Elaine Montilla is the founder of 5xminority , a TEDx Speaker, and the Assistant Vice President...Read More
In the ninth episode of American Crime Story: Impeachment, titled “The Grand Jury,” Linda Tripp has what was probably her most famous moment on the national speech, giving a speech from the steps of a courthouse that she’d titled “I Am You.” She wanted to emphasize that, in choosing to record her phone calls with Monica Lewinsky and cooperate with the Starr investigation, she had made a choice that many Americans would have made, if they’d been in her shoes.
The speech, like many things Tripp did, backfired, and did nothing to dampen her enduring legacy as a very famous traitor. But the effect of the Impeachment series has been to make Tripp relatable after all—particularly thanks to a performance from Sarah Paulson that captures her as a person with both great ambition and a deeply relatable frustration with the everyday slights she suffers.
On this week’s Still Watching podcast, Katey Rich and Richard Lawson discuss the ninth episode, and Richard talks to Paulson about playing Linda Tripp—as well as how much it took to let the character go.
Listen to the episode above, and subscribe to Still Watching on Apple Podcasts or anywhere else you get your podcasts. And now you can sign up to text with the Still Watching hosts at Subtext! You can also find a condensed transcript of the Sarah Paulson interview below.
It would not have felt like a full analysis of this show, of this story, if we didn't get a chance to talk to you, because you and Linda are really, as I see it anyway, at the center of things. Do you see it that way? Is this a story about Linda Tripp?
I see it that way in so much as I spent the last two years living inside her mind, or what I determine to be her mind, and what the scripts led me to believe was her mind. So, for me, of course, like any narcissistic performer or human being, yeah it's all about of me, so. But, all joking aside, I do believe that the way into this story that made it a unique angle or lens through which to see this particular time in our country's history was through the eyes of the women in this story. And, Linda, certainly... I mean, she did publish a book. A book was published posthumously, but she was the only person of the three women who did not write a book or give full communicative breath to her experience. We knew the least about Linda, but the real woman herself probably is the most predetermined... Opinions have been solidified and calcified around who Linda was. So, there's that piece of it too, trying to crack that shell.
Do you view this show, this performance as necessarily correcting any historical record?
No, I don't. I only see it as an opportunity to try to understand more. And I don't even know if by the end of it, anyone will feel that way, a sense of real understanding as to the why, she did something so, on the face of it, really, really unimaginable and unthinkable. But, I did not approach this with the idea of correcting or writing some predetermined wrong. Do think what Linda did was an unconscionable. Or certainly on the face of it, an impossible to wrap your brain around decision and action. So, I certainly wasn't thinking about trying to get people on team Linda as it were.
Right. Right. It's about humanization, which I think, probably most public figures deserve. You said you've been in her mind for the past couple years, I'm curious what landscape looks like, at least in terms of how you chose to play the role. How much does Linda believe that, that she's doing something nobly good for her country? Or was it complicated by other more personal things?
I think like anything, it's a fragmented puzzle. There is no easy answer to that question. I certainly think Linda believed she was doing something not only for the good of the country, but something that would benefit Monica Lewinsky in the long run. I imagine when you commit to doing something that you yourself question, and you yourself wrestle with, in order to do it, and in order to see it through, you might have to commit to some piece of your belief around the matter. But, in order to almost having to double down on the belief that she was doing it for the good of the country and to get who she believed to be a unscrupulous character out of The White House, an institution that she revered and had so much respect and admired for and had felt so proud to be part of, and obviously felt quite forsaken and left behind in that arena.
It wasn't just an altruistic motivator, I don't think. But I do think it was a big piece of it. And I do think, as the story goes on and as she gets deeper and deeper under it, I do think she had to cling more and more to this idea that there was purity to what she was doing. But, I almost would think about it like, Linda got on a train and she didn't realize how fast the train was going to leave the station, and then she was on it. I think she just had to really, really cling to this idea that she was doing something purely. But, I don't think that could possibly be the full story.
Later on in the Slow Burn podcast, what I was most struck by was what don't hear. You don't hear tremendous regret about the choice. What I heard was regret about the outcome in terms of how it impacted Monica. I can hear a catch in her voice when she talks about Monica. And I have to imagine that, that was the thing she regretted, but she clung even all those years later to the motivating factor being for the good of the country and for Monica's good, ultimately.
Do you think that Linda, again, in your portrayal of her, does she view Monica as her friend this whole time? Or is there a certain point where she has to turn off the friend thing?
I think, at a certain point she had to turn it off. And I think she had to convince herself that it was never that deep to begin with, which I don't believe she really believed was true. I think Linda was lonely. And, I ended up talking to someone who actually worked with her in the Pentagon, who was a young man at the time, who worshiped her, loved her, thought she was so much fun, and was really looking out for him often. I think Linda probably, liked being a parental, maternal figure, and she liked being needed. I mean, this is a person who ultimately felt... Post her divorce and her children getting ready to flee the nest, one of them already had. She was a bit unmoored. And I think, having a young woman need her, and rely on her, and confide in her, gave some of her days a meaning that I think she needed.
So, I think it was probably deeper than, she convinced herself, it was, later in order to do what she had to do. I think, Linda was a fascinating compartmentalist of the highest order. It was pretty fascinating, psychologically, to me.
And I think from a certain angle, if you take out the human collateral, this was an adventure. I mean, it's not that far off from Thelma and Louise , it's breaking out of the mundane of life. And all of a sudden I have all these people descending on my home, and my office, and I'm getting secret codes, and it must have felt exciting.
