The West Wing
This is definitely not George W. Bush's White House. Secret Service agents play Frisbee with a beefy guy in a Drew Carey Show cap. In place of Lafayette Park and the Washington Monument are the looming Burbank Hills under a brown and smoggy sky. The White House columns are hollow and painted white, and the desk in the president's office is a fake (though a perfect replica of John Kennedy's desk). When the president, played by Martin Sheen, arrives, he's not in a motorcade limousine with bulletproof windows. He's pedaling an old, fat-wheeled bicycle.
That's life on the set of the NBC television series The West Wing, where the day is devoted not to the Arab-Israeli conflict or school vouchers but to a different sort of crisis. Sheen jumps off the bike and ducks into the White House doors just as Rob Lowe careers up on a golf cart, screeching to a stop. Waving a Newsweek magazine in his hand, Lowe seems outraged by the magazine's cover. There's a picture of James Gandolfini and other cast members of The Sopranos with a headline that reads Why the Sopranos has the rest of TV running for its life. "Did you see this?" Lowe yelps, his cobalt eyes flashing. "Did you see this? We're running for our lives? Then how come I'm not even winded?"
Lowe is right. Neither he nor anyone else on the West Wing set is looking over his shoulder at The Sopranos--or at anything else. The show, which is launching its third season on NBC, is hotter than ever--a smash hit that has broken ground on television and wound its way into our political debate. What other TV show is referenced on the front pages of The New York Times, is argued about on op-ed pages and, according to some people, has influenced our presidential election? The West Wing tackles gun control, flag burning, nuclear arms, racism, religion and terrorism. Time magazine called it "our national civics lesson" and the show is sometimes taken ridiculously seriously. One example: Last season, when the fictional president's secretary was killed in a car wreck, the show was inundated with letters and telephone calls, and the death was mourned by a moment of silence in the California State Assembly.
The West Wing was created and is written with consistent wit by Aaron Sorkin, whose credits include A Few Good Men and The American President. Sorkin proposed the show off the cuff at a lunch meeting with John Wells, creator of another successful television series, ER. They brought in director Thomas Schlamme, a veteran of the Larry Sanders Show, and the trio convinced Warner Bros. and NBC to back a pilot. According to former Democratic pollster Pat Caddell, who is an assistant producer and advisor on the show, the executives had no expectations for the show and gave it a green light only as a favor to Wells.
The pilot was a sharply written and smartly acted glimpse at life in the real White House--albeit a White House headed by a charismatic president and a staff that was unconcerned about polls and reelection. Instead they are fiercely, boldly and passionately committed to doing the right thing. That's right, it's a fantasy.
Television executives put the show on hold during the Monica Lewinsky scandal; they worried that Americans had had enough of politics. However, when it finally aired in 1999, the show was an instant success with critics and with a substantial prime-time audience. By the time the most recent season ended the past spring with a cliff-hanger--despite the fact that he concealed a serious illness, will President Bartlet run for a second term?--the show had become a smash. During its second season, The West Wing had an average of 17 million viewers a week. That placed it in 13th place among all shows on all networks for the year (up from 30th place the year before). It dominated its Wednesday night slot and gave NBC its highest ratings among adult viewers at that time since Seinfeld. The show has also won numerous awards. In its debut season, it took home nine Emmys, including outstanding drama series. It is the all-time leader with the most Emmys won by a series in a single season. This year it garnered another 18 Emmy nominations. Other accolades include a Peabody for excellence in television, a Golden Globe for best drama series and three Television Critics Association awards. Earlier this year, the cast won the Screen Actors Guild award for outstanding performance by an ensemble.
The cast, headed by Sheen, plays liberal and is liberal. Several members, along with Sorkin, campaigned for Al Gore. Many politicos in the Clinton White House were fans of the show. The cast and creators were invited to Washington. Some columnists wrote that The West Wing lost the election for Gore because Gore couldn't live up to Sheen's President Josiah Bartlet.
Sheen's long acting career has spanned decades and includes unforgettable performances in Apocalypse Now, Badlands and Missiles of October. During the filming of Apocalypse Now, Sheen suffered a heart attack, and later went into recovery for his alcoholism. Sheen, once fired for trying to organize his fellow caddie employees at a country club, has been arrested more than 70 times in political protests. His four children include actors Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen.
Another regular on the show is Leo McGarry, the president's chief of staff, played by John Spencer, an actor who has been working since he was a child star on The Patty Duke Show. He is known for brilliant stage performances as well as for his roles in Presumed Innocent, Execution of Justice, The Rock, Cop Land, Green Card and L.A. Law.
Brad Whitford is the deputy chief of staff Josh. Lyman. Whitford, who was a student studying English lit at Wesleyan University before he attended Juilliard, started on Broadway in Sorkin's A Few Good Men. He also appeared in Bicentennial Man, Scent of a Woman, Philadelphia and The Client.
