Enter Stage Right

In Impeachment: American Crime Story, Billy Eichner and Cobie Smulders play side characters who’d love to control the narrative.

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos: Getty Images and FX
Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Photos: Getty Images and FX

The series Impeachment: American Crime Story is an embarrassment of riches for viewers obsessed with the camp political and media culture of the late 1990s. By viewers, I mean myself and my friends in the Washington press corps, with whom I improperly shared my FX login credentials. The show’s creator, Ryan Murphy, sold me on the details: Margo Martindale as Lucianne Goldberg, swilling a martini and rasping into a landline. Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp, tapping a scoop of SlimFast into her blender. George Salazar as George Conway, crawling out of his skin as he swans about a cocktail party with the social circle he will betray in the next century. Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky, unaware of how far the grisly details of her affair with the president have already traveled, wailing into an FBI agent’s chest, “You can’t tell anyone.” And Annaleigh Ashford as Paula Jones, whispering “Oh mah Gawd” throughout in a twang that rings like a mandolin.

Two unexpected highlights are Billy Eichner as dot-com town crier Matt Drudge and Cobie Smulders as far-right cable Cruella de Vil Ann Coulter. Drudge and Coulter are naturally cartoonish personalities who share a guiding value: Drudge would do anything to get the story, and Coulter would do anything to talk about the story and contort it to advance her political agenda. Eichner’s Drudge is a little ridiculous because Drudge is a little ridiculous, but he plays him with a certain dignity, elevating a performance that could have easily been an SNL-level parody. Meanwhile, Smulders so completely embodies Ann Coulter that it seems less a performance than a documentation of a woman possessed. It’s not just her rendition of Coulter’s distinct squawk, which is uncanny, but the subtle flicks of the hair and sharp, judgmental intakes of breath. It’s as though the ghost of Coulter’s past has escaped from a studio in purgatory, where there’s a never-ending taping of Politically Incorrect, and landed in the future.

I thought you were both remarkably understated while still conveying the absurdities inherent to Drudge and Coulter. How do you prepare to play people who are already sort of playing characters themselves?
Cobie Smulders: Well, I had much more material to sift through than Billy did. Ann Coulter is a person who likes to put herself front and center in every debate. I think I listened to every one of her audio books that she read herself. Which was enlightening, to say the least. I hadn’t sought that out before — I tend to ignore it. The show did a really interesting job in terms of lacing her interview segments with actual scenes, like the ones I did with Billy. I think every public person does have two versions of themselves — one they portray when they’re being filmed and one in their private lives — and hers are slightly different.

Did your opinion of her change through the research process?
CS: She is more humanized to me. But the way she sees the world and her politics, that’s kind of stayed the same.

You mean you’re not super-anti-immigrant now?
CS: No. She’s so extremely on the other side in terms of being a Republican, and I’m a Democrat. I was trying to understand that viewpoint; I don’t know if I really, truly do.

Billy Eichner: It was tricky with Drudge because he’s very reclusive. There was a moment when he was first becoming well known in the late ’90s, and he did appear on TV. He did a very famous Q&A with the National Press Club in D.C. — thank God for YouTube.

I read the book he wrote about himself, which is insane, and a biography of him that was written recently. He created this not-quite-fictional, over-the-top persona for himself — this old-school, Walter Winchell-style muckraking journalist. I read about how he walked around high school with a fedora-style hat with a little card in it that said PRESS. He always dreamed of being that guy, and when he got the opportunity, he leaned in.

How did you approach Drudge’s voice?
BE: I played around a little bit. Usually, what happens is there’ll be a certain line of dialogue, a certain word, where I’ll say it and I’ll hear that it stretches the voice. That’s what he would do with that word. And that makes me more confident. Then I start to apply what I’m doing to that word or that phrase to the rest of the dialogue. It’s like, All right, now I’m going to exaggerate it to see how that feels, or I’m going to bring it back a little bit.

If you don’t know that is how Matt Drudge actually speaks, you might think what I’m doing in the show is crazy. If you think it’s over the top — well, Drudge is over the top! He’s also not a cartoon character. He’s a three-dimensional human being who covers politics.

When Ann Coulter talks, she has an accent. There are shades of William F. Buckley, a little bit of a transatlantic lilt. Cobie, how did you approach trying to make yourself sound like her?
CS: I don’t even know if you’d call it an accent, because you can’t place it anywhere. But it’s a certain rhythm. It’s more than just vowel placement — it’s an attitude. I found it very useful to respond to whatever everyone else was saying as if it was the dumbest thing she’s ever heard — as if her opinions were the best, that she was the smartest. This confidence, this assuredness she has, affects the way she talks. It was really more of her vibe and the way that she was constantly trying to get control of the room.

