Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


On the set with Bradley Whitford

No one has ever accused me of having low expectations. I’m a born dreamer, deeply convinced that miracles still happen and great things are possible. But nothing in my wildest imagination could have prepared me for the events of the last few weeks.

In the course of one afternoon, I found myself standing in the middle of the Oval Office, walking through the hallowed corridors of the White House and chatting with the great Mr. Martin Sheen (who is so unbelievably kind you could almost forget who you’re talking to … almost).

My visit to the set of “The West Wing” was a series of surreal experiences and breathtaking moments. Perhaps only a diehard “Wingnut,”(which I promise you is an actual term for us loyal “West Wing” fans) could experience such exhilaration from a day on the set, but I would challenge anyone to step foot in the Oval Office — fake or not — without feeling his heart skip a beat or two.


I owe my experience to the generosity of Madison-native Bradley Whitford, also known as “The West Wing” Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Lyman. Years before landing his Emmy award-winning role, Whitford was a graduate of Madison’s East High School, and it’s obvious that in spite of his tremendous professional success he is still a Midwesterner at heart. After years in a cutthroat and competitive industry, Whitford remains remarkably kind, warm and down-to-earth.

My first encounter with Whitford was by way of a message he left on my cell-phone voicemail. A few weeks earlier, I had sent a letter to his publicist humbly requesting an interview; being not as naíve as some people think, I expected no response at all. After all, his show had just won its fourth consecutive Emmy for best drama series. But, like I said, this entire experience has exceeded my every expectation.

Thank God I wasn’t able to answer my phone when he called, or he’d likely be searching for a new profession — one that didn’t require hearing in both ears. (So much for journalistic decorum, right?)

Three weeks later, I found myself standing on the Warner Bros. production lot in front of the “White House” wondering, “What the heck am I doing here?” and desperately hoping my new white shirt wouldn’t reveal the nervous sweat seeping from every pore of my body (plus, it didn’t help that it was about 140 degrees outside).

Mr. Whitford greeted me like I was an old friend, and I can’t remember a time in my life when I have ever been so flattered. They were filming a scene when I arrived, so I sat in the White House Chief of Staff’s office and watched them shoot. The director of the episode, Emmy winner Chris Misiano, sat right in front of me.

They shot the same scene about 30 times while I was there. They spent two hours on a scene that lasted no more than five minutes, settling for nothing less than perfection. Nobody complained or bickered or rolled their eyes when the director said, “One more time,” for the 10th time.

In between takes the cast joked around, discussing very important issues like TiVo, leave-in shampoo and the difference between a peanut, a nut and a legume. But when the cameras began rolling, it was all business. Suddenly, the nice guy from Wisconsin, who’d just been doing a spot-on impression of Governor Schwarzenegger, transformed into a character that grows more complex and more intriguing with every season. It’s amazing to watch these guys work.

Whitford says he first caught the acting bug by watching his brother, Dave, in middle-school plays.

“I used to go to those plays and get such sympathetic anxiety watching,” he said. “I was so anxious and excited by it.”

Following in his brother’s footsteps, Whitford threw himself into local theater throughout middle school and high school. But in spite of his obvious talent and passion for performance, he remained cautious about pursuing an acting career.

“It never occurred to me that you could do this for a living,” Whitford said. He added that he “was always embarrassed by it. It wasn’t a real thing that you could be an actor.”

It wasn’t until he was accepted into the Julliard Academy of Performing Arts for graduate school that he began to seriously consider acting as a viable profession.

After graduation, Whitford honed his craft on the New York stage before relocating to the West Coast. He shares this theater background with many of his “West Wing” cast mates and credited the common experience as one of the key factors in the series’ success.

“The show has a very strong group of actors,” Whitford said, “And the reason they’re so strong is because they’re all theater actors.”

It is this immense pool of talent that has carried the series through a very rough year. At the beginning of last year’s fourth season, Rob Lowe, who played deputy communications director Sam Seaborne, announced he would be leaving the show mid-season. A few months later, the show received another harsh blow when series creator and head writer Aaron Sorkin, as well as executive producer Thomas Schlamme, announced they were exiting the series as well.

Since their departure the show has switched to what Whitford calls “a more conventional set-up.” Rather than one writer taking on the immense burden of creating every episode (as Sorkin did for the first four seasons), a staff of writers now takes turns writing the weekly episodes.

So far the system seems to be working. Putting industry doubters to shame, the season premiere drew in nearly 18 million viewers, according to the Nielsen ratings, and has consistently won its Wednesday night timeslot opposite the ABC hit “The Bachelor.”

While Whitford admitted everyone was sorry to see Sorkin and Schlamme go, he believes “that the transition has been done very well … and it’s a credit to Aaron’s vision.”

Perhaps it’s the spirit of Sorkin lurking in the White House corridors that keeps this drama among the best on television. Or maybe the inspiration comes from what Whitford called the cast’s “pretentious aspiration … to do this well.” Spending the afternoon observing, I saw no hint of pretension or self-importance, only a determination to create something unique and valuable, worthy of the attention of millions of people.

“The West Wing” has built a legacy on beating the odds. Five seasons ago naysayers insisted the show was too smart, too political, too liberal and too expensive to survive on network television. Whitford himself admitted, “It’s a miracle it’s on TV.” Thank God there’s still divine intervention in television.

While Whitford’s own career has most certainly been blessed, he is reluctant to suggest a similar path to aspiring actors. “I think it’s a great activity — it’s probably the best — but being a professional actor is a totally different thing.”

His sage advice to anyone considering a career in the industry of entertainment: “Whatever you do, make sure you want to write more than you want to be a writer. Make sure you want to act more than you want to be an actor. That is what will sustain you.”

In an industry dominated by bottom lines and ad sales, “The West Wing” has changed the face of network television, proving that the medium can be about more than mass entertainment for the lowest common denominator. Television can be art. It can be theater. It can be intelligent and witty and heartbreaking. It can survive big budgets and reality shows.

Maybe it is a miracle that “The West Wing” is on television. Or maybe it’s inevitable. After spending just a few hours with the cast and crew, I can honestly say that any group of people with this much talent and dedication was bound to create something extraordinary.

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