Whitford's on-the-show assistant, Donna Moss, is played by Janel Moloney, who studied acting with Roy London and had parts in Dream Lover, Alice, Till There Was You, Desperate Measures and in another Aaron Sorkin--Tommy Schlamme collaboration, Sports Night, a television series that lasted two seasons.
Allison Janney, who was encouraged in her career by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward when they met her at Kenyon College, plays the West Wing's press secretary C.J. Cregg. Janney was the catatonic mother in American Beauty and had parts in Big Night, The Ice Storm, Howard Stern's Private Parts, Primary Colors, Celebrity and Nurse Betty. She won the Screen Actors Guild best actress award for West Wing earlier this year. At more than six feet tall, Janney was called by The New York Times a "magnificent hero to tall girls everywhere."
Richard Schiff plays Toby Ziegler, the White House communications director. Schiff, who won a best supporting actor Emmy, has worked as a theater director in New York and in Deep Impact, Seven, Malcolm X and Jurassic Park: Lost World.
Dule Hill was born in Orange, New Jersey to parents from Jamaica. On the show, he plays the president's personal aide, Charlie Young. Hill went from being "the worst student in class" to a renowned tap dancer who for years starred in Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk.
Then there's Lowe, probably the most familiar name in the cast. He plays deputy communications director Sam Seaborn. Lowe, who, like Sheen and Janney, is from Dayton, Ohio, has worked in politics since he was small enough to walk under police barricades. He has canvassed for George McGovern and Michael Dukakis. At the age of eight, Lowe began working in children's TV and appeared in The Outsiders, Hotel New Hampshire, About Last Night, Wayne's World, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and St. Elmo's Fire.
Playboy has previously interviewed the cast and creators of four groundbreaking television shows. When we decided to add The West Wing to 60 Minutes, Saturday Night Live, Thirtysomething and Hill Street Blues, we tapped Contributing Editor David Sheff, whose last Playboy Interview was with New Mexico governor Gary Johnson.
Sheff reports: "Because of its decidedly liberal politics--Sorkin's President Bartlet takes on the Christian right and the war on drugs--The West Wing could never be confused with the Bush administration. When the actors are in character, the conversation is smart and complex and they often sound like policy wonks.
"Off camera, things quickly degenerate, however. When I was interviewing Brad Whitford in his trailer, Allison Janney poked her head in and asked if she had mistakenly left her diaphragm inside. Without missing a beat, Whitford deadpanned, 'Maybe. And I think your lingerie is hanging in the bathroom.'
"But there are more than practical jokes going on. When I entered Martin Sheen's trailer, he apologized for the clutter and then, without explanation, asked me, 'In the country formerly called Burma, which is now Myanmar, there is a woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize. Do you know her name?' Sheen later explained that he would be narrating a documentary on the weekend and he had to correctly pronounce her name.
"The West Wing is a true ensemble and this a true ensemble interview. I sat down with all of the regular cast members, as well as the show's creator Sorkin, executive co-producer Wells, director and executive coproducer Schlamme and one of the associate producers on the show's staff, former Democratic pollster Pat Caddell. (There are other consultants from real life, including Dee Dee Myers, press secretary for President Clinton, and Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary for the current president's father.) Since I was dealing with a group of people intensely concerned about politics who happen to play people in politics, it wasn't a surprise that the tone was set by the news. One morning, for example, President Bush had moved closer to opening the Alaskan wilderness for oil drilling and had called for a sharp increase in defense spending. On the set, West Wing's pretend president addressed it, speaking very unpresidentially. 'What a thug!' Sheen railed. 'He is dull and dangerous.' Lowe, passing by on his golf cart, chuckled and said, 'Martin, tell us how you really feel.' "
DS: Aaron, could you just as easily write a TV show about a Republican administration--say, a president similar to George W. Bush?
Sorkin: Could I or would I? I don't know if I could, and I know that I wouldn't. I'm not interested.
DS: How about you, Martin, could or would you play the role of President Bartlet if he were a conservative Republican rather than a progressive liberal?
Sheen: I would like to believe I could, but my heart wouldn't allow it.
DS: Would you turn down the part?
Sheen: My bank account would want me to take it, but yes. I'd like to think I could have been a good enough sport to do it, but I wouldn't have. On the other hand, I don't think they would have come to me if Bartlet were a Republican. They probably would have called Charlton Heston.
Spencer: We're actors. We can play whatever is on the page. Martin wouldn't have taken the job, but he could have. I could play a Republican. Richard Schiff has said he could. I haven't asked the others.
Lowe: I wouldn't have done it. When I read the script, the characters inspired me. I doubt I would have been inspired by the story of a conservative White House. How dreary.
Moloney: I have to say I love the fact that I believe in the politics on the show. However, I would be thrilled as an actress to do it if the writing was as exciting as it is. Our job isn't to agree or disagree with the material but to perform it.
DS: Would the show have taken off if it had been launched during the Bush administration?
