Famous for his role as Josh Lyman on “The West Wing,” Bradley Whitford is an Emmy-award winning actor with a career spanning decades. He made his appearance on campus last week thanks to Pierson College and the dedicated fans at student organization West Wing Weekly. After attending Wesleyan as an undergraduate, he received training in the Juilliard School’s Drama Department. Whitford’s career began with “The Equalizer” in 1985, and he has since appeared in “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” “Saving Mr Banks,” “Trophy Wife” and more. He is currently filming “Transparent,” a new show produced by Amazon. In addition to his career in the entertainment industry, Whitford has been recognized for his political involvement, which includes campaigning in response to Propositions 30 and 32 in California and to Governor Scott Walker’s budget bill. Naturally, WEEKEND gave him a call to learn about Wisconsin, civic vegetables, screenwriting — and to find out if a West Wing reunion is in the cards.
Q. You are probably most famous on this campus for your work as Josh Lyman in “The West Wing.” What was the highlight of working on a show with such social and political impact?
A. I love that there was a show that didn’t portray politicians as either crooks or idiots, and that the message that, as ugly as the process is, government matters, and that politics matter. The fact that we got that message out was not our intention. Aaron [Sorkin]’s intention was never to serve civic vegetables, but it did do that, and that means the most to me.
Q. Do you think the show had a genuine impact on the way your audiences thought about politics?
A. I hear all the time, and people will tell me, that the show got them interested in politics. Often in Washington, [D.C.], I’ll run into people who claim they are doing it because of the show, [chuckle] which is a huge compliment.
Q. You’ve been involved in campaigning in response to a number of political movements including Propositions 30 and 32 in California and Governor Scott Walker’s budget bill, and Josh Lyman is obviously portrayed as having strong political views. How did your work on “The West Wing” inform your political involvement and vice versa?
A. “The West Wing” was way beyond any of my expectations. Creatively, as an actor, it was amazing actors and amazing writers, and then on top of that, it was about something that has always been personally discussed in my home.
And, I think the thing that got me the most involved in politics (which is hard for me to separate) was right around when the show was really coming along — having children. The point when you have children, you think urgently of the future your children are going to inherit. It came at a time where I felt, in light of 9/11 and the U.S. going into Iraq, I felt strongly about ensuring politics was even more a part of my life. Also, at the same time, you’re in the public eye, people ask you [about politics]. You get a bigger platform than you’re used to, which I have very mixed feelings about, but I made a decision early on that this was going to be part of my life and I’m not going to shut up about politics just because it makes other people (and me) queasy when actors start talking about politics. When I’m talking about politics though, I make it clear that I am not speaking as an expert; I’m speaking as a father and a citizen.
Q. Now, backtracking a little bit: How did your experiences at Wesleyan shape you as an actor?
A. I feel incredibly strongly that my time at Wesleyan was very important, and I worry now that people interested in going into the arts, especially your generations, for a variety of reasons, are panicked about specializing and aiming toward a career when you should be sniffing around and becoming a more interesting person. I was really glad that I got a liberal arts education before I got to go to Juilliard, which was a great privilige. A conservatory is a trade school, and what we need in the arts, certainly in acting, is interesting people more than we need technical execution. I always tell people interested in film to not go into a production-heavy undergrad film program because the hard part about making movies is not just executing them. You can learn that pretty easily actually. What’s difficult is making a good, interesting movie. So, all the potential artists that are studying at Yale wondering if they’re wasting their time not being in rigorous performance training, they’re doing the right thing.
Q. In an interview for one of your recent projects, “Saving Mr. Banks,” you said that Disney was a “joyous and unavoidable” part of childhood. What would you say is a “joyous and unavoidable” part of college?
A. I don’t know how to answer that without sounding incredibly corny. I would say, becoming close with people who had radically different backgrounds and interests than I had. I came from Wisconsin, and coming to Wesleyan from Wisconsin, I felt like I was going to Mars. I was not from a prep school. I was not from the East Coast or the West Coast, so it was fascinating to meet people from a radically different place.
Q. Your acting career began with “The Equalizer” in 1985. How has the industry changed since then, and what would you say are the biggest challenges facing people in the entertainment industry today?
A. Well, it has changed radically and it’s changing as different platforms arise, as the technology changes faster and faster. There are more and more platforms that this material can appear on. The reason why Yale kids are at all interested in “The West Wing” is Netflix, which was beyond our imaginations when we started the show. We couldn’t see anything beyond a network re-run, and suddenly opportunities for cable series just exploded, and the kind of things you could do on television exploded. At the same time, opportunities in movies just became less and less interesting from a storytelling, acting, character point of view because everyone’s interests shifted toward this international audience, because it’s easier to translate action movies and cartoons than it is to translate two people talking or dealing with each other with any kind of complexity. Now, I’m doing a show on Amazon, and I think it makes sense for your generation. It makes so much sense in a culture of being able to listen to any song whenever you want and watch any movie you want. The whole idea of waiting for a network schedule is totally anachronistic, and the business model doesn’t exist anymore. The worst thing that has happened is that I used to close my trailer on “The West Wing” and think “Oh my God, we’re all getting an incredible amount of high quality material.” I would even say that in a year, everyone of us on the show were getting better writing than Meryl Streep was in her movies, and we had this long-term culture and relationship with an audience. And, I remember thinking “Don’t tell the feature people.” Unfortunately, or actually fortunately, they’ve figured it out. Television is a much more interesting place to work because it’s driven by writers. The writers’ control happened a lot more when we went on cable, and even more so now, when you’re on this other streaming devices.
Q. You wrote two episodes of “The West Wing.” Did writing episodes change the way you approach television?
A. I can tell you that it was incredibly challenging and incredibly satisfying. It made me feel that Aaron [Sorkin]’s achievement in the four years that he wrote twenty-two episodes is even more mind-boggling than I thought it was. I don’t know how you do that. It is interesting because you realize there’s something about screenwriting that is incredibly technical. There is a certain mechanic to this storytelling. I remember being surprised because I guess I was afraid of “can I write dialogue?” That’s not the problem. The problem is structuring the story, and that’s particular to screenwriting much more so than writing prose. It makes you appreciate good writing so much more. It’s brutal.
Q. What would you say the proudest moment of your career has been, and what are you most excited about?
A. Honestly, I think one of the proudest moments was the first year that we won that first Emmy, and I realized that this wonderful experience was going to be accepted and supported and going to continue. We had this privilege of doing this show that was not only going to be commercially successful, but it also wasn’t insulting and it had something complicated and positive to say. Just being part of that was an amazing thing, and I’ll never be ungrateful for it. What am I looking for? I have no idea. I am really excited about the arc I’m playing in this show, “Transparent.” It’s another show that has something culturally interesting to say, but it is extremely well crafted and well acted. So, I’m looking forward to that, and I’m looking forward to some other writing projects that I’m working on.
Q. And, sorry, but we have to ask … any chance of a West Wing reunion anytime soon?
A. I’m looking forward to a reunion. It is going to happen, but it’s going to happen in my backyard when we’re going to have a barbecue and just hang out.