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Listen: Bradley Whitford on ‘Valley of the Boom,’ ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and the Power of Fiction

Welcome to “TV Take,” Variety’s television podcast. In this week’s episode, Variety’s senior features editor of TV, Danielle Turchiano, talks with Bradley Whitford, star of “Valley of the Boom,” National Geographic’s limited series about Silicon Valley during the dot-com era.  

Whitford had no idea what to expect when he signed on to National Geographic’s “Valley of the Boom.” The series’ strange format, which includes documentary-style talking heads, fictional reenactments and several musical numbers, led to a “terrifying feeling,” the actor says — but the unconventional storyline is also the reason he decided to do the show.

“It seemed very pertinent to what’s going on today because it feels as if we’re beginning to understand that we have to assert our humanity on technology or it will take us over,” he explains. “But the way the story was told had the same joy, non-linear, kind of rodeo fun that seemed appropriate to what was going on then.”

Whitford’s character, former Netscape CEO James Barksdale, provided a similarly harrowing experience for the actor, since the tech giant himself appears during some of the series’ documentary-style interviews. Although he never met Barksdale on set (Whitford says there’s a kind of “danger” in meeting the person an actor is playing), the idea of portraying him alongside his real-life persona was scary.

“I’ve played real people before, but I’ve never really had to play them when I knew they were cutting from documentary footage of them staring straight in,” Whitford says.

Whitford is also a series regular for the third season of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” for which he says he had a much better idea of what to expect when he signed on to play Commander Joseph Lawrence. The character helped set up the Gilead system, but at the end of the second season he helped set up an escape from the regime’s misogynistic clutches, a shift that Whitford says he knew was coming when producers asked him if he wanted to know what happened to his character.

“I remember talking to Bruce [Miller] and Warren Littlefield when it was becoming a possibility, and they said, ‘Do you want to know,'” he says. “And then I realized, ‘Oh if you’re telling me I’m a commander in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ [and] if you’re bringing up the possibility that this may not be what I expect, then I already know the answer.”

Additionally, Whitford takes time to acknowledge the importance of fictional shows like “Valley of the Boom” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” in helping viewers confront some of the darker feelings present in society today.

“I really believe that there is a tremendous opportunity to communicate in a way a culture needs it by attaching flesh and bone and heart to issues that are dividing us,” he says. “All art is political because it obliterates the myth of separateness that we all walk around with and that some horrible people who become president try to exploit… I actually think fiction is better at getting to the truth then a documentary can be.”

Later on in the podcast, TV critic Daniel D’Addario and Caroline Framke discuss Fox’s live musical version of “Rent” and TNT’s limited series “I Am the Night.”

New episodes of “TV Take” are available every Friday. Subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Soundcloud, or anywhere you download podcasts. You can find past episodes here and on Apple Podcasts.

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