a long talk

How Impeachment Unlocked the ‘Unanswerable Question’ of Linda Tripp

Photo: Tina Thorpe/FX

The conversation with Sarah Burgess, head writer of Impeachment: American Crime Story, and Sarah Paulson, the actress who plays Linda Tripp on the FX limited series, started out bumpy. That a call about Linda Tripp — one this TV critic was recording (with consent, for the record) — nearly derailed due to technical difficulties felt comically appropriate, especially in light of the trouble Tripp has with her FBI-provided microphone in the most recent episode, when she’s wired up while trying to capture a revealing conversation with Beanie Feldstein’s Monica Lewinsky.

But once the Zoom audio issues were resolved, both Sarahs were prepared to talk extensively about their portrait of Tripp, including that FBI scene and why it pains them when people reduce Linda Tripp to a villain.

Obviously you had a lot of source material to look at, but were there one or two things in particular that helped you hook into who you felt Linda Tripp was?
Sarah Burgess: I think the Slow Burn interview with Linda, even though it was only a couple years ago. I think the only other honest answer is probably that the first couple lines I read that were real statements from Linda gave me some of her personality.

It doesn’t really matter what they were. Her manner of speaking was really why I took this whole job and ended up in this whole situation. I think it was in Ken Gormley’s book Death of American Virtue, which is really good, but it was more so that it suggested the character to me. And then that set me off to take in everything about Linda.

When you say manner of speaking, what do you mean specifically?
SB: Just the unnecessary word choice. “I would rather be catheterized than use the public lady’s bathroom.” She said that to her hairdresser. Jane Mayer quoted that in an article in ’98, complaining about Hillary using the public bathroom. The knowingness of that, the desire to connect with her hairdresser by being funny, said a lot to me about what Linda lost when she was ejected from that job. It made me really fall for her, and I wanted to write in that voice. There were many, many other lines like that, too. It’s always so many syllables and so many words. That also suggested this intelligence, too, that I think was very frustrated.

Was that helpful for you, Sarah Paulson, what she’s talking about with the language?
Sarah Paulson: My first inroad to it was Sarah’s script, and it was incredibly evident to me immediately that what she had written was a fully realized person. I knew so much about Linda, precisely what Sarah’s talking about in terms of the way she spoke and the words that she chose. They felt so specific to me, and incredibly illuminating in terms of her inner life and her way of moving through the world and how she relates to other people. That was crystallized to me because of what Sarah had written.

I don’t know if this was intentional, but in the show it feels like she enjoys the drama of what’s happening. When she’s first hearing the stories from Monica, but also in episode five, when she’s telling Ken Starr’s people about the affair, it seems like she’s really excited to talk. Was that your intention? Or is that just my reading of it?
SB: I think that the decision to tape Monica, that was the act of a very lonely person. I think I was very interested in what Linda was escaping. There’s a lot of scenes in the show where Linda’s alone in her home and we sit with her in that loneliness. There’s something especially in Sarah’s performance that really roots us in that experience. We’re stuck there with her.

You feel how unguarded she is at home. I love when she’s watching Major Dad and taking notes on it. She tries to involve her daughter in that experience. To answer your question, I guess, yes, I think she does [enjoy the drama]. But this is someone who I think was in a lonely and very frustrated place in her life at this time. What you see as you move from episode three to four into five, she does put herself in the center of her own political thriller. I’m sure she has pride in that. But I don’t know, you said — what did you say, enjoys the drama of it?

I think there’s a lot of layers to what this is. There are scenes where that was my sense of it. Then there are scenes where she’s struggling and regretful, like that one where she’s on the phone with Monica and she starts crying a little bit. What I liked about the way you wrote it, and Sarah, about the way you played it is, especially in this case, people want to think there’s one reason why someone did this. That’s an extremely reductive way of looking at something. I see a lot of different motives and a lot of different feelings that she’s dealing with, one of them being that she does enjoy the moment she gets to initially tell someone about Monica and the president. When you know something and no one else does, you love to tell them.
SB: I agree.

