Actor Bradley Whitford

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Emmy-winning actor explains his choice to go network vs. cable for his new series, Fox’ The Good Guys.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Bradley Whitford back to this program. The Emmy-winning star of “The West Wing” can be seen in the new Fox series “The Good Guys.” The show airs Monday nights at 9:00 p.m. Here now, a scene from “The Good Guys.”
Tavis: “Yank the rod?”
Bradley Whitford: “Yank the rod.”
Tavis: “You gotta yank the rod.”
Whitford: Title of my second album, actually. (Laughter) It’s funny watching that, because that was an improvised line and I hear it and I’m ashamed that children will see it, and it seems to have gotten by. It reminds me of I was doing a show once a long time ago that was a network show, and they said, “Did you ‘euphemism’ for sleeping with her?” Brief euphemism. The network guy said, “No, no, no, come on, you can’t say that,” and this writer said, “How about this?”
What ended up on TV was this. “Did you slip her the bishop?” (Laughter) Which may be the most profane, irreverent image – you know. But yes, yank – I’m ashamed of my work (unintelligible).
Tavis: But it got past the suits.
Whitford: It got past the suits, as apparently yank the rod did.
Tavis: Yeah, obviously, to be shown especially on PBS, of all places.
Whitford: On PBS. Sorry.
Tavis: So usually I drink my beverage of choice out of my own Tavis Smiley mug.
Whitford: Like I do.
Tavis: But tonight, I have to –
Whitford: The people have sent you a mug with a mustache on it.
Tavis: Yeah, so I have to drink out of your mug, because this mustache has really taken on a life of its own. Tell me about the mustache.
Whitford: This – it shocked me. I’m playing a randy, alcoholic cop who has a bright future behind him.
Tavis: Behind him.
Whitford: Behind him. It seemed logical to me that the guy would have a mustache, so I grew a mustache. It becomes – I didn’t realize it would be a marketing opportunity. (Laughter) I didn’t realize it would elicit all the strange responses it gets, whether it’s Stalin, Harry (unintelligible). There are all these very difficult associations with this particular form of facial hair, and women are creeped out by it, but it looks like a quick fix. (Laughter) So, you know.
Tavis: What do you make that in television – I’m always amazed by these things myself. You cut your hair or you wear a certain tie, or if I change my shoes I just get tons of mail about it.
Whitford: Yeah. Speaking of which –
Tavis: You see? Oh, man, look at these socks. Look at these socks.
Whitford: Look at that – they’re blue.
Tavis: Yeah, that’s – yeah, yeah, yeah.
Whitford: No, I find it amazing.
Tavis: It’s amazing.
Whitford: Do you find that people will come up to you and say, “Oh, man, I liked your hair better,” and there’s –
Tavis: In airports, in hotels, they e-mail. If I have a goatee one day and a month or two later I shave it off, it’s just like people’s lives are disrupted by the fact that I shaved my goatee.
Whitford: Right. It all goes to prove what I think is the truth of my life and your life, which is that the people on TV are victims. Don’t you think? (Laughter)
Tavis: Victimized by the American viewing public.
Whitford: We’re victimized. (Laughter)
Tavis: I like that. I like that.
Whitford: No, this guy – I wanted to play this guy because he’s such a – I’d done a bunch of buttoned-up guys in suits. This guy was just coming from a radically different place. My basic career theory is follow good writers, and Matt Nix, who’s a very bright guy, does this show, who also does “Burn Notice.”
You see all these cop shows on TV and they’re just completely irony deficient no matter how wonderful they are. Now, my favorite – I think the greatest television show in history, bar none, is “The Wire.”
Tavis: Better than “The West Wing?”
Whitford: Absolutely. No question.
Tavis: Wow.
Whitford: Have you watched “The Wire?”
Tavis: I have. Wendell Pierce is a good friend of mine.
Whitford: Wendell Pierce – I went to Julliard with him for four years.
Tavis: I love Wendell, yeah.
Whitford: I love Wendell. Do you see him a lot?
Tavis: He’s in “Treme” now.
Whitford: Turn off the –
Tavis: No, no, no. He’s in – no, no. He’s in “Treme” now. I was just in New Orleans; we’re working on a prime time special, July 21st on your local PBS station. We’re doing these primetime specials, one every quarter, and the third quarter special is about, sadly, the fifth anniversary, believe it or not already, the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Whitford: Oh, God, right.
Tavis: Wendell, as you know, is not just a great actor, and of course he’s in “Treme” now, on HBO, as I said, but he’s doing such wonderful work in his neighborhood called Pontchartrain Park, where all these houses were destroyed.
Whitford: Yes.
Tavis: He has become like an entrepreneur, and really more of an advocate, but fighting to get all these homes rebuilt. They have these model homes that they’re building now, but the way they’re – the energy efficiency of the homes, it’s – I don’t want to blow the special, but it’s amazing to see an actor, and actors do a lot of good work, to be sure, but this guy, New Orleans is his home.
