Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Bradley Whitford first broke through as an actor on the stage, as befits someone who trained at Juilliard. But he soon made the jump to on-camera work, doing small roles in films and on TV series during the late ’80s and throughout the next decade. Just as the ’90s were wrapping up, however, Whitford scored the role that would take him from a “that guy” actor to a regular prime-time presence for the next seven seasons: Josh Lyman on The West Wing. Since President Bartlett’s departure from the Oval Office, Whitford has added a few more series to his resume, including Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip and Trophy Wife, and he can currently be seen alongside Steve Coogan and Kathryn Hahn on Showtime’s Happyish.
Happyish (2015)—“Jonathan Cooke”
Bradley Whitford: This guy is a dark soul. [Laughs.] You don’t say to yourself, “Gee, I really want to live in the world of this morally bankrupt pragmatist.” You just have to sort of wallow in the darkness. Luckily, it’s with two of my favorite actors. I’m playing it with [Steve] Coogan and Kathryn Hahn, who is a national treasure who doesn’t get the attention she deserves. Did you see her in Afternoon Delight?
The A.V. Club: We just did this feature with John Kapelos, who shared a sex scene with her and Juno Temple.
BW: [Sudden realization.] Oh, that’s funny! I had not seen it when Transparent came up—because, you know, Jill [Soloway] directed that movie—and after I saw that movie, I emailed Kathryn, because I had done a Broadway play with her, Boeing Boeing, and I said, “I worked with you for six months. You never once looked me in the eyes when you came. Not once.” [Laughs.] But, seriously, how great was she in that? She was unbelievable.
AVC: So how did you find your way into Happyish in the first place? Was it a standard audition, or did they approach you specifically?
BW: They approached me. I’d been aware of it when Phil [Seymour Hoffman] shot it, and all of a sudden… I didn’t know it was coming back, and then they came to me. I’m from Madison, Wisconsin, and we have a really terrible union-busting, anti-education governor named Scott Walker, and apparently the thing that got me Happyish was a speech at a labor rally that’s on YouTube that Shalom [Auslander] saw. So go figure. [Laughs.] I didn’t realize it was an audition, but that’s what did it. And something like this in my world is an absolute no-brainer. It’s people I love, and you know that Showtime real estate is precious real estate for writers and actors. It’s a no-brainer.
AVC: What did you think about the tone of the series? Because it’s definitely not for the faint of heart.
BW: [Starts to laugh.] The tone, honestly, it’s challenging. It’s challenging for me. I have a 12-year-old daughter. I have three kids. And, yeah, it’s very, very, very, very, very, very dark. And I’ll tell you, quite honestly, I sometimes have mixed feelings about it. I’m being totally honest. [Hesitates.] It worries me when profanity, sex, and violence become a cozy definition of edginess when, in fact, it’s actually a mannerism at the service of a capitalistic impulse. So I struggle with that because, you know, you can’t offend me unless I think you’re just trying to offend me. But my daughter’s friend, she’s 12, and she and her mom were going to go watch the show, and I said, “No, no, no! No, no, no no!”
AVC: As a father with a 9-year-old daughter, I absolutely take your point.
BW: “Mommy, why is Daddy saying ‘cock’”?
AVC: And we have our first pull quote of the interview.
BW: [Laughs.] The first of many, no doubt.
The Equalizer (1985)—“Dillart”
Doorman (1986)—“Terry Reilly”
AVC: In attempting to determine your first on-camera, non-commercial role, it looks it may have been on an episode of The Equalizer.
BW: You are incorrect, sir. I forget the character’s name, but it was a movie… [Starts to laugh.] It was called Dead As A Doorman.
AVC: That is also on IMDB, although they just call it Doorman.
