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Typecasting, meme formats and working with Aaron Sorkin: Q&A with Bradley Whitford

Actor Bradley Whitford visited Miami University on Mar. 11 and discussed his experience in the film industry, including typecasting, collaboration and more.
Actor Bradley Whitford visited Miami University on Mar. 11 and discussed his experience in the film industry, including typecasting, collaboration and more.

On March 11, Bradley Whitford, who starred in “The West Wing” as Josh Lyman and in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” visited Miami University as part of the lecture series. Whitford sat down with The Miami Student to talk about post-9/11 television, Aaron Sorkin, typecasting and X (formerly Twitter) memes.

Questions and answers have been edited for concision and clarity.

How do you bring the experience of having people know you primarily as Josh Lyman from “The West Wing” to any roles that you're looking at now?

Well, there's a weird blurred line. I can't count how many times people have asked me to run for office just because I wore makeup and, you know, pretended to work in the White House — which is bizarre. I actually think that typecasting is a trap, and I've been typecast as jerks. But I knew when “West Wing” was happening, that you're inevitably typecast in anything that succeeds. But that character was such a range of you know, a kind of intelligence, a kind of passion, a sense of humor, a kind of funny emotional constipation.

Most things as an actor; if you're doing a comedy [there’s] this weird obligation to be funny every five seconds; if you're doing a drama [there’s] this weird obligation to be irony-deficient for the entire hour. And one of the great things about Aaron [Sorkin]'s writing is this mix of everything. So I was like, “Oh, yeah, go ahead: typecast me as this complicated idiot.” But yeah, it's odd. I mean, people do think you are what you play on TV.

Other than Elisabeth Moss, do you think you'll work with any former “West Wing” co-stars or Aaron Sorkin in the near future?

I hope so. I mean, we are very, very close. Richard Schiff is like a brother. Richard, who played Toby, his brother, was my roommate my sophomore year in college. He's my best friend: Paul Schiff. So I've known Richard. Richard got me my first professional audition at the Manhattan Theatre Club before he was an actor. He's like a brother to me. It's a very, very close cast, and we're always looking for opportunities to work together.

Your most notable roles have been in “The West Wing” and “Get Out.” Are there any roles that you see as important to you that you don't think get noticed as much as you'd like?

Honestly, it all feels like I get way too much attention. There are things that haven't worked. Just because it was a play, one of the most joyous experiences of my life was a Broadway play, called “Boeing-Boeing,” with Mark Rylance, which was just a door-slamming, 1960s sex farce. I wish my wife had seen it. I wish everybody could have seen that just because it was really a lot of fun. And I always find it weird.

I feel like I get taken a little too seriously. I think Aaron would say the same thing. The big surprise for us all: When you're doing a show about the White House, are we going to get away with it at all? Let alone that we would be taken seriously. And a very weird thing happened where not only was it taken seriously, but we were shooting in D.C. once because we shot in LA and then you'd go like every four episodes shoot very quickly on location. We were at the Capitol. And there were a bunch of people lined up. I thought they wanted autographs, and they were lobbyists. They were trying to get me to ask Aaron to put their issue on the show.

In a time of shrinking sound bites, on our show, you could get very complicated issues across over an hour because we would be hacking through the jungle with our dull machetes on the show through all these issues. We could get the talking points across. [For example,] complicated issues like the decennial census. Should it be hand count, through interviews or should it be computer-modeled? And you would have to get Rob Lowe laid in the course of it. Early on, you realize that you had this power that even the news couldn't get across, which was bizarre.

So you were raising your kids as you were doing the “West Wing?”

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And you were doing both during the beginning of the Iraq War and Afghanistan. So what was it like to experience that, 9/11 and then do the episode, “Isaac and Ishmael?”

Editor’s Note: “Isaac and Ishmael” is an episode of “The West Wing” that was released on Oct. 3, 2001. A response to and processing of the events of 9/11, the episode aired mere weeks after September 11.

“Isaac and Ishmael” was a really interesting story because everybody said, including me to Aaron, “Don't do this.” Aaron was writing so late. Nobody wrote that close to airdates. Aaron needs to think his clothes are on fire in order to get it done. By the way, nobody will ever do that again. He did the equivalent of 11 feature films [each year] for four years. Nobody will ever come close to that.

There were these runs of, could have been Broadway plays, you know, “Two Cathedrals,” and it was just this extraordinary thing. And Aaron was writing something else, and 9/11 happened. I remember I got a phone call and it was Janel [Maloney] calling me saying, “Turn on the TV. The world's ending.” Everybody thought it was a bad idea, that it was pretentious for us to think that we should talk about this. It was a big mistake for us to kind of break the fourth wall and deal with stuff that was actually going on. But Aaron couldn't write about anything else. Man, was it so last minute. We had to shoot it so quickly. There was no time to prep it.

I remember it was Wednesday. The show was on Wednesday. We were shooting on film then. We had to get a take that had to be cut into the show. It was like broadcast news where they take the tape out. They had to get it to be processed and cut into the show that was on in three hours. It was really late. At the end of the day, I'm really glad he did it because some shows just pretended 9/11 didn't exist. Aaron needed to process it and I thought that was honest.

You're pretty famous for “Get Out,” especially for people my age. So you must know, especially as a pretty big Twitter user, that you've become a little bit of a meme. Are you familiar with this format?

Oh, the Obama thing? Yeah, yeah.

So like last night, the Oscars, one reads, “If I could have voted for Lily Gladstone a third time I would have.” So what do you think about kind of being made into a meme, especially as someone with significant Twitter influence?

It was funny. You want to know a funny social media story? Just how irony does not translate on social media. Somebody was talking about that [scene] and I made the joke — because I'm such a predictable Obama supporter.

I said, “Yeah, I didn't even know that line was funny.” I was making a joke. There was this huge, “He didn't even realize it was a joke.” Yeah, it's weird. I think a lot of people experience this when you're acting something and you realize, “Oh, somebody's going to make a meme out of that.” By the way, part of the reason Jordan [Peele] cast me [in “Get Out”]: He just thought it'd be funny to see the guy that played Josh Lyman take the top of another guy's head off.