings up a difficult time for all of us. So I put a lot of thought into it and it just seemed from the times we were living in, it would happen eventually.”
“American Crime Story: Impeachment” tells the story of Clinton’s public humiliation through the lens of the women whose lives were torn apart: Lewinsky, Tripp and Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford). In harrowing detail, the series shows the day that Lewinsky is seized by the FBI while meeting Tripp for lunch at the Pentagon City mall in Arlington, Va.,and grilled for 11 hours as the agents threaten and intimidate her — telling her that she’ll be forced to serve 27 years in prison if she doesn’t cooperate with Ken Starr’s demands.
In a conversation for Variety’s Power of Women Summit, presented by Lifetime, Lewinsky spoke about working on the series, executive producing the HBO Max documentary “15 Minutes of Shame” and her career pivot to telling stories in Hollywood.
You recently started your own production company called Alt Endings, and made a first-look deal with 20th Television. What made you decide to go into producing?
Because of my unique experience that I had — what it means to have someone take a story and tell it inaccurately, and to understand what it means to wrestle that narrative back — I’m really fascinated by storytelling. This just felt like a natural fit. And anybody who knows me knows that I’m always having ideas.
I’ve seen the first seven episodes of “American Crime Story: Impeachment.” Have you seen all 10?
As of now, I’ve only seen one through seven, and I’ll see eight soon because I give notes. So I’ll be giving notes on eight, nine and 10.
Did you watch it episode by episode over months?
I didn’t see anything until July, so then I started to see episodes and giving notes. Working on a scripted drama for the first time, it was a lot to understand: OK, this is how it goes from script to screen. These are how things feel different than I thought they would, or come alive in a way that I couldn’t imagine they would from the page.
I think Episode 5, at the end, I was extremely triggered by Sarah Paulson’s performance as Linda Tripp. I just thought, “I’m feeling how I’m feeling, but as a producer, I know this is great, because there is so much emotional truth.”
At the end of Episode 5, we see the full extent of Linda’s betrayal of Monica. Is that what was triggering to you?
Um, spoiler alert. Although it’s history. What was happening around me that I had no idea was heartbreaking to see.
You’ve been offered so much money over the years to tell your story, and you’ve mostly said no. What was it about this project and Ryan Murphy that made you agree?
We never talk about what people turn down. You know, Variety doesn’t write an article. But I can’t even imagine there’s anybody who would not want to work with Ryan. The idea of working with Ryan was very exciting to me, and the trepidation that I had about getting involved in a project like this. I was in incredible hands with Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson — and to be written by Sarah Burgess. To have the series written by a woman writer was very important.
How did you juggle the different roles being both a producer and a subject?
It was very difficult. It was both fascinating and complicated, trying to balance what was best for the show versus how I felt about something personally. I struggled with that a lot. I got a lot of really great advice from some friends who are in the industry who helped me step back and be able to see what was important to understand about Monica the person vs. Monica the character.
What did you and Beanie talk about as she was preparing to play you?
We connected a lot over Zoom and voice memos and things, but we actually didn’t get to spent a lot of time together physically. We met shortly before the pandemic kicked in. I think I understood that I was in good hands with Beanie as an actor. And I wanted to be as useful as I could be. I’m a total control freak, but I also felt it was important as a producer to give Beanie the runway to find her way to bring her version of Monica to the screen.
Was she more interested in biographical details? Or just being around you to absorb you as a person?
It was more the latter. But it’s also me at 48. I’m very much the same person I was before everything happened. But, thankfully, I’m more mature, I’ve evolved, I’ve grown, I’ve healed. She had to find those parts of me that were the younger parts of me that are still there.
How did you give notes on the show?
I’m sure everybody on the team would agree, I gave way more notes anyone would have wanted. I would read through the script first. I usually had stickies that I would throw onto a page where I knew there was something I wanted to come back to. And then I went through and typed my notes out, so I sort of sectioned them.