Wells: I don't think it mattered. The show is about hope and patriotism. It's an antidote to the pessimism and cynicism in this country. We hear from Republicans who tell us they may not agree with the stands our White House takes, but they champion the commitment and passion of the characters because patriotism isn't partisan.
Lowe: Like all really magical pieces of work that explode into people's consciousness, a certain part has been timing.
Janney: It may not be a complete coincidence that the show took off during an election year when everyone was obsessed with politics.
Lowe: I think it had more to do with the tone of the show than any particular administration in Washington. I don't think it would have worked if Americans were not so tired of the politics of destruction and cynicism and partisan bickering. It wouldn't have caught on if we weren't so disillusioned. America was hungry for another view of politics. Our show is less about Democrat versus Republican than it is about the promise of America.
Caddell: That's exactly what the show is about: the dream that is America. The show is about a president who is devoted not to any party line but to whatever is good and right. How many Americans feel as if politics now is about what is good and right? I left politics because it wasn't. By the end I felt really dirty. Really, really dirty. It felt like I had been in a slime bath my entire life.
DS: Was there a specific moment when it hit you?
Caddell: One day I saw how far away from the dream we had come. I was working on the campaign for Alan Cranston, who was running for senator in California. It was a close race. We knew a lot of young people were going to end up voting against us. Cranston was a good man but many younger voters thought, Why do we want this old guy? In the final 10 days of the campaign, our polls confirmed it. We had an emergency conference call during which I told people I was working with, "There is only one way to win. We have to make this campaign so disgusting that young people won't want to vote." We succeeded. I had done my job. Afterward, I was sitting in my office and everyone had gone home. I realized, What the hell happened to me? This is why I got into politics? To make people not vote? At that minute, I quit.
Spencer: I agree that the show succeeds because it reminds people why we care in the first place. Why we should vote. Aaron seems to bring forth that message in a way that isn't embarrassingly self-indulgent or saccharine. I remember feeling optimistic about politics. I remember a time when everyone was inspired by our president. Like that time, you want to be a part of this administration. In a New York Times poll conducted during the presidential election, President Bart-let would have won the election by 75 percent.
DS: How do you respond to Democrats angry about the Bush victory, who say Bartlet is their president for the next four years?
Lowe: This show has always been about wish fulfillment. It was even about wish fulfillment during the Clinton administration. The problem is that, regardless of your political ideology, there will never be an administration as user-friendly as Bartlet's.
Schlamme: We hear a lot from people discouraged by President Bush. They say that they watch our show and pretend. I got this call from someone pretty high up in the Clinton administration and he said, "It's yours now." I thought, No! We don't want the ball. We just want to do our TV show.
Moloney: I hope people don't close their eyes to what's going on because they watch a TV show and pretend everything is all right. Watching The West Wing isn't going to keep the Alaskan Wildlife Reserve from being drilled. It won't protect women's right to choose. I'm not like Martin out there getting arrested, but I feel like it when I read the paper these days. It's really discouraging. I'm flabbergasted. People have to stay engaged. One thing we learned about the last presidential election is that you matter. Our vote counts.
Sheen: We are in a desperate, desperate time. I think we're going to wake up as a nation when the economy and the environment and the unions are in a lot more desperate condition. I don't think anyone should be placated by our show or anything else. The Republicans are back in business. The ramrods are rolling. W. brought back the old man's team. They look at it as their chance to do it right this time. There isn't a lot to be proud of from the Bush administration. What? The Gulf war? We killed more of our people than Saddam did. Now they are back and they are going to try it again, to do some real damage. Where do I start? As one conservationist said, Bush's policy sounds like the energy policies of Exxon and Mobil. Our environment is once again being sacrificed for expedience in politics. Why didn't people see this coming? Rather than make people complacent by pretending that a nice guy is in the White House, I hope we inspire people to say, "We can't wait."
DS: Aaron, when you cast your president, were you worried about Martin's longtime association with left-wing politics?
Sorkin: No. Nor was I worried about Rob Lowe and the public difficulties he'd had. We hired Martin the actor. We hired Rob the actor. In truth, I am proud to be working with somebody who so often puts his money where his mouth is. There are times when I wish he wouldn't say some of the things he says about the current president, but would I ever ask him to stop being him? Not for all the money in the world. In fact, we do a shooting schedule around his arrest schedule and keep a couple of thousand bucks in a bail fund if we need it.
DS: Many of you worked for Gore. How did you get involved?
Sorkin: Rob Reiner is a great friend of ours. He organized a tour.
Hill: Some of us went out over two weeks to 18 or 19 cities. It was an amazing experience.
Whitford: We talked about whether or not we should campaign. Some of us thought it would be better for the show if we just sort of shut up, but we felt strongly and most of us ended up getting involved.
DS: It's unlikely that journalists would ask the people who make ER their opinions on surgery, yet you're asked about politics.
