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Bradley Whitford on the ‘Obligation’ to Speak Out Politically

Having starred on Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” for seven seasons, Bradley Whitford is certainly no stranger to political television. Now he’s in two more such series: Nat Geo’s exploration of the dot-com era, “Valley of the Boom” in which he plays real-life Netscape CEO James Barksdale, as well as Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” in which he plays Commander Lawrence, who helped build Gilead’s economy. He will also guest star in an episode of Pop TV’s meta limited series “Flack.”

What did it take to get you in the mindset to play complex men like Barksdale and Lawrence?

I am absolutely convinced the best acting feels not like school but like recess. And that’s kind of how I judge actors I’m [working] with because some are executing an assignment and some are having a blast. That’s where the really fun stuff happens. The way I want to approach it, I don’t want to have a defined technique because each role seems so fundamentally different I don’t know how to apply the same kind of principles. … There is a tremendous amount of work that goes into it, but it’s not like playing the saxophone, there’s not one technique you have to master.

What did it take then to specficially get into Barksdale?

There were these hooks that surprised me. I was intimidated. He’s a businessman, he’s from the South. Sometimes something very personal and emotional connects you, sometimes it’s something external — in this case in the way he carries himself. I was seeing raw footage of these interviews of him, and seeing the lack of distinction of him when he thought he was off-camera and when he was on was interesting.

And for Lawrence?

Lawrence is an entirely different experience. There’s so much going on in this guy’s mind, and there is a sorrow and a sophistication, and you want to be open to it — you don’t want to design it and then execute it. That doesn’t work.

Do you find yourself ad-libbing or being able to be looser in your actions at all on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” given how so many moments live in the quiet in between lines of dialogue?

I find “Handmaid’s Tale” to be perfectly written, so no, I don’t ad-lib. I come from the hyper-verbal world of Sorkin, which I love, and a lot of theater I’ve done has been pyrotechnically verbal stuff. A lot of the stuff that’s working really well right now [like] “The Crown” and “Handmaid’s Tale” is not a relentless cascade of dialogue; it’s very underwritten, and you sit with characters through moments that 10 years ago you would not. And you fall in love and get very connected empathetically with the experience they’re going through. It’s just an interesting wave to me now of something that’s a mannerism that’s really working that is in contrast to something that was working before. I find it very specifically written and not anything I want to clutter up.

Bradley Whitford photographed for Variety at the PMC Studio in Los Angeles.
CREDIT: Dan Doperalski/Variety

Are there consistencies in such roles that you want to apply to all of your work at this stage in your career?

I do not want to design a career. I’m going to name drop, but I got to work with Clint Eastwood — he had just won the Oscar for “Unforgiven” and he’s sitting on his director’s chair and I’m reading the NY Times and it’s this huge Arts & Leisure front page article, “Clint Eastwood’s America,” talking about his vision of America through his roles. And I said, “Did you see this?” And he laughed and he said a version of, “A couple of years ago I was working with an orangutan and now they think I’m Gandhi.” You can try to see patterns in there, but what you end up doing is you take the best acting experience. If anything, I want to do something that is an absolutely bizarre thing to see me do.

Is there anything that’s off the table at this point?

Would I do a chat show on Fox News? No. I used to get this question about “The West Wing” — would I do “West Wing” about a Republican, right-wing White House? And my answer was no because Republicans aren’t funny, you don’t want to watch them flirt, and the show would never work if at the end of it we were jumping up and down going, “We’re drilling on protected land!” Playing bad guys, like Richard III — people who murder people — that can be luscious and a real joy to do. I would not do something that I really don’t believe in. I’m always conflicted about violence. My family’s Quaker. It’s very bizarre to me that the act of creation is the definition of obscenity and we kill people for fun. There’s a hypocrisy in Hollywood that when “Schindler’s List” comes out we say, “Oh look at the power of storytelling” and the other 900 movies that year are killing people for entertainment. At the same time, those Greek plays were about tearing your eyes out and sleeping with your mom, there were sword fights and pig’s blood in Shakespeare plays. “The Sopranos” was one of the greatest shows of all time and it had a lot of violence. I would certainly do a movie that had a lot of violence if I felt like the consequence was there. That’s the luxury I have now; 20 years ago I was just a hooker with an acting major.

Why do you feel it’s important to use your platform to speak out about politics?

I was raised Quaker, and the Quaker version of Sunday school was basically social action. There was this idea of being a little kid and talking about prison reform and stuff like that. … Politics were present in the house, and I would always read the political stuff instead of the sports page. And then doing “West Wing” — Aaron was wonderfully, honestly humble about the power of the show; he just wanted to hold your attention — but he had a very strong point of view that totally coincided with mine, and he wrote the characters so that I don’t think I ever said anything on the show that I don’t believe politically, in terms of pragmatic stuff. What got me more involved in political stuff was having kids and having them be so young when the war on Iraq was happening and feeling like their future was getting attacked. I know the dangers, I think, of celebrities being spokespeople and how they get dismissed — I’m from Wisconsin, where there is a healthy suspicion of that. But I also feel, especially at this moment, defensive about it because there’s nothing less democratic than telling someone to shut up. … The right tries to silence by shaming Hollywood people, and I think they should stand up. Alyssa Milano is absolutely phenomenal and unapologetic and she understands that there are cameras that are interested in her, and she’s decided to use that to help. I can’t even catalog the issues that she’s working on, and I think that’s heroic. … In an unprecedented way, divisiveness is being used to hold onto power. It’s an absolute obligation to speak out against it.

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