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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
<i>The West Wing</i>’s Dulé Hill on playing Charlie with gray hair—and his PTSD from the 2000 election

The West Wing’s Dulé Hill on playing Charlie with gray hair—and his PTSD from the 2000 election

Graphic: Rebecca Fassola, Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Jaguar Land Rover

Dulé Hill is not about to pretend he’s still the young man he was when he showed up for his first day on The West Wing to play presidential aide Charlie Young. The Dulé Hill who showed up at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles this summer to film A West Wing Special To Benefit When We All Vote is well aware he is 45.

“I didn’t try to play Charlie as a 23 year old. I am Charlie. That’s how I stepped into it. I didn’t take away my gray hairs or anything like that. I approached him as Charlie now, in this same position,” the actor says on the latest episode of The A.V. Club’s podcast Push The Envelope. Still, he says much of the filming of the HBO Max special (which premiered today) was like stepping back in time for Hill and his “West Wing family.”

“I’ve always felt that Aaron Sorkin’s words were timeless. I was honored to do them back then, and to be able to now 20 years later—just being able to look through the lens of experience and to approach the same piece of material, the same dialog, it was exciting for me,” Hill says of filming a stage production of season-three episode Hartsfield’s Landing.” “The voice of The West Wing has always been powerful. It has always been a shining light that has challenged [us as individuals], but also challenged America as a whole to be the best version of herself. And to be able to come back now and approach it again through the lens of experiences of all that we’ve gone through… We’ve gone through the Bush years. We’ve gone through the Obama years. And now we’re in this Trump era. Having the words come to life again, I think, is powerful, is poignant, and is needed.”

Dulé Hill and Allison Janney filming A West Wing Special To Benefit When We All Vote
Dulé Hill and Allison Janney filming A West Wing Special To Benefit When We All Vote
Photo: Eddy Chen/HBO Max

Members of the West Wing cast had gotten back together in large groups in the past, but living in “the Trump era” was the big motivator to reunite the full cast. “I think democracy has been challenged. In the last election, there were a lot of people who were left on the sidelines. And it’s important for people to get engaged and use their voice and use their vote to determine the direction of the nation,” Hill says of the inspiration to film the special, which aims to promote Michelle Obama’s non-profit, nonpartisan voter participation initiative When We All Vote. “This is the first time we’ve actually had the entire cast with Aaron Sorkin at the helm and Tommy Schlamme at the helm, really leading the charge. So this is definitely something different than we’ve ever done before—[and] the reason why is where we are as a nation. It’s very important for us to have all hands on deck to make sure that our country reflects what we want it to be.”

To hear all of Hill’s interview, check out today’s episode of Push The Envelope, where the actor discusses welcoming This Is Us actor Sterling K. Brown to the cast to take over as Leo McGarry, a role played by John Spencer until his death in 2005. You can also hear Hill make his way through The A.V. Club’s 11 Questions, or read his answers below.

1. If you made a candle, what would it smell like?

Dulé Hill: Lavender.

AVC: Why lavender?

DH: I’ll say two things. One, because Berlinda likes her men to shine. That’s for a very select group of people who might get the reference… And two, lavender is very relaxing. I love the smell of lavender. It’s a calming scent. I think we can use more calming energy throughout the world as a whole.

2. What’s your favorite album from high school?

DH: Thriller, Michael Jackson.

AVC: You didn’t even hesitate.

DH: Well, I wasn’t in high school, though, when it came out. I mean, I guess Thriller is a timeless thing. Michael was the man.

AVC: Did you ever do a Michael Jackson dance or anything for a talent show?

DH: Actually, in middle school we had a talent show—and it was the first and last one that I did, because I started dancing professionally on Broadway at the age of 10. So in middle school, we had a talent show during our lunch period. There were three different lunch periods and three different talent shows. And I tap danced because I did a show called The Tap Dance Kid before, and I was a tap dancer. I ended up winning all three talent shows, so that was the last talent show that I did. I never got a chance to step up my Michael Jackson game, even though I do a pretty good [Sings.] “hee-hee.”