Whitford: It's a weird thing as an actor because you get this ridiculous amount of attention and credibility that you do not deserve. It's hilarious. People who want to listen to what we have to say about politics wouldn't expect Anthony Edwards to operate on them. On the other hand, everybody has an opinion about politics. Everybody should educate himself and exercise his voice. It's funny to me when you hear people complain about Hollywood people voicing their opinions. What? Should I shut up? It's different from thinking that a lawyer on LA Law should try a case before the Supreme Court.
DS: What about it, John? After four years playing a lawyer, could you try a case?
Spencer: There were times on LA Law when I felt I could. But in reality, I would need David Kelley to write my lines. Similarly, I could sit in the White House for a day and help the president--if Aaron Sorkin wrote a script for me.
Moloney: It got strange around here during the election. It was a little over the top. I mean, We're a TV show. People seem to become excited about joining the worlds of politics and entertainment, maybe because there sometimes seems to be such a fine line. Some of it was fun, but making a TV show takes a lot of time. We don't have time to hang out for hours and talk.
DS: Were you surprised by Gore's defeat?
Sheen: I was. I know that some people had a moral issue with Mr. Clinton, but why the hell should Mr. Gore have suffered for it? Gore was probably the most qualified individual in the last 25 years to run for the Oval Office.
DS: Some people blamed you for Gore's loss, Martin.
Sheen: Me? Why me?
DS: No real politician could live up to your President Bartlet. By comparison, Gore seemed wooden and wishy-washy.
Sheen: But President Bartlet is a TV character. Gore is neither wooden nor wishy-washy. He is very shy, but he is dynamic and understands the issues on a deep level.
Schiff: I don't think we had a real effect. When it comes down to nickels and dimes, people are going to react from their guts. They are not going to be affected by a TV show.
DS: Aaron, as the creator of these characters, how do you respond to the people who said Gore couldn't compare to your president?
Sorkin: It's easy to view President Bartlet or President Shepherd [from The American President, played by Michael Douglas] as better than the real thing. So are movie doctors and movie lawyers and movie cowboys and movie women and movie men. Anyone who couldn't tell the difference--well, they watch too much TV.
Whitford: The problem with the election is the problem with the system. By the time you have kissed asses in junior high schools and raised enough money at society cocktail parties, you look like an idiot. Then we go, "What an idiot!" We make these guys climb a filthy pole and then go, "You're dirty." They have to go through a ridiculous dog show. Al Gore had no instinct for the game, which I like about him.
DS: While Clinton was president, the show seemed like a reflection of the White House. Now it seems like a sharp contrast. How has the election affected the show?
Schlamme: It hasn't. The difference is how people perceive us. An example is the final image of one episode last season. We pull back and a man comes in and turns off the lights in the Oval Office. All we were saying is that days do end. However, it happened to air on the night after the election. It already appeared that Gore had lost. The turning off of the lights at the end of the show felt like it was about the end of the Clinton era.
DS: Is there anyone among you who is glad that Bush won?
Janney: Most of us seem to be from somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum to somewhere to the far left with Martin. There's no one on the right. That wouldn't be tolerated [laughs]. I was never political before this show. I don't think I could even have told you who Dee Dee Myers was before I began. I've gotten better since then. I know who [White House press secretary] Ari Fleischer is, which is a huge step. I'm supposed to be related to George Bush, by the way. You have to talk to my mom. She's the one who knows how. She says I'm related to him two different ways. And they still let me be on the show.
Hill: There were always vigorous political discussions at my house, but my parents were not necessarily liberal. I was out there campaigning for Gore, but my father was on the other side.
Moloney: I come from a pretty liberal household. I mean, my mother was a Bunny in the Playboy Club in Los Angeles. My grandma was a stripper. My grandfather had a bar and ran shows. My parents love the politics on our show.
Spencer: I've always been interested in politics, too. I scream at the right-wingers on the talking-head shows. At the same time, I make clear in all of my associations that I'm an actor who plays a politician. I let the problems of the free world go when I leave the studio.
DS: Aaron, were you always as politically involved as some of your cast?
Sorkin: In sixth grade, I had a crush on a girl in my class named Jenny Lavin. She was volunteering after school at the local McGovern for President headquarters. I thought it'd be a pretty good idea if I volunteered, too. One weekend they put us all on a couple of buses and took us to White Plains, where the Nixon campaign motorcade was passing. They wanted some McGovern people there among all the Nixon people. They gave us signs. I held up a big sign that said nothing more incendiary than McGovern for president. A 143-year-old woman who was shorter than I was at 11 came up from behind me, grabbed the sign out of my hand and whacked me over the head with it. My interest in politics since that minute has been shoving that sign up that woman's ass so high and hard you can't even imagine. That's why I write this show every week.
Lowe: I was interested in politics since I was a child. I sold Kool-Aid for George McGovern when he ran for president. I would have been eight. I can remember being so little that I could walk under a police barricade without stooping. Later I worked for Michael Dukakis. I have all my original buttons. My parents exposed me to a lot when I was young. I admired Thomas Jefferson. I read everything there was to read about Lincoln and Kennedy. The posters in my room when I was 12 were Redford and Hoffman from All the President's Men. In the other corner was Farrah.