Can you give me some examples of what you asked for them to change?
You know, Monica at 22 attempt to flirt, making all sorts of mistakes. The thong incident, we’ll just call it that. I think everybody knows that mortifying moment. It wasn’t in there and I was thrilled. But as I took a step back, I thought that there were these signpost key moments for the audience. Particularly because I was a producer, I didn’t think I should get a pass. So I insisted on it being in there, as much as I hated that personally.
Were a lot of your notes about factchecking — like, the dialogue doesn’t sound like me or the president?
It was trying to flush those things out: “I might say something more like this or I probably wouldn’t have said that because of X, Y and Z. Or I think Bill might have said something this way.” And I felt very heard. But there were a lot of notes that they didn’t take, and I had to learn to respect that process too.
Was it hard for you to watch Episode 6, when the FBI seizes Monica? I think a lot of people might not remember how scary that must have been for you.
Yeah. Ryan directed that and he did an incredible job, and Beanie did an extraordinary job with that episode too. It was harrowing. I just started sobbing at the end of the episode. I mean, I tear up in a few place, but the end really took me back. And I think where this episode is going to be really important too is because of the social justice conversations we’ve been having over the last year. And I’m a privileged white person, and this was an anomaly for me to experience from my upbringing.
But there are people who’ve not made any mistakes of all of different races who find themselves at the hands of police. So while I’m aware how shocking it was for me, and it may be for some people to see, I hope people also remember the conversations we’re having in today’s world about what justice and law enforcement looks like.
There’s a scene where Monica is talking to Vernon Jordan about getting a job at Revlon, and he pats her on the butt. Did that happen?
I hadn’t remembered that. And it was one of the places where I was like, “I don’t remember…” And Brad had showed me that it was in the tapes somewhere. I feel bad on the Vernon thing because he’s passed away. There are a lot of cringey things that older men do to younger women in the series.
You partnered with Max Joseph from “Catfish” to executive produce “15 Minutes of Shame.” What drew you to that?
My personal opinion from the anti-bullying work that I’d done over the last several years is that online shaming, public humiliation, cyberbullying — the whole gamut — formulate this culture of humiliation. This is a social pandemic. I mean, it is really, truly ripping apart our social fabric. And I think people will be surprised by what they see in the doc that we have gone back to people’s stories that they may remember and have a certain opinion about. And when you pull back on the lens and peel off the layers of the opinion to understand more, to see something you thought you knew, hopefully with a different perspective. The film is a conversation starter.
Who in Hollywood has been a mentor to you?
I love this question because you rarely get to give a shout out for these kinds of things. Ryan’s been great. Richard Weitz is both a friend and agent, and he’s been incredibly valuable to me alongside entertainment lawyers Larry Shire and John Ehrlich. Ron Meyer has helped over the last several years, telling me I’m too scared to do something or making a phone call that I shouldn’t be scared making. I have a couple other friends in Hollywood who are private, who’ve given me really amazing advice during this process. So those are all men.
The women: Two British producers that I work with are Jemima Khan and Henrietta Conrad, who have been instrumental with a lot of things I’m doing. And I’ve gotten to work alongside Nina Jacobson with this project. And I of course admire Sherry Lansing and Dana Walden. Stacey [Sher] has become someone I’m incredibly blessed to be working with her. There are a lot of fabulous women at 20th Television. I feel very grateful to have a new chapter, and to have all these people contribute in ways which are very meaningful.
Are you interested in producing TV or film or both?
I have a first-look deal with 20th Television for scripted drama. So that is probably the main focus at the moment, but I do have ideas for film and animation and even theater. I’m really interested in all aspects of storytelling.
You’d be interested in producing plays?
Maybe. I’m so excited with Broadway reopening to be able to go back and have the experience of what it feels like this gift of energy that comes from the actors and the words on the page. To have that collective experience is magic. I really can’t wait to experience it again.
This interview has been edited and condensed.