Playing Politics

Playing Politics YOU MIGHT THINK THAT BRADLEY WHITFORD ’81, award-winning actor on NBC’s The West Wing, could take a lunch break that lasted as long as he wanted.

But his beeper goes off and immediately he’s due back on the set, despite the half-eaten tuna sandwich in front of him at the WB commissary (a linen-napkin-and-fresh-sliced-fruit sort of restaurant). He takes a last bite and picks up wallet-sized photos of his children that he pulled out during the meal. “Freakishly cute,” he calls them and then strides off toward the West Wing set, responding to his interrupted respite with equanimity.

Whitford’s assistant, Cathy Herd, who joined us for lunch, asks a waiter to wrap Whitford’s sandwich. She’ll give it to him later on the set, during a break. “Assistant” seems a more formal title than her actual role. She has no desk, no office with her name on the door; she has her cell phone and car. She keeps track of Whitford’s schedule, arranges appointments, answers media requests, and handles his correspondence. A young actress herself, she is the wife of Whitford’s manager and functions as a family friend rather than an ambitious Hollywood go-fer.

Frequently, she says, he’ll put in 14-hour days stretching well past midnight. Meanwhile, his wife, Jane Kaczmarek, is keeping up with her award-winning role in the weekly series, Malcolm in the Middle. And the couple has two children under the age of four.

During one particularly bad week, Whitford worked until 3 a.m., came home and packed, grabbed some sleep from 4 a.m. until 9 a.m., then caught a flight to Washington. The following day the cast shot at the White House until 2 a.m., before speaking at the Georgetown University lecture series the next evening. Then they flew back to L.A. to begin work at 9 a.m. the following morning.

Despite the demands of a busy shooting schedule, he does his best to maintain a normal family life.

“Jane and I are an old-fashioned couple,” Whitford explains. “Part of the reason we fell in love and married is that we’re both from big, strong Midwestern families, and we both want a big, strong Midwestern family—but we also want to act in Hollywood. It’s a strange combination, and Jane and I really do feel as though we’re always playing defense. Our kids are only going to be young once. And I know I won’t be lying on my deathbed wishing I’d done another TV show, but I might be wishing I’d spent more time with them.“

Household and professional assistants help free up their time. Herd watches over Whitford with a mother-hen concern: “I tell him, ‘Your schedule is really filling up.’ But as busy as his life is with his kids, his wife, his work, his charities and all the award events, he stays extremely gracious.”

Whitford knows that a simple stop at a convenience store can turn into a marathon conversation with fans.

“In Los Angeles, we don’t feel so visible, because we’re usually in our car,” Whitford notes. “But once we leave the city, we spend more time talking to people who come up to us because they recognize us.” He is critical of actors who begrudge this as a drain on their time. “I think actors who complain about this should just sort of shut up. Fans just want to express their admiration.”

Whitford garners a multitude of starry-eyed-fan sites on the Web, but he’s oblivious to it. And these fans, while gushing over his dimples and sex appeal, love him for his un-Hollywood-like devotion to his wife and family.

Whitford is quick to focus instead on the way celebrity status enables him to have an impact on issues he cares about. “If either Jane or I show up for a fundraising event or an activity for a cause, we can get a camera there. We do feel overwhelmingly fortunate about our good luck, and we want to use it productively.”

It took a little while, says Whitford, to feel comfortable with this role in creating publicity. At first he deliberately kept his beliefs to himself, concerned that he’d be seen as a dilettante. “Then I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. I shouldn’t have to shut up,’” he recalls, “so I was very active in the presidential campaign.”

Raised as a Quaker, Whitford is opposed to the death penalty, as is Kaczmarek, and both spoke out on that topic. He is passionate about another issue as well.

“My friend John Shestack [’82] has an autistic son. John started Cure Autism Now—I was able to be the celebrity lubricant; fame got me into Washington offices. Then the Children’s Health Act 2000 passed under President Clinton; Title One under that provision provided funding for treatment of autism. Being involved in getting a bill passed was fascinating.”

An episode from the second season of West Wing, “The Stackhouse Filibuster,” is a fictional rendering of the process of passing that bill. Like the rest of the show, it never intends to be a factual record of events; its aim is to stay true to the heart of the matter. When the show opens, a 78-year-old senator is delivering a filibuster until an amendment is attached to the Family Wellness Act to allocate money for autism care and research. It’s Friday evening, and the West Wing staff is waiting for him to finish so they can leave for their weekend plans. Amazingly, the senator continues longer than anyone believed possible. Then they discover what is driving him on: love. He has an autistic grandson. The West Wing staff call senators still in D.C., and 28 come back to aid their colleague. The filibuster is a success, so the Senate will reopen the bill on Monday to add the amendment.

“I’ve always been interested in politics,” says Whitford. “I suggested that we follow the process of getting a bill passed, and show that it can be ugly. Yet ultimately, the Wellness Act really made a difference in people’s lives. It made me feel optimistic about an otherwise really flawed, screwed-up system.”

Lest anyone think it might be easy to whisper topics for the show in Whitford’s ear, he’s quick to point out the reality: “We get lobbied by a lot of people who say, ‘Hey, why don’t you put this on the show?’ As if we actors had anything to do with the writing.” It’s entirely up to Aaron Sorkin.

Whitford and Sorkin originally met more than a decade ago, through mutual friends, after Whitford had graduated from Juilliard and was acting on Broadway. Sorkin recalls in The Official West Wing Companion that Whitford’s reputation, even back then, was of “a great guy… He can just take what you write and knock it out of the park.” Sorkin cast Whitford in A Few Good Men on Broadway.

