Bradley Whitford may be best known to many for his Emmy-winning role as White House deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman on TV’s The West Wing, and he’s also a liberal party activist offscreen. But he mostly steered clear of politics in his appearance in the Ringling College of Art and Design Studio Labs Inside the Industry on Tuesday evening, concentrating instead on his career and the craft of acting.
Whitford and his best friend, producer Paul Schiff, a frequent Ringling visitor (the two met at the age of 17 and were college roommates), taught a master class in acting for Ringling students and Whitford had a brief tour of the campus before sitting down for a media roundtable. That was followed by a conversation in the Morganroth Auditorium, with Schiff playing interviewer. He began by asking Whitford how his acting career got started.
Growing up in Wisconsin, Whitford said, “It never would have occurred to me to say I wanted to be an actor. That would have been unrealistic, vain. But I did a play in seventh grade, and from then on I was in every play I could be.” After college, he applied to the Juilliard School of Drama, was accepted and began learning about acting. It is a profession that takes training, he said, even though he admitted his kids have often reminded him, “I’ve seen dogs be good in movies.”
One of his early stage roles, in Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, involved nudity on his part, something he said he gradually got used to during eight performances a week. But as an audience member, he said, “I kind of hate nudity in plays. I drop out of the story; I’m distracted.”
He made his Broadway theater debut in 1990 in Aaron Sorkin’s play A Few Good Men, the beginning of a working relationship between the two. Whitford and Schiff both spoke of how strange it could be to find Sorkin writing scripts and scenes that directly reflected the personalities of Whitford and Schiff’s brother, actor Richard, who played communications director Toby Ziegler on the show. “Aaron was probing my friend and my brother and writing to their inner lives,” Schiff remarked.
Whitford told the audience that being an actor “is swimming upstream against crappy material, rejection and the issue of your work never getting seen. The entire time you’re making a movie, you have no idea if it’s working, at all. If you don’t believe me, go see Cats [the critically panned film version of the long-running stage musical].”
He also touched on directors he’s worked with, from Steven Spielberg to Clint Eastwood to a host of unnamed guest directors on The West Wing. “Anytime a director tells me something,” he admitted, “there are three beats for me: ‘F*** you,’ ‘I suck’ and ‘OK, what?’” He’s thrilled with his experience working on the current show The Handmaid’s Tale, though, playing the “fascinating” character of Commander Joseph Lawrence. “It’s the darkest material possible,” he commented. “But we’re shooting in Toronto, and the Canadians are just the sweetest people around. It’s like our assistant director says [affecting a Canadian accent], ‘OK, I don’t want to rush you, but I think we should get the nooses on the girls now.’”
Whitford also talked of working with British actor Mark Rylance (“the greatest actor of our generation”) in the stage comedy Boeing Boeing. One anecdote, too long to repeat here, involved a fly that flew onto the stage and how each actor handled its distraction differently. The telling of the story, however, led up to the maxim that Whitford as an actor may live by: “Good acting feels like school; great acting feels like recess.”