BW: Well, that was actually directed by Henny Youngman’s son, Gary. I didn’t realize he was Henny Youngman’s son until I saw his child in a onesie that said, “Take my grandson. Please.” That’s when I realized, “Oh, are you…?” But, yeah, I think that was the first thing. And then on The Equalizer, what I remember about that was—here’s an acting tip: Don’t make the choice of chewing tobacco in a role if you don’t chew tobacco. It really made me ill. I didn’t feel good. I think I threw up. That’s when I realized that integrity when you’re acting is overrated. [Laughs.]
AVC: So how did you find your way into a career in acting in the first place?
BW: I did an anti-smoking skit in fifth grade and, really, from that moment on, this was what I loved to do. I grew up in Wisconsin. It’s not like growing up in New York or L.A., where you know somebody’s cousin who does this. It was in the back of my mind, but I would never say that I wanted to be an actor, but as I look back, I was in every play I could possibly be in. I went away to college at Wesleyan University and was an English major, but I kept doing plays, and I became a theater/English major. And it wasn’t until I applied to grad school and I got into Juilliard… It was a very strange moment, opening that envelope, because it was honestly the first time where I realized, “Oh, my God, at the end of this, you’re going to try to be an actor!” It always seemed vain and unrealistic to say you wanted to be an actor.
AVC: And yet you pulled it off.
BW: Well, you know, I was very lucky. Juilliard was four years, and I called it “med school with guaranteed unemployment at the end.” And it ends, you’re getting ready to go out and be an actor, and… nothing. Absolutely nothing is happening.
I was catering an event at the Philip Morris executive dining room, which was, like, a Nazi bunker. You’d have to arrange these bouquets of cigarettes, and you’d hear these guys talking about the big market opening up with Chinese girls. I mean, it was just horrifying. But then suddenly I got a part in a play called Curse Of The Starving Class, with Kathy Bates. It was an incredible job, but I got it because Bill Pullman—and I have subsequently thanked him for this—dropped out to go do a movie. So I had to go in in a week. And in this part, you have to urinate onstage, and you have to walk out completely buck naked, straight toward the audience, and squat, which is what everybody who’s naked wants to do, and pick up a lamb, who I called “Meryl Sheep.”
AVC: Of course you did.
BW: So it was a very wonderful, terrifying first job.
AVC: And yet it seems like it could also be the perfect example of an “It’s all downhill from here” situation.
BW: Well, I find a way to make my good fortune seem like it’s victimizing me. [Laughs.] Which is just a hobby that I have. But, no, that was such a wonderful job. And when you finish these wonderful jobs, you think, “Oh, God, I’m so spoiled!” Like, after West Wing, it was, like, “Oh, my God, how does that happen again?” But it’s a good problem. It’s white actor plight.
AVC: There’s a hashtag for you.
BW: Yeah! [Laughs.] #whiteactorplight. I’ll post that, along with my 8-by-10 inch.
ER (1995)—“Sean O’Brien”
BW: Oh, wow. Yeah, that was incredibly exciting. It’s interesting, I just saw that again, because I think it was the 20th anniversary of it. The moment I read that script, I thought, “Oh, this is gonna be something.” It’s just such an excruciating situation. By the way, Anthony Edwards—and I’m not saying this because he’s a friend, although he is—his acting in that episode is as good as it gets. You’ll see certain performances, and I’ve done certain performances, where you might as well be wearing a placard around your neck that says, “Please nominate me.” But Anthony was a very important reason why that show worked. On shows, there are people who end up being kind of the acting captains, and he set an amazing tone.
It was very exciting to shoot. ER was this absolute bonkers phenomenon at that time. I remember we were shooting this one thing, and all of a sudden Steven fucking Spielberg comes around the corner and says, “Why don’t you try it like this?” And I’m, like, “What? Why is he…? Oh, my God! Steven Spielberg is at the monitor!” [Laughs.] But it was a really exciting thing, and it really affected people. My sister is a nurse who delivered babies, and it really upped the unnecessary paranoia of young mothers, that something like that could happen. But that was just an amazing group to work with, and at a moment where there was incredible excitement about the public reaction to the show.
