Bradley Whitford is like the friend from school whose voice broke before yours did. He’s got the atmosphere and energy of the older brother who will take you to the pub against your parents orders when you’re under age and talk to you about sex and politics and generally treat you like a grown up. And you just want to hang out with him. He has been pretty successfully engaged in the non-for-profit, low-level public exposure activity of being a stage actor for most of the adult part of his 42 years, starting in a partially nude, co-starring role with Kathy Bates in an acclaimed off-Broadway production of Sam Shepherd’s The Curse of The Starving Classes. But now he has been pitched into The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s brilliantly written insider’s job on The White House private staff, which has become NBC’s second highest rating show after ER. And he gets to play a character he just loves, Josh Lyman, the White House Deputy Chief of Staff. “Go ahead,” he says with a whoop, “typecast me as him”
“It absolutely is a great time”, he says “I’ve always felt like being an actor is like dating a schizophrenic – ‘I love you. I adore you. Who are you? I hate you.’ And in some ways it can be really healthy because it involves such a crushing level of humiliation. But it feels like you are swimming up stream the whole time, and you were lucky to make a living. And the sensation for me is that I’ve been swimming, swimming, swimming and now, I’ve never gone surfing, but it’s what I imagine it must be like. You’re up and you know you’re up. Yeah I’m really happy”.
And well he might be. Not only is he is in a hit with brains. His wife of ten years, Jane Kaczmarek, crashed into the high spot at the same time as him in Fox’s dysfunctionally funny sit com Malcolm in the Middle where she plays a don’t-mess-with-me mum who rules her roost with a brand of psychological warfare that mixes shrewdness and aggression in a Hannibal Lecter drags up as Lucille Ball kind of way. They have two kids, four and three. Is she wild at home? Whitford, who clearly adores her and mentions her constantly, laughs out loud “Have you seen her show?!” He guest starred in it recently. “When I was on it, she basically just screamed me. We’d done the rehearsal for that one.”
Talking about Jane and himself and a radical Episcopalian Church in Pasadena they go to, he says, “She’s a totally fallen Catholic and I’m a pinko lefty Quaker”. The youngest of five children, and the son of a feisty mother he obviously admires enormously, he was originally from Wisconsin. And presumably it was the being a Quaker that determined his lefty politics? “Apparently not, because Nixon was a Quaker. I think it’s a really interesting aspect of American politics the way we allow politicians to talk about faith, but we don’t question the application of that faith. I felt pretty critical of Bush when he said during the Presidential debate that his favourite political philosopher was Jesus Christ. Do you think that if Jesus had taken a bogus death penalty rap – and that’s pretty much what it was – Bush would have commuted the sentence? I don’t think Jesus walked through Bethlehem saying ‘Don’t help them, you’ll only make them lazy’ “.
He is given to comic political riffs like this and has a refreshing lack of caution about expressing his own views, even though he says of The West Wing “If our task on the show ever becomes a political agenda, we’re in big trouble.” Yet the show has undeniable liberal credentials, personified by the presence of Martin Sheen playing President Bartlett, who has a moral authority that derives from Sheen’s own Catholic inspired Human Rights campaigning. “The way we all feel about Martin is the way our characters are supposed to feel about Bartlett. And he goes on to say, “People ask us whether you could do a show about a conservative Republican White House. But I don’t think the show would really work if the music swelled at the end and I looked into my secretary Donna’s eyes and we started jumping up and down and going ‘We’re drilling on protected land’!”
There is anger and commitment behind the jokes. You can see the family pattern when he mentions two things about his older brothers. One is now the labour correspondent on Fortune magazine. But when he was a student he ran away to Italy and joined the Communist Party and after that returned to the US where he worked in Mississippi organising woodcutters. And the other one, who is a writer, conscientiously objected to the Vietnam War. “Because we were Quakers he could have got out of service by saying that. But instead he said ‘I was raised a Quaker but my objections to this war have nothing to do with that. I would have fought against Hitler.’ “ And Whitford adds admiringly “He risked going to gaol.” One of the keys to The West Wing is, as his wife puts it, “It is inspiring because it’s about the possibility for people to be better people than they are.”
He and Jane are just realising “the tsunami” that has hit them. They go to Golden Globes and Emmys together. They even get nominated together. But the brouhaha also reaches a weird pitch. “I was in Washington last week and this guy came up to me. I thought he wanted me to sign this card but he was a lobbyist. It’s bizarre; we get it constantly from tax groups, oil groups, smoking groups… ‘Is there anything you can do on the show?’ “ And he’s clear about what his character, Josh, is doing in similar circumstances. “Look we have no idea what it’s actually like to work in The White House but the thing that Josh deals with is how dirty – and this is about six metaphors mixed into one – do my feet have to get without me suffocating, without losing my self in order to get an inch of what I want done?”
And Whitfiord seems similarly uncontaminated. After TV stardom, movies? “No when these shows are over we’re going to hightail it out of here to New York and wrinkle and die and do plays.” Anything particular? “I want to be a fop in a Restoration Comedy. I want to be on stage with a beauty spot and a Pekinese. And one day I want to do Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with my wife.” Let’s hope they aren’t already doing the rehearsals for that.