Bradley Whitford rarely wraps up one gig without already knowing what his next is going to be. Of course, that’s what’s supposed to happen when you’ve been a dependably working actor for as long as Whitford has. Not that it always does, but thankfully for Whitford, it’s absolutely what’s happened for him.
While he may still be best known to many viewers for his seven-season stint as Josh Lyman on NBC’s The West Wing, Whitford had already carved out the better part of 15 years as a film and TV actor when the series kicked off, and since then he’s served as a series regular on shows like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, The Good Guys, Trophy Wife, and Happyish, popped up in one-off or recurring roles on Transparent, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Handmaid’s Tale, and picked up parts in a number of high-profile films, including The Cabin in the Woods, Saving Mr. Banks, and Get Out.
Whitford’s latest acting assignment — to portray James L. Barksdale, president of Netscape, in Nat Geo’s new mini-series Valley of the Boom — was one which would’ve been challenging under any circumstances, as the task of playing a real person invariably is, but it was kicked up a notch by director Matthew Carnahan’s decision to use a “disruptive approach” in telling the story of Silicon Valley’s internet pioneers of the 1990s, which found Whitford’s performance often popping up within seconds of a talking-head clip from the real Barksdale.
Whitford chatted with Vulture about how he was both challenged and educated by Valley of the Boom, but he also took time to reminisce about working with Jason Mantzoukas and Ken Jeong on a NBC cop comedy that you never got to see, discussed his desire to return to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and tackled the inevitable question about the likelihood of a West Wing revival.
Valley of the Boom has a completely different tone than what I was expecting.
Yeah, it’s a crazy, audacious experiment.
As is only appropriate, given the subject matter.
Yeah, which certainly resonates with the material! Honestly, when you’re making something like that, you have no idea if it’s going to work. I knew that Matthew [Carnahan] was trying to do something different, and I knew that the Nat Geo people were incredibly supportive of that, but just regular actor paranoia on top of doing something radical … I was like, Oh, God, is this going to work at all? But he really got a fun tone that is really appropriate for that material.
It’s like Airplane! — so many studios turned down that film because no one really understood the idea on paper.
And with this, he’s really hit on a fun way to tell this story. It was really fun to break the fourth wall, but it’s intimidating when you’re playing a real person and you know that they’re going to be cutting from an interview with that person to you. That’s unnerving.
That raises the question: Did you actually have any direct interaction with your counterpart, James L. Barksdale?
No, but here’s my pretentious response: It can be complicated dealing with real people, especially real people who are not household names. It can be tricky when you like them, and it can be tricky when you don’t like them. It just must be unspeakably weird to be portrayed anywhere. But the truth was, I was really busy shooting something else, and I didn’t have time to talk to him. [Laughs.]
The good news is, the internet may have destroyed Western civilization and democracy, but it has been a really wonderful thing for actors doing research. You can just Google it, and you’re seeing them and practicing along with the way they talk. There was a ton of tape on [Barksdale] — there’s a great debate he had with Arianna Huffington down in Mississippi — so you can really get saturated.
I really immersed myself in everything on the internet that he did, and sometimes you play people and you don’t fall in love with them, but I really fell in love with this guy. He was the adult in the room. He was very conscious of the fact that an IPO meant a tremendous responsibility in terms of the people who were working for him. He was suspicious of the gold-rush financing of it all. He was a good guy. And he was really very, very funny. He’s truly one of the great deadpans. That was the key for me to him. So I love him, I hope I do meet him, and I hope he’s not mad.
You’re savvy when it comes to social media, based on your prolific Twitter output, but how in the know were you about Netscape’s origin?
I knew a little bit of how crazy it was. I had an acquaintance who had an internet IPO who, at one point on paper, was worth several hundred million dollars. He bought, like, five Maseratis and then moved an Italian car mechanic into his garage for the Maseratis. And then the IPO went south, and he proceeded to not only lose everything, but to owe a tremendous amount of money in taxes. It wiped him out. And now he sells used cars. [Laughs.] So I had a little sense of the craziness of it all directly. The logic is very similar to Hollywood, which is to say that it’s bewildering.
It’s an interesting story to tell now, because there was such idealism. You know, the whole thing Aaron [Sorkin] hit on in The Social Network of these idealistic geeks creating communities and going, There’s going to be no downside to this! And now we realize that, Hey, it looks like the Nazis found a way to get their communities back together! [Laughs.] But the thing that’s most frustrating to me is that we give an ethical pass to these companies — whether it’s Apple or Google or Amazon — and they are revealing themselves to be less than idealistic. It’s a pretty simple story of maximizing greed. I think there really was that idealism, but unfortunately that idealism gets compromised by a pretty predictable capitalistic impulse.
