Bradley Whitford plays Commander Joseph Lawrence on Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” He won an Emmy last year in Best Drama Guest Actor and is now competing as a supporting actor for the upcoming awards.
Whitford recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria about the complicated nature of Commander Lawrence, playing alongside Elisabeth Moss and his feelings on awards. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Bradley, the guy is really complicated. He’s in a position of power and privilege but there’s this fascinating undercurrent of sorrow and empathy with him. How did that side of him develop when you and the show’s writers were bringing him to life?
Bradley Whitford: I’m a very lucky guy in terms of the parts that I have been able to play. This role is absolutely the most fascinating to perform. I always say that any time you talk about acting, talking about acting is like dancing about architecture. You can do it all day but it’s really pretentious. At the risk of sounding pretentious, and I really mean this, this guy is in play. We had a defense secretary named Robert McNamara who prosecuted the war in Vietnam and he was a brilliant economist who made all sorts of innovations in the automobile production in Detroit and then took his brilliance and systematically killed millions of innocent people in Southeast Asia. The moment I opened up the script and read this guy’s first lines, that was sort of my key into this. There’s a brilliant documentary called “The Fog of War.” It was a situation where a guy with a huge brain, at some point in his life combined with his ego, obliterates his humanity. I think what is happening with Lawrence is that his humanity is fighting back. I don’t find him simply sympathetic. I wouldn’t call him sympathetic at all, but he is in play. There is a battle going on within him. It is just an absolute joy to play because I think as an actor, you sometimes try to narrow down what a character is and the experience of playing this guy is very, very free. He can go anywhere at any moment. It makes it very unpredictable and interesting to play.
GD: There’s so many scenes where we’re looking into Lawrence’s eyes and we’re trying to work out, “Is he numb? Is he regretful?” He’s not weak but he’s hopeless. For example, when June really berates him towards the end of the season and you think he’s going to usurp her because that’s his position but he doesn’t. He lets her get away with that ‘cause he can see the greater good. There’s so much going on with this guy and it’s so fascinating to watch him and try to work out what his motivations are. Can you speak to what’s ultimately motivating him?
BW: What you’re saying is really a key part. The way this character is written is phenomenal to me. There’s a scene where all the commanders are there and they’re fighting and June is there and I interrupt the fight and I make June parade in front of the men and I force her to get a book for me, and, of course, handmaids are not allowed to read. What’s amazing about this writing is there’s so much going on. One is I’m transcending this argument amongst the commanders by bonding with a little average day Gilead misogyny. Let’s mock a woman and bond together. I’m also testing her, because if I am going to go out on a limb with this woman, I need to know that she’s not from my point of view, not me, Brad, but from the character’s point of view, is this just a sentimental woman who wants her baby back? Or is this someone who could be a part of potentially a coup? On the one hand, there’s a part of him that is a misogynist that is enjoying mocking her. There’s a part of him that is using misogyny to get out of an argument between the commanders, and I’m testing her. That is just an absolutely phenomenal piece of writing.
The other thing is the ceremony scene, which was truly difficult to shoot, even though we don’t see anything, I read that and here you have a scene where June is basically for everyone’s safety talking the rapist through the rape, which is just an extraordinary piece of writing. As far as his motivations, I do think his love for Eleanor was real. I think she made clear to him the horror that he not only enabled but really actively was able to create. Although he is a very bitter, dark misogynistic man, I think there is some search for redemption. But what I love about the writing is in a less nuanced show, I would have an epiphany and be a good person. That would diminish the truth of what a character like June is up against, because people don’t just have epiphanies and become enthusiastic allies. They are in danger. It’s a much more difficult thing for June to deal with than some commander who’s just suddenly decided that everything he did was wrong. It really is a function of what is some of the most phenomenal writing I’ve ever gotten.
GD: It’s pretty amazing and speaking of Eleanor, who was beautifully played by Julie Dretzin, she tragically dies in the penultimate episode. I think it’s one of the catalysts to Lawrence realizing he has to take some action. My question is actually more about the overall misogyny the show so beautifully portrays and shows. It’s very confronting for the audience. I wonder how it can resonate with you personally given that you’re in it and you go home in the evening. How do you wash off the confronting stuff that you guys are doing every day?
BW: I think you’re right. I’ve talked about this a lot. One reason the show resonates, unfortunately, is because misogyny is at the reptilian brain stem of right-wing ideology. It’s not a bug. It is absolutely the feature. If you don’t believe me, here in America we elected the least qualified human being maybe ever to run for president over the most qualified person who happened to be a woman. That’s what the show gets right. Misogyny is underneath almost all of the culture wars, at least the ones that take place here. It always surprises people, I guess because the material is so dark — I find it to be one of the most gentle, loving sets that I’ve ever been on. Most of that comes from Lizzy. Lizzy means a lot to me. I’ve known her since she was 17, young actress, who then I get to meet up with at the height of her incredible career and acting with her is absolutely one of the joys of my life. We don’t know where it’s gonna go. We both have a simultaneous sense of when we found a scene and we know when we haven’t and we don’t have to talk about it a lot. That performance is the performance of a generation. The degree of difficulty of what she’s doing is impossible to describe. She’s doing “Sophie’s Choice: The Series.” When you have to be in that kind of emotional pain, you tend to get a little grumpy. I’ve never seen her get grumpy and she is at the center of that show creatively. She knows the drafts of the script. I’m just incredibly impressed by her. But the funny story on that set is we shoot in Canada, and Canadians — it’s well known — they are genetically and stereotypically the sweetest human beings on the planet. But the material is just so brutal so there are these moments where the AD will say something like, “Okay, I don’t wanna rush ya but I think we should get the nooses on the girls.” (Laughs.)