Sarah Paulson, was that something that you were thinking about when you were portraying her?
SP: Of course. The reason I love playing real people more than some fabricated puppet of a character written in someone’s imagination — not that it can’t be done in a fully realized, wonderful way — but as you were saying, at the end of the day, we ultimately don’t know. We could never exactly pinpoint with absolute certitude why Linda did what she did, and what exactly was titillating to her, what was terrifying to her. We’re piecing things together based on all the evidence and all the bits of information from people who knew her, and all the books and all the ways in which we can gather this information.

This is an acting-school thing I remember from back in the ye olden days, when I took those classes where you go through a script and make these columns about what you say about yourself and what other people say about you. It was an interesting thing for me when I was preparing to play this, to compare the two: The way Linda assessed herself and her own behavior and the way other people received her behavior, and perceived it and experienced it. Often it was with such grumpiness and they thought her so, as you say, interested in being the bearer of the news.

I did do some of that stuff with my movement coach. We thought about Linda’s nose being the thing that leads her, because she’s always picking up a scent. It was just like, what if my nose moved before I did when I turn my head? But the truth is — and I’m not just saying this because Sarah is on the call, because I’ve said this to her face and I’ll say it till the day I die — there was so much blood in the veins of the script. It was just so clear to me who she was. It was not Sarah’s invention of Linda. It felt like a person wrote about a person they knew very well.

Obviously Monica Lewinsky was a producer on this, and I know she was mostly weighing in on things that involved her. But did you pick her brain about Linda at all, either of you?
SP: I felt very nervous to do that. I felt very protective of Monica. Although I did little toe-dips by asking if she remembered what kind of cigarettes Linda smoked, things that seemed rather innocuous or that wouldn’t pick open a wound. But very quickly, I got this sense, not because Monica was reticent, I just had an instinct that maybe my source should not be Monica when it came to Linda. It just felt unfair.

She’s been very generous with me about my affection for Linda and listening to me talk about it in a very cursory way with her, because I don’t go very deep with her on this topic. Again, it just doesn’t feel fair to me. She does allow for some of it to a degree, but I can tell there’s a limit. That could just be my perception. She never said to me, “I don’t want you to talk to me about this,” but it just seems selfish. There was something also that made me feel a little dirty. I don’t know that I want Monica’s assessment of who Linda was then. It’s impossible for her to assess that without the wash of everything that happened to her. How is that going to be totally helpful for me at a time when these things had yet to happen to Monica?

“I was very interested in what Linda was escaping,” says Impeachment head writer Sarah Burgess. Photo: Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock

That makes sense. What about you, Sarah Burgess? 
SB: What Sarah just said about whoever Linda was, which was the co-worker you’re comfortable venting to and they shared this past experience in the White House that brought them together and all that stuff — that person was, I would have to assume for Monica, gone in her mind after what happened. I was on a parallel track: my own obsession with Linda Tripp and then working with Monica on the scripts. After I’d written a few of them, I think she would give feedback. I would trust her to give me feedback because she would, whenever she wanted to. I would never press for more, especially on that. For her own scenes maybe, but not for Linda, for much of the reason that Sarah said.

Can you talk a little bit about the scene in episode five in the restaurant when Linda is bugged by the FBI? Some of it’s funny, it’s very suspenseful, it’s obviously very serious. What was it like shooting that and trying to hit all those notes?
SP: Well, again, there was that blessed good fortune of the real tape to listen to. I could listen to the FBI recordings and some of the conversation — not all of it though. There were things that were moved around and shifted and …

SB: The real tape is, what, three hours? So it’s condensed. And a lot of it comes from that, but it’s not verbatim. No.

SP: It’s not verbatim, but there was so much of it. For me, the thing that was the most valuable in terms of how to pitch that scene, in terms of where it lives from a stakes standpoint, was what Linda said to the FBI before she left the room, which was, “I hope I don’t let you down.” To me, it was everything in a nutshell. It was just this idea, to echo what you said in the beginning about both the drama and the importance of this, but at the same time, she is wired by the FBI — she is going to do this.

I think she wanted to do a good job. Because she committed herself to the belief that she was doing something that was for a greater good that Monica would one day come to understand, and that there was some nobility to what she was doing. She wanted to do it expertly. Obviously in the tapes, you don’t have a camera on her face. I couldn’t really see what she was doing behaviorally, but I can hear her. I’m sure Sarah will say the same thing. I can hear her nerves in her voice on those tapes.

