“There was something about her spirit that came so naturally to me.”
It's just after 8:30 a.m.. in Los Angeles when Annaleigh Ashford logs in to our Zoom session from the set of B Positive, the CBS sitcom she stars in that enters its second season this fall. With her blonde hair piled into a topknot and her face free of any makeup, she looks so different from Paula Jones, the Arkansas state employee who sued President Bill Clinton for sexual harassment in 1994 and was known for her then stylish perm and heavy lip liner. (Ashford plays Jones on American Crime Story: Impeachment, which premieres on FX on September 7.)
But then again, this shouldn't come as a surprise for those who've followed the Tony Award winner's career. Ashford's been racking up the accolades for years with critically acclaimed roles in Showtime's Masters of Sex, HBO's Emmy-winning Bad Education, Mindy Kaling's Late Night, and more. While her work has always been exciting, it's her turn as Jones that feels as though it's going to catapult the actor into an entirely new stratosphere of stardom.
“It's the dream of a lifetime, getting to play a role like this,” Ashford tells Glamour. “Especially in a series that is so beautiful from a creative standpoint, but also as an act of social justice. It's forcing us to really look at ourselves with a deeper lens.”
While Impeachment is mainly seen through the eyes of former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and former Pentagon and White House employee Linda Tripp (who secretly recorded Lewinsky discussing her affair with Clinton), Paula Jones is an integral part. She's the catalyst in a story that examines just how damning her allegations against the former president were—and how badly she was treated by the court of public opinion. While Ashford herself doesn't agree with her alter-ego's political affiliation (Jones is a Republican who openly supported Donald Trump in his 2016 presidential campaign), she was eager to bring this story to TV.
“The whole point of the series is for us to reexamine this moment in time,” Ashford says. “We're really giving voice to a time in Paula's life when she had no voice. These three women—Monica, Linda, and Paula—had no agency over their stories.”
Ashford admits that it was even a lot for her to wrap her head around, given the sensationalist nature of the events in the ’90s. “If somebody wrote this as fiction, they'd be like, ‘No, that’s too crazy. You can't write that!’” she says. “Because it's such a part of our pop culture history, we've almost become immune to the wildness of the story. It's crazy.”
So how did Ashford find herself in Jones's shoes? And what does she wish she could ask her now? Ahead of the 10-episode series premiere, Ashford fills us in on all that and more.
Glamour: How did the role of Paula Jones come about?
Annaleigh Ashford: In the really early days of casting, I got a call that they wanted me to come in. I was beyond thrilled because American Crime Story is one of my favorite shows. I went to the audition with my hair in a faux perm—I used old-fashioned sponge rollers the night before, and I got a spray can of dark hair color. Her eye makeup was really specific, and it was important to me that I get it right. I also did some voice and speech work. I remember Courtney B. Vance saying that when he played Johnny Cochran in The People vs. O.J. that he didn't want to do an impression, but it was important he got into his skin. I really felt like I was able to do that once I got into hair, makeup, and wardrobe. It felt so comfortable, so easy.
What preconceived notions did you have about Paula Jones, and how has that changed after all your research?
From my own memories of the story, I knew that there was a lot of murky and gray knowledge of Paula Jones's involvement from a public standpoint. I always remember Paula Jones being attacked as trailer trash and the constant horrible comments about her nose and her physical appearance. Those are the first things that pop up in your mind.
What have you learned about her that surprised you, if anything?
Her involvement in this giant story is really what unraveled the whole tapestry. It's the first domino in the falling of the empire. That was interesting to me. And like I just mentioned, so much of her narrative was dependent on her physicality. The media was really hard on these women when it came to their physical appearance—especially Paula Jones, to the point that she had two full make-overs during her time in the public eye, which included different hair and wardrobe. She had braces, and then she ended up getting a nose job as well. She was also really trying to please her husband and the people closest to her in her life. Those were her motives. I find that really heartbreaking and also a symptom of the patriarchy.
And then the next thing that I think of is her involvement in the political arena over the last five-plus years. She was one of the people that Donald Trump invited to be a guest at the second presidential debate with Hillary Clinton.
You worked with a movement and vocal coach to play Paula, so what was that like?
I did some movement work that I thought was really important. I noticed in my research that, physically, she was much more closed off. There was a childlike quality about her in the beginning. As she got some media training, you can see it change. You can see her get more confident as the years go by. She knows how to talk to people about uncomfortable conversations, so I wanted to show that. What's really fascinating is that even though her hair changed and she got braces and had a nose job, she always had the same mascara and eyeliner. I felt like her eye makeup grounded her in this kind of sweet, special way, and her accent and her cadence and the timbre of her voice also really stayed kind of consistent through all those years. Those were things that I focused on.