3. What conspiracy theory do you think is the most plausible?

DH: Well, definitely not Pizzagate. Definitely not that. I’ll say UFOs. I think they’re probably plausible. We think that we’re the center of the universe, but we’re really not. It’s a vast world out there. There’s so many planets and galaxies. It’s very plausible that there is some other thing out there—some other group of beings who are living their life, having their version of a beer.

AVC: It’s very self-centered to think that we could be the only ones.

DH: That’s what humanity is like. “Oh, no, it’s only us.” Okay… Hey, I don’t know. Another one I think could be plausible—I don’t think that it is, but I think it could be plausible—is the man on the moon. Especially like way back then [when we first landed on it]. It’s not like now when we have so much technology.

AVC: They say that there’s apparently a lot of human excrement left there because they dump everything that they don’t want to bring back. So we may have created that extra terrestrial life now because of the bacteria.

DH: That would be funny—and that would probably make the most sense out of all them. You dumbasses did it! The next Marvel movie.

4. What’s the first time you were disillusioned by politics?

DH: Probably was Gore-Bush. Just the way it played out.

AVC: The hanging chads. 

DH: The hanging chads, and how much it went through the courts. And it was only about trying to not let votes count. They were looking for, “How can we discard these votes?” It was shocking to me. And I was still a young man at the time and getting more into this whole political thing, because really leading up to it, I oftentimes thought that politics was a big joke. But that was the first time that I said, “You know, let me really start paying attention and getting involved.” And then I got involved, and when I saw how it played out… Not that the person I campaigned for didn’t win. It wasn’t so much that, because I think that’s what democracy is. It was how they systematically made the effort to discard votes.

And that same mindset has carried itself through to even where we are today. It’s about trying to disenfranchize people, keep people on the outside instead of getting people to get involved. That is still challenging to my mind. But now, instead of letting it get me to turn off, it only lights a fire inside of me to say, “No. I know that this movement is out there to get people not involved, so we just have to overcome that with overwhelming force of engagement.” And that’s why I appreciate even doing this West Wing special in collaborating with When We All Vote. It’s about getting people involved. The only way that this country will ring true to who she says she is, is when we all get involved. And not just when it comes to presidential elections, when it comes to local community elections too. Who’s on your school board? Let’s get involved. Who’s the sheriff? Who’s the D.A., let’s get involved. That’s how we’re going to make a difference in our homes, in our communities, and in our country at large.

5. Who would you call if you needed help burying a body?

DH: Jazmyn Simon. She’s my wife.

AVC: It’s a good sign for your marriage, that that’s who you’d call.

DH: Yeah, I would be like, “I need your help in burying this body.” She’s definitely the one I would call.

6. What’s your favorite Halloween costume you’ve ever worn?

DH: The Big Bad Pimp Wolf. I had on a brown suit with some slick shoes. Long nails, fur on my hands and my chest. Fangs, a coiffed James Brown-looking wig and a pair of gold framed sunglasses.

7. If proximity to your industry was a moot point, where would you most like to live and why?

DH: Probably somewhere in the Caribbean, because I’m an island boy. I love the beach. I love rum. I love the sun. I love the energy of the Caribbean.

8. How did you learn about the birds and the bees?

DH: Ooh, that’s a good question. Probably my older brother. I don’t really actually remember how I learned about them. My older brother, school, friends… I don’t really recall my folks talking to me about it like that.

AVC: Do you feel like you learned about it at a young age or the same as most other people?

DH: I don’t know what I’m a regular time is, but I feel like it was somewhere like in fifth grade, or something like that. My family was very close growing up. We were all in New Jersey, and I was one of the younger ones of that wave of cousins. So I always heard about things a lot younger than I think a lot of other people because I had all my older cousins, and they were talking about it and doing it. [Laughs.]

9. What’s the pettiest hill you’re willing to die on?

DH: That’s a good, good question… And I’m completely blanking out right now. I know there’s something, and I know that when I get off this call, I want to be like, “Dang!”

AVC: We can come back to it at the end.

