Enter Stage Right
New York magazine|September 27 - October 10, 2021
In Impeachment: American Crime Story, Billy Eichner and Cobie Smulders play side characters who’d love to control the narrative.
OLIVIA NUZZI

THE SERIES Impeachment: American Crime Story is an embarrassment of riches for viewers obsessed with the camp political and media culture of the late 1990s. By viewers, I mean myself and my friends in the Washington press corps, with whom I improperly shared my FX login credentials. The show’s creator, Ryan Murphy, sold me on the details: Margo Martindale as Lucianne Goldberg, swilling a martini and rasping into a landline. Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp, tapping a scoop of SlimFast into her blender. George Salazar as George Conway, crawling out of his skin as he swans about a cocktail party with the social circle he will betray in the next century. Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky, unaware of how far the grisly details of her affair with the president have already traveled, wailing into an FBI agent’s chest, “You can’t tell anyone.” And Annaleigh Ashford as Paula Jones, whispering “Oh mah Gawd” throughout in a twang that rings like a mandolin.

Two unexpected highlights are Billy Eichner as dot-com town crier Matt Drudge and Cobie Smulders as far-right cable Cruella de Vil Ann Coulter. Drudge and Coulter are naturally cartoonish personalities who share a guiding value: Drudge would do anything to get the story, and Coulter would do anything to talk about the story and contort it to advance her political agenda. Eichner’s Drudge is a little ridiculous because Drudge is a little ridiculous, but he plays him with a certain dignity, elevating a performance that could have easily been an SNL-level parody. Meanwhile, Smulders so completely embodies Ann Coulter that it seems less a performance than a documentation of a woman possessed. It’s not just her rendition of Coulter’s distinct squawk, which is uncanny, but the subtle flicks of the hair and sharp, judgmental intakes of breath. It’s as though the ghost of Coulter’s past has escaped from a studio in purgatory, where there’s a never-ending taping of Politically Incorrect, and landed in the future.

I thought you were both remarkably understated while still conveying the absurdities inherent to Drudge and Coulter. How do you prepare to play people who are already sort of playing characters themselves?

COBIE SMULDERS: Well, I had much more material to sift through than Billy did. Ann Coulter is a person who likes to put herself front and center in every debate. I think I listened to every one of the audio books that she read herself. Which was enlightening, to say the least. I hadn’t sought that out before—I tend to ignore it. The show did a really interesting job in terms of lacing her interview segments with actual scenes, like the ones I did with Billy. I think every public person does have two versions of themselves— one they portray when they’re being filmed and one in their private lives—and hers are slightly different.

Did your opinion of her change through the research process?

Cs.: She is more humanized to me. But the way she sees the world and her politics, that’s kind of stayed the same.

You mean you’re not super-anti-immigrant now?

C.s.: No. She’s so extremely on the other side in terms of being a Republican, and I’m a Democrat. I was trying to understand that viewpoint; I don’t know if I really, truly do.

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