The Sarah Silverman Program (2010)—“Toby Grossnickel”
BW: That was fun. I’d do anything for Sarah. I’d do, like, yardwork for her. She makes me laugh very, very hard, and I loved that show. I remember a really nice atmosphere on the set, loose and fun. I also remember that her dog was there. But she was gorgeous and funny; there were a lot of really funny people around; and it was just fun.
Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (2006-07)—“Danny Tripp”
BW: I love working with Matt [Perry]. Matt is truly one of the funniest people on the planet, and we had so much fun. I’ve been very lucky to have worked as much as I have, and back when you’re doing, like, 22 episodes a year for seven or eight years… I don’t know if it was at the end of The West Wing or the beginning of Studio 60, but I was just thinking, “The cameras are pointed the wrong way!” It was absolutely hilarious and fascinating what was going on in the organism of this television show, and I was just thinking, “Point ’em the other way.” I get creeped out watching acting. I don’t like to watch. I guess it’s like touch football: It’s really fun to do, but it’s a shitty spectator sport, I think. I got in trouble when I was directing the last episode, because [director] Tommy Schlamme realized I’d kind of never seen the show. [Laughs.]
But there’s one memory I have of Matt and I. Often guest directors come in, and as an actor, it’s kind of a pet peeve where you’ve got, like, a hundred people staring at you, holding lights and mikes at you, and these guest directors will come in and they’ll go, “Okay, are we rolling? Okay, we’re rolling. Guys, are you ready? Okay, and… Hey, Brad, quit pushing for the joke. You don’t need to do that. Action!” Like, a totally humiliating, devastating note, and then, “Action!” [Laughs.] And Matt had mentioned how he hated that, too, so when I was directing him, I’d be, like, “Okay, guys, quiet! We got it? Okay, and… There is no happiness, the reward is death. Action!” Or, “Guys, are we quiet? Quiet, guys! Okay, and… Matt, you peaked 10 years ago. Action!” So, yeah, that was a fun day.
More seriously, though, I was very lucky to surf on top of Aaron Sorkin’s mind for all those years. That’s where you truly do feel lucky. Because being an actor, you always feel like you’re swimming upstream. People are going, “No, they don’t like you. They don’t like the way you look. They don’t like how old you are.” But an experience like The West Wing is what I would imagine—even though I’ve never done it—that surfing feels like. [Laughs.] It’s, like, “Whoa! I can just stand up here and ride this without all the anxiety!” And that’s one of the amazing things that can happen on television: that extended relationship with an audience. And it becomes sort of interesting as a character develops, because you’re performing it and learning about the character with the audience. There are things you learn in the fourth year. In the right situation, acting on television can be extraordinarily satisfying creatively. But that’s incredibly rare. Otherwise, it can be like working in a really remunerative coal mine. That’s the down side.
Adventures In Babysitting (1987)—“Mike”
Revenge Of The Nerds II: Nerds In Paradise (1987)—“Roger”
BW: That was when I was playing yuppie scum. [Laughs.] That was my wheelhouse: yuppie scum. Adventures In Babysitting—I remember I had a huge crush on Lisa Shue, and… that was Chris Columbus’ first movie, right? I think he’d sold some scripts, but it was the first time he’d directed. He’s one of the sweetest guys on the planet, so that was a really fun experience. But, yeah, I kind of got into this jerk mode, and right around that time I showed incredible range by doing Revenge Of The Nerds II: Nerds In Paradise, where I showed I could not only play an asshole at home but also one who was on vacation, which… was really, I’m sure, moving for people to see.
AVC: It’s no wonder you’ve made it as far as you have in your career.
BW: Actually, I’ll tell you something funny. I was in New York after Adventures In Babysitting—I’d been playing all these jerks—and it was one of the first times anybody recognized me. A homeless guy said, “Hey, you’re that guy! You’re in those movies, right?” And I’m like Jeff Daniels in Purple Rose Of Cairo. “Oh, yeah! Yeah, I am!” And the guy goes, “Yeah, why do you always play assholes?” [Laughs.] I think I called my agent and said something like, “Is that a problem? Should I worry about playing an asshole all the time? Could that damage my career?” And my agent said, “You don’t have a career to damage.” Which hurt at the time, but that’s the kind of honesty you need.
But I’ll tell you something weird: were it not for playing one of those jerks, I would not have met Aaron Sorkin. If I had not done Revenge Of The Nerds II: Nerds In Paradise —and, please, if you’re gonna reference it, use the whole title—I never would’ve met Tim Busfield, who then went into A Few Good Men and, when they were replacing someone, said to Aaron, “You should have this guy read for you.” So if I hadn’t done Revenge Of The Nerds II: Nerds In Paradise, I never would’ve gotten to do The West Wing.
The West Wing (1999-2006)—“Josh Lyman”
AVC: How was Josh Lyman defined when you first got the role? Aaron Sorkin has a history of having his characters pretty well established from the get-go.
BW: I think in his mind it was a combination of [George] Stephanopoulos and Rahm Emanuel. It was a tricky role to get. I’ve talked about this before: Aaron had told me that he had written this part with me in mind, and I had always been very interested in politics; I loved Aaron’s writing; and I’ve never worked on any audition harder in my life. Sometimes you walk in and audition, and frogs fall out of your mouth. But I would pretend that I was acting badly and then try and do the scene well. [Laughs.] I was, like, “Okay, now I’m going to try it like a bad actor. Let’s try it without talent!” But I was very relieved—because this doesn’t always happen—but it felt like a really strong audition. But the studio wasn’t as sure, and at this point, Aaron didn’t have casting power, so for a long time it looked as if I was not going to get it.
There were people at Warner Brothers who didn’t think I was right; I think Tommy Schlamme didn’t think I was right; but I knew how much I wanted the show. My manager, who I’m still with, was told, “What in this sentence do you not understand? Brad is not going to play this part.” And she’s a dear, dear friend, but a lot of my devotion to her stems from the fact that very few agents when they hear that will keep going, but she pushed.
And I got a phone call—I remember I was in Santa Monica—and it was Aaron, who said, “You got it. You’re in the show. You’re playing Sam.” And I was, like, “What?” He says, “You’re playing Sam.” I said, “Aaron, I have no power in this…” He said, “Don’t worry, don’t worry, I’ll end up writing [the part] to the actor.” Which, by the way, has been an incredible, unremarked-upon talent that Aaron has, and that the great TV writers have: to exploit actors’ strengths with the writing. And I said, “Look, I’m only going to play this card once in my life. [Takes a deep breath.] Thank you, and God, yes, I want to do it, but… I’m not the guy with the hooker. I’m the guy who busts the balls of the Christian right.” And I’m eternally grateful, because Aaron—I don’t know what the exact process was, but he called me back, and I later found out that I was Josh. So that turned out well.
It was an amazing cast. And it’s very interesting—and it should be disturbing to every development executive in Los Angeles—that all the shows that people love did not go through the conventional development process. If anybody had any idea that The Sopranos was going to be a tenth as successful as it was, we never would’ve met James Gandolfini and David Chase would never have been allowed to write it. If anybody had any idea about Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston would not have had that role and Vince Gilligan would not have been able to write it. I think even The West Wing, if they had thought it was going to do as well as it did, you never would’ve met Allison Janney or Richard [Schiff] or John [Spencer]. That should keep executives and development people on their toes.
We were a very close group. And it was horrifying when we lost John. [Executive producer] John Wells was a real hero in terms of handling it, but it was very strange. I got a phone call that John was in trouble; I went to the hospital, and the doctor told me that he had died. Then I was a pallbearer in his funeral, and then a month later we’re shooting it, and… it was very strange. But handled, I thought, perfectly by John Wells in terms of what John would’ve wanted.
Part of the reason The West Wing worked was because it was a bunch of theater actors. I mean, you take Allison Janney. If you take somebody that talented and you don’t allow them to become famous and make them do eight performances a week for a decade, you end up with one of the great actresses on the planet. It’s just interesting to me that often when people are aware of how successful a show might be, they screw it up. [Laughs.]
But that thing was… Nobody should expect that kind of creative experience of getting to act with that kind of writing, with those kinds of actors. And then on top of it, to have it be about something that I was always obsessed with? Plus, it happened to be that Josh’s politics were my politics at a time when a lot of—clearly now—huge mistakes were being made politically, and the writers’ room there was one of the most interesting, creative places I’ve been in my life. Just constructing stories and talking about politics. It was fascinating. So, yeah, a ridiculously good gig. And it’s funny now, because… [Hesitates.] Am I talking too much?
AVC: Absolutely not.
BW: No, of course I’m not. [Laughs.]
AVC: Ultimately, I’ll just edit it all down to, “It was awesome,” anyway.
BW: Actually, if you could edit it down to, “Why is Daddy saying ‘cock’?” [Laughs.] No, but it’s so funny now, because now there are so many political shows, and we have so many versions of political shows. But at the time, The West Wing was taking place in an arena that nobody thought worked dramatically, which was crazy and stupid conventional thinking, because it’s full of conflict, the stakes are phenomenal, and it’s very theatrical. But at that point, politicians had never been heroicized the way policemen and doctors and lawyers had, so it was amazing.
Up until that point, I think politicians were portrayed as either evil people or jokes, and it was amazing how much it meant in Washington. I had a very funny moment, because young people will often come up to me and say—they’ll say, “God, you’re incredibly old.” [Laughs.] No, they’ll come up and very sweetly say, “You’re part of the reason I got into politics.” I was at a correspondents’ dinner, and a young kid on the street comes up to me—he’s tired, and he’s obviously a staffer up on the hill—and he says, “I just want you to know that you’re one of the reasons I went into politics.” And I said, “Gosh, thanks. I appreciate it.” He said, “Actually, I’m broke, I’m exhausted, and I don’t think I’m ever gonna kiss Mary-Louise Parker, am I?” I said, “Yeah, probably not.”
AVC: When we talked to Allison Janney for Random Roles, she said, “I was the best walk-and-talker in the entire show, and everyone will tell you that.” True or false?
BW: I think that’s true. Allison’s amazing, because Allison’s not precious about preparing; she doesn’t give a shit about politics; and she’s fucking great. She is incapable of being bad. I got to write a couple of episodes, and speaking of Allison Janney walk-and-talks, I knew they wanted it to start on Allison’s face as she’s walking, and then you hear off-screen the startling voice of Kristin Chenoweth, and then you back out and you see that she was actually walking next to her. Because a lot of people don’t know, but Kristin Chenoweth is actually two feet, six inches tall. [Laughs.] And I’ll tell you, I don’t know about the walk-and-talk thing, but every actor you ask, “Who was your favorite person to act with?” Everyone says Allison. Oh, I’m sorry, did I say “act with”? I meant, “Sleep with.”
The Muse (1999)—“Hal”
BW: That was really fun! Albert Brooks is a genius. He’s got a brilliant comedic mind. And he shoots really fast. Even though I’m in that film in a couple of different places, that was a thing were you go, you start shooting at nine, and you’re done with the movie at noon. [Laughs.]
Bottle Shock (2008)—“Professor Saunders”
BW: Again, one day, in and out. I know there was a bandana, which was nice, because then you don’t have to worry about hair, which is good. [Laughs.] But it was gorgeous up in wine country. Oh, and what’s-his-name is in that. Chris Pine! He had a big wig on. Yeah, that was one of those things where I was, like, “Oh, good for you, young actor. You’ve got a little part in a little movie.” And then I think he got Star Trek. But he was a wonderful guy.
