Bradley Whitford is one of few actors from “The Handmaid’s Tale” who is able to compete at this year’s Emmys, due to some hanging episodes from Season 2 last year. Whitford guest starred as Commander Joseph Lawrence at the end of Season 2 and now he has been upgraded to series regular status for Season 3.
Whitford recently chatted with Gold Derby contributing editor Matt Noble about being part of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” working with Elisabeth Moss and whether “The West Wing” will ever be revived. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Bradley, what was it like getting the promotion and what can we expect from Season 3?
Bradley Whitford: I was absolutely thrilled being able to be in this show. I’m lucky I’ve had a lot of amazing experiences. I don’t get intimidated but I felt like I was doing a guest shot on “Godfather 2” or something. I was absolutely thrilled to be able to become part of the regular cast. I think this show is one of those generational achievements. I think that Lizzy is giving the performance of a generation. I always joke with her that she is doing “Sophie’s Choice: The Series.” She is placed in unspeakable emotional horror relentlessly and unfortunately the show, with a lot of what’s going on the world, has a powerful message of warning and unfortunately too much resonance. It was a real honor to be entrusted with a part in it.
GD: What is that move up in Season 3? Are you gonna have an expanded role?
BW: Yeah, people who watch the show get very mad so if you’re one of those people, this isn’t much of a spoiler but I end up being her commander this year. It’s a fascinating relationship.
GD: I guess your character in Season 2 was quite ambiguous at times. There are incredible moments of darkness, particularly in the season finale. What’s it like approach such an ambiguous character?
BW: Honestly, it’s truly one of the most fascinating acting experiences I’ve had. There’s so much difficulty with this guy. There’s so much contradiction and complexity and he’s not in a static place emotionally, morally. He is constantly intentionally very hard to read. It becomes a very interesting, new kind of acting experience which really emphasizes allowing yourself to go wherever it takes you rather than executing your idea of it. That’s what’s really exciting. It is amazing doing this with Lizzy, who I met when she was 17 and was this wonderful young actor and now I get to be with her again and she’s giving the performance of a generation and is the absolute creative touchstone for everybody, for Bruce [Miller], who’s writing this. She is a real executive producer of this. She’s involved in script development, script notes. She is involved with how we’re gonna stage it. She knows what the lenses are. It’s amazing to have met someone when they’re this young kid acting and to happen upon them not that long after and they are a fully mature artist firing on all cylinders. It’s really a joy.
GD: It’s funny, she started as a guest on “The West Wing” and you started as a guest on “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
BW: On shows, they’re kind of taking a test drive with a guest shot, for understandable reasons. It’s not even a judgment on your ability. We don’t know what we’re doing. It’s alchemy and you wanna see if it’s working before you buy the car.
GD: You talked about that challenge, he’s very in play, your character and he’s not fixed in one moral position. Do you as an actor need to know where he ends up landing or can you just play it in the moment of where that character is?
BW: One of the joys of doing a television show as opposed to a movie is you’re discovering it as you’re doing it. I have some ideas of where he could potentially end up. I don’t wanna know that much and honestly, I don’t want Bruce to know that much. We were at the UN yesterday talking with people who deal with women’s issues in situations where there’s horrible misogyny and oppression and refugee situations and in order to do service to June’s journey, which is the whole point of everybody from Bruce all the way down to the assistant prop master, is to do justice to June’s journey navigating this dystopian nightmare that is all too relatable right now. One thing they were talking about at the UN is people react in very inconsistent, unreadable ways when they’re operating in a system. Probably the biggest parallel would be a place like North Korea. They can be very unreadable and self-preservation is often a bottomline for them, which can constrain their better angels. This guy is wrestling with it. I think he has tremendous regret about his part in creating Gilead. At the same time, I think he feels very defensive. He’s aware of some of the consequences of what he has created but from his point of view, it’s chemo. “I was trying to save the world. I know this is brutal. I know it’s difficult, but it’s necessary,” is the rational armor that he wraps himself in. At other times, particularly through his genuine love of his wife, who’s been destroyed by this experience, he’s able to recognize the horror of what he’s created. It is, again, a fascinating acting experience because the camera goes on and part of it is that I get to discover this guy in Lizzy’s eyes. She’s one of the most interesting people I’ve ever acted with in my life. I don’t know if she feels this way but I feel like there’s an unspoken “fuck it, chuck it” when we hear, “Action.” The object is to not try and execute your performance but to try and discover it while it’s happening. So it’s fascinating.
GD: Can you think of a particular scene in Season 2, which you can talk more about, where you had this “chuck it, fuck it” moment?
BW: When I meet Emily, it was very difficult to read, to understand this guy and to know where he should go and how to do justice to it. It was acting with her that I realized, “Oh, all these contradictions are exactly the point.” I think a lesser writer than Bruce on a lesser show, a character like this would’ve been, at first, a bad guy and then have some sort of epiphany and be an unmitigated, un-conflicted great guy. That would be a disservice to the complexity of the experience that June is trying to navigate.