I just thought, if this is a person who feels like there’s nothing more important than her doing this well, and everything is on the line basically, then that informs all of the other things, in terms of some of the comedy of it with the microphone falling, which really happened. Sometimes in real extreme situations, I think the worst parts of your personality can come into really sharp focus. She was in a really self-consumed moment. And all of that was on the page. I’m not saying it was easy to do. I’m just saying it was very clear to me what the scene was and how important it was.

In the Television Critics Association panel that you did for the show, there were a couple of questions that were about whether you depicted Linda as a villain. I think somebody said you’re obviously trying to make her a villain or you’re trying to make her seem heinous.
SB: She said unlikable. She said trying to make her not likable.

SP: I remember responding so well to that. That was a great moment for me.

“I love Linda Tripp,” says actor Sarah Paulson. ”That’s the truth. I don’t love every choice she made, and I don’t love every action she took, but I do not think she is an unworthy person.” Photo: MediaPunch/Shutterstock

I’m curious if that surprised you. That was certainly not my feeling about what you were doing at all. But a lot of people have very set ideas in their minds about this moment in history. Part of the point of the show is to reopen your brain about it again. But I’m curious if it was surprising that people would feel that way about it.
SP: I think my response, as embarrassing as it is to remember, was a communication of how surprised I was. I could not believe it, and then I do think I said very quickly afterwards, “I’m so sorry.” Weren’t we still shooting? Or we just finished or something. I just was like, it was too fresh for me to hear someone’s assessment of something that I had been feeling so responsible to and protective of and connected to and soft towards. Because also, these people haven’t even seen all the way till episode ten.

It was disheartening to me is the truth, because I felt like, “Oh, my God, this is the first moment I am going to consider and I had not considered this.” And this is probably just total naïveté and also just being so deep inside something that I was not really thinking about how anybody would hold it. But it was the first time I had to consider, “Oh, the decision has been made.” The decision about Linda has been made and what I do and what Sarah has done and what we are doing with this, or what the goal was or the motivation behind it or the care around it, might matter not one jot. It was a larger communication about the fixed nature, the fixed ways in which we sometimes hold on to information, that we don’t want to dive more deeply into or think more intricately about. It was disheartening, it was depressing, and it was devastating to me that that was the response. That’s just the most honest answer I can possibly give you. It crushed me, truly.

Do you feel better about it now?
SP: It’s impossible to answer fully, I think, because I feel a little bit more self-protective than I did then, because I think I was not confident about my work, but confident that the way we had approached it — the care and the thought. I don’t know. I can barely even talk about it. I’m not well, Jen, about the whole thing.

Really? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to —
SP: No, I can barely even talk about it quite honestly. Sarah can talk about it though maybe. Sorry, it’s been a month, you’d think I’d be fine, but it’s a very frightening thing I think to spend — I spent less time than Sarah did — years of your life doing something, and to know that an assessment will be made about something with such a cruel eye and not at all with any nuance or sensitivity to the possibility that it was approached with love and interest in knowing more.

The thing is, not everybody perceived it that way.
SP: Totally. It was just for me, it was like a body slam, is what it felt like. Like being dropped from a very high height with no cushion on the ground.

Sarah Burgess, did you want to say something?
SB: I don’t know. I don’t feel that differently about it. It’s probably one of the hardest things that’s happened to me in my writing career is to feel that connected to that character. I allowed myself a very distorted point of view. I guess I was not traumatized that someone didn’t find her likable. I think I feel very protective of this real person and I just don’t agree with the idea that she’s worthy of continued hatred. I actually demanded that the Slow Burn person, Leon [Neyfakh], get a drink with me last night in New York. He told me that the interview he did with Linda, which I find to be — you can feel her connecting to him and she’s so vulnerable — but he told me last night that most of the commentary on the episode was, “What a bitch. I hate her so much.” I don’t know what to do with any of this information. I don’t know how to move on with my life. The scene that was referenced by that journalist was Linda moving a soda can off her cubicle desk to the other side. So obviously, no one does that scene trying to … I don’t know what it means to try to make her likable.

