‘West Wing’ Reunion: Marlee Matlin and Bradley Whitford Discuss Sondheim, Sorkin and ‘Wonderfully Sexual Middle-Aged’ Representation

Marlee Matlin (“CODA”) and Bradley Whitford (“Tick, Tick … Boom!”) sat down for a virtual chat for Variety’s Actors on Actors, presented by Amazon Studios. For more, click here.

They met 20 years ago in a fictional Oval Office and have stayed real friends. On Aaron Sorkin’s hit TV drama “The West Wing,” Bradley Whitford played deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman, who crushes on Marlee Matlin’s whiz pollster Joey Lucas. The on-screen flirtation quickly became a fan favorite in the era before Twitter memes, but their latest roles have infiltrated the social media zeitgeist. Whitford and Matlin reunite on a Zoom call to talk about them.

In the Sundance darling “CODA,” Matlin plays Jackie, the matriarch of a deaf family who struggles to find common ground with her hearing — and college-bound — daughter Ruby (Emilia Jones). And in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial triumph “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” Whitford portrays the tough but lovable lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who advised on the film but died in November shortly after it premiered on Netflix.

BRADLEY WHITFORD: I have seen “CODA” three times, and Marlee knows my heart is the size of a raisin when it comes to movies. I love this movie so much, and I was weeping with my wife and my daughter watching it. How did this movie come together?

MARLEE MATLIN: Thank you. It means the world to me, particularly coming from a dear friend like you. I’m always looking for good work, to play characters that are a challenge. When I had Henry Winkler as my mentor, he said, “If you have something that really excites you, go for it.” And this script really excited me. It grabbed my heart. I knew it would captivate a lot of people because there were so many perspectives in this film — music, sign language, deaf culture, fishing. I met with the director, Sian Heder, and we talked for three hours at breakfast, yet we never touched our food. We went back and forth about everything in the script, and I simply fell in love with it.

WHITFORD: You are arguably the most prominent deaf actor in American culture. I know you have always been fighting for the deaf acting community to have acting experiences that are not singularly about the fact that they are deaf actors. I have no burden of representation as a cis white male. What has the privilege and burden of representation been like for you?

MATLIN: When I got cast in “Children of a Lesser God,” I remember thinking to myself, “I’m in a movie. Wow. What an experience I’m going to have.” The next thing I knew, I started to get [people] saying, “You have to represent us.” I didn’t know what it meant to represent your own community.  I didn’t understand the politics of representation. I didn’t understand authenticity. Everything piled on top of me at the same time. I get the advantage of being in the public eye. But all those years of talking about it fell on deaf ears. I finally realized it when I was sitting in front of the Senate in a committee on Capitol Hill, talking about the importance of closed captioning. But now I’m saying, “I can’t do this all by myself.” Other people need to add their voice in.

WHITFORD: It’s a burden you’ve had no choice in shouldering, but I see the fruits of it in this movie. Emilia Jones, by the way, blew my mind. One interesting scene, knowing you forever —

MATLIN: We’ve known each other since 2000.

WHITFORD: That’s a long time. I know your kids, and our kids know each other. It was really moving for me to watch that scene where [Ruby] asks you if you wish she was deaf.

MATLIN: That scene was challenging. I am a mother of four, and they’re all hearing, like Ruby is in the film. When I got pregnant with my first child, which was a girl, I said to my husband, Kevin, who isn’t deaf, that I am going to let my child be themselves, not to mold them into my deaf world. It took me a few takes to understand Jackie’s motivation.

WHITFORD: The other great representation that you and Troy [Kotsur] are pulling off in this is wonderfully sexual, horny, middle-aged people, which I appreciate. I finally feel seen. But all fun aside, many people are exposed to the real joy of the deaf community.

MATLIN: Being on the set of “CODA,” I was in my element. I’m not talking about as an actor. I’m talking about going to work for the first time, having so many interpreters, looking at so many deaf actors in the makeup trailer signing. On “West Wing,” you would see me always with my interpreter. You never invited me to your trailer. I get it. People have their own preferences of who they want to eat with or the time they want to spend on the set. I loved the actors I worked with on “West Wing,” but my fear was communicating during downtime. What would you do? Would you eat with the crew?

WHITFORD: I would usually go to my trailer and doubt myself.

MATLIN: I ask myself, “Should I ask Brad to lunch next time we go work together again?” Maybe I should do that now.

WHITFORD: Yes.

MATLIN: You pay. If we’re talking about “West Wing,” because that’s where people first recognized us together, I always wondered — did you ever feel overwhelmed with the speed of the dialogue?

WHITFORD: I remember being really intimidated. There were certainly times where you couldn’t get …

MATLIN: Even you as hearing people?

WHITFORD: Oh, yeah. My father only saw the pilot before he passed away. But I remember him turning to me and saying, “It looks great. I have no idea what’s going on.” Aaron knows what he’s saying, these characters know what they’re saying, but Aaron is racing just ahead of the audience.

MATLIN: I’m playing a pollster, and my job was to remember numbers. I was crummy in math growing up. So I asked Aaron, “Not everybody knows sign language. Can I make up some signs and numbers?” And he goes, “No! You have to be as specific as the script is.” I thought to myself, if you and the rest of you have to deliver your lines exactly what’s written, I have to be just as precise with my sign language.

WHITFORD: I think about this a lot. You would never go to William Shakespeare and go, “Bill, I’ve already said, ‘To be or not to be.’ Do I have to say, ‘That is the question?’” We all knew our lines because you learned very quickly that it would be a soul-sucking day if you came to work and didn’t.

MATLIN: I wanted to focus on “Tick, Tick … Boom!” You played Sondheim brilliantly. As soon as I saw you on the screen, I gasped. I didn’t know you were in the film. So I went, “Wait a minute, is that Brad?!”

WHITFORD: He is a fascinating creature. It’s such a wonderful thing playing a real person now. You can really saturate yourself through videos. With someone like Stephen Sondheim … I kept thinking, take it down a notch. If you watch interviews with him, he’s like an orangutan. It would’ve been completely distracting. I tried to do 80% of him.

MATLIN: Had you met him?

WHITFORD: I never met Stephen Sondheim. When you’re playing someone real, I try to simplify it, and the way of simplifying Sondheim for me was physically. Before every take, as they were counting down, I would just think: “Crooked smile on an unmade bed,” and then I would be free to not worry about physicalizing him. And then, of course, you’re terrified because you know what Sondheim means. We wouldn’t have had “Rent.” We wouldn’t have had Jonathan Larson. We wouldn’t have had Lin. We wouldn’t have “Hamilton.”

MATLIN: I remember wanting to see “Hamilton” so badly, and people were like, “You can’t hear.” And I said, “No, it doesn’t matter. I’m going to see it with my eyes.”