DS: You were on the last cover of George magazine before John Kennedy Jr.'s death. How did that come about?
Lowe: Apparently he saw the pilot of The West Wing and made everybody at George watch it. He felt it embodied everything he wanted George to be about. They asked me to be on the cover and we shot that cover on the day they recovered his body.
DS: You weren't born when John Kennedy was assassinated, were you?
Lowe: No, but I remember staying up and watching the train carrying Bobby's body. It is one of my earliest memories. I remember the feeling that my family had for John and Bobby. I think the Kennedy administration was as much if not more about wish fulfillment than The West Wing is.
DS: Martin, you played Bobby Kennedy in Missiles of October.
Sheen: It was difficult since I admired him so much. I worked for him when he ran for the Senate. I sat with him for three hours once. My God, he was heroic. His death was a tremendous blow--he was such a ray of hope. It was devastating, particularly after the deaths of JFK and Martin Luther King. When I was asked to play the part, I didn't think anyone could or should play him. My wife encouraged me to do it. She said, "Maybe it's better that you play him because you loved him." She said it was probably better than someone else playing him--someone who didn't love him. Playing someone as majestic as Bobby Kennedy is hard. It makes you very humble very quickly.
DS: In your show, young idealistic campaign workers are looking for "the real thing," a politician who is sincere, honest and passionate. Was Bobby Kennedy the closest you've seen to the real thing?
Caddell: There hasn't been anyone since then. I had role models when I was a kid. I had Robert Kennedy, I had John Kennedy. I can remember how inspiring he was. Martin Luther King. What have we given our children? Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich? Compare the Senate of the U.S. now with what I had when I entered national politics. People sit in the same seats, Republicans and Democrats alike. At the time there were Dirksen, Hart, Muskie, Humphrey and McGovern. These were statesmen. Now the seats are filled with a bunch of pygmies.
Sheen: I agree that Bobby was the real thing. He was killed and we ended up with Nixon and never recovered. The closest we have gotten since then was Bill Clinton. Our show is a reflection of the fantasy that you can have a human being who remains human. Is it a possibility or fantasy? If it's not a possibility, we have fallen into some measure of unconscious despair. Back when the country was going through the McCarthy hearings, Arthur Miller, one of my heroes, was hung out to dry, betrayed by dear and close friends. How could people have acted so cowardly? There was no heroic leadership. Where are those leaders? Few people are willing to get into the fray because it's so ugly in there. It's going to take a long time to realize what a magnificent leader Clinton was precisely because he was so human. His humanity was behind his great flaws, but it was also part of his great heroism.
DS: Many of you visited the Clinton White House. What was your impression?
Moloney: What struck me most about the Clinton White House was this sense of privilege they felt right up to the last minute--through all the scandals and everything. It was never lost on them that they had an amazing, historic opportunity. The staff loved Clinton.
DS: Is it true that the show was postponed because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal?
Wells: It's easy to ridicule people in hindsight, but at the time it really seemed off to consider a political show. We were not willing to abandon the show, but we agreed to put it on the back burner. They promised that they would make it the following year. When we called up the following year to say we were going to get started, they said, "You're kidding." When they put it off, they really were telling us that they didn't want to make it. They were trying to be nice. But since they agreed, we were able to go forward. Scott Sassa came in at NBC and he heard from everybody about their concerns and said, "We made a promise. Let's take a flier."
Sorkin: They weren't just worried about Lewinsky. Before Sassa, NBC was headed by Warren Littlefield and Don Ohlmeyer, who felt that a political show couldn't work on TV. Everyone said it wouldn't work. However, that's what everyone says before someone comes along and does it. There was a time when Hollywood said you couldn't make movies about baseball. They don't work, we've tried. In one year, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams and Major League came out. In 1970 a CBS executive famously said there are four things you can never have on television: a divorced person, a Jewish person, a person from New York or a person with a mustache. You can't swing a dead cat anymore without hitting a sitcom about a divorced Jewish person from New York. Rules like those are made up by people who don't know anything.
Whitford: Hollywood tends to do a bad movie about bananas and then they say, "You can't do a movie about bananas." There were a lot of recent failed movies, if not TV shows, about politics. After all that, it's a testament to Aaron--he just had the audacity to pull this thing off.
Wells: Films about politics have not been particularly successful. American President is a wonderful movie but didn't live up to expectations. Same with 13 Days. I don't want to paint the executives as Philistines. If you look at the landscape, it wasn't clear this kind of show would work.
DS: Were there concerns about the show's strong point of view?
Wells: Sure. They were concerned that it might have a limited audience. So why would we want to reduce the audience even more? They were particularly concerned about the final scene in the pilot in which the president comes in and attacks the religious right. But we're more concerned about not taking a point of view. Aaron wants to push things. Far from the fear of ruffling feathers, we are afraid of complacency. These shows are hard to do. It takes a lot of hours. They get harder to do and not easier because you've done the easier stuff. The stories become more difficult.
