Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Comments on "West Wing" Episode 11 "Internal Displacement"

Bradley Whitford recently gave an interview to the "Commitee on Conscience", which is connected to the Washington D.C. Holocaust Memorial and raises awareness on the issue of genocide. He discussed the process and the inspiration for writing this episode. Listen to the interview here. A transcript from the website:
"NARRATOR: Welcome to Voices on Genocide Prevention, a podcasting service of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Your host is Jerry Fowler, Director of the Museum's Committee on Conscience.

JERRY FOWLER: Our guest today is Bradley Whitford. He is an Emmy-award winning star of the political drama, West Wing in which he portrays Josh Lyman, a formerly White House Deputy Chief of Staff, and now manager of the presidential campaign of Senator Matt Santos. He wrote a recent episode of the show that focused in part on the genocide in Darfur. He joins us from his home in Los Angeles. Brad, welcome to the program.

BRADLEY WHITFORD: Thank you. It is good to be here.

JERRY FOWLER: Let me start by asking, have you written episodes before? Is it common for you to write an episode?

BRADLEY WHITFORD: It is not common. It began a year ago. It is something that I have always wanted to do and have done in secret and I sort of equate it with actually growing up because as an actor you spend your life as a pawn in a story. The older I get, I want to take more responsibility for the story. It was a hidden desire in me. A year ago, I went into John Wells' office with a different story idea and he said, "Wow, that is a really good idea. Why don't you outline it?" So, I outlined it and then he said, "If you can write it in a week, I will put it on TV."

JERRY FOWLER: No pressure there.

BRADLEY WHITFORD: It actually was a great way to get past whatever writing fears I might have. This episode, "Internal Displacement," was the second one that I wrote.

JERRY FOWLER: It is interesting; you feel like you get more control if you are the writer, and I guess there is sort of an internal debate about who really makes—whether it is a movie or a TV show—is it the writer? Is it the director? Is it the actor?

BRADLEY WHITFORD: One thing I love about the acting is that there is a sort of tingle while you do it, that you are actually at ground zero. You are at the moment of realization, so there is a certain kind of power that actors have, but television is really a writer's medium; much more so than movies which are pretty much controlled by movie stars just because of the economics of it. On television, because of the sort of relentless demand for stories, writers like Aaron Sorkin who created our show gets to have a much purer writing experience on television. If you really are a writer, who really likes to write, you often end up writing for television.

JERRY FOWLER: What was it like to be in an episode that you had written?

BRADLEY WHITFORD: It was completely surreal. It happened so quickly the first time. It was completely surreal. It was so strange to have never written anything and then three weeks later, you are watching Allison Janney do a monologue you wrote. It was bizarre realizing that I had to shoot the next day, sit down and memorize lines that I wrote.

JERRY FOWLER: As you were memorizing them, were you having a second-guessing affect—"Oh, why did I write it like that?"—

BRADLEY WHITFORD: I live in a state of permanent second-guessing, so yes. It was interesting to me that it was no easier to memorize my own writing than anybody else's.

JERRY FOWLER: That is interesting. In this most recent episode that you wrote—as you said it is called "Internal Displacement"—one of the main story lines had to do with the genocide in Darfur. What is it that led you to include Darfur in the episode?

BRADLEY WHITFORD: I am active in—although I would not call myself an Episcopalian—I was raised Quaker, but I go to this big, very active, wonderful, Episcopalian Church out here where we have talked a lot about Darfur, and then I started reading about a guy named Eric Reeves, who, I do not know, have you spoken to—

JERRY FOWLER: Oh, yes, he was a guest on Voices on Genocide Prevention a few weeks ago.

