MISS JOSH FROM "THE WEST WING"? BRADLEY WHITFORD, FOLKS! Current mood: creative
Church and State:"Josh Lyman" Talks God and GovernmentBy Carl Kozlowski
Bradley Whitford has endured some head-spinning events on the national and global political stage over the last seven years. He's seen the switch from the high-rolling Clinton years to the war-torn Bush era, experienced the horrors of 9/11, and protested the war in Iraq.
Yet despite all the political drama he's seen in the real world, Whitford has experienced plenty more as part of his day job. It's not typical office politics that he has to deal with. As an Emmy-winning actor on NBC's The West Wing, he has found a place in the homes of tens of millions of Americans as Josh Lyman, advisor to Josiah Bartlet, perhaps America's greatest fictional president ever.
In May, Whitford's run with the series will come to an end, as NBC has announced its cancellation. The current season has largely focused on the race to find Bartlet's successor, setting up a logical end to the show that has won more Emmys than any other program in TV history.
"This show has exceeded my wildest expectations because it's been about something that has been increasingly urgent since 9/11; people -- wherever they are on the political spectrum -- believe government matters," says Whitford. "The show has gone through an interesting shift, because we began during the Clinton presidency and were considered sort of the moderate, ethically pure fantasy of the Clinton administration. I actually don't think the country has swung as far to the right as people say, but it became sort of the alternate, pathetically inadequate fantasy government for people of a different political persuasion than, say, Karl Rove."
Whitford was born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin -- an experience which he looks back on fondly and considers as the inspiration for his decision to settle in the small city of Pasadena, CA rather than in the typical Hollywood star environs of Malibu or the Hollywood Hills. He and his wife of 14 years, actress Jane Kaczmarek of Malcolm in the Middle, have chosen to raise their three children in San Marino because they felt it is a more natural place for them to grow up.
"We were living in Hollywood and we started going to All Saints Church, and through that discovered some of the schools. I grew up in Madison, which is the size of Pasadena," explains Whitford. "It felt more Midwestern, and it was more about raising kids out here rather than the creepy Hollywood scene you get on the West side of L.A. "
Indeed, All Saints Church, an Episcopal stronghold that proudly touts its reputation as the most progressive/liberal church in America, has been a major influence on Whitford's life as he navigates the trenches of Hollywood. He was glad to hear the church's leadership take outspoken stands on controversial issues, and he makes a strong defense of its presence at the center of a recent nationally famous firestorm with the IRS over the church's tax-free status -- a battle that came about because the IRS claims that the church's rector crossed the bounds of political propriety in a pre-election sermon in 2004.
"It's absurd that they should be investigated. We live in this time where the definition of being religious means you adhere to dogma. It has nothing to do with executing values anymore, and my feeling about All Saints is that it is all about executing values, values that I believe in," says Whitford, who was raised as a Quaker. "They are much less concerned with dogma than executing the great universal values of love and forgiveness. It's very upsetting to me as a political junkie that it's a great virtue to name yourself a Christian, a tremendous political advantage that gives you a moral standing, and then we don't hold these people to actual standards."
When considering the parallels and differences between the real Bush or Clinton presidencies and that of the Bartlet administration, Whitford notes that sometimes the real world is stranger than fiction.
"I think that one of the eternal questions is, is God a really wonderful writer, or is He the worst writer?" says Whitford, laughing. "If we did an election on the show where what happened in 2000 happened, and the candidate's brother happened to be governor of the deciding state -- it would be just unbelievable. Our show tears things not from headlines but from Page 28. [Show creator] Aaron Sorkin really shied away from feeling that the show was a response to what was happening."
In fact, Whitford says he's always been surprised that neither critics nor the show's fans have considered the show in the way he does: as a "backstage comedy about the amount of time politicians spend creating the perfect moment to present their ideas… which makes [politics] show business and that's sad." He points out that nearly everywhere he goes, people ask him if the show's president, Martin Sheen, or Whitford himself will consider running for office. In reality, Whitford's already lined up his next job: a plum role in a new Aaron Sorkin-penned series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, in which he'll star with Matthew Perry of Friends fame.
But now that West Wing is going off the air after seven hectic seasons, Whitford is looking forward to spending some time with his family. Coincidentally, Kaczmareks' own seven-year run on Malcolm is coming to an end, with its final episode airing the same night as Whitford's. And even stranger still, Whitford has won an Emmy for his role while Kaczmarek has earned the good-natured nickname of "Susan Lucci of prime-time" for the fact that she has been nominated six straight seasons without a win.
"It's been an extraordinarily bizarre thing. We were picked up the same week for our pilots and now we're ending together," muses Whitford. "And the trajectory of the shows from starting to their peaks to their passing on has been identical. Now I just want to shake my Etch A Sketch for a while and spend time with my children."