Whitford: It’s his home; it’s where he grew up.
Tavis: And this is his neighborhood.
Whitford: Right.
Tavis: He’s, like, single-handedly leading the charge to rebuild this entire neighborhood.
Whitford: He’s a wonderful, wonderful guy, and I talked to him soon after Katrina and he was going back and forth, and he said one of the great statistically ignored tragedies there, he had older parents, and a lot of people, simply moving six months later took them out.
Tavis: Yeah. But “The Wire,” you were saying it’s the best show on. Why do you like it so much?
Whitford: Yeah, and this show is a cross between “The Wire” and “Mystery Science Theater 2000.” (sic) All of the depth and nuance that “The Wire” had, this replaces with (unintelligible).
Tavis: It must be fun, though, to your earlier point – (laughter) I got that – it must be fun, though, to play, to your point, a pretty buttoned-down guy for seven seasons or so and then to get a chance to play this silly guy.
Whitford: Yeah, yeah. It’s interesting because you don’t want your choices to be guided by well, I’ve already done that, which at one point I almost did something that was really awful, but I thought, well, it’s so different from “The West Wing” in that it’s terrible. (Laughter) Yeah, this is a fun kind of character.
Tavis: To your point, though, now, on a serious note, how can desperation or angst or just a willful intent to really do something that’s dramatically different than what you’ve done before sometimes leads you, or certainly tempts you, to your point, to take a role that you really shouldn’t take. It’s really bad, but you’re just so desperate to get out of that –
Whitford: Well, I think that you’re going to get typed. Ironically, if you’re successful or if you’re good at playing a bad guy, they’re going to think well, he’s good at playing a bad guy.
I remember when I got out of acting school nobody thought I could do a contemporary play. Then I did a Sam Shepard play and nobody thought I could do a classical play.
It’s just an inevitable part of it. I think the wisest way to deal with it is to follow writing, not the role. But certainly in television, follow writing because the role will follow if the ability to write is there.
But there is also just the frustration that you just want to do something else; you want to get out of the suit.
Tavis: How do you ascertain or determine that this in front of me is good writing?
Whitford: Well, boy, I guess it’s like pornography – you know it when you see it. (Laughter)
Tavis: The question is, how did that get past the suits?
Whitford: No, that was the Supreme Court – who was it who – anyway, anyway.
Tavis: Larry Flynt, I think, wasn’t it?
Whitford: You want guys who have a kind of ferocious vision and who the network, for whatever reason, is not going to meddle with too much, either because they have a lot going on or maybe they think they’re kind of crazy, or maybe they’ve got some (unintelligible) from the movie business, but you need somebody with a kind of ferocious vision.
Now on “West Wing” it was a guy who it was a singular ferocious vision. If you had developed “The West Wing” it would have been terrible. If you’d developed the show my wife was on, “Malcolm in the Middle,” it would have been terrible. The reason both of those shows, and this is obviously just my incidental exposure to this, but you had two guys who had a ferocious vision for what they wanted to do and it wasn’t being pasteurized out at all.
Matt Nix is a very different kind of writer. He really wants to collaborate. John Wells was like this, really wants to collaborate, and it’s a combination of intelligence, humor, openness, insanity.
Tavis: I’ve got about a minute to go. This is so inside baseball, but actors of your stature these days, it appears to be on TV, since you’ve been talking about it, are trying to get to cable where there’s no freedom, more –
Whitford: Right.
Tavis: And you made a network choice.
Whitford: Well, I didn’t make a network choice. If this had been – I don’t go around going, “Hm, the people at NBC, I’m tired of, but boy, the people at Fox are fantastic.” (Laughter) Because actually, it’s a lot of the same (unintelligible).
Tavis: They move around anyway, yeah.
Whitford: This happened to be there. But yeah, in a strange way, first of all, really pure writers, guy who really like to write end up writing TV, because if they’re writing a movie they’re writing it takes three years, then they get to watch it get taken over by somebody else.
So I think there’s a lot of (unintelligible) there’s tremendous writing talent.
Tavis: So here’s a quick exit question, in 10 seconds. So now that you’ve grown this mustache, how many times a day do you find yourself playing with your upper lip like you’re doing right now?
Whitford: I touch it a lot. It makes me remember (laughter) breakfast. I did a horrible thing – I kissed somebody who will remain nameless and literally coffee squeezed down here, and I hadn’t had coffee for about 10 minutes. (Laughter)
Tavis: Bradley Whitford, former star of “The West Wing,” now the star of “The Good Guys” on the Fox Network. Bradley, always glad to have you on the program.
Whitford: Thank you, it’s good to be here.
Tavis: My pleasure.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm