Who is Commander Joseph Lawrence? If you’ve asked yourself that question while watching the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale, Bradley Whitford knows the feeling. One of the architects of Gilead and its horrific colonies, Lawrence also treats his handmaid, June (Elisabeth Moss), with more respect than she’s received in the five years she’s been wearing her red robe. He’s a complicated man of contradictions, and that’s why Whitford loves playing him.
Following the devastating events in the Lawrence household in this week’s episode, Whitford, who was nominated for an Emmy for his work on the show’s second season, spoke with Vulture about Lawrence’s possible redemption, where he and June go from here, and what it’s been like reuniting with Moss after they met on The West Wing 20 years ago.
Note: Spoilers ahead for The Handmaid’s Tale’s 12th episode, “Sacrifice.”
Commander Lawrence keeps us on our toes. Who is he to you, and has that evolved as you’ve been playing him?
This part is absolutely fascinating because this guy — and I know this sounds so fucking pretentious — but this part changes the way you think about acting. Often, you make decisions about a character that are static, and what’s interesting about this guy is that he is constantly in play, which makes it very unpredictable. There was a guy named Robert McNamara who ran the war in Vietnam, who was a brilliant economist who came out of the car industry and used his brilliance at making things more efficient to kill basically 3 million people in Southeast Asia. That’s who Lawrence is. He’s a guy whose big brain has overwhelmed his humanity, and his big intellect has given him this kind of clinical distance from what his ideas have created. I think his humanity is kind of peeking back here.
I think he has a real reason to test [June]. He is questioning what his life’s work has brought here, and when you meet him, he is way out on a limb. I think he has a very legitimate fear. And this sounds sexist and awful, but from his point of view, he’s asking, Is this a comrade I can depend on or is this a sentimental mom who wants her baby back? So I think some of the times he’s cruel, he’s battle-testing her.
Do you think he’s resisting his humanity, or is he starting to embrace it?
I think it changes moment to moment, which makes this so fascinating to play. Because he will put himself out on a limb as a human being to [June] in a very truthful, vulnerable way, and then just retreat behind misogyny and patriarchy. It really hit me when we were doing some take and it got inappropriately emotional for me. It just got overwhelming in a way that wasn’t right exactly for the moment. It was just a moment of what it is like for a guy like Lawrence to be seen and understood the way June sees him. This guy has not been seen or understood since his wife went off the rails, and it’s very powerful.
What scene was that?
I think it was in the third episode when she was confronting Lawrence in the office. And he gets really defensive and says, “You’re useless.” And then she’s leaving and says, “You know what? You’re just as fucking pathetic.” It’s this thing where you would think in Gilead she would be taken out, but it just hit me — the kind of starvation, ironically, for humanity that this guy has.
Eleanor is, no question, the love of his life. But is she also his weakness? His love for Eleanor is absolutely real and true. On the one hand, it is reassuring to see that he has this capacity for love and humanity and that that is something June recognizes she can use to get in to do the things she needs to get done. On the other hand, it’s a little pathetic. It’s like all of us who are not out on the streets fighting for rational gun laws in this country because our children haven’t been shot yet. The only way he understands, viscerally, the horror of Gilead is by seeing what it has done to his wife. So, on the one hand, there’s something redeeming about that, but on the other hand, it’s kind of sad that we as human beings don’t have the capacity to have our compassion triggered by anything less than something happening to someone we love.
She was soul-crushing in episode ten, the one with the rape ceremony the other commanders forced.
Well, that scene was just fucking horrible. You’re flipping in and out of being in the scene and your observing brain, and I just hit this moment, like, Oh my god! The woman who’s about to get raped is talking me through the rape!
That was really great writing. We’ve seen those rapes before,
we didn’t need to see it. That conversation was much more horrifying.
I read that script and I thought that is just an astonishing piece of writing, where it really gets to the profound horror of Gilead in a totally surprising way. Yeah, that was agony.
In last week’s episode, Commander Lawrence promised to help June take the children out of Gilead and she is shocked to learn that he has escaped with his wife. Then, he has to return with his tail between his legs. What did you think of that storyline?