DH: Okay, good. [He ultimately addresses this in question 11—Ed.]

10. What pop culture or art do you turn to when you’ve had a bad day?

DH: Oh, tap dancing. That’s easy. I call it a Murphy floor. I have a piece of wood in my garage that actually folds up and fastens on the wall. So whenever I want to dance, I pull my car out and bring it down. It’s like a Murphy bed, but a dance floor. And if I had a bad day, I put on my tap shoes. That’s all the solace that I need.

AVC: Did you give it the name the Murphy floor?

DH: Yeah. When we were moving into this house, I told the builder, “I want a Murphy floor. You know, like, a Murphy bed? I want my dance floor to be like a Murphy floor. That’s how we’re going to maximize the space, because I don’t want to have a full floor and not be able to use the garage. I want to be able to pull my car in, but I want to be able to pull my car out and let it come down.”

11. If you could find out the day you were going to die, would you want to know?

DH: Ooh. I think so. Yes. I think so.

AVC: Would it change things for you, or would you just want to know?

DH: I think I would just want to know. I don’t think it would change things, because I really do try my best to cherish the moments, to appreciate moments, to understand that tomorrow is not promised. I try not to have petty disagreements and die on petty hills because I know that this could be the end.

For example—and I’m kind of going off course a little bit—when I was 15, my best friend was shot and killed in the Bronx. His name was Hassan Tatum. And I was doing a show on Broadway and he was supposed to come to see me. And he didn’t, just because he got caught up. He had just got his new car. He was like, “I’m coming down!” He called the pay phone, you know, I beeped him, he called me back and said, “Yeah. I’m coming down!” But he never came. So for about a week, I didn’t talk to him. One of my other good friends came by the house and spent the night. He was like, “Have you spoken to Hassan?” And I was like, “Nah, man. I’m gonna call him next week. He was supposed to come down and he didn’t.” And three times that night he told me I should call Hassan. And I said, “Man go to sleep. I’m going to call him next week.” Next week never came. A few days later, he was shot and killed. And it broke my heart. That was my best friend, my brother. I was being so petty about something so simple, and I didn’t get the chance to speak to him again.

So from that moment, I’ve learned to not take moments for granted, to not die on petty hills, to be able to move beyond myself because this could be the last moment. If this is the last time you and I are going to talk, how do I want it to be? That’s why even in the midst of an argument, I can still tell somebody, “I love you. I appreciate you. I disagree with you, and you’re getting on my nerves, but I do love you.” Because if, God forbid, it was to the end, I don’t want it to be that my last words to you were “fuck you.”

Bonus 12th question from Dylan Gelula: “I’ve been grinding my teeth at night. Do you know how to stop doing that? Do you know any remedies for jaw pain?”

DH: I do want to tell this person I can relate. I understand. You know, sometimes it just gets tight in the middle of the night. The mouth guard: I went to my dentist, they did the little mold thing—you know, they put a little thing on your teeth, and it takes kind of nasty, but they get it and they go and make a mouth guard that is fashioned for your teeth. It has been a life-changer for me. It has definitely helped my jaw from being tight. It’s helped my teeth so that i stop grinding. Go to your dentist!

AVC: Okay, to close us out, you’ve got to set us up with a question for the next person.

DH: How do you continuously stay fit in the midst of this pandemic?

AVC: That’s a good one.

DH: I have another question to add to that, in terms of getting fit: What do you like to drink during this pandemic? What is a great recipe of a really great drink? Because I do like to have a drink at the end of the day. What is a very good drink with bourbon—with some type of dark liquor?

AVC: I’ve personally discovered Trader Joe’s boxed wine during this.

DH: I go with the boxed wine too! Trader Joe’s has some great options. Bota Box is a great box wine. I’m just telling you, anyone out there; you can get it at Rite Aid or Trader Joe’s. Bota Box!

A.V. Club Editor in Chief...but really just a She-Ra, Schitt’s Creek, Grey’s Anatomy, Survivor, Big Brother, Top Chef, The Good Place superfan.