GD: Are there lighter moments on-set or is it a very tense, draining experience?
BW: It is very bizarre but it is one of the loveliest sets that I have ever been on. There is a lot of irreverence on the set, which probably is compensating for a lot of the dark material. Lizzy is not someone who, when she is faced with dealing with a particularly emotionally vulnerable moment, she doesn’t need a quiet set. She doesn’t need to clear it. In a weird way, I think it’s the key to her being able to go to the phenomenal emotional vulnerability, that place that June is so often placed in. I think there’s a certain distance we get from the horror of this material by not taking the acting process too seriously, if that makes any sense.
GD: You talked a bit how particularly given the current political climate and times the show is particularly relevant and apt. “The West Wing” when it was on was also at an interesting time politically for a lot of its run, with the Iraq War and Guantanamo Bay and some people felt not encouraged by the political process. What do you think is a better antidote to challenging political times, the warning sign of “The Handmaid’s Tale” or the inspiration of “The West Wing”?
BW: I’m not sure what is most effective. I think they’re both necessary. I am always cognizant of the fact that while what we do occasionally can have a cultural and political impact, I worry that people think that that is enough. “Will & Grace,” I think, made a big difference, but we needed a law to change and we needed a Supreme Court to uphold it. I think depending on culture or thinking culture is the end of the process as an antidote to things which disturb you politically is a danger. Politics is actually the way you create your moral vision. Culture helps but it doesn’t help you if you have a preexisting condition in the United States. You actually need a law. If you told me when I got this part, which was not so long ago, that several states would be proposing and passing laws which punish a woman who is raped for not carrying a child to term more harshly than you would punish the perpetrator of the rape, I would say that you were some liberal, aluminum hat conspiracy theorist and that was never gonna happen. Clearly, we’re not living in Gilead but the most disturbing scenes to me are the flashbacks where you see these moments where June suddenly can’t get money. This year we’re dealing with refugee issues and separation issues and it’s extraordinary to me that in the United States we are separating mothers from their children. Families are being separated and we’re sitting here doing publicity for a TV show instead of stopping everything we’re doing and stopping that. I think the show is a cautionary tale about that kind of incremental disintegration of norms and freedoms.
GD: What do you think the likelihood there is of “The West Wing” being rebooted?
BW: I’ll be quite honest. In general, I think there’s a very healthy fear of returning to something that I think we all look back on with such joy and familial pride. I always say you wanna get out before your banana turns brown, which I think we did successfully. It’s a weird moment where we all love that experience. We’re very close. If Aaron [Sorkin] found a way into a story, we’d all be there in a second but I think you don’t wanna sully what the experience was. We serve at the pleasure of Aaron Sorkin.
GD: I spoke to Richard Schiff about a month ago and he said, “Don’t hold your breath.”
BW: Yeah. In general, I think there’s this constant economic… If you’re branding a new Apple streaming service, I’m sure just economically to have that brand happen there, it keeps the question in the air. I think Aaron very wisely keeps going, “No.”
GD: And you don’t want that economic interest to be the driver behind it.
BW: Right. I don’t think Aaron would do it for economic reasons. We couldn’t still be working in the White House. It’d be like a walker and talk.
GD: In Dulé Hill’s first episode of “The West Wing” you turn to his character, Charlie, and you say that feeling, you never get over it, it doesn’t go away. Is there a particular moment from that series that doesn’t go away in particular from you?
BW: Yeah, it actually involves Dulé when we were shooting in “Noel.” Yo-Yo Ma came and was the most spectacular ray of humility and sunshine and walked into this room full of background people holding his cello up saying, “Does anyone wanna play” and handed his $7 million cello to be passed through the crowd because he wants to break down the walls between classical music and public. At one point after he finished playing, the cameras went off and he started improvising on his cello and then Dulé, who is one of the greatest tap dancers in the world, a lot of people don’t know that but he started in a show, “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk” and is truly one of the greatest tap dancers in the world, Dulé started tapping and improvising with Yo-Yo Ma and it absolutely felt like church.
GD: Wonderful. Bradley, last time we did an interview like this, you had a gorilla impression for us. Do you do any other animals?
BW: I do a dog vomiting.
GD: Really? How does that work?
BW: I don’t think it’ll work with this camera. It’s very long but at some point, if I get to Australia, I will do it. It takes a long time.
GD: It’s a real method acting performance.
BW: Yeah, it’s a deep commitment.
GD: Well, Bradley, “Handmaid’s Tale,” not many people competing for the Emmys this year for The Handmaid’s Tale but they’ve squeezed you in with those hanging episodes from Season 2 in the Guest Actor race. You won the Emmy for guest acting for “Transparent” in Comedy Series. I’ve got a picture of us on that night when you won.
BW: Oh that stupid hat, ‘cause I had my [Hubert] Humphrey haircut.