DS: Was there any concern that a show about politics would be unpopular because of Americans' low opinion of politicians?
Sorkin: Doctors and lawyers aren't very popular in America, yet shows about doctors and lawyers have always been successful. I never bought that. By the way, the other thing we were told is the most heinous and most egregious assumption possible, that other people are stupider than we are. At the end of the day, all of us who make this show, if we are going to be known for anything, would like to be known for this: We believe that people who watch television are at least as smart as the people who make the shows.
Sheen: It's true that when we showed the pilot, many people said it was too good for network TV. Apparently they feel it's the kiss of death to be this good. They have little faith in the American TV audience. The viewing public taught us a lesson.
Janney: The attitude is that we have to talk down to the audience.
Caddell: We have limits of what we can do and get away with. So far, the network and studio haven't paid attention to what we were doing. Now I think they pay close attention to the issues we touch on. I say this as a lowly co-producer of the show, but it seems unlikely to me that Warner Bros., which is now a part of AOL, which has enormous corporate interests, is going to let us run amok.
Whitford: For us, we're amazed at the writing. I wasn't aching to do anything besides the stage. The last place I expected to run into great material was television. However, things have sort of flipped in the entertainment business. When movies have to play in Manila to make money, they tend to be star-driven and safe. The studios aren't making Dog Day Afternoon. They would never make The Godfather today. They're not making interesting acting movies; they're making star vehicles. Now the good writing is for television. It's an incredibly lucky time for actors who get to be on one-hour dramas.
Schiff: We can't forget that so much TV is schlock. We have to constantly fight to hang on to the edges, away from that horrid vortex of mediocrity. It's a fight to do good work in any context in TV, movies or theater. When you have Martin Sheen and John Spencer and Allison Janney--this crew--along with Aaron's writing and Tommy's directing, you have a chance. You are always fighting against the pressures to dumb down and make it cheaper. It would be lovely if we were on HBO and we could be given a little bit more freedom. But we're on network TV and it makes the battle that much harder. How Aaron can spit it out every week is beyond our comprehension. What it takes to write a new show every eight days astounds me. He keeps topping himself and the next show is more brilliant than the last. We're very lucky to have that as a foundation.
DS: How would the show be different if it appeared on HBO rather than on a network?
Schiff: We'd speak like human beings. It's not just four-letter words, but it's a manner of expression. There is an emotional freedom The Sopranos and Sex and the City have. It's not about showing breasts and being crude. It's about a greater freedom of expression. It's the main difference.
DS: What does it say that the biggest television stories of the year range from The West Wing to The Sopranos to Survivor and other reality shows?
Wells: It says that there is a broad audience watching television. When there were only three networks and Fox muscled in, every show had to reach the broadest possible audience. That takes any edges off. The audience of any one channel has dropped, but the total audience hasn't dropped. It's spread out so that lots of different kinds of shows succeed on lots of different kinds of networks--including cable networks and pay television stations and traditional networks. It's a much larger palette. We're not getting the same kind of pressures to homogenize what we're doing. The networks are aware that they have to brand themselves with distinctive shows.
Sorkin: In 1984 Ronald Reagan won reelection by one of the largest electoral landslides in history. I was a year out of college. At that point in my life, I had not met a single person who voted for him. That's the first time I realized this is a big, big country and I hardly know anybody. Everybody has a television set and there's a huge audience out there. Someone asked Charlie Sheen about the competition between him and his father. There's no competition. You know before you go into a video store whether you will rent Apocalypse Now or Major League. You know if you are interested in Spin City or The West Wing.
Schiff: I never wanted to do TV before this show. I read the script and really liked it but got kind of depressed about it. I was scared of getting caught in one role. I didn't mind doing the pilot, but I was worried about it succeeding. I was absolutely unconcerned about it failing. The surprise is that it has turned out to be consistently challenging and rewarding because the writing is exceptional and because Tommy Schlamme protects the quality. TV gets bashed a lot, but the fact of the matter is that some of my favorite roles have been on TV. On NYPD Blue, on which I played a Romanian terrorist, and Chicago Hope and Ally McBeal. Some of the greatest writers are working on television, including Aaron, David Kelley and David Milch. The writers go where they will have an audience. If Shakespeare were alive today, he would probably be writing ad copy. No, in fact, he would probably be doing television because he could write as much as he loved to write and get it produced--like the way Aaron works.
Spencer: Forget television, movies or plays. It doesn't matter. The dialogue on this show is some of the best I've ever had in my life.
DS: Aaron, how much of President Bartlet was influenced by your meetings with President Clinton?