The X-Files (1994)—“Daniel Trepkos”
BW: I remember realizing that David Duchovny was really funny. You know, that show had a certain kind of… I don’t know, an irony deficiency? [Laughs.] But he’s just an incredible bright, hilarious guy. Aren’t they doing that show again?
AVC: They are. They’re bringing it back for a limited-series event.
BW: That’s right. I’m all for this limited-series stuff, by the way. I mean, I know it’s not working in a coal mine, but for the crews—and creatively, too, for that matter—the one-hour format was developed for shows like Mannix, but by the time The Sopranos came along… I mean, that was as good as any mob movie. On The West Wing, we were making the equivalent of 11 feature films in, what, nine or 10 months? That’s insane. And it’s insane for the crew.
I remember saying to Tommy—and he says I’m embellishing this, but I’m making it a better line than I ever had then—“the invisible carnage of the unfucked wives and the children not being read to is just wafting out of Warner Brothers Studios.” [Laughs.] And I’m not talking about the actors, but the crews on these shows—it’s just punishing for them. And creatively speaking, being able to go, “What would be the best length for this particular story? Is it a movie? Is it a two-night thing? Is it a limited series? Is it a TV show?” It just opens up all sorts of creative life. Actually, right now is a phenomenal time creatively in television, with all these places that are trying to do really good work. It used to be you were either on a network or maybe HBO or Showtime, but there are a lot of places where you can really do interesting stuff now.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2014)—“Frank Maddox”
Transparent (2014)—“Mark / Marcy”
AVC: Well, you’ve given me the perfect organic segue to ask about Transparent.
BW: Yes! That show is kind of the poster child of the virtues of this creative Wild West that’s opened up with all these different places to work. The show is also an example of… [Starts to laugh.] I used to take this kind of perverse pride in joking that I was the only actor on the planet who had not done a Law & Order episode, but I was also resistant to being away from home, because it’s shot in New York. But I got a phone call, and I asked, “Who are my scenes with?” And they said, “Jeffrey Tambor,” who I had not been aware was on the show, so I said, “Absolutely!” Because Jeff was on the very short list of actors I’d never worked with who I wanted to work with, and he has a very unique, peculiar combination of being able to portray heartbreak and hilarity simultaneously. He’s just an incredible actor. And, you know, I had bumped into him at events, and I really just wanted to do something with him because I knew it would be fun. Well, one day we were shooting this courtroom scene, and he came in and I remember him saying, “I can’t believe it: This pilot I did got picked up.” I also remember that he didn’t really understand the whole Amazon thing yet. Was it real? Was the show really going to be on? [Laughs.]
But apparently this role came up, and I met with Jill Soloway, and I saw Afternoon Delight and the Transparent pilot, and… I mean, honestly, it could’ve been any kind of role, because it was obvious that it was something that I wanted to be a part of. But I also recognized and felt like this was a real moment for Jill. I’ve seen great showrunners have this moment. And then when she told me what the part was, then I was, like, “Oh, my God!” Because it literally scared me. [Laughs.] It was a peculiar kind of challenge to do something like this without making it one-dimensional, you know? You wanted him to have dignity without being sanctimonious. And that’s what I liked about the tone of Transparent in general: there’s a lot of humor, but it’s not cheap, and these people who are struggling with these transgender issues, it doesn’t treat them like saints or fools.
So, yeah, I was terrified. But doing the research on this was one of the most moving, exciting experiences of my life. I got in touch with a group that meets and cross-dresses every week, and I was just going to go. You have to cross-dress if you go, but I was thinking, “Well, I guess you’ve got to do the full Sean Penn: it’s time to shave your legs and get over there!” [Laughs.] Not an activity usually associated with Sean. But then I realized that that was dishonest, that this was a safe place for these people, so I said, “Look, I don’t want to pretend I’m something I’m not, but this is a really good writer and I really want to get this right, and I just want to hear your stories.” And it was absolutely fascinating. And it made me realize… Oh, can you hang on just a second?