I watched a recent video of Paula Jones, and it’s remarkable how much you sound identical to her.
Thank you. I was shooting B Positive and Crime Story at the same time, so sometimes there would be a couple of weeks where I'd been away from Paula. So the night before I would play her, I would check in with her, like, “Hello, old friend.” I'd watch lots of clips of her. There was something about her spirit that came so naturally to me. I think part of it is because I'm also a people pleaser. I try not to be, but I also sometimes speak higher in my vocal register when I'm trying to please even more. I'm a caretaker, I'm maternal, so there's things about her spirit that connect with me somehow. It always felt like an easy fit.
At the Television Critics Association summer press tour, you mentioned you were in hair and makeup for only 30 minutes. That astonished me.
I realized I should have said that was just for the prosthetic nose. The rest of it took, like, three hours. There was at least six days where my call time was 4 a.m. I think I even had one at 3:45 a.m.. But it was never as long in hair and makeup as Sarah Paulson. She had the lion's share.
I’ve seen the first five episodes; so far, you don’t have any scenes with Sarah or Beanie Feldstein. I assume you won’t, since they never really cross paths in person, correct?
I never worked with them. We never saw each other. We would send each other messages through the crew. Like, “Tell Beanie I love her! Tell Sarah I love her!” They're both geniuses. I knew the material they were getting to work on, so I was like, “Send them my love for this, because they've got a crazy week of, like, really hard stuff.” It was just gorgeously written. [Writer] Sarah Burgess did a phenomenal job.
You do work a lot with Judith Light, who plays Susan Carpenter-McMillan, a conservative advocate and spokesperson for Paula Jones.
I love Judith Light and think that her name is just so apropos. She is a light in this world. It's always a delicious treat to get to play with Judith, especially in this circumstance. It's amazing that she played somebody who didn't have really my best interests at heart because in real life she has only my best interest at heart. Working with her and Taran Killam, who plays my husband…it was like having a party amid all this really heavy material. We laughed so much and had so much for love for one another. I am so grateful for both of them.
You did not reach out to Paula Jones, but did you want to?
Because the Crime Story franchise has already been down the road of these real stories more than once, I trusted the producers so deeply about who to reach out to and who not to. We also had so much material for research. I found that telling her story, I didn't really think it was necessary that we needed to meet or make contact. You're always curious about how the real person is going to perceive themselves or feel about their story being retold. But I felt like we had such an overwhelming wealth of research and information that we had to go from to tell the story authentically.
If you could sit down with Paula now, what would you want to ask her?
When you see interviews of her now, she seems so unaffected by this time and resilient. But I really feel for her, for the experience that she had toward the end of our storytelling of it. She posed for Penthouse. She ended up doing the celebrity boxing match with Tonya Harding. There was clearly a moment in time where she was needing to pay her bills and she couldn't get a job because of what this did to her publicly. I'm just kind of curious about how she was able to rebuild her life, because that's not a story that we know much about. There hasn't been much coverage of that, and I'm sure it was really hard to navigate. So even though I personally don't agree with her politics, I have a lot of empathy for her standing in public life and her unasked-for position in American history.
You can’t help but wonder if her politics would have shifted if she was treated differently.
Or married to a different person.
What do you hope people take away from Paula’s story after this?
People were so easy to dismiss and ignore her allegation and not believe what she said. We're in this moment of claiming to really listen to women, so it's heartbreaking to be reminded that nobody listened to her.
Did you have any conversations with Monica Lewinsky, since she is also a producer on the series?
Yes. We got to spend time with Monica, which was just wonderful. She couldn't be more lovely. She's so smart and such a great storyteller and wonderful producer. It was exciting to see her be a part of her story for the first time. It's shocking how open and available she can be about something that I find to be an overwhelming source of trauma. When you look at people who have had traumatic episodes in their life, I think this qualifies. I also respect her immensely for using this tragedy as an opportunity to help people heal through all of her work that she does through bullying awareness.
On another note, you play Gina, an organ donor and assisted health care worker on B Positive, which returns to CBS on October 7. What can you preview about the new season?
Linda Lavin is back, which is so exciting because, like Judith Light, she is also a legend who I love so much. But the world of Gina changes quite a bit and Drew comes along for the ride, but we have some magical guests who are coming to join our party this year. [Editor's note: New recurring cast members include Jane Seymour, Ben Vereen, and Hector Elizondo.] Gina has a big change coming up, and I'm so excited about the new story we're telling. I'm grateful to be working with Chuck Lorre, who not only is a master of his craft but also not afraid to take chances.
ACS: Impeachment airs new episodes every Tuesday night at 10 p.m. E.T./9 p.m. C.T. on FX.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This story originally appeared on: Glamour - Author:Condé Nast