Sorkin: The meetings had more to do with inspiring The West Wing itself. I was struck by the people around the president. In addition, I was interested in the idea of the president as much as anything. When I began writing, I realized there isn't a minute of the president's day that I didn't want to examine. If he is out of toothpaste, what does he do? I became fascinated. It was based on something James Carville said about election night in 1992, when Clinton won the first time. On the steps in front of the statehouse in Little Rock, he addressed tens of thousands of Clinton supporters. Everyone around him was saying, "My God, he is so presidential! Look at the transformation in just the last three hours!" Carville said, "He hasn't changed, everyone else has." That notion struck me. Writing about the president presented a tricky problem. In storytelling you usually put an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance. But how do you put the president in an extraordinary circumstance? Every day of his life is an extraordinary circumstance. Mars has to attack for the president to have an extraordinary day. I thought, I'll bet the reverse works just as well. Take an extraordinary person and put him in an ordinary circumstance.
DS: What was your impression of Clinton?
Sorkin: He's very charismatic, but some of it is the fact that he was president. For my first meeting, I think I would have felt as excited about Bush or Reagan, because when you meet the president for the first time, the floor really does come out from underneath you.
Moloney: He's incredibly charismatic. There's an energy in the room that you've just never felt. Forget any movie star you've ever met in your life. He was the president and so controversial in many ways, which made his presence even larger.
Sorkin: The White House on The West Wing does reflect the Clinton White House in energy and spirit and passion, but too many people have leaped to an utterly erroneous assumption that there are characters on The West Wing based on characters from the Clinton White House. There is no George Stephanopoulos. There's no Paul Begala. People may occupy the same jobs and may have shaken hands a couple of times, but I don't know those people and couldn't write them if I wanted to.
Schlamme: It reflects the Clinton White House in style. It had that excitement. That romance.
Whitford: The success of the show didn't have anything to do with Clinton. But he happened to be the most exciting television character you could have for eight years. He's a fascinating character.
DS: Most of you wound up visiting the White House. Was it a bonus that wouldn't come on a show such as ER?
Spencer: I remember one afternoon at the White House bending over to Martin and saying, "You know, if we were playing cops, this wouldn't be happening."
DS: When you visited the White House, did you learn about the real politicos' take on the realism in the show?
Sheen: Joe Lockhart told us there aren't as many people in the hallways in the real West Wing. And they could never afford our wardrobes.
Schlamme: I spent two nights in the White House and slept in the Lincoln Bedroom and no, it didn't cost me a penny. We were friends with friends of Bill. I'm the son of immigrants. It was the most exciting thing in my life to sleep at the White House. The last morning, the president invited us to the Oval Office. It inspired the way I shoot the show. I kept watching everyone moving. The energy. What are they doing? Who's who? What are they carrying? Everybody's working and it stops when the president comes in. The moment he left, it started again. When I left the Oval Office, I felt exhilarated.
Hill: I met Clinton's assistant about my second month of working on the show. Dee Dee Myers arranged for us to meet. I was able to pick his brain on what the real job entailed. I brought some of it to my character. The main thing I got out of it was the importance of the job. I play the assistant to the most powerful man in the world. I'm not the assistant to the branch manager.
Janney: It was powerful to walk into the Oval Office, but in a funny way, the first time I walked into the Oval Office on the set I got more chills. By the time I got to the real White House, I thought, Oh, ours is better.
Schiff: I'm still the only cast member to not meet President Clinton. I kept missing him. Later I was invited to Mrs. Clinton's birthday party when I was in New York. I didn't want to intrude, so I declined. The next day, on the front page of the Post you see the 7000 celebrities that were at her party. You know, what am I thinking? She's in a campaign. She's in the middle of a campaign and I'm worried about intruding on her birthday.
Lowe: To be able to take my family and have them sit on the presidential seal while the president gives his radio address was extraordinary. My younger son carries a stuffed frog instead of a blanket. He gave his frog to the president, who marched up the stairs to Marine One carrying it. At one point my kids were carrying the football--the briefcase with the nuclear coordinates with all of our launch codes. They carried it across the South Lawn. If you ever have any doubts that maybe there was a little too much access by the people on The West Wing, Exhibit A is that my seven-year-old and four-year-old had the nuclear launch codes of the United States.
DS: Have you ever received hate mail because of some of your stands on issues?
Schlamme: The only hate mail we got was about the interracial relationship between the president's daughter and Charlie, Hill's character. The letters were actually well written. They weren't from some guy out of Deliverance. They were typed and articulate. It floored us.
DS: Aaron, do you get ideas for your scripts from the front page of the newspaper?
Sorkin: Not necessarily. I will often go on long drives before I write. The music in my car is the same music I listened to 10 years ago. It's not uncommon for me to hear a song in my car and it will make me feel a certain way. That's what happened with the final episode of the second season. I listened to Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms and wanted to write something that felt that way. From there, what do I do? It's like a jigsaw puzzle. You first find the corners, then the edges, then pieces that look like a horse and then you put the horse together.
DS: What's the difference writing for television?
Sorkin: The most difficult thing is the pace, which is ferocious. I have to write a script once every eight working days. When you finish it, you feel good for about two or three minutes until you realize all finishing a script means is that you haven't started the next one.