BW: [Disappears from the line for a few moments, then returns.] That was my daughter, saying, “Daddy, why do you say ‘cock’ all the time?”
AVC: I’ll just bet it was.
BW: Actually, it really was my daughter. [Laughs.] I have to pick her up in a little bit. But what I was saying was that it made me realize that, as an actor, I had total freedom, because each of their stories were radically different stories. Some of these people were married, some of these people were in the military, some of these people had endured a tremendous amount of prejudice and hate and physical abuse, and others had felt like they had just the most wonderful lives. It was a really interesting experience. And it was great to go through it with Jeffrey and Jill, because—I mean, you’re walking around in a dress! I’ve never done that before. But it was another case where I felt incredibly lucky just to get to be a part of a really exciting, humane creative process, and with an actor like Jeffrey, it’s a really good gig. Like, I feel guilty, I feel so lucky.
But, man, do those heels hurt. They really hurt! And it’s really funny, because I go into the costume fitting, and I said to Jeffrey, “How was your costume fitting?” And he looked kind of haunted, and he said, “It was… okay. It was okay.” I said, “What?” He said, “Well, I was ready for the bras and skirts and stuff, but I just wasn’t ready for the bathing suit.” But when you get nervous about a costume fitting… That was what was so exciting about this as a job. I mean, imagine, unless you’re somebody who cross-dresses, how terrifying that is. I was terrified! But it’s funny because, even though the heels hurt unbelievably, I immediately had a female ego about it. I was, like, “These are ridiculous, they hurt like hell, they’ve got to be terrible for your posture, but they make my legs look fantastic, so let’s get the highest heels we can… and let’s bring the skirt up!” [Laughs.] And it’s funny, because I realized on the show that if I made my tits bigger, it made my hemline go up. These are issues I never dealt with on The West Wing… but it would’ve been a very special West Wing if I had.
The Good Guys (2010)—“Dan Stark”
AVC: I just have to ask you about something you said when you were at the TCA press tour promoting The Good Guys. Actually, it was before it was even called The Good Guys. It was still being called Code 58.
BW: Oh, Jesus.
AVC: At the time, you likened the growing of your mustache to De Niro preparing for Raging Bull.
BW: [Bursts out laughing.] Did I really?
AVC: You did.
BW: Uh… [Still laughing.] Yeah, I stand behind that statement. Well, I guess. Maybe it was more De Niro preparing for The Godfather Part II. He had a mustache in that, right?
AVC: He did, indeed.
BW: But, yeah, I dug deep to get into the character of Dan Stark. That was just so much fun. I mean, he was such an idiot. [Laughs.] And I realized that the key to him was just that he assumed that every woman he met wanted him and didn’t realize that he was, like, a train wreck. That was a fun shoot. I loved working with Colin [Hanks], and Matt Nix was a great showrunner. That was a really, really fun set. But… Code 58? Who would call something that? I mean, then you might as well just call it The Show That’s On At Nine.
AVC: Now, to be fair, it’s not like The Good Guys tells you a heck of a lot about the show, either.
BW: Hey, listen, there’s this thing that swept through Hollywood which I always say, although it’s been “berry, berry good to me,” has all the wisdom of water running down a hill—where you had a big hit, and it’s called Friends, and then you could tell people were, like, “Yeah, generic titles, that’s what works! Totally generic!” [Laughs.] And when they said The Good Guys, I was, like, “Well, why don’t we call it Upright Primates? Or At The Mercy Of Gravity?” I mean, it tells you nothing! Although I gotta tell you, I think At The Mercy Of Gravity might’ve gotten a second season.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (2015)—“Roger Peralta”
AVC: When you turned up on Brooklyn Nine-Nine as Jake’s dad, was there ever any talk of you being a cop on that show as well, in a nod to The Good Guys?
