Fearless Leaders

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When The West Wing premiered to critical acclaim and huge ratings seven seasons ago, no one doubted that creator Aaron Sorkin and producer-director Thomas Schlamme had fashioned one of the smartest shows on television. The show became not only an awards powerhouse but also a pop culture phenomenon, its fast-paced, quick-talking style and refusal to dumb down subject matter both imitated and parodied.

But if The West Wing was one of the brainiest shows on TV, it was also never without heart. And this was most apparent in the relationship between White House staffer Josh Lyman and his assistant Donna Moss, whose intelligence was outweighed only by her loyalty to her boss. Actors Bradley Whitford and Janel Moloney turned the standard "will they or won't they?" dance on its head, creating smart, unpredictable characters that quickly became fan favorites.

Though West Wing wrapped production weeks ago, Whitford hasn't gone far, physically speaking. His office on the Warner Bros. lot is yards from where he shot the hit show, and he recently filmed a role in Sorkin's new pilot, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. When Moloney comes to pay him a visit, it's like returning home--though she wonders if her WB pass will still work (it does). The two instantly fall into their familiar rapport, displaying the natural chemistry and mutual respect that translated onscreen for seven years.

Back Stage: How did you land the roles of Josh and Donna? Is it true you both auditioned for other parts originally?

Janel Moloney: I auditioned for C.J. [played by Allison Janney.

Bradley Whitford: You're kidding!

Moloney: But I don't think anybody was serious about me for the part. I had already worked with Aaron and Tommy, and I think they wanted to give me the chance to audition with a big part.

Whitford: So you'd have a good piece of meat to gnaw on.

Moloney: Right. They just wanted to give me the shot. I think I knew when I went in I wasn't right for C.J.; I didn't feel quite old enough or substantial enough to do it.

Whitford: I originally auditioned for Josh, but after a long process, I was kind of offered Sam [played by Rob Lowe]. I think what was happening was they were having difficulty making a deal on the Sam part, and eventually my agent called and said, "Well, you're in the show, but you're Sam." And I got really upset because I thought I was Josh, even though beggars can't be choosers. So I called Aaron and said, "I love the show and really want to be on it, but I really want to be Josh." He said, "Yeah, I think you may be right."

Back Stage: Didn't you worry you might be talking yourself out of any part?

Whitford: Yeah, and I gave myself room to backtrack. But I felt very strongly about it. It becomes abstract on a television show, because the writing tends to follow the actors' strengths, hopefully. So Sam would have been a different part with me in it. There was just something about the position of Josh and his inappropriate intensity in the pilot that I really wanted to do.

Back Stage: Your characters quickly became fan favorites because of your chemistry. Was the relationship in the script from the beginning, or was it something you decided to hint at?

Moloney: Unfortunately, I was only hired for the pilot. I wasn't part of the regular cast. And I remembered that every day because I would have to walk a half a mile away to my trailer without a toilet. But in the pilot script, Josh was about to get fired, and it showed a dynamic between Josh and Donna that was really important for me as an actor to be able to show, which was fierce loyalty. I think it just stood out. It was this great part; it was a petite part, but there was a funny scene and a little bit of a sexy scene‌

Whitford: ...and underneath it all there was a big devotion.

Moloney: I think the whole relationship was kind of there right from the first. And because Aaron Sorkin hadn't written past the script he was shooting, he saw what was happening between us, which I wasn't even aware of.

Whitford: I loved her immediately. I remember going behind the monitor and saying to Aaron and Tommy, "God, I love her."

Moloney: So I think right away we had something that popped and was obvious to everyone. I didn't know it at the time, because I was just so concerned about doing a good job and making my scenes as true as I could and creating a character that was whole, as opposed to someone they were going to send home next week because she wasn't special.

Whitford: I didn't care about the scene; I just liked her. But I think it was in that first episode that I realized [that] part of what was fun about the relationship was kind of an Archie-Edith [Bunker] thing. Archie always thought he was the smartest guy and was always trumped by Edith, who was the wise one. In our relationship, I was always the hotshot Washington kid who needed a lot of ego to function, and people assumed I was in charge--when the truth was I couldn't have done anything without her.

Back Stage: Donna is a great example of a character that began small but became a regular. Is there a key to making that smaller role stand out?

Whitford: Sleep with the writer.

Moloney: And the director. You have to have a lot of things going for you, because there are a lot of great actors out there. I had a real feel for this part that I felt very strongly about. I felt integral to the show. Part of my personality is just overestimating my importance to all things that I'm a part of. I think I wanted so badly to be a part of it that I was determined somehow. I was like, "No, I'm not leaving. Find a place for me." That said, there were a lot of things working for me. One was that we had this great chemistry. Another was that they needed the character to explain stuff and be kind of the chorus--and I don't think they even realized how much they needed that at first.