As it ever shall be, I suppose.
My father had a riddle: Who’s happier, the guy with 11 kids, or the guy with 11 million dollars? The answer is the guy with 11 kids, but the reason is that he’s the one who doesn’t want more. And unfortunately, I think all the idealism in Silicon Valley shrunk up to that puny little notion.
In looking through the depths of your back catalogue, I stumbled onto an NBC pilot you did back in 2009 that never made it air: Off Duty, a cop comedy written by Jason Mantzoukas. Funny that you both ended up as recurring guest stars on another cop comedy, Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Yes! I haven’t seen it in a long time, but Ken Jeong was on it, too, and it was a really funny pilot. And a successful one! NBC said, We want to do a 10 p.m. comedy block, one that’s a little edgier. But that was the year that Jay Leno ended up taking over the 10 p.m. slots, so we didn’t get picked up. It was a lot of fun.
Do you have any recollections of working with Mantzoukas back then? That was was certainly prior to the premiere of The League.
Listen, I love Jason. Jason is hilarious. But I always feel bad because NBC passed on [Off Duty], and they basically made it too expensive to go any other place because they didn’t want a competitor to get it. And I had a meeting with Kevin Reilly at Fox, and he had a script with Matt Nix which was about a drunken, dilapidated cop with a younger partner. It was obviously very similar, but Matt had written his thing as a movie and it had been sitting around for years. But I always felt guilty because I didn’t want Jason to think that we stole his idea. I don’t think he thinks that, but I always felt bad that we ended up doing The Good Guys, which was a version of a story that was similar to Off Duty.
Honestly, that show could’ve run for seven years. But instead, nothing happened. It’s heartbreaking when those things don’t go, because I don’t think people realize how hard it is to create a world in a pilot with a logic and a style that has to be totally up to speed the first time you do it. So that was a frustrating thing. Sometimes, you’ll see these things that you’ve poured your heart and soul into, and it’s, like, Oh, I understand why it didn’t go — it stinks! [Laughs.] Sometimes the souffle doesn’t rise. But that’s why it was frustrating with Off Duty — it felt like it did rise. The business just got in the way.
Are you in the new season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine at all?
We’re trying to work something out, but I’m doing The Handmaid’s Tale and the scheduling is tricky. I would love to go back on that show. And I was so thrilled that it got saved.
You, me, and everyone from Lin-Manuel Miranda on down. Everybody’s ecstatic.
Oh yeah, Lin’s really into it.
So, how’s the Handmaid’s Tale experience been for you?
I think that show is a generational achievement. Being in a show that I was that in love with was intimidating — it’s like you’re doing a guest shot on The Godfather — but it’s been an amazing experience. And being able to do it with Lizzie [Moss], who’s an angel, it’s incredible. Lizzie is deeply, deeply involved in every step of the process, in a way that is physically exhausting and incredibly important to the success of that show. I met her when she was, like, 17. Just a kid. And now she’s an artist firing on all cylinders. That makes me incredibly happy.
Lastly, if we’re ever going to get a West Wing revival, do you think it’s going to happen in time for the 2020 campaign?
This is because Richard [Schiff] said something, right? [Laughs.] Listen, after The West Wing ended but before we had Trump — which creates a new challenge if you’re doing a political show — I thought that could go on and on and on and on. I believe in that world that Aaron created. At the same time, you do not want your banana to turn brown, y’know? It was definitely time for it to end. It was right after John [Spencer’s] passing, and that made it pretty clear.
Do I think you could come up with a show? Yes. Do I think it’s a good idea? I don’t know. Probably not. You know, we can’t all be working in the White House. That doesn’t make any sense. I guess we could be, I don’t know, political consultants? Actually, it’s not that I don’t think it’s a good idea. I actually think it’s a great idea. But it has to be done perfectly. And Aaron has to want to be there. It’d be interesting to see where everybody is now, but I don’t have any information. When you read an interview of one of us talking about this, it sounds like the gears are in motion, but I don’t think they actually are. There’s nothing we do without Aaron or without his blessing. But, yeah, I’m available. [Laughs.]
If nothing else, maybe you all can do another PSA to get people to register and vote. Those seem to come together with a lot less hassle.
Yeah! This is gonna sound like corny publicity bullshit, but it’s so wonderful to get together with everybody. They’re absolutely like family, I love them all, so, yeah, I would do anything with them. I just want Aaron to be happy. I’ve said this before, but writing 22 episodes a year for four years is a storytelling achievement that will never, ever happen again. And Aaron was writing at this extraordinary level. It’s the equivalent of 11 feature films a year, with complicated dialogue, complicated issues, complicated emotional things. The farther I get away from it, I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.