There’s two ways to answer that question. I was incredibly disappointed in him, but I thought it was the perfect writing choice because it realistically complicated it. What’s interesting and what’s really amazing about the way this character is written is that, given June’s predicament, a lesser team of writers would have made him a bad guy who has an epiphany and becomes, in an uncomplicated way, a hero. I think that is a disservice to the predicament that June is in. It’s much more complicated than that, and people don’t come out of horrific moral bankruptcy into a moment of enlightenment in an uncomplicated way.
Did you know ahead of time that Eleanor was going to die in this week’s episode?
I found out when I read it.
What was that like?
It was horrible. Julie [Dretzen] is just spectacular. My god, she is so beautiful and heartbreaking. And sweet. I think she may have been warned that this might happen, but then there’s the awkward moment where you’re shooting a scene together and you don’t know if she’s read the script. [Laughs.] You’re like, Do I bring this up? And I think she said to me, “You know I’m getting knocked off, right?” And I was like, “I know, I know, I’m so sorry.” It was heartbreaking. It’s interesting to think about what the loss of her will do to him. I guess I’ll find out next year.
June finds her still alive and almost helps her, but decides not to. There are a couple of ways of looking at that. Why do you think she didn’t?
I think it’s a bunch of things. What is so fascinating about Lawrence and what is so interesting to me about the writing in this show is the layers. There’s a scene early on where I humiliate her and make her get a book down from the shelf, and you ask yourself, am I just humiliating her for fun? Am I keeping her in her place? Am I avoiding a discussion [with the other commanders] that I disagree with by bringing us all together with a little moment of joyous misogyny? Am I testing her to see what she can take? And the answer is it’s all of those things. In my little world, when you get a piece of writing like that, it’s a fucking miracle, because mortals don’t write like that. [Laughs.] So I think what June does in that moment is similarly complicated. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never made an important decision in my life that was black-and-white.
The last scene of the episode is Lawrence and June at Eleanor’s burial site. June’s visibly upset and they exchange looks, but the way he looks at her is hard to read. What was going on?
It was a deliberate choice for me to play his sadness more privately. But I think that’s the moment where he’s making a vital assessment. There’s something weird about the way his wife died. Again, it’s another one of those moments where the writing has conspired to have 20 fucking things happening. There’s nothing remotely romantic or sexual, but I’m looking at the person who is now the person with whom I am closest on the planet after losing the only woman I will truly love. And what we thought would be interesting in that moment would be to play against the emotionality of it. I think in my mind, it’s more of a question for him — where are we going?
Do you think Commander Lawrence really wants to be a hero? Is he genuinely intrigued by that notion, after everything he’s done?
I think to him the idea of sentimentally becoming the opposite of what he had been is shallow and melodramatic. I think it’s more the irony of it. I think he’s in a deep and dangerous point of self-loathing. I don’t think he’s thinking, “Yeah! Yeah, I’ll be a hero.” Because I think he knows that it’s not that easy. But is he now at a point where he wants to do the right thing? I think he’s entertaining the idea.
Before we end this, I want to congratulate you on your Emmy nomination. I know you’ve been there before, but I was wondering if this one means anything special to you.
It really does mean a lot to me just because I love this show and it was very scary for me. Your biggest fear when you go in is that you’re gonna do something that doesn’t work and somehow diminish it. But it is the most interesting acting experience I’ve ever had.
I know it sounds like I’m doing publicity, but I say this when I’m not talking to reporters. It is really inspiring working with [Moss]. I get to find this guy in her eyes, and it’s just a very interesting process. I find what June is doing really inspiring, given where we are in our shitty, nonfictional world. She is embodying the idea that despair is a luxury that your children can’t afford, and that action is the antidote to despair, and that no matter how dark things are, the future is an act of creation. We’re not in Gilead but I understand how it can happen now. I never would’ve a couple years ago. I truly understand that now.
So this role is precious to me. I almost feel paternal toward [Moss]. I met her when she’s, like, 17, this really great young actress on West Wing. Now, I meet her and she’s giving this just extraordinary performance and is like no other actor I’ve ever worked with, totally involved in every decision that gets made on that show. I’m incredibly proud of her. It’s very weird to work with someone when they’re 17, and then all of a sudden, they’re your role model. It’s like when your kid inspires you. It’s the best feeling in the world.
Well, I really hope Lawrence doesn’t end up in the furnace. I want him to keep us on our toes a little longer.
Yeah! He’s such a fucking weirdo. That’s just the most fun. He’s just such a fucking freak!