GD: I just love that. It’s so cool that Zoey Bartlet from years ago has come full circle as June and you’re working together again. I think about that quite often. I’m gonna set the scene for something else now. You have won lots of Emmys and been nominated across the board. I think that’s a really cool honor. I don’t know what your thoughts are on awards, we’ll go there in a sec, but when you won your first one, you were against two awesome actors from “The Sopranos” and two of your “West Wing” costars and you thanked Aaron [Sorkin] and Thomas [Schlamme] for pushing the most radical envelope there is by making something with intelligence and hope. I’ll never forget it and obviously I was very excited ‘cause Josh Lyman was my favorite character. Fast forward 20 years, you’re still working on projects that push the envelope. Not just “Handmaids.” There’s a bunch of them and we’ll hopefully have time to talk about some of them today. Why is that so important to you? It’s probably an obvious question but can you speak to how important it is to push the envelope?
BW: Well, when we were doing “West Wing,” and I remember talking with Anthony Edwards a long time ago, you’re pretending to be something that you’re not in an arena that you’re not familiar with and initially you can’t believe that you’re getting away with it, and then additionally on “West Wing,” there was this bizarre realization that the show was being taken seriously. I remember talking with Tim Busfield and we were talking about the best creative place to be. I’m obsessed with the Beatles and I was saying that the Beatles changed the world with a message of hope and love and if you talk to them about it, they weren’t taking it seriously at all (laughs). They would diminish what their impact was. I think that’s the best place to be, creatively. Aaron was very aware of the fact that if we go into a place where we feel like we’re serving civic vegetables, we will lose. It has to be about storytelling and about characters and all the things you work on in shows that have no social significance. Now, what’s happened to me is I have happened to be on shows that have this cultural component and honestly, I can’t tell you how lucky it is. Both on “West Wing” and on “Handmaid’s Tale,” as an actor, to be in simply a creative situation like that with those actors and that writing and those directors, is more than you could ever hope for. For it additionally to be part of a cultural discussion, it’s bizarrely lucky.
GD: All I can say is that when I was a young man starting out, I wanted to be Josh Lyman. I just worshiped that character. I always wanted to tell you that.
BW: Well, thank you.
GD: You’ve won a bunch of awards, as I said. What’s really cool is you had two nominations for “Transparent,” you won in 2015, you had a bunch for “West Wing,” you won on your first go, you won last year for “Handmaid’s” so now you’ve won in the guest category in both drama and comedy. That never happens. Does that mean anything to you? Do you just like the pat on the back or does it mean more than that?
BW: It means a lot. At the same time, what I hate about award shows is everybody who is nominated and many people who are not are having the creative experience of their lives. And then you make a reality show where you have to choose a winner and then you make these people feel like this extraordinary creative experience of their lives, that somehow they’re losers because they weren’t nominated. My metaphor for it is always that it’s like a dog show. You bring all these incredible, wonderful, very different dogs together and then some lady in a muumuu comes out and says, “Well the schnauzer’s better than the poodle,” when the fact is, they’re all good dogs and most of the best dogs never got to be in the show. That said, we all have egos and I’m honored by it. It’s less of an honor and more of a reminder of how incredibly lucky I’ve been to have these experiences. I was actually talking with Lizzy about this recently that she is certainly not and I don’t think I’m somebody who has ever taken for granted how lucky I’ve been able to be as an actor, but I can tell you, having been shut down and not being able to do it for a while, oh my god. I will never take for granted getting to figure out the best way to tell a story and the set getting quiet and looking into Lizzy’s eyes and realizing you’re lost in a scene. Oh my god. None of us should take it for granted.
GD: That’s across the board. When I’m in traffic commuting to work, I’m not gonna bitch about that again. There’s a lot of things that we just took for granted. Everything was going so fast. This reset maybe may have a silver lining. That’s a whole other thing. Obviously you’re also on “Perfect Harmony,” and that’s a complete shift. I wanna quickly talk about that and also before we go, you’ve got a documentary coming out with the Duplass brothers, “Not Going Quietly.” Would really love to hear about that as well if you could.
BW: “Perfect Harmony,” Jason Winer, who’s a producer, directed the pilot and a bunch of “Modern Family” which is one of my favorite shows ever, reached out to me. Lesley Wake Webster is a writer, had this personal experience coming from Kentucky. This was one thing where the reason I responded to this story was I wanted to put, in a comedic setting so that we’re not serving any civic vegetables, a bunch of radically different human beings and allow them to taunt each other. If you’re singing together, you really can’t hate each other and I really wanted to get a mainstream show out there. I’m very hopeful. We just did the Season 2 pitch. It went really well and I love playing that bitter old man. I can’t imagine why.
“Not Going Quietly” means the world to me. Ady Barkan, a lot of people in the U.S. became aware of him when he was 31 years old, he was diagnosed with ALS right after his first anniversary, right after he had a baby. He was an activist who ended up confronting Senator Jeff Flake on a plane that went viral and I had been working with him on political stuff, an action for the Dreamers, which is part of our unresolved immigrant situation here and I fell in love with this guy. Through the course of his physical deterioration, and ultimately his total inability to speak, his voice has actually risen as he has fought. One thing that this virus has exposed, because it feasts on the most vulnerable among us, is the complete inexcusable insanity of the richest nation in the world’s refusal to take any responsibility for the health care of all of its citizens. He is at the forefront of that battle. I found out that he had a crew that had been documenting him through all the actions he was doing and through his physical deterioration. I was married recently and he performed the ceremony. He’s one of those rare human beings who take their own unspeakable tragedy and attempt to transcend it by reducing the suffering of others. And, by the way, he’s really funny. We got into Tribeca and all I wanted was to get Ady up there on the stage, where he used to live and work in New York but obviously we can’t do that. There’s a lot of people interested in it, so we’ll get it out soon.