Oh, and there's no doubt about that. Everybody who talks about Linda at that time, talked about, particularly, Michael Isikoff in his book about, the cloak and dagger nature of her clandestine meetings, and the giddiness, and the excitement that it would stir in her. And, that was a very real part of it. But again, it all, for me, traces back to that feeling of wanting to matter and wanting her life and her world in Washington, which I don't know if you've spent any time there, but it's a really small town, ultimately. And it's a real one horse town. So, I can understand once we got there and started shooting some stuff there, I thought, "Wow, no wonder she actually felt that she somehow was really involved in this society." Which, of course, nothing could really have been further from the truth. But, I can understand why she felt that way, because it's a very small place, ultimately.
Were there any scenes in particular in any given episode that were particularly difficult to shoot from a technical level, from an emotional level? Does anything stand out in your memory of having filmed it?
A bunch of things really. But actually, in episode nine we have our grand jury testimony. It's really what the bulk of the episode is about, is Monica's grand jury testimony and mine, and the differences, in terms of the reaction of the people in that room and their willingness ultimately to be won over by Monica and their absolute disdain for Linda. And, these actors were so incredible. I mean, Beanie and I kept talking about how incredible these actors were, who played member the grand jury, because it did remind me a little bit of one of the most spectacular things about making The People vs. OJ was, we were in the room all the time with this gallery of people watching the trial, and the jury, and the defense, and the prosecution, and we were there all day, every day, together. And, there was this collective experience of watching Courtney B. Vance get through his opening argument, or watching Sterling do a closing argument. And the feeling that we had from everyone in that room, and people would stand up and applaud, and it was this collective communal, incredible acting experience. That was so amazing.
And this was so like that, because it was just me, or it was Beanie sitting in a chair at a big table by ourselves. We don't have any counsel there. We've got members of the FBI on one side of the table. And then, just this sea of people out in front of us. And, it was hard because they hated Linda and they hated me from the moment I sat down. And, it made my job ultimately acting it easy, because I had so much to respond to and I could feel their disdain and their disregard for me/Linda.
And it was painful. And it made my upset. Linda gets so upset by the end of it. And then, she goes out and makes this famous speech, this speech entitled “I Am You,” which she talks about in the Slow Burn podcast as being one of the great regrets of her life, because it was so tone deaf. It was very upsetting, but it was also one of these magical moments of these other actors giving me so much to respond to. But it was one of the days I remember being acutely painful to play, because at that point we're in episode nine, we're near the end of the experience of shooting it. And so, we had the entire log of all the episodes under our belts. Beanie and me. And, it made it so fraught, and so full, and just am extraordinary, both difficult and exhilarating, couple of days.
You bring up People vs. O.J. And of course, you played Marcia Clark in that. And now, between Marcia Clark and Linda Tripp you're building something of a cottage industry of public figures from the mid to late 90s, who were perhaps misunderstood, or not understood fully enough. Obviously, there are exciting opportunities presented when these roles are put on your desk. But, what is your trepidation about that? I mean, playing a real person I would imagine is very different from creating a character out of whole cloth. Do you ever have reservations about doing it before you agree to do it?
Well, I do. I mean, I didn't want to do Marcia. I didn't want to play that. I didn't know how to do that. I thought it would be the potential for being embarrassed, and felt really huge to me. I felt terrified about it, which I've talked maybe even to you about this before that, I tend to gravitate towards things that I'm frightened about being able to pull off. I don't know how else you grow as a performer or a human being. And hopefully, both happen while you're working. That's one of the great gifts of getting to do this thing. The Linda thing was very scary to me, because I had never thought about undergoing such a physical transformation. And on top of that, what I hadn't really considered, and this is really shocking to me and retrospect, but I just hadn't thought about it.
And it didn't really occur to me until the first television critic that the TCAs made it known that they hated me, hated Linda. And I thought, "Wait, what? Wait what?" I didn't realize... And this will be something I think I will think of, if an opportunity like this presents itself to me again. A determination had been made and to be fair to myself, I had this experience with Marcia and I had such a different experience in terms of people being ready to embrace Marcia and correct their misguided ideas about who she was. But with Linda, because she did, I think, this thing that people refuse to acknowledge they might be capable of because it happened on this national scale, that everyone prides themselves on, "I would never do X, I would never cheat, I would never lie, I would never backs stab a friend." And it's just this moral certitude that people like to build their stories around about themselves.
And I hadn't really entertained the idea that people would not be opened to an idea about considering that Linda was a person of worth, simply by virtue of the fact that she's a human being on the planet. And that every decision that she made should not define her, solely. It had never occurred to me that people wouldn't maybe be open to that idea... And what has become clear to me since the show has been on, and there's nothing more vulnerable than working on something for so long and then putting it out into the world and have people just talk about it, just purely talk about it. Even when they say nice things, it's just, it feels incredible. You feel like a carcass on the side of the road being ripped apart. It's really scary. And in this instance, it was a total shocking revelation to me that people just didn't like her and didn't care what we were doing with her, didn't care. And that was something I hadn't considered.
And so, now I imagine going forward, I might have to really think twice about committing myself so completely to something for so long. And of course, partly the reason the time was so extended was because of COVID, and we didn't shoot when we thought we were going to shoot. So, I was living with it, both physically and mentally, for a lot longer than I might have. But, there might be some considerations I take a little more time assessing before I dive into that mid 90s misunderstood lady.
So, the very long-winded incredibly emotionally revealing answer is, I allowed it to be stolen from me. My end story of saying goodbye to Linda. I had an abruptness that I regret, but I don't know. I obviously, as you can tell, am still in something about all of it. But maybe I won't be once it's on and there's only one episode left now. So I can be liberated from my experience.
Elaine Montilla is the founder of 5xminority , a TEDx Speaker, and the Assistant Vice President...Read More
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