In the News


Finding Empathy for Characters Beyond Media Headlines in ‘Impeachment,’ ‘The Hot Zone: Anthrax,’ ‘Colin in Black & White’

By Danielle Turchiano
January 3, 2022

Beanie Feldstein, who was tasked with bringing Monica Lewinsky to life on “Impeachment: American Crime Story” was only 5 years old when then-president Bill Clinton was impeached. In some ways, her age kept her from formulating any opinions about the players in the impeachment because she was too young to read the news headlines of the time. Her co-star, Sarah Paulson, did not come out of the real-life events as unscathed.

Paulson, who plays Linda Tripp in the FX limited series, recalls John Goodman’s ongoing 1997-’99 portrayal of Tripp on “Saturday Night Live” as one of the most impressionable pieces of media she consumed about the woman. “I, at that time, was young enough to not be very discerning when it came to what I was being fed by the media,” she admits. “I was ready to accept that this lurching, broad-shouldered, very masculine woman was in fact who Linda was.”

Things changed for both Feldstein and Paulson years later — and not a moment too soon. With hindsight and some enlightenment and education a new, more sensitive lens has emerged through which to re-assess notable public figures, resulting in documentary and scripted projects alike offering much more fully formed pictures of complex individuals behind salacious headlines. For the SAG Award-hopeful actors stepping into those roles, it is often the greatest lesson in empathy.

Feldstein, who got a degree in sociology from Wesleyan University the same year Lewinsky released a TED Talk that took back her own narrative, knows now that “what you would get in two paragraphs in a history book [is] not a person.”

“It was my job to display her humanity, but it wasn’t my job to only portray her good. If I did that, it’s still two-dimensional because it’s only showing one side of someone,” Feldstein explains, adding that one of the most challenging pieces of the story to portray was Lewinsky’s “deep, profound, all-consuming love” for the former president (played by Clive Owen).

“There’s a scene in episode 5 where they’re saying goodbye to one another,” she continues. “She says, ‘You are my whole world.’ That was a very challenging scene to portray because it was her truth at the time and that broke my heart because I know, as Beanie, how it’s going to end for her.”

Feldstein had the real-life Lewinsky, who was a producer on “Impeachment,” to call or text if she had questions about how her character would react or feel in certain moments. Paulson, on the other hand, relied on listening to interviews with Tripp, namely the “Slow Burn” podcast, because the real woman passed away only weeks after filming originally began (it was paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

“I had plenty of time on my hands to immerse myself in the sound of her voice. I put it on the speakers that are in my ceiling, and I could really feel like I was sitting inside Linda, in a way. And it was just very interesting to hear her talk while looking in the rearview mirror, without fully apologizing for what she had done, but I could detect sorrow and regret in her voice,” she says.

Goodman’s sketch show parody of Tripp was so memorable to Paulson that she knew she had to work “from the outside in” to capture Tripp’s physicality in a more realistic way. “I worked with a movement coach and walked around my backyard as Linda for weeks and weeks and weeks before we started shooting,” she says. “And so, it was trying to find her physicality that communicated some of her internal story, which, to me, was about a collapsed chest and almost a person with a broken heart.

“In terms of the empathy points, it was very easy for me to connect to that inside Linda simply [because] I think there’s not a person on the planet who doesn’t worry about or hope to feel seen in the world — and I don’t mean from a notoriety standpoint, but from an identity standpoint of just wanting to matter,” she continues.

Tony Goldwyn, who plays microbiologist and anthrax attack suspect Bruce Ivins in National Geographic’s “The Hot Zone: Anthrax,” was also without the ability to get to know the real man who he would be playing on screen. Ivins died by suicide in 2008, by which point he had been relegated to many headlines as an accused domestic terrorist. But Goldwyn dug deep to get to know the man behind the quick news clips — a man who was very smart but also troubled, both due to trauma in his childhood and struggles with mental illness, Goldwyn says.

“Paranoia was a big part of Bruce’s struggle,” he believes. But also, “Bruce had all of this repressed rage. What made sense to me was that Bruce had a certain tolerance for his own rage and it would hit a certain level, and when it got past that red line, it was like he blacked out; he couldn’t accept that version of himself.”

Goldwyn was living in New York on Sept. 11, 2001 and remembers well those events and the anthrax scares only a few weeks later. “We were very alarmed and didn’t open our mail and put Cipro in the kids’ school backpacks,” he recalls. Therefore, “when I did start to read about him and see he became the prime suspect and had some bizarre behavior, it was hard not to judge him at first.”

After getting his hands on a copy of “The Mirage Man,” David Willman’s book about Ivins, Goldwyn’s perspective shifted. “When I started to think a lot about his relationship with his mother and the kind of emotional abuse he suffered, I just felt so much compassion for him,” he says. “He felt shut out by his mother; his mother was a very frightening figure to him. He wanted to be let in. That was a key for me.”

Parental figures proved to be essential to Jaden Michael getting inside a young Colin Kaepernick for Netflix’s “Colin in Black & White,” as well. While the pro-football player and activist has been well-documented as an adult, tapping into his teenage years meant sifting through Kaepernick’s parents’ home movies and photo albums. But because this time in Kaepernick’s life was not splashed across magazine covers, Michael wasn’t beholden to copy any front-page images.

“I realized that it was more effective to work backwards and start from something as impressionable as a young teenager and using Colin as the light to walk towards,” Michael says. “In reality, the difference in his mannerism during his teenage years, I don’t remember them being that stark. I think it was more of a creative choice on my part. But there definitely was maturity; he was growing up [and] I wanted Colin, physically and vocally, to represent that change through his experience, and so I started incorporating more of Colin’s attributes and speech and dialect as he was learning to use his voice more [in the story].”

Teenage Kaepernick’s drive to pursue football, despite having many more offers to play baseball, was an important part of how he used his voice that shaped the man the media has covered, Michael points out.

“It was courageous and brave to stick to his true passion,” he says. “He chose to speak up for what he believed in, and ultimately, those actions would lead to being the kind of person to be brave enough to speak up against social injustice against all odds and expectations.”