Whitford: She was sort of the Everyperson who was the audience's access to otherwise intimidating material. She was the voice of common sense and the one who wasn't totally co-opted and indoctrinated by the profession.

Moloney: That's true. I had other things going for me. One thing I really feel in retrospect that I did and always try to do as an actor is try to make it bigger than the material. I decided early on that this was a passionate, deep love relationship where my character was mad, head over heels in love. Because that's drama--that's fun. A little bit of love's not fun for anybody. And it's easy to play and there's always something you can go to if you ever have a question of how to play the scene. It expanded from there, it's not like that's all the character was ever about. But I think it made the relationship special because there wasn't really anything like that on the show. And you can't get rid of a hot, burning romance on your hit show. It was a very easy thing to do because we get along so great and we have such a good time together.

Everybody who's been on the show has been great. But whenever I see an actor come on the show who doesn't stand out, you realize it's because they're not elevating it and bringing something to it that's not in the script. Does that sound egotistical?

Whitford: No, I think what you're hesitating about saying is what I'm hesitating about saying. Because the carnage all around of great actors who don't have this kind of luck is heartbreaking. It's not like great playwrights come along and there are just no actors who are good enough to play it. They're waiting. There's so much talent out there.

But what you're saying is right. There's something about taking your character and yourself seriously. I think of Michael O'Neill [who played Secret Service Agent Ron Butterfield], who just came on with such conviction. He was just using all of himself from the first day he walked in and briefed the president on security. You were like, "This guy has a heart and a home, and this guy's for real."

Moloney: People who auditioned and didn't get on the show would say, "We were told to keep it fast and simple." I don't think that was ever any of our approaches.

Whitford: Here's a tip if you're auditioning for Aaron or Tommy: Get the lines down absolutely cold. Not so that you can fulfill their line reading, because they honestly don't really have it. But you treat them like a playwright. And the more secure you are with it, the freer you can be and the more you can make it yours.

I think being a guest star on an ongoing TV show can be a nightmare, and I've done it a lot. You're walking into this family who's very comfortable where they are, and you have to jump on the train and be artificially comfortable. That's a very hard thing to do. Preparation is key. The more ready you are, the more relaxed you'll be. It's the same with auditions. You have to know that 99% of auditions you're not going to get.

Moloney: That's low.

Whitford: I think the best way for me to go into auditions psychologically was to say, "You're not going to get it. This is the only acting experience you're going to have with this material."

Moloney: "This is your job."

Whitford: Because then instead of it being the purely psychological damaging thing that auditioning is, you can look at it as experience. And that you can control. You can't control whether or not these morons cast you. And I say that with love.

Back Stage: What has helped you through the leaner times?

Whitford: My dear friend Jack Daniels.

Moloney: I was going to say that.

Whitford: It's hard. There's no way to be any good and not take it personal. There's no way to have a level of commitment that will take you to a good place as an actor where you can just let it go. The hardest thing about being an actor, for me, is that if you are the 0.00001% of individuals who wants to do it, you're a freak. And you're an assertive freak. Though actors are often shy, there's this tremendous assertive extroversion in you somewhere.

Moloney: Like the part of me that said, "I'm integral to this show." It's almost a little crazy--and you almost have to be a little crazy to think that anybody's going to want to pay a hundred dollars to watch you get up on a stage and jump around for two hours.

Whitford: There's this slow-motion car wreck between this assertive quality and this business that renders you totally passive. And I don't think there's a resolution to it.

Moloney: As Robert Duvall said, "Hobbies, hobbies, hobbies." Which I think is true and the healthy way. I got so hurt so many times; I was so heartbroken and devastated. You have to put your heart and soul and body and time into a role and do the best you can and have real criteria for what your work is and cultivate that. The other stuff, you just have to let it go and know that that's not your business. Getting a job is not your business. Being the best you can is.

I never felt like it was rejection, in a funny way. I was just pissed because I wanted the job. And it's actually kind of a healthier way to be. I joked before about being so entitled and feeling I was a part of this. I remember Aaron used to say to me, "Janel, I couldn't get you in the script." And I would be furious. I couldn't believe it. I still, to this day, won't get roles, and I think it's insane. You might be delusional and overly supportive of yourself, but at least you're not blaming yourself.

