Speaking in the Center for Film Studies on Sept. 24, actor Bradley Whitford ’81 shared wisdom on subjects ranging from show business to politics to dealing with the insecurity inherent in being an actor.
Whitford addressed an audience of film and theater majors, prospective majors and alumni. Best known for his role as Josh Lyman on The West Wing, Whitford was recently elected to Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees. He has also had starring roles in the shows Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Good Guys. Recently, he co-starred in a film, “Cabin in the Woods,” written by Joss Whedon ’87.
In introducing Whitford, Jeanine Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies and chair of film studies, highlighted a few lesser-known facts about the actor: In 2007, he was honored by the Alliance for Justice for his political involvement. (Basinger pointed out this interest in the wider world outside the arts marks him as a typical Wesleyan product). He is the father of three children, a certified yoga teacher, and is deeply committed to his juicer.
“You’re at a really amazing place at an amazing time in your life, reaping the gifts of an amazing woman who has created something out of nothing that is renowned worldwide,” Whitford told the students, speaking of Basinger and Wesleyan’s film program. He pointed to the remarkable number of Wesleyan alumni who go on to careers in Hollywood, a crowd that is jokingly referred to as “the Wesleyan Mafia.”
Asked about the development of his own career, Whitford shared advice he got from Clint Eastwood early on: “hit singles,” meaning take the best job available at the time—not necessarily always a home run—to keep working. Whitford stressed the importance of taking on diverse roles in theater, film and television.
For students wanting to direct, act or produce, Whitford strongly encouraged them to begin writing. “Storytelling is what it all comes down to,” he said.
He warned that as an actor, “I’m a pawn at the mercy of opportunity.” He recalled a conversation he had with a 6-year-old child many years ago at his niece’s birthday party. The girl, upon discovering Whitford was an actor, asked him, “Are you acting today?” When he replied he was not, she asked, “Are you acting tomorrow?” Again, he said no. The girl asked, with complete innocence, “What do you do all day when you’re not acting?” Whitford replied, “I drive around Los Angeles and I try to make people like me.”
Nevertheless, Whitford warns the audience not to resign themselves to an attitude of, “I’ll do whatever you want.”
“You need to fight for the kind of material you want to do and be as proactive as you can,” he said.
Whitford imparted advice on dealing with the insecurity that so often comes with pursuing a career in show business.
“You don’t need confidence. You need commitment and courage. I want you to know that your insecurity should not stop you—and that you will be tremendously insecure. If you’re not, you’re an idiot,” he said. “I make a spectacle of myself for a living. I should be scared if something is going to work. I can tell you Aaron Sorkin’s scared out of his pants. The fear drives you, but you don’t let it stop you. And, by the way, you do not know what will work. One thing I really felt I learned on ‘The West Wing’ is there is no one way to do this. There are a million ways.”
He advised the audience to “beware of dogma in filmmaking, screenwriting, acting and teaching,” and warned them of the challenges in dealing with directors who attempt to take too much control over actors.
Whitford also discussed how movies and television have changed over his lifetime—largely as a factor of pure economics.
“Years ago, the people who ran NBC were professional storytellers. Now, they’re media guys who have to keep it profitable, or they’re gone. There is so much pressure on network television because of DVDs, because of games, because of all the other places that people are going,” he explained, adding that “The West Wing” would not be picked up today because it wouldn’t make a profit for the first several years.
When “The West Wing” was at its peak, it drew about 20 million viewers, Whitford said. Today, any show getting 6 million is a huge hit. Even an enormously successful show like “Mad Men” until very recently only had about 900,000 viewers. Yet with their business models, the cable networks can afford to produce shows like this, because the media attention and positive reviews the shows receive persuade viewers to add the network to their cable packages.
Whitford also felt the quality of movies has suffered since his childhood.
“The movies that studios were making—‘Godfather,’ ‘Dog Day Afternoon,’ ‘Serpico’—movies I walked out of and fantasized about someday making something like that, Hollywood does not make anymore,” he said.
He added, “Now A movies are massively produced B movies. It’s very strange.”
Whitford, who has long been politically active, also shared his views on politics (with the disclaimer that having played a presidential staffer on television doesn’t necessarily make him an expert). He is currently working on the Obama campaign for re-election.
He noted that, “Because I was on a show where I pretended to be a politician, I’ve been asked many times if I wanted to get ready to run, primarily because name recognition is all they care about… My standard answer is I have no desire to act that much. I mean, they just have to act all day.”
Yet, Whitford said he is frustrated by people who are so turned off by the ugly realities of the political system that they disengage. “When you do that, you and your children are going to live in a gulag run by people who don’t believe in evolution. They’re counting on you thinking it’s too corrupt and useless to participate.”