BRADLEY WHITFORD: Yes, he is a remarkable guy who I sort of stumbled into and started reading his web postings. He is a very interesting guy who is an English professor—he is not a lawyer, he is not an international affairs expert—and this issue caught his attention, and he basically gave up everything to get the numbers right which he felt were grossly under estimated. He is a very interesting story because he came back from one of his trips there, and I think he thought he had malaria or something, and it turned out he was very sick, and he has cancer. Initially I thought that I wanted to do something on Darfur, and I thought that this was an interesting character to bring into the White House. What happens in the process of writing this is that that character does not exist in it. I was supported by John Wells and the rest of the writing staff about the notion that we wanted to do something on Darfur, and it is interesting I think that the story problems that a situation like Darfur presents. Generally there is an event that sort of initiates a story line in a movie or a television show or a play, and this bizarre, sort of static place where we become comfortable with an ongoing crisis simply because it is ongoing was something I wanted to dramatize and was a very tricky thing to dramatize. Do you have an event that sort of artificially kicks off a full-blown crisis there on the show so that the President is forced to deal with it? Or do you deal with what it takes during this ongoing carnage for us on the other side of the world to realize that we can do something about it? It was an interesting thing to dramatize. Eric was very helpful to me; I talked to him a couple of times and used his research. It is a very tricky thing to dramatize because you have to get into how the government rationalizes inaction and how they sort of stiff-arm the horror and sort of pooh-pooh any real action as something that would be naïve. We are not as a country too naïve to establish democracy in Iraq, but apparently we are too naïve to put an end to babies being thrown into fires.

JERRY FOWLER: It was interesting the way the episode unfolds. An activist from a non-governmental organization comes in and talks to CJ, the Chief of Staff, and she is really quite cold to him. She does not seem very receptive to his message. Why was it that you had her respond that way?

BRADLEY WHITFORD: What I wanted to show—it was a very tricky line because—what I wanted to show was her heroism was sort of pragmatic heroism. The NGO guy was in fact being a bit naïve about what was actually going to be the solution, and that she had to function in a world where there were all of these pressures. The fact of it was that you are not going to get—and it is the truth of the situation in Darfur now; we are not going to commit troops to go in there. There is not the will to do it. One of the things that is talked about in there is getting United Nations troops in there and the fact that the African Union troops are not up to this particular task. I wanted her to be savvy enough. If there was an easy solution to it in her world, there is no question that she would execute it. It was a dangerous line because I did not want to over do it. There is a guy named Ken Bacon who is a friend of mine at Refugees International. These guys are not naïve.

JERRY FOWLER: Right; well he is actually former spokesman for the Pentagon during the Clinton Administration.

BRADLEY WHITFORD: What I was worried about dramatically was making the NGO guy too naïve, and so what I tried to create was a situation where even somebody who was not naïve was just completely fed up with the inaction there. It is partially a dramatic thing. There is no tension if somebody comes in and says that there are these horrible things happening in the world and why don't you fix them, and then the person across the room says, "Okay, you are right." I was also trying to dramatize what a lot of people in the White House feel who I have talked to—that worked in the Clinton Administration—who felt frustrated. I have a friend who worked in the White House and a lot of his close friends were advocates for low-cost urban housing, and when they would call him, they would accuse him of being cynical, and his perception of them was that they were completely naïve about something that was actually going to get done. I am babbling a little but, ultimately, I wanted the heroism in her—she is doing something she is not going to get any credit for, but it is actually going to have an affect—and part of that was created by the artificial situation on the show.

JERRY FOWLER: You are suggesting for people who have not seen it, she does take steps to facilitate positive action by the United Nations. Then there is the scene where she goes and tells the President what she is doing and he basically says, "Well, that is great," but it kind of surprised me—maybe this is my own naïveté—that she would not say, "Mr. President, you need to address Darfur publicly." It is the thing that so many people have called for in real life, and coincidentally the President has begun to address it publicly, but why would she not ask President Bartlett to address it?

BRADLEY WHITFORD: Part of that is the particular place of the show. The other thing going on in this show was to show that we had never—and this was to show, just so you know some of the things that affect how these characters react. I was also looking from a purely character point of view to show Allison as the Chief of Staff—CJ as the Chief of Staff—in a fully in control, protective position which was the place where Leo was when he was Chief of Staff. We spent about two years doing episodes where Allison's character was basically a fish out of water and it seemed condescending to me, to women, and to Allison's character, so I wanted to show her in control. The basic reason that in that moment she does not pursue that is because he is in the midst of World War III, potentially. I think she needs to keep him updated, but then again, that is absolutely what she should have done, but why is that not being done now? Why is Darfur not on the front page everyday? It is because it has become an ongoing thing that we have gotten use to. Now, the country is distracted by the situation in Iraq, there are crises that are keeping this from being the priority that it should be. Part of that was intentional; not meant to show our White House doing the right thing, but meant to show how the structure ends up reacting to situations like this.