It was during those years that he met many of the other actors who would, more than a decade later, become West Wing cast members.

“I worked with John Spencer [Leo McGarry],” Whitford recalls, “and already knew Richard Schiff [Toby Ziegler]; his brother was my roommate at Wesleyan. Allison Janney spent 12 years doing play after play after play. You get confidence through that. I think this cast is so good because almost everybody started out in New York theater.”

Whitford also met Kaczmarek about that time, at the insistence of Jane’s roommate. Their expectation for the meeting was low: neither wanted to get involved with another actor. The reality: they found they had a lot in common. Their coffee date turned into a long walk with lots to talk about (“Practice for the walk-and-talk scenes common to West Wing,” one reporter quipped) and ultimately marriage. Then the two left Broadway to try for success on the other coast in television and film.

Whitford has described his life in L.A. until West Wing as “driving around meeting people and trying to get them to like me.”

Somewhat reluctantly, he took roles as a character actor in movies. “When you do that, you get typed. I was yuppie scum.” He scowls in mock-villianous manner, but explains typecasting sympathetically.

“There’s an economic reason for it: They’re making an $80-million movie. The producer and director don’t want you there so you can broaden your creative horizons; they want you there because they know that you can do that character they need. Allison Janney had a similar experience—she played goofy characters.”

“As an actor,” he explains, “you always feel you’re swimming upstream. You always have the feeling that there’s a better job that you could have had, but you didn’t get. Jane and I had been doing that for a long time, and then, suddenly—with West Wing and Malcolm—we have a sensation of what, I assume, surfing feels like. It’s ‘Oh!’ and all of a sudden we’re being pushed and there’s no friction.

“To get lucky, in terms of having a good television show, is extraordinary for one person,” he adds. “For it to happen to both of us at precisely the same time is a miracle.”

Neither had planned on such a miracle, and it came just as Kaczmarek had intended to take time off to raise children. She took the role with Malcolm only because they were renovating their house and the future of West Wing was uncertain. Then both shows took off.

Now the formerly “evil yuppie” is Josh Lyman, deputy chief of staff in West Wing’s fictional White House. Lyman is dedicated, complex, and loyal to his cause. Likewise, the formerly typecast Allison Janney gets to stretch as the sexy and smart White House press secretary C.J. Cregg. “What makes West Wingwork and what makes it worthwhile to act in this show,” says Whitford, “is that we’re using all our cylinders.”

Is there a part of Bradley Whitford in Josh Lyman?

“You’re always playing a version of yourself,” he says. “I think that Josh Lyman pretends a certain confidence that he doesn’t possess; Josh genuinely believes he has confidence, but there’s a kind of bravura to him. I think I have that, too, and I got it from being a little brother. I grew up working the toughest room there is: trying to disarm my older brother by making him laugh.

“But as for getting to know my West Wing character, I really do wait for Aaron to tell me about Josh. We were a year and a half into the series when I did an episode in which I talk about my sister dying in a fire when she was babysitting me, but I had run outside. I realized, ‘Oh, I’m a guy whose sister died when she was 16.’ There’s a lot we don’t know about our characters, that we establish as we go along.”

All the experience, along with the wait—for the children, for the fame—seem to have fed his underlying sense of gratitude. It’s also given him enough wisdom to dispense one piece of advice to young actors who want to come to L.A.: get life experience, gain some depth before you make the move. “When you act, you’re always playing a version of yourself,” he reiterates. “You can’t bring more to the role than what you are.”

Outside the set, we wait until a blinking red light goes off, which indicates the crew is no longer filming. We walk through the door of what looks like a cement cargo storage warehouse to find elements of the West Wing set—finely carved woodwork, grand paintings, and lush carpets—cluttered with microphones, tripods, cameras, and snaking wires.

The West Wing cast, ready for filming, stands around the conference table, stretching, taking sips of water, bantering. Herd provides me with headphones, and I watch on monitors while the cast runs through one segment several times. To an outsider, the process is inexplicable: the last take seems as flawless as the first. They call it a wrap and take a break.

Back at Whitford’s trailer, I see the walls are covered with eight-by-ten matted photographs of his children—seated on the steps, standing chest-high in garden flowers, climbing on a jungle gym, and blowing out birthday candles on a cake. “Who was the photographer here?” I ask. Whitford indicates with a nod that it was he, the doting father.

Otherwise, the trailer is clearly a place to crash, with a big plaid couch wrapping around the inner walls, and a few blankets draped around, along with various jackets that must have been worn here and then forgotten. Whitford grabs one for each of us (the L.A. wind is surprisingly brisk) and we go to sit outside on a wooden deck in the sun. Herd hands him the rest of his tuna sandwich.

“The main thing I like about the character—that I also really like about the show—is that almost every episode is a version of the problem: How dirty do your feet have to get to get an inch of what you want done in a world that’s based on compromise? Josh wrestles with this constantly.”

A young crew member comes over to where we are sitting and hands Whitford a piece of paper. It’s the schedule for the rest of the week. Whitford studies it and his shoulders slump a bit, but he says “thank you” to the messenger and folds the paper into his pocket. Someone else calls over from the door that the break is over. “Already?” Whitford asks. “You’re joking!” He isn’t, and Whitford’s leash is reigned in. He leaves me with a thought about the mix of art and reality in West Wing.

“We’re always asked if we are sentimentalizing the motives of people who actually work in the White House. We’ve spent a lot of time with people in both the Clinton White House and the Bush White House. I don’t think we’re sentimentalizing any of their motives. They do believe they are doing the right thing. I disagree passionately with a lot of people in the Bush White House, but if you believe that they think they’re not doing the right thing, you’re crazy.”