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The Sunday Conversation: Bradley Whitford

The star of 'Art' at the Pasadena Playhouse discusses Yasmina Reza's play, his 'West Wing' years and Joss Whedon's upcoming 'Cabin in the Woods.'

January 29, 2012|By Irene Lacher, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Bradley Whitford, shown at the Pasadena Playhouse, is appearing in revival of the play "Art."
Bradley Whitford, shown at the Pasadena Playhouse, is appearing in revival… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

Bradley Whitford, 52, has shuttled among theater, film and television since his Emmy-winning run on "The West Wing" ended in 2006. He plays one of three men arguing about an abstract painting in the Pasadena Playhouse's revival of "Art," opening Sunday, and stars in the horror film "The Cabin in the Woods," opening in April.

Is this your first appearance onstage at your hometown theater? How did this come about?

David Lee, a wonderful director, and Sheldon Epps, who runs the theater, asked if I was interested in doing this particular role in this particular play. And I am a big fan of [playwright Yasmina Reza's] writing. Thank God, I have dim memories [of it], so I'm not chained into doing a crappy Alan Alda imitation of the production in New York, which I saw I think about 10 years ago or so. But I loved the play.

Part of what I responded to is I share my character's outrage about a lot of contemporary art. It seems like an originality contest, and surely novelty seems like a pretty shallow aesthetic, and then it gets monetized in the art world as this exclusive club where some people know what it's about and some people don't and very rich people collect it....

"Art" is also a play about friendship between men. And Reza told Houston's Alley Theatre that she thinks that "often men have no real friends … they have colleagues, contacts, but not friends…." Do you think that's true?

I would disagree with that. I have friends. These guys are certainly friends. The piece of art creates a fantastic discussion, but one of the things dramatically you have to figure out is how could a conversation like this explode these friendships? And it's interesting because we all know there are certain situations where we should not talk about politics, because with politics, like art, any discussion is not simply an intellectual exercise but it's a reflection of your values, and it goes down deep, and if you really disagree about them, it can explode.

Film.com called "The Cabin in the Woods" one of the 12 most anticipated films of 2012. I know co-writer Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer's" creator) gets people's attention, but why do you think it's getting so much buzz?

I think because it's a very original smart take on a very popular genre, and Joss just has a wild kind of wind-tossed imagination. And there's Drew Goddard, who [co-wrote and] directed it, and it's a bunch of really good actors, which is fun. I got to work with Richard Jenkins, which made me happy.

When you work in Hollywood, do you see a prominent difference in the work of people who do theater and Hollywood as opposed to people who are just Hollywood?

I think with certain kinds of material it's just a huge advantage. I myself cannot imagine what it would be like to be an actor who hadn't done theater simply because when you're an actor you're a pawn in storytelling, and if you're onstage you're telling a story over and over, you're telling the entire story eight times a week. If you're in a movie or TV show, you're telling it once out of sequence in snippets. You just get to act more [in theater]. I think it's the reason we had such a great group in "The West Wing." The reason was they were all theater actors.

What has life been like post-"West Wing"? Did your success help your career or did more people than you would care for continue to think of you as your character, Josh Lyman?

You're going to get typecast as whatever you do, but to be typecast as that guy who was complicated, passionate, funny, that's fine. But yeah, people think you're going to be a smart guy in a suit. But my God, what a wonderful experience. The only problem with it is it does spoil you; honestly, not to be pretentious but the creative experience, that kind of writing and those kinds of actors and directors and that arena, for God's sake. What do you do after that? A show about a canning factory?

Horror is such a well-explored genre. What did Joss do that was original?

I don't want to give it away. I have to find some way to keep my kids from seeing it.

How old are they now?

Not old enough. 13, 12 and 9.

Well, good luck with that. Because it's bloody?

Yeah. It's many things, but it is a horror movie. I'm actually very personally conservative about what my kids are exposed to, and I've raised them like any parent where you're fighting the inevitable premature loss of their innocence because of a lot of crap that gets made.

It is, by the way, upsetting to me that we live in a culture where the definition of obscenity is the act of procreation.

You haven't seen some of your own movies and TV episodes. Why is that?

It just makes me uncomfortable. I really do not like to watch. It's probably vanity. It's disappointment, and I see through it, and I'm just not a fan. At least 60% of "The West Wings" I never saw. I knew how they ended.

You once said you thought actors were alcoholics waiting to happen. What did you mean by that?

What I meant by that was it's a very tiny percentage of humanity that would entertain the notion of making a spectacle out of themselves, whether on television or even more excruciatingly live onstage. And that indicates to me an incredibly assertive part of that person. The problem is you take these people with this incredibly rare assertive impulse and put them in a business that renders them totally passive. Usually you have to wait for somebody to write the play or to direct the play; you have to get chosen for the play; you have to see if the play does well. There's no resolution to that kind of assertiveness that is the crux of what I think makes a lot of actors very good and the passivity that the business imposes on you.

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