Whitford: You have to tell yourself they're wrong. The other frustrating, crazy thing about being an actor is that it's not like you're trying to play the violin in the New York Philharmonic and you're just not making it. When you're auditioning and your career is nowhere and you're just not getting it and then you go and see the movie you went out for and it stinks. So you're aspiring to something that stinks most of the time. I finally made this deal with myself that I wouldn't panic about an audition until I had really prepared the scene. Because by the time you're prepared, you'll be past most of your panic.

Moloney: I decided after West Wing that I have really had the most incredible seven years of my life and I love my work and want to keep doing it. So I sat down and said, "What's the best way for me to do this profession and not have it hurt?" I decided the only way I could do it was to not be a perfectionist and have a good time and not be resentful or angry at people. It's tricky because I had to go right out there as if I never had a show and sit in the waiting room and go in and fall on the floor and take chances. At first it was really hard. Then I decided, "This is what I do." So I can sit around and hate these people for wanting me to prove that I can do whatever their role is, even if I can do it my sleep. But I thought, "I'm going to do it humbly, graciously, and with a certain amount of fun." Okay, fine, so I haven't gotten a job since I made that decision, but I'm having a good time and I feel I'm approaching it in the most healthy way possible.

Back Stage: What was the biggest challenge of being on the series?

Whitford: Early on I was always embarrassed because I felt so obscenely lucky as an actor to have a job this great that was commercially successful, and I didn't acknowledge that it's an adjustment. And even though you're lucky, you have to deal with those adjustments. Certainly in physical ways, you have to be careful. We were exhausted and going without sleep. There's this silent carnage of the unfucked wives and the children unread to. And you don't want to complain because the crew's working harder than you and you're getting to do something you love. But it's relentless.

Moloney: I think the hardest part for me was, there was a real inconsistency over the years with how much I got to do on the show.

Whitford: Right, you were often in a state of uncertainty.

Moloney: One week I would be just the secretary, and next week I would have this spectacular part. It was much more of a swing for me than any other character. There wasn't really anything I could do about it.

Whitford: You did, though. You advocated and they took you seriously.

Moloney: I know now that one of the most difficult things about running a show is servicing all the actors you love and know are really talented. The guys I know who run shows are desperately unhappy about it.

Whitford: I know from my dabbling in writing that when you write something, all the actors are like, "Am I in it?" And you can tell that they're hurt.

Moloney: One of the wonderful things about this show is that I got more and more to do as time went on, and that felt like such a compliment to me. I could be a hard character to work into the story lines because I wasn't one of the policy people. So thank God for Brad, because I was always in his story lines. In retrospect, I'm sorry that I did take it so hard. There was just such a passion and desire to participate, but I wish I had just gone skiing and not worried about it and had a little more fun.

Whitford: That's the other thing about being an actor: When I was struggling, I was always distracted by my own failure. I was too unemployed to read a book. You don't do the things you could have done, because you're obsessing over it.

Moloney: You could have written 10 books.

Back Stage: Is the ending of the show difficult or somewhat of a relief?

Whitford: The whole ending of the show was put into perspective when we lost John [Spencer]. A TV show is kind of puny compared to how we were feeling. It's funny: People come up to me and say, "Are you okay?" It's not like I have leukemia. My hit show just ended. I'll be okay.

Moloney: I felt really nervous for the show to be over because I thought I was going to be insane. I thought I would be at sea and not know who I was anymore. We all saw the end coming for a while, so I think that really helped. And I had so much wonderful stuff to do that it was a nice, strong, satisfying ending for me. But shockingly, I feel fine. And I'm surprised about it. That's typical of me: I'll feel horrible while the show is going and then fine when it's over.

Whitford: There was also a sense that ultimately we got a perfectly sized, complete run.

Moloney: It had a very organic beginning, middle, and end.

Whitford: There was no possibility of looking back at the end and feeling we missed something.

Moloney: You feel like you got the most incredible gift, and you would be completely ashamed of yourself to just not honor it. I'm excited I had the experience, not sad that it's over. And I'm looking forward to bringing all the stuff I learned on West Wing to someone else.

Moloney: I told Josh Malina, who's so mean and funny---

Whitford: Please tell everyone Josh Malina is a terrible, terrible actor.

Moloney: He asked what I was going to do after the show, and I said I didn't know, and he said, "What are you going to do? Take a year off and not do movies?" But I can't worry about it. The best advice anybody ever gave me was to say, "It's not your business."

Whitford: The best advice I ever got was from George, my 6-year-old son. He said, "Try your best without making yourself crazy."

Back Stage: And what's up next?

Whitford: I shot the pilot for Aaron's next series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

Moloney: I'm auditioning, auditioning, auditioning. Trying my best to do my best without making myself crazy.