BW: I think they’d mentioned in the show by that point that his dad was a pilot. But that, by the way, is a really fun set. I’m telling you, you can tell immediately that Andy [Samberg], for a lot of reasons, is the captain of that set, and that dictates everything. It’s coming from him, and he’s surrounded himself with a lot of really good actors. The women on that show are great, and Andre Braugher, he was actually at Juilliard when I was there. He’s so funny on that show, but it was so weird because it was, like, “God, I haven’t seen him since school,” and it was another Wilford Brimley moment: “I haven’t seen you in 30 years!” There are big trees older than that! [Laughs.] Oh, and speaking of that show, I saw Terry Crews at the gym this morning.
AVC: Hey, the man’s got to work for that physique.
BW: Uh, yeah, it obviously wasn’t his first time in the gym. [Laughs.]
Trophy Wife (2013-14)—“Pete Harrison”
BW: Yeah, that was kind of a forehead-knocker. That was at the point where I had the moment where… I was a younger member of the cast on The West Wing, and there was basically a whole generation above me, so you sort of think of yourself in a vague way as a young person. But then all of sudden I’m doing Trophy Wife, and I’m Wilford fucking Brimley! [Laughs.] It’s prostate jokes and “can’t get it up” jokes, and it’s like, “When did this happen?” It seemed so sudden!
But that was a great cast, and I honestly don’t understand—either with The Good Guys or Trophy Wife—what happened. TV is just an odd business model. Shows have to find themselves and find an audience. Trophy Wife was very sweet, very functional, great cast, great writers, happy… But I don’t know. Like I said, that was kind of a forehead-knocker that it got pulled after only a season. But TV is strange. The thing about a pilot is that you’re creating a world out of whole cloth. You’re imagining an entire world, and it takes shows a little time to find it. It took The West Wing awhile. It takes every show awhile. But when you do pilots now, you can feel how much has to be established right now, and it’s just crazy.
It’s very interesting doing theater versus anything filmed. The atmosphere around a table read of a play—no matter how flawed the play is—it’s generally really optimistic. And the atmosphere around the table read of anything that is going to be filmed is terror. That it’s not going to work, that it might not work, are these people cast right, are they saying it right… There’s this whole feeling of, “Oh, God, don’t fuck this up.” Which I guess is just because—understandably—so much money’s at stake. Aaron had a great line in Studio 60 that I think about it all the time when it comes to business: “There’s nothing more expensive than a television show that doesn’t work.”
The Cabin In The Woods (2012)—“Hadley”
BW: That was a total blast. Initially they said, “Well, it’s like a horror movie,” and I said, “Eh…” But then I found out it was Joss, who I kind of knew—we went to the same college, but at a different time—plus I’ve gotten to know him over the years. I love Joss, so that made me want to do it. Plus, Richard Jenkins, all my stuff with him was just absolutely great. If there’s anything that sort of guides my choices as I get older—inasmuch as I have the luxury of any choice—it’s to get to work with people like Jeffrey Tambor and Richard Jenkins. I just knew that was going to be fun. And that was a very loose, improv-y set, which was also fun.
Robocop 3 (1993)—“Fleck”
BW: In Robocop 3, I just remember Rip Torn. [Laughs.] He was screaming at me, and he kind of runs his fingers through his hair when he was doing some take, and three pieces of his toupee got caught in his hand while he was screaming—and he didn’t realize it. And I didn’t have the heart to say, “Do you think we should cut?” But, yeah, Rip Torn yelling at me with, like, three merkins in his fist: that’s a good story, right?
AVC: To date, I have never gotten a bad Rip Torn story.
BW: [Laughs.] But, you know, again, that’s an example of just how lucky I’ve been to get to work with some of these people, getting to do a scene with someone like Rip Torn or Tommy Lee Jones (in Cobb). I actually get emotional talking about all of this stuff, because even in some these little stupid things that didn’t work, you think back and realize that you got to experience a moment like that, and… I just feel really lucky.