Annaleigh Ashford was a preteen the first time she learned of the existence of Paula Jones, the Arkansas woman who filed the sexual harassment suit that kick-started an impeachment scandal for President Bill Clinton. Her initial frame of reference for Jones was late-night talk shows. “I wasn’t amazingly aware of the specifics of her origin story or exactly what she was claiming,” Ashford says. “Most of all, I remember how brutally made fun of she was.”
Twenty years later, the versatile stage and screen actress feels like she knows Jones quite well after playing her in American Crime Story: Impeachment. The limited series revisits the affair between Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton, as well as the allegations brought against the president by other women, most notably Jones. It’s a complicated part for Ashford, not only because Jones is such a recognizable public figure, but also because, as a performer, she aimed to do what many talk show hosts, comedians, and media figures would not in the late 1990s: portray Jones with compassion and invite the audience to feel empathy for her.
On a recent Zoom call during a break from shooting her CBS sitcom, B Positive, Ashford talked about how she prepared to play the part, what she sees as Jones’s primary motivation for pursuing her case against Clinton, and how she wound up wearing Jones’s actual clothes in one scene. She was very excited to hear what Jones herself had to say about watching American Crime Story: Impeachment.
I know you did a lot of preparation to play Paula. What was the most useful part of your research?
Certainly all the video footage I had was outrageously helpful. She’s familiar to anybody who was aware of this moment in history, so you want to make sure you’re not creating a caricature of this person — but you want to really be dead-on with her accent. Because her look was something she changed, for me, that needed to be really specific, given the way she was so brutally picked on in terms of her physical looks. That was really important.
But really the most important thing in any character you’re working on is figuring out what they want. Finding their objective is finding the core of the human. For Paula Jones, it was surprising to me that her super-objective was to please her husband. That was really her main goal. [Creator] Sarah Burgess did such a beautiful job of writing this piece, and specifically Paula. It was all on the page for me.
Paula obviously wanted an apology from the president. She wanted to be exonerated. But Steve, her husband, really wanted that too. The two things are intertwined, right?
Absolutely. I, personally, don’t know if she would have gotten so public in her need for an apology if her husband hadn’t pushed her. Any woman who feels compromised sexually or feels like they’ve been sexually harassed obviously would want an apology. That’s the dream. But unfortunately, most women don’t feel like they have access to that apology or that they can even ask for it. So while I do think her main objective was to please Steve, I think you’re right — that need for an apology goes hand in hand. I don’t think she would have actually gone to a lawyer about it if it hadn’t been for Steve.
One of the things that stood out to me while watching Impeachment is that every time Paula has to recount what happened, she’s almost always in a room full of men. First, it’s the one lawyer and her husband. Then, at the CPAC press conference, she faces all those male reporters. Then it’s two more male lawyers. And then, eventually, when she has to go in for the deposition, the conference room is packed with men. How did that impact you when you played those scenes?
These scenes where there’s one woman in the room and ten men — we are documenting history, something that really happened. As an actor, sometimes, you’re just listening and responding the best you can. Sometimes you have to come in with substitutions and really focus on what the relationship is with the other character. Sometimes you can just listen and respond in the moment. When the room was full of men, when I was the only woman, it was like I didn’t have to do any work. I could just listen and respond.
Because it felt a little bit uncomfortable?
Yeah. It always feels uncomfortable being the only woman in a room full of men, even if they’re men you love and you’re friends with. There’s still an inherent gender division. I absolutely felt the energy of being the only woman in the room with a group of male actors, even though they were lovely and warm and supportive. Especially the deposition I have with Bill Clinton. When he walked in the room, I didn’t have to do any work. I was able to just listen and respond, because not only is Clive so tall and imposing and his energy so charming that you gravitate toward him, but he had a gaggle of male Secret Service officers behind him. I felt dwarfed. It was very useful as an actor.
There’s an energy in that scene where this one person is very, very important and this other person just isn’t. I’m sure Paula would have felt that.
I often felt very childlike playing her. It was something I observed in my research. Especially at the beginning of her public life, she was sort of closed down. I noticed she was often protecting her heart; her heart chakra was unconsciously being protected. As she got media training and as people started grooming her, she starts sitting up a little bit straighter or having more confidence. But I, as the actor and as the human, sometimes felt childlike, and I felt like it was very apropos and something to lean into.
There’s a moment in episode two when Susan Carpenter-McMillan says, “Supreme Court that made it legal to murder children.” Paula immediately goes, “What? Oh my gosh!” Which is funny. How did you figure out how to play moments like that? You’re playing it straight, which is where the humor comes from, but it would have been very easy to play it harder for comedy. I felt like you were trying to keep that in check.
Yes, you are right.
Was that difficult?
The part of me that loves to laugh and loves to find humor in everything knew that it was imperative with Paula, because she has such overt moments of naïveté about the political world she was thrust into overnight. I had to make sure that the stakes were extremely high and that it was dead honest. I never tried to lean into the comedy at all, but like all great comedy and all of my favorite comedy, I tried to play it as honest as possible.
There’s another scene in episode two when Susan takes her to Nordstrom to try on clothes, and the store associate says that Paula seems so sweet. Then Susan says, “Yes, she’s very sweet, but she’s dumb as a box of rocks.” I don’t know how you felt about that line, but I felt like it was more an indictment of Susan than about making fun of Paula for being dumb.
