'This was one of those special roles that comes along once in a blue moon,' Ashford says of portraying Paula Jones in 'ACS.'
Every season of American Crime Story always produces at least one or two breakout performances, whether it was Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown as the prosecutors in season 1’s The People vs. O.J. Simpson or Darren Criss as serial killer Andrew Cunanan in season 2’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace. When it comes to Impeachment, that honor easily goes to Annaleigh Ashford, who returns for her second installment of the FX true-crime anthology series to portray Paula Jones, one of the key women wrapped up in the scandal surrounding the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
“This is one of my favorite shows, so it was sort of a bucket list, dream moment. And then I really felt that this was one of those special roles that comes along once in a blue moon,” the 36-year-old performer tells ET’s Nischelle Turner.
Executive produced by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, each season of the series tackles an event that captured America’s attention at the time and re-examines certain themes with a modern lens, whether it's racial and social injustices in season 1, rampant homophobia and fame culture in season 2 or the #MeToo movement and the imbalance of power in the workplace in season 3.
“I always think that American Crime Story is an act of social justice,” Ashford says, explaining that the show forces you to “look at what you were complicit in, a way that you reacted to this moment in history, and how you could be better or do better if it came up now.”
And with Impeachment, which is led by showrunner Sarah Burgess and produced by Monica Lewinsky, “we’re revealing a narrative that people don’t know about Paula Jones,” Ashford says. In fact, the whole season is told through the perspective of Jones, who sued the president for sexual harassment; Lewinsky, the White House intern who had an affair with Clinton; and Linda Tripp, a political appointee and Lewinsky’s confidante who taped their conversations.
And it wasn’t long before all three were at the center of a major political scandal that became tabloid fodder and subjected them all to various harassment and mistreatment from the press as well as pressures from legal authorities with varying agendas trying to silence them.
In the case of Jones, she was a former Arkansas state employee who sued Clinton for sexual harassment over an alleged incident that took place in 1991. At the time, she claimed, the president invited her to his hotel room where he asked her to kiss him and then exposed himself.
While she initially kept quiet, Jones began speaking out in 1994 after a magazine ran a story about her account. From there, lawyers, politically motivated legal aides and advisers got involved, hoping to use the lawsuit as a way to force Clinton to resign from office. And it was during the case’s deposition that counsel believed Clinton perjured himself, which led to his impeachment.
“Paula Jones was really the first string in sort of unraveling the tapestry that was the impeachment of Bill Clinton,” Ashford says. “We sort of forget that and then, you know, as an actor the most important thing to figure out is what the character wants and Paula Jones first and foremost wanted to please her husband.”
She adds, “She just wanted to make her man happy and then it led to a storm of media coverage… and people were horrible to Paula Jones. They would call her trailer trash and make fun of the way she looked. By the end of this saga, she had multiple hairstyles, she had braces, she had gotten a nose job because she had been so brutalized by the media.”
When it comes to Jones’ ever-changing look in the public eye, Ashford says it was important to show how those were the result of outside sources influencing her every decision. “When she first came out publicly, she was very naive,” the actress says, pointing out how “right-wing operatives coddled around her and gave her a lot of media training and support in the way that she looked.” And one of those driving forces was Susan Carpenter-McMillan, who headed Jones’ legal defense fund, played here by Judith Light.
“I don’t know what to think about her motives. I don’t know if she really cared,” Ashford says of Carpenter-McMillan, while praising Light for delivering “such a delicious, nuanced and very human performance of this woman that could have so easily been a villain.”
That said, it was important for Ashford that her portrayal of Jones, especially the physical transformation, didn’t feel like a caricature and that it was authentic to who this woman was at the time. Because that exterior transformation, she notes, was pivotal in helping her “make the internal transformation.”
In order to bring the past back to life onscreen, Ashford spent a lot of time working with a dialect coach to perfect Jones’ Lonoke, Arkansas, accent and studied her physicality in interviews, noticing how over time, Jones would sit up straighter and speak louder. And when it came to hair and makeup, the actress spent about three hours a day in the trailer perfecting the look.
“We had multiple wigs because she had multiple looks. I had braces at one point,” Ashford recalls. “And then I also had a prosthetic nose, which was really important to her story because, sadly, it was something that she felt she needed to change about herself as time went by.”
And when it was time to appear in front of the camera, and Ashford would look at herself in the mirror, it was like meeting a kindred spirit. “That’s when you’re saying hello to an old friend in the mirror,” she says. “I would look in the mirror and it was like seeing a relative I had not met yet.”
One of the more transformative moments for Ashford came when they recreated Jones’ first press conference at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “It was the perfect place to start,” she says. “I watched footage of that over and over again and we wanted to reenact it because it feels larger than life.” In true Hollywood fashion, if the moment was scripted it would feel unbelievable. “But it was not fiction.”
And for that scene, the actress wore the same dress that Jones wore that day. “She had auctioned it off at some point. We don’t know when. And we found it on eBay,” Ashford says, explaining that putting on the dress just felt right in the moment. “I always feel like clothes have a spirit of their own. And my wardrobe was so perfect. Everything felt like it just matched up and especially that garment, it felt like it had a spirit of its own.”
Perhaps one of the most intense moments to capture was the deposition, when Jones and Clinton finally meet again face-to-face. It was also the first time Ashford met Clive Owen, who portrays the president. So the whole thing “felt very method because he was so imposing and his energy was so confident,” she explains. And in real life, the president “would not look at her and refused any knowledge of knowing her,” she continues, explaining how it unraveled Jones.
The deposition, like the press conference, was another scene “in the show where the women are outnumbered by men,” Ashford says, noting the systematic imbalance that Jones, Lewinsky and Tripp constantly faced. “That is not something that we wanted to highlight, but it was really just what happened.”
After 10 months spent filming the season, Ashford is “excited for the world to experience it.” She also hopes that people are open to Jones’ “origin story” because she really believes it dictates the way the public saw her at the time. And when it comes to Jones, “if she watches, I hope it is also a source of healing for her because this has to be so traumatic to revisit it as well… I just hope and proxy for her that this is a time where she gets to reclaim and heal.”
And when it comes to Ashford’s career moving forward, the actress will be seen on TV again, when the CBS sitcom B Positive returns for its second season in October. In the series, she plays a woman named Gina who donates her kidney to a man from her past named Drew (Thomas Middleditch).
“I just can’t believe I get paid to do this thing called acting. I am so grateful and it has been a blast,” Ashford says, pinching herself. “I have a job that is a miracle of miracles,” she continues, happy to be employed, especially after a notable rise that started with her garnering attention for her performance on Masters of Sex before moving on to notable appearances on God Friended Me, Unbelievable and Younger. All of which has led her to now.
And now that Ashford has done two installments of American Crime Story, she can officially consider herself part of Murphy’s universe, which usually means more prominent projects and unexpected roles to come. “I mean, if Ryan calls, you go, ‘Yes. Where should I be?’” she quips, saying she’s ready to star in “all of the American Stories.”
“I am ready,” Ashford says. “Just give me a wig.”
Impeachment: American Crime Story airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.