×

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.

More TV

  • Luna Nera Netflix Italy

    Italy's Women Filmmakers Set to Make Waves

    The Berlinale in recent years has been a prime launching pad for Italian films directed by women, which though fewer in number to their male counterparts, make up a considerable portion of the country’s representation on the festival circuit — Alice Rohrwacher (“Happy as Lazzaro”) at Cannes, Susanna Nicchiarelli (“Nico”) at Venice, and Berlin regular [...]

  • Love Me Scandinavian Cinema

    Scandinavia Ups Its Game With So Many Markets for Its Fare

    When the Nordic entertainment group, one of Scandinavia’s largest media groups, announced last month during the Goteborg Film Festival that it was pulling out of non-scripted content to focus on scripted drama, and film production and distribution, it underscored two market trends in the Nordics: Subscription-based services, whether local or global, are driving the region’s [...]

  • Louis Hofmann in Prélude

    Berlin: Louis Hofmann Cast in Damian John Harper's 'Fresh' (EXCLUSIVE)

    German star Louis Hofmann is set to topline Damian John Harper’s upcoming drama “Fresh,” a German-language adaptation of Scottish writer Mark McNay’s novel of the same name. Hofmann plays a young man who must emancipate himself from his tyrannical older brother. Unlike the book, which is set in the outskirts of Glasgow, the film’s story [...]

  • Steve Stark

    Steve Stark Named President of Newly Formed MGM/UA Television

    The newly formed MGM/UA Television label has found a president in Steve Stark, who previously served as MGM’s president of scripted television production and development. MGM Worldwide Television Group chairman Mark Burnett made the announcement late Friday, adding that Stark has extended his contract with the studio as part of his new role. “We are [...]

  • Bad Education

    TV News Roundup: HBO Sets Premiere Date for Hugh Jackman's 'Bad Education' (Watch)

    In today’s TV News roundup, HBO Films set the premiere date for “Bad Education” starring Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney and “Volcano Live! with Nik Wallenda” tapes Chris Harrison and Sage Steele as hosts. CASTING “The Bachelor” host Chris Harrison will host “Volcano Live! with Nik Wallenda” alongside co-host Sage Steele of ESPN, ABC announced. [...]

  • Randall Park Ed Helms

    Randall Park, Ed Helms to Host Hybrid Alternative-Scripted Series 'True Story' for NBC

    Ed Helms and Randall Park are attached to co-host a hybrid scripted-alternative series titled “True Story” at NBC. The hour-long show has received a six-episode order. It is based on the Australian series “True Story with Hamish & Andy.” In the series, everyday Americans sit down with Helms and Park to share their most extraordinary [...]

  • Annie MurphyGlamour Women of the Year

    'Schitt’s Creek' Star Annie Murphy Cast as Lead in AMC's ‘Kevin Can F— Himself’

    “Schitt’s Creek” star Annie Murphy has been cast as the lead in AMC’s upcoming series “Kevin Can F— Himself.” The dark comedy centers around Murphy’s Allison, Kevin’s wife, who escapes her confines and discovers her rage. “Kevin Can F– Himself” probes the secret life of a type of woman we all grew up believing we [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content