I’m so relieved you feel that way because that was our intention the day we shot that. Especially because of the way she was viewed by the media and the people who were supposedly supporting her — just because of the way she talked, her accent, the way she looked, there was this preconception that she was dumb. A woman who, I think, navigated that eight-year period of very public trauma and endured all of these people pushing her with their motives in mind, not hers — I just have compassion for her. I think she was misunderstood. I don’t think she is dumb as a box of rocks. And I certainly could never play her like that. I really wanted to play her as a woman who was in over her head and being pulled and pushed in two different directions by the wrong people with motives that were not very loving to her.
I don’t know if you saw that Paula Jones was interviewed on Inside Edition recently.
How recently? Was it in the last month?
Yeah. She had seen the first episode of Impeachment.
She had? I have not seen this. What did she say?
It was really brief. She thought it wasn’t accurate.
And she was upset that nobody talked to her about the portrayal. If you haven’t seen the clip, it’s hard for you to comment on it, but how do you feel about that? Would it have been helpful to talk to her?
There’s so much source material that I felt the producers made a very smart and wise decision in keeping with the history of American Crime Story and not reaching out to the people who are involved. The one exception, obviously, is Monica Lewinsky, because that’s a whole other narrative that was squashed: Now people know that she wasn’t allowed to speak out at all and her agency was completely taken away from her. On that note, I can understand that Paula Jones would maybe feel slighted because she didn’t get to be a part of telling her story. But I feel like there was so much source material that we told her story the best we could, and I would like to believe that we gave great empathy to this woman, and people are seeing a different dimension to her story and her narrative. I think we’re giving voice to her piece of this puzzle in a way that hasn’t been done before.
I think it’s hard for her to pass judgment on one episode. You really need to see more, but I can understand why somebody would immediately want a comment from her.
Of course. And, also, I think that the audience has a lot of empathy for Paula Jones, and I think that’s a good thing.
You clearly were curious about what she had to say, though.
How could I not be? I’ve spent so much time with her. She doesn’t know I’ve spent so much time with her, but I’ve spent two and a half years checking in with her. The mornings we would film, I’d pull up clips that were relevant to what we were working on for the day. I’d put on my wig and my magical ’90s garments and my nose. It was like I was saying hello to an old friend. She feels like an old friend to me. I have to remind myself I haven’t met her. But I certainly know her well.
Speaking of garments, I heard your interview where you talk about the CPAC-press-conference scene and that you’re wearing the actual outfit Paula wore that day. I guess the costume department found it on eBay?
Yes. At some point, she must have auctioned it, and it ended up on eBay.
And it was advertised as such, like, ‘This is Paula Jones’s outfit’?
Yes. I believe there was a card authenticating it. I’ve always believed that clothes have a magic of their own, and it definitely did feel like there was a spirit of misogyny all over it, because that day she endured was just the patriarchy at its height.
In the final scene of episode three, Paula gets offered this settlement with Bill Clinton that she is initially very excited about because, to her, it’s a lot of money. To a lot of people, it’s a lot of money, honestly. The document that she’s given, even though it doesn’t say Clinton harassed her, it satisfies her, initially. But because of Susan and her husband, Paula decided not to take the deal. It’s theoretically possible that had she just taken it, there would have been no impeachment at all.
I wouldn’t have a job. [Laughs] That beat is really the culmination of what I believe is Paula’s super-objective: to please her husband. In that final moment, she does what she doesn’t want to do and says no to the deal. I don’t think it’s because of Susan. I think it’s more because of Steve.
Yeah. She grew up in a really religious family. Her daddy was the preacher of a Church of the Nazarene. I think she grew up in a culture and a space and place, and also in a complicated marriage, where she felt like the best way for her to get by in life was to please her husband.
At that point, Susan really is influencing her, but she has already planted the seed with Steve to turn down the deal even before they go into the room.
Yes. And I chose to look at Steve in that last beat as, like, the final notch. I always listened to Susan, but I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for Steve.
I don’t know if this was what you were intending when you were playing that scene, but it almost feels like a somewhat casual decision, considering the gravity of what would happen as a result.
It’s quick. And premeditated on Susan’s behalf to manipulate Steve. She knew that if she could manipulate Steve, she could get Paula to say no and then they could keep it going. When you want somebody to make a decision, you want them to make it quick. When you’re pushing someone, you don’t want them to have too much time to think.
After having worked on this project, I’m sure you think differently about this whole episode in American history. In what ways has it altered your perception of what happened?
It has made me question the way I consumed it. Even as a preteen, I was still a member of culture and society at that point. It was so easy to laugh at these women because the rest of the world was, so I was allowed to as well. It has really made me reevaluate how I ingest comedy, and how I have changed over the years, and what I think is funny and what not funny. But most of all, I think it has made me heartbroken about how far we haven’t come.
Working on this project made me realize that with the advent of social media, we have more of a voice and we can [hold people accountable] more easily than we could have at a time like that. But, at the same time, we are treating people terribly, and you don’t have to have a face to your voice sometimes. I think that’s a problem. Monica Lewinsky was the first person bullied on the internet. While, yes, she would be supported now in a way she wouldn’t have been back then, I think she would be just as bullied. I can’t even imagine what the media storm would look like today, because, unfortunately, I think it would be just as horrific.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.