“EXCLUSIVE: Billy Eichner Is Perfect Casting as Matt Drudge.”
It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that headline, or something like it—maybe with “BOMBSHELL” or “SCOOP” as the tease—splashed across the Drudge Report, the news website founded by Matt Drudge. In fact, when reviews were first published for Impeachment: American Crime Story, the FX series chronicling the Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton scandal, Drudge actually did publish a version of that.
“The site posted a picture of me as Drudge as one of its main stories,” Eichner tells The Daily Beast. “In classic Drudge style, the headline was something like, ‘Drudge Steals the Show’... even though no one was saying that.”
In Impeachment, Eichner plays the journalist, who might be characterized as “revered” or “notorious,” depending on who is talking about him. But what’s undeniable is that he was—and is—influential. On the occasion of the series coming out, it appears the aggregation king is keen for everyone to remember that.
In 1995, as the country was dialing up to the internet via America Online on monstrous desktop computers, Matt Drudge started Drudge Report, a gossip column that regurgitated whispers about Hollywood and D.C. goings-on with amplified hysterics and a rabid hunger for dirt. What started as a newsletter grew into a website that, by 1998, had exploded in popularity and had the eager eyes of Tinseltown and Beltway players.
Taking advantage of that rapt attention, not to mention the fast-and-loose editorial standards of posting on the internet, Drudge positioned himself at the center of U.S. political history. He was the one who published that Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff was working on a story about U.S. President Bill Clinton’s secret affair with a White House intern.
It goes without saying, then, that Drudge would be a pivotal figure in Impeachment, the third iteration of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story series. As with the previous seasons, which focused on the O.J. Simpson trial and Andrew Cunanan’s murder spree, Impeachment reframes a news story that became a cultural phenomenon from the perspectives of the people whose lives became fodder for a media inferno.
That means that Impeachment, finally, gives an overdue voice to Monica Lewinsky (played by Beanie Feldstein), whose perspective and own story was never validated, let alone amplified, when a blue dress, a beret, and an impeachment trial captivated the world. But that new context also applies to the other characters in the orbit of the massive news story, like Sarah Paulson’s Linda Tripp, Analeigh Ashford’s Paula Jones, and, in the first episode to feature him in a major way on Tuesday night, Eichner’s Matt Drudge.
Eichner, who became a household name with the popularity of his guerrilla game show Billy on the Street and has since starred in Parks and Recreation, Difficult People, and Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story series, was surprised when Murphy reached out about playing Drudge in Impeachment. But when he started to research the media figure, “one of the most fascinating, surprising, and unnerving things” that he discovered, he says, is how much the two of them have in common.
Over the years, Drudge has become an iconic figure to conservatives and fanatics on the far right. “Our politics could not be further apart, and he has aligned himself with people that I find so despicable,” Eichner says.
But the actor, who is openly gay and currently in production on two historic studio films, was fascinated that Drudge, who has been reported to have been in relationships with men and, decades ago, was a regular fixture of gay bars and clubs, has since denied being gay. At a time when conservative media stars are craven for airtime and attention, Drudge has become somewhat of a recluse.
When he was younger, Drudge was reportedly obsessed with Madonna and would buy new issues of Variety off of the newsstand so that he could check out the weekend’s box-office returns—a showbiz curiosity that Eichner certainly identifies with. “There would be a headline [on Drudge Report] like, ‘We’re Attacking Fallujah!’ And then underneath it, it would say ‘Streisand Adds to Malibu Compound.’”
Especially given his muted public persona in recent years, Eichner enjoyed delving into Drudge’s pre-Drudge Report days—Tuesday’s episode opens showing his time as a manager in a CBS Studios gift shop—and eventual embrace of a mannered 1930s muckraker persona, complete with an affected accent modeled after Walter Winchell and a fedora. (In one surreal scene in Tuesday’s episode of Impeachment that takes place at a party thrown by Laura Ingraham, Cobie Smulders’ Ann Coulter meets Eichner’s Drudge for the first time and says, “Nice hat. Is it serious?”)
Taking a break from production on Bros, the upcoming gay rom-com that makes Eichner the first openly gay man to write and star in a major Hollywood studio film, Eichner talked to The Daily Beast about the surprising commonalities he discovered with Drudge, his impression of the media figure’s caginess about his sexuality, and much more.
I am excited to talk to you about playing Matt Drudge, who is a person I never thought I would talk to you about playing.
It was all part of my grand plan. [Laughs] I don’t know what you’re talking about.
I imagine that actors sometimes think about the real-life people that they might want to play one day, and I’m not sure that Matt Drudge would be on anyone’s radar. But it is kind of a great role.
It turned out to be a great role, yes. I mean, I certainly wasn’t expecting it. But one night I got an email from Mr. Murphy saying that he wanted me to play Matt Drudge in Impeachment, and I was so excited. Because once I sat down to think about it, I thought, “You know what, I think that’s actually pretty good casting. That actually makes sense.”
What did you know about him before you were offered the part?