Forgive me if I sound like a Martian asking about what you do. I don’t know how this works — I cover politics. How much do you have to be capable of empathizing with someone in order to play them?
CS: You have to understand them enough to understand what their motivations are. It was a different time, and this is a woman at the beginning of her career; she’s usually the only woman in a room full of men. There is this constant energy to prove oneself, to go above and beyond. Her thing is to stir the pot and be crazy-outspoken to get that attention. The time we’re depicting in the show is the beginnings of her understanding where she can find her power. And she did. She wrote a best-selling book about her time. That was more helpful to me than trying to find sympathy or trying to like the person. It was What are you? Why are you acting in this way? What’s at the core of this?

BE: I find a lot of what Drudge does and the people he supports to be horrifying. I mean, the guy went on The Alex Jones Show. What shocked me was reading about Drudge’s childhood and teenage years. It was a little unnerving — there was so much overlap between us. We were both gay boys who grew up on the East Coast. You can tell in some of the more pop-culture-oriented stories that he posts on the Drudge Report — he loves Barbra Streisand, he loves Madonna, he loved going to dance clubs and gay bars. They told a story in the biography about when he discovered you could buy Variety and how obsessed he was with learning all the details of how the entertainment industry functions beyond what you could just get in your local newspaper. And I did the same thing when I was a kid! That did help me ground him and figure out what makes him tick, even though our views don’t align.

What was the experience of doing this type of research amid what was happening in our politics?
CS: When the role first came to me preelection, I was like, Just chill. I don’t know if I can get into that. I don’t want it to take over my work brain when I’m already so invested and so involved in the election. My husband, Taran Killam, got hired to play Steve Jones, Paula Jones’s husband, and he was having so much fun, and I was excited about the scripts. I went from being like, I don’t think I want to be mentally involved in this project at this time to What an amazing challenge and opportunity to do something completely different.

BE: What’s interesting to me is that you can draw a direct line between Drudge and how everyone is now circulating their own version of the news on social media. Drudge was not part of the industry. He had no connections. He didn’t go to a fancy college; he didn’t go to journalism school. He was just a guy working at the CBS Studios gift shop, picking up little pieces of conversation and going through the garbage — literally — to find information about what was happening so he could break news about ratings and deals that were happening behind closed doors. He just had his little computer and an AOL dial-up in his apartment, and he managed to completely change the way information is published online, the way we absorb information, and — this is really at the heart of it — who controls the information and puts what spin on it. That is exactly what we’re seeing now. It’s a double-edged sword.

The scene where your characters meet at a party at Laura Ingraham’s house is so interesting to me, just knowing a little bit about the weird dynamics of everyone in the room. It’s a very weird cross-section of people who remain relevant — some of whom still, frankly, gripe about one another. I never heard where that friendship between Coulter and Drudge began. Sometimes, now, we see them courtside at basketball games together, and it’ll become a meme on Twitter. How did you prepare?
CS: Whenever you’re playing a scene when people meet for the first time, it’s always easiest, because there is no background we have to play out. I don’t know how much of Ann and Matt’s relationship is real or where they met or what their interactions were. What’s interesting is they both saw this opportunity. At first Ann didn’t take him very seriously because he was on the internet, and what is that anyway? We see it turn into something more than that throughout the season. Luckily, Billy and I have worked together before, so we were able just to slipstream into the scenes.

BE: They were both very savvy because they realized — just at the dawn of this new era of conservative media — there was a void to fill for colorful, telegenic personalities. There were a lot of conservatives on TV, but they tended to be old, stiff, boring white men. Even when I don’t agree with the awful things she’s saying, Ann’s a great comic character, as is Drudge. It’s always an odd feeling, playing someone whose choices I really detest, and yet it’s fun to play them.

Cobie, have you heard from Ann Coulter?
CS: I have no idea what she’s gonna think. I hope she’s flattered. I hope we’re accurate in depicting these moments.

BE: I think they both love it. That’s my guess.

Have you heard from Drudge?
BE: No. I used to read Drudge Report all the time. When it first exploded, it wasn’t clear what his politics were — he just wanted people to read the Drudge Report. I also didn’t know he was gay. He’s still a bit coy about it, but there are plenty of other people on the record who have confirmed he is. My best friend, Robin, and I were roommates at the time, and we would run home and read the Drudge Report because it was like looking at Twitter. Also there’d be stories like “Streisand Adds to Malibu Compound” or “Madonna Tour Opens in Miami,” and I always thought to myself, This is not a straight man.

You were an avid reader.
BE: I’ve fallen off the past few years because now we have Twitter and all these other things and it’s a little less relevant. Plus he became, to me, a very toxic conservative-slash-libertarian. He was a Trump supporter that turned on Trump, but still it’s too much for me. So I stopped reading.

A while back, a few days before Impeachment premiered, the Drudge Report posted a photo of me as Drudge. He wrote, like, “Drudge Steals the Show” — which no one had said. But it’s so Drudge, right?

Billy Eichner and Cobie Smulders Enter Stage Right