JERRY FOWLER: You were in Washington a month or so ago; you spoke up at American University. There was a little blurb in the Washington Post afterwards, where you talked about celebrities' involvement in public affairs and you warned the audience, as I understood it, not to listen to what "meat puppets" had to say. I have the urge to ask what a meat puppet is.

BRADLEY WHITFORD: I call myself a breathing prop. That was actually taken out of context. I was talking about my discomfort when I hear Ben Affleck talking about the trade deficit with China; my heart sinks a little bit. Even though I now have more sympathy for this position. I was actually making fun of how people make fun of celebrities and coming to the conclusion that you should look past who the celebrity is and see if what they are saying makes any sense. I was in fact sort of saying the opposite of what that quote turned out to be.

JERRY FOWLER: It is amazing how often that happens; the way you are quoted is not quite what you meant.

BRADLEY WHITFORD: It is unbelievable. As somebody who deals with a lot of press, it is astonishing. That is more fun, what they came up with, what they chose to focus on. I have been in this position for a couple of years now and I have very strong feelings of how celebrities can be used effectively. There is no question that you will be mocked. Angelina Jolie is mocked for being a do-gooder, but you can bring a lot of attention, and you can certainly raise money in an effective way. That is what I was talking about, that sort of celebrity thing. The biggest problem to me is not actors delving into politics; the big problem with this country is politicians conducting their lives as if they were entertainers. I am being funny, but it is true. Why are they wearing make up? That is my job. Why are they so worried about people liking them? That is my job. I do have strong feelings about that. You are always accused of being a celebrity that should shut up by another self-appointed celebrity. It is always like Bill O'Reilly saying that the Hollywood people should shut up. It is funny because there is the notion that there is some sort of Hollywood, liberal, do-gooder cabal; it is amusing to me because it is about the most disorganized bunch of people with very different ideas about how to do things that there could be.

JERRY FOWLER: They are citizens as well?

BRADLEY WHITFORD: I always say too that there is nothing less American than telling somebody to shut up, so they should shut up, especially coming from the right where we are in Iraq so that these people can complain about their government.

JERRY FOWLER: The run of the West Wing is coming to an end, and I am going to hold off on asking you such things like who wins the presidential race, whether you and Donna get together, but let me ask you this: will Darfur come back before the end of the season?

BRADLEY WHITFORD: It will not. I had pushed for it, but the campaign took over, and the transition took over, and it will not come up. It is so upsetting to me, it looks to me like we are in a situation that the reason some action is finally being taken is because things are really on the verge of further deterioration over there. I was thinking the other day, what is the best way to raise awareness about this? From my limited tool which is story telling, how do you get the story out there so that you are not doing another Hotel Rwanda five years after it is over? How do you raise awareness while it is happening? I have been looking at other ways to tell the story of Darfur.

JERRY FOWLER: That would be great if you found them.

BRADLEY WHITFORD: I hate that about the Hollywood community—now I am criticizing the Hollywood community—do it now. Don't wait until you have to make some heart-rending movie about it. Stop it.

JERRY FOWLER: Stop it now. We have reached the end of our time, but we really appreciate this. I know you are taking time away from your kids to speak with us, and I hope you will come back and join us again sometime.

BRADLEY WHITFORD: I would love to and I would love to come to the Museum. I have shot there, but we are always there for just a couple days.

JERRY FOWLER: Let me know the next time you are in Washington and we will set that up.

BRADLEY WHITFORD: I will. I will do that.

JERRY FOWLER: Brad Whitford, thanks so much for joining us.


From TV Squad.

From TV Guide.

from West Wing Continuity Guide.

Lengthy recap from LTG at Television Without Pity.

Discuss the episode at Television Without Pity

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