Obviously, I could write a scene where Linda did something virtuous and nobody noticed. She could rescue someone’s pet. There are things I could have easily written. But I don’t want that on my conscience. My whole experience writing the show was to love Linda, understanding that she did something monstrous, and getting to know and have great affection for the real Monica Lewinsky and all of that. First of all, there are different standards for male and female characters and how much we like them, and how much the mystery of a character is often bad motivations, because we all have bad motivations every day in things that we do. We all behave differently with different people we interact with, even though we tell ourselves we don’t.

I trusted that, and I feel very proud of and see that so much in the show. It’s very painful for that to be reduced. I’m happy for people to be entertained by Linda’s difficult behavior sometimes. That is 100 percent part of it. I realize there are scenes where she’s very angry and upset about seemingly mundane things. But I think I trusted that all that’s underneath that and depicted would always be taken into account.

With so many aspects of this whole narrative, people have a really hard time holding two contradictory pieces of information in their hand at the same time. I think that’s probably human nature. I think it’s also very American. It can be true at the same time that what Bill Clinton did was very terrible and he shouldn’t have done it, and that there was also a right-wing conspiracy. Both of these things are true. I think it’s the same thing with Linda. What she did to Monica was obviously not great. Does that mean she has no other redeeming characteristics, or that there’s not something you could learn from trying to understand her more? No. I feel like film and television is where we are supposed to give ourselves the opportunity to show the kind of grace we have a hard time showing in real life.
SP: I do think it is really indicative of, I think, limitations we all have as people in terms of our unwillingness to let go of a fixed idea or belief. I think it requires self-reflection in ways that some people are also not interested in doing. I think your point of film and television allowing opportunities to do deeper dives, and to explore what many may believe is not worth exploring, has value. But what do I know?

I could say a really unpopular thing, which is I love Linda Tripp. That’s the truth. I don’t love every choice she made, and I don’t love every action she took, but I do not think she is an unworthy person. I don’t hold one viewpoint about her. It’s complicated. I’m comfortable with having a complicated feeling that also includes the positive, affectionate feeling for someone who did something really unthinkable, and really hard to get to the bottom of.

For both of you, as a writer and as an actor, you have to feel that way about your characters, don’t you? Have you ever not loved one of your characters?
SP: I’ve not loved plenty of my characters because the writing was terrible. But no, I do think it’s your job on some level, if you’re going to choose to play a part, to find something about that character that you either connect to or are interested in understanding more. We’ve talked about this a little bit, but can you write somebody that you don’t care about, don’t know?

SB: It’s a complicated question because of all the different people and different voices in a show like this. All I can say is with Linda, the goal is not to create the same love in the audience necessarily that an actor or a writer would feel. I don’t know what I’m going for, aside from, I think I trust that there’s parts of ourselves in Linda, and parts of myself maybe, that I found compelling, because it is the unanswerable question: Why would somebody do this thing? I’m trapped with that fact. I felt some connection to how she got there. I don’t think you can write a character and judge them as you’re writing them. Some people are harder to connect to for a whole host of reasons, but I would not have taken this job if not for the character who I felt, for whatever reason, the desire to connect you to in some way, because it is a … I don’t know how to answer that question entirely.

SP: I probably never make this clear and that’s probably why it’s misunderstood sometimes when I talk about Linda, but I don’t expect an audience to feel what I feel. I don’t expect them to have an expansive view about it, because they don’t need to. There’s a whole host of reasons to echo what Sarah said about why that’s not necessary. It’s not the goal. I didn’t want to do this to make everyone go, “Oh, my God, we were so wrong about Linda Tripp.” That was not in my mind, not ever, not once. All I wanted and all that mattered to me was that there would be some possibility for deeper understanding. You can still understand it and then go, “Well, I still hate her,” and that would be fine with me. I just don’t want it to be blocked out, so that nothing has a chance to get into a viewer’s mind or heart or thoughts. Again, you don’t have to love her the way you love a box of puppies. I don’t mean to say that.

You should have had her rescue a box of puppies. That’s what you should’ve done.
SB: I know, Jen.

SP: I know. We made a real mistake. Fuck the Snapple on the desk and the potato chips.

How Impeachment Unlocked Linda Tripp