For a few years in the early 2000s, the best way to win an Emmy was to get a role on “The West Wing.” Original cast member Bradley Whitford had his turn in the second season, when his character grappled with PTSD after surviving an assassination attempt. More recently, Whitford scored memorable guest turns on Amazon’s “Transparent” (for which he recently won a TV Critics Choice award for guest actor) and Fox’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and joined the cast of Showtime’s frosh comedy “Happyish.”
“The West Wing” was an Emmy staple during its run. What was that experience like?
The weird thing about doing a television show like “The West Wing” is you get a crash course (in awards season). It’s not like a Broadway play — you know, “The Book of Mormon,” they go to an awards show once. You’re on a TV show that’s working and you’re going every year to SAG Awards, to Emmy Awards, to Golden Globe Awards. I remember being sort of shocked at how often these (happen). You really develop mixed feelings about awards shows because you have to think about them a lot and talk to people about them a lot.
And what are those feelings?
My best metaphor is it’s like a dog show. You get to the end of the dog show and everybody’s decided that these five dogs are fantastic. There’s a schnauzer, a poodle and a dachshund, and a lady in a muumuu comes out and goes, “You know what? It’s the dachshund.” I mean, it’s ridiculous. [Laughs]
What was it like to win an Emmy in the second season?
You realize very quickly that it was like a conspiracy for me to win an Emmy. That’s not what you should get awards for — for the greatest writer on the planet writing the hell out of your character in an amazing situation with great actors around you. It’s like surfing — you just like stand up on the board.
Your character, Josh, had a powerful storyline that year.
Aaron (Sorkin) very consciously, generously for us, wrote episodes that would win us Emmys. The first thing I said, if you look at the tape, when they announced my name, I turned around and said to John Spencer, “You’re next.” I’m being a little disingenuous because it’s an amazing thing for your career to check that crazy box. As I was walking up there I was thinking, “Oh good, this may get ‘Revenge of the Nerds II’ out of the first line of my obituary.”
Richard Schiff had won in the category the year before. Did he give you any advice?
No, but I remember we were thrilled (when he won). You don’t know if the show is going to be that kind of show that gets nominated. The first year he was nominated, and Martin (Sheen) and Allison (Janney). But with Richard, his identity was as an incredible, hard-working, unrecognized actor. I remember laughing and saying, “Oh my God, if you win your head’s going to explode like ‘Scanners,’ because it goes against your entire world.” There’s nothing more recognized than an actor standing up at an award show. That was an amazing, exciting night.
Looking back now, what do you think about the show’s four-in-a-row winning streak for best drama?
If you go back and look — every year “The Sopranos” should have won, press wise. That was always the hotter unrecognized show. So when we had that string of wins … every year we thought, “We’ve gotten plenty of praise.” And “The Sopranos,” you know, felt like it should win. And we felt like it should win. It was funny because I remember we’d go to the awards shows and there’s some scary dudes in that cast. You’d go, “Yo, I disagree with the Academy. I’m with you. I shouldn’t be holding this and I’m sorry.” But looking back, every year we really, honestly did not think we would or should win, and it just kept going. In retrospect that’s really sweet.