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Bradley Whitford on the ‘Profoundly Creative Experience’ of Joining ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Postpartum,” the 12th episode of the second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale”

When Bradley Whitford tries to put his experience with “The Handmaid’s Tale” into words, the first thing that comes to mind is that it is a “brutal show” and “overwhelming to watch.”

He’s not the first to say so.

But he also says it has been a “profoundly creative experience,” all-around, including costume fittings, shooting his scenes, and looping dialogue after production.

“It is obviously one of the most emotionally brutal shows that has ever been made, and it is truly the sweetest, kindest set you’ve ever been on, which I think enhances the work. But it is quite a contrast once they say action,” Whitford says.

The veteran actor made his debut as Commander Joseph Lawrence on the Hulu and MGM series with Wednesday’s release of the second season’s penultimate episode, “Postpartum.” As the architect of Gilead’s economy, Lawrence was one of the few commanders left still willing to take in Emily (Alexis Bledel) as a handmaid after all the incidents at her other postings.

“I’m wondering why such an important, brilliant man would take in such a s—-y handmaid,” Emily says to Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) on Lawrence’s doorstep before she’s handed over once again.

While the episode doesn’t jump to answer the question, it is apparent that not all of the rules in Gilead apply to Lawrence.

Art adorns his walls, books are out in the open, and his response to Emily’s pious introductory speech was summed up with one word: “super.” Meanwhile his wife (Julie Dretzin) has suffered some mental blows and his one-eyed martha, Cora (Victoria Fodor), isn’t afraid to speak her mind. (Margaret Atwood fans will note the latter character’s name is the same as the other martha serving the Waterfords in the novel on which the series is based, potentially highlighting Lawrence’s future importance.)

“It’s an amazing character. You get these characters once in a while where there are several things going on simultaneously— several contradictory and dangerous things,” Whitford says.

Whitford is certainly no stranger to varied roles, having headlined series like the critically acclaimed “The West Wing” and “Trophy Wife” while also guest-starring on shows like “Transparent,” “Happyish” and “Shameless.” But when it came to starring in this Elisabeth Moss led project, he says he and fiancée Amy Landecker were “obsessed” from a viewer standpoint, making Lawrence a role that he was intensely interested in landing.

“What Lizzie, and Yvonne [Strahovski], and Alexis, and what everyone is doing on that show is a generational achievement in storytelling,” he says. “I’ve done this enough that you can see it’s a wonderfully creative atmosphere because everybody’s blood is flowing and there are great performances across the board. I could see from the outside that creatively everyone is at their best. When you see a situation like that you want to get in there. And I’m telling you it’s everything.”

This may also be the first time in the actor’s decades-long career that he’s been a part of something as culturally relevant as he feels “Handmaid’s is.” He recalls reading Atwood’s original tome in the 1980s when certain right-wingers wanted to restrict women’s access to healthcare, noting that nowadays such enthusiasts are “explicit” and that they don’t even “try to camouflage” it anymore.

“It’s certainly [ironic to film in Canada]. I can tell you people in Canada are pretty bewildered as to why we have a president as contemptuous towards someone like Justin Trudeau but [who] is hot for dictators all over the world,” Whitford says. “As an American you’re certainly a little self-conscious of it. The show hits something for me culturally and politically. Misogyny is at the reptilian brain stem of a lot of right-wing politics. Misogyny is why abortion is such an issue. It’s perhaps why in this country we were willing to enthusiastically elect an African American man but not so much a woman as president.”

Whitford remains fairly quiet on the role his character plays on orchestrating and maintaining the fictional world of Gilead, what he wants with a handmaid like Emily, and what kind of fallout viewers can expect between the pair heading into the finale, but he does have an idea of a few real-life historical figures to whom he’d liken Commander Lawrence. That shortlist includes Robert McNamara, the U.S. secretary of defense who essentially orchestrated the escalation of the Vietnam War and then spent the rest of his years living in a state of regret. It’s just another art-imitating-life, life-imitating-art moment that’s becoming synonymous with this show.

“Holy God, it’s terrifying. I did ‘Real Time With Bill Maher’ with Michael Moore and he went on and on about how one of the most fascinating things about the show is in those flashbacks and the moments where we didn’t realize what was happening was happening,” Whitford says. “One of the moments that he found most terrifying was when Alexis’s character got in trouble because one of her students saw a picture of her with her wife and so she basically endangered her job at the university… that happened at a high school in Texas this year.”

That “truly scares” Whitford, who recalls watching Bruce Miller accepting awards for “The Handmaid’s Tale’s” first season and saying things to the effect of, “Let’s make sure this is a dystopian fantasy and not a documentary.” Whitford says that line got laughs at the time, but “it’s not as funny now.”

“We’re certainly not there yet and it would be irresponsible to overstate it, but there are elements of that misogyny present today,” he says. My favorite quote now is from Sinclair Lewis, who said, ‘When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.’ That feels sort of dead on.”

“The Handmaid’s Tale” streams new episodes Wednesdays on Hulu.

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