I didn’t know much about his personal life, but I am in that age group of media-savvy people who used to run home and immediately check Drudge Report. These were the days before iPhones and before Twitter, and Drudge Report is really what you checked in order to see what the hottest breaking news was in politics and entertainment and pretty much everything. He covered it all.
Did you know anything about his personal life?
I didn’t know a ton about Drudge’s personal life. I had heard rumors over the years that he was gay. Once I heard that, it made sense to me because one thing I always thought was so funny about Drudge Report is that it just seems to be surprisingly skewed to a gay male sensibility, in terms of the pop culture that it covered. There would be a headline like, “We’re Attacking Fallujah!” And then underneath it, it would say, “Streisand Adds to Malibu Compound.” I remember him chronicling Madonna when she insisted on performing the Drowned World tour even right after 9/11. He chronicled Madonna just as closely as he would chronicle what was happening in Washington, D.C. He would cover the box office every week as if it was a war.
He has denied being gay over the years, even though people have spoken about his relationships with me. He’s sort of talked-about in circles about his sexuality.
He has been coy over the years about his sexuality, though there are many people who noted for the record that he has had boyfriends, he is gay, and that he used to love going to gay bars and gay clubs when he was younger in D.C. and in West Hollywood. So I don’t really think there’s much of a mystery there.
Did any of that impact how you played him?
There’s clearly a lack of comfort around him discussing his sexuality publicly, or confirming it outright publicly. I’ll be honest and say it helped me connect. Because one of the most fascinating, surprising, and honestly unnerving things that I experienced doing research about him was when I read about his childhood and his high school years, because I swear it was like I could have been reading about myself. That was really shocking to me because our politics, you know, could not be further apart. And he has aligned himself with people that I find so despicable.
What did you have in common with him?
We were both people who come from middle-class families. We’re both East Coast kids. He grew up right outside of D.C. I grew up in Queens, right outside of Manhattan. It’s close, but it’s like it’s one of those things like it’s close, but so far. You’re just dreaming of the day you can actually live in the big city and not just be a half-hour away.
Right. Feeling just outside the action and wanting to be in it.
Reading about his childhood, I found out how much he loved entertainment and TV. He was obsessed with Madonna. He was obsessed with reading the box office results every weekend. One of his friends told a story about how, when Drudge discovered Variety, he would go to the newsstand even as a child and buy it. I literally had that same eye-opening experience as a kid. In the local newspaper or on the local TV news, you would get the top five movies at the box office every week. But then in Variety you got the top 50. I remember almost falling over when I realized I had access to that information.
Taking pop culture that seriously is very relatable.
We weren’t completely alike. The man also walked around his high school with the fedora on and a notecard that said “press” in high school. He had this fascination with this sort of Walter Winchell-style, old-school muckraking journalism.
How did you feel about the fedora?
[Laughs] I knew it was coming, obviously. It’s iconic for his persona. One of the reasons I’m so thankful for Ryan Murphy is because he sees beyond the persona that people were first introduced to me as. Billy on the Street and Parks and Rec and the whole, like, shouty guy. Ryan always sees beyond that and thinks of me as a real actor, so I love the chance to put on a different type of costume and the hat. It actually helped me get into character.
The scene where you as Matt Drudge meet Cobie Smulder’s Ann Coulter at Laura Ingraham’s cocktail party was like a surreal Mad Libs of media figures.
I loved it. It was like this conservative Clash of the Titans. Look, I’m a guy who loves the media. I love cable news. Through Billy on the Street and other things, I’ve met so many famous actors, but one of the times I was most starstruck was meeting Dana Bash from CNN at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. If I ever meet Rachel Maddow, I would fall over. The way people feel about BTS is how I feel about Rachel Maddow. So people like Drudge and Ann Coulter—and let me be clear, my politics do not align with theirs in any way and I find them to be rather despicable—but I can’t deny the fact they’re a little entertaining.
It’s interesting that he and Ann Coulter handled being in the spotlight so differently.
I don’t think he was comfortable being famous. I think it made him feel vulnerable and made him feel exposed. And he really became a recluse. I mean, it’s hard to find any footage of him in recent years, whereas Ann Coulter has been omnipresent.
What did you make of the whole Walter Winchell persona?
One concern I had was that younger people watching this series, or people who just didn’t know much about Drudge, would think that I just decided to do a weird voice. Because unlike Ann Coulter, who’s on TV all the time, Drudge shied away from on-camera appearances. So I did worry a little bit about that.
Do you know if he’s said anything or had any reaction to you playing him?
I don’t know if he’s seen it, but one of the most surreal and perfect moments of this whole experience was last week. The Drudge Report posted a picture of me as Matt Drudge on Drudge Report as one of the main stories. In classic Drudge style, the headline was something like, “Drudge Steals the Show”... even though no one was saying that. Imagine, back when I was running home to read those headlines on Drudge Report, thinking that one day there’ll be a picture of me not only on the Drudge Report, but playing Matt Drudge.
That has to be surreal.
It’s beyond surreal. You truly could not have predicted. So, he is definitely aware of it. And I don’t know him personally, but I have a feeling he’s getting a kick out of it. That’s my gut feeling.