Moloney: Aaron will be racked with worry and discomfort about not knowing where a certain show is going or what he is going to do. The next day you'll get some beautiful piece of art delivered on your doorstep, and it takes your breath away.
Spencer: At that stage it doesn't matter that we have fans in the White House or anything else. Actors live for great writing.
DS: How would The West Wing White House be different if your fictional president was a reflection of President Bush?
Sheen: It would be a lot less fun. The hairdos on the women would be much more expensive.
Sorkin: Martin is right, and not just about the hair.
DS: Why are Republicans less fun?
Sorkin: All I can tell you is that they are. In the last year of the Clinton administration, we were asked to participate in the White House Correspondents' Dinner and we did a five-minute film. This year we were asked by the Bush administration to consider doing it again. I thought we might poke fun at ourselves because our horse lost, that we're now in a position where we kind of have to kiss the ass of the horse that won. I met with people in the Bush administration. I have never met a less funny group of people in my life. By God, they're not funny.
Whitford: And they're not sexy. For better or worse, the Clinton administration was. It was an exciting group of young people. Our characters reflect the passion and commitment of those people even though Aaron has consistently noted that we are not the Clinton White House. It's not just sexiness, either. Our show is about heroism. There is something inherently more heroic about a progressive Democrat than a conservative Republican.
DS: Most Republicans would disagree with you. Probably all of them.
Whitford: It's not a partisan statement. Look back in history. Most people now think that Social Security is a good idea. "Don't let the old people starve in the streets!" It's an example of the type of programs that have come from progressive Democrats. In my lifetime, the conservative Republicans didn't champion civil rights. Though the Democrats got us into Vietnam, conservative Republicans didn't fight against the war. Democrats represent the best of American idealism. If we were a bunch of Republicans, the show would end with swelling music and we'd be jumping up and down and saying, "Hurrah! We have managed to unprotect the land!" "The tax break came through for the dot-com guys!"
Hill: You can't spend time around here and think this is just a job for us. We care about this stuff enormously. However, for some of us, getting a job was what it was all about. It's not easy landing work as an actor.
DS: Have you ever been channel surfing, John, and stumbled on an old Patty Duke episode?
Spencer: Yes, and it brings such a smile to my face. It was before I knew anything about the craft of acting. I was 16. I looked sort of like a toothpick with a head. I had this crew cut and big old ears sticking out. I was a child and I had a lot of freedom. The exuberance was real even if there wasn't a lot of technique.
DS: Dule, you were a tap dancer. How did you end up acting?
Hill: My mother was a ballerina and I started dance school when I was three. My brother and my cousins were all going to dance school. I grew up in a middle-class suburb in New Jersey. When we moved there I was in kindergarten, and we were the first two black students in the whole school system. Some idiot drove his car over our grass, put tire tracks on the front lawn. We had things like that happen when we first moved there. Every time black history month came around and they talked about Martin Luther King, everyone in the class turned to look at me. In middle school, during lunchtime people called me a nigger. I don't like people touching my hair--I don't know any black person who does--but people did it all the time. I've had teachers tell my parents that I was the worst student in class, when I saw other people in the class being much, much worse. But at the same time, my parents always let me know I had a gift from God. They made me feel as if I had something to offer. When I was 20, I got into Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk. During those two and a half years when I did the show, I finally knew what I wanted to do. Perform. Move. Dance. Act.
Whitford: I'm from Wisconsin, and it never occurs to you that it's even a possibility to make a living as a professional actor. You don't know anybody who has done it. You don't know anybody's third cousin who has done it. I'm phenomenally indecisive about everything. I still haven't made a choice about whether I should have whole milk, skim milk or two percent. But I loved acting. I thought acting was a great combination of English and recess. When I got into Juilliard, I knew that it was what I wanted to pursue. Out of my class at Juilliard, three of us are making a living. It's very rough out there.
DS: Allison, you were discovered by Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman. What happened?
Janney: We met when I was at Kenyon College and Joanne invited me to her Playhouse in New York and took me (continued on page 153) West Wing (continued from page 82) under her wing. She directed me in a lot of plays in New York with a theater company she was running. Until then, I don't think I wanted to admit what I wanted to do, because I was afraid of failing at it. There are so many clichés about acting. "You're an actress? What restaurant do you work at?" I used to lie and tell people I was a photographer for National Geographic. I'd say anything other than that I was an actress because there wasn't anything to show that I was an actress.
DS: Your height is often mentioned in articles about you.
Janney: It's a commitment.
DS: A commitment?
Janney: I'm not Elle Macpherson tall and I don't weigh 110, but sometimes I just feel huger than life. At least in Hollywood. In the theater I felt my size helped me. Sometimes I'm sure I haven't gotten parts because of my height. I like it most of the time, though.
DS: Do you take pleasure in being referred to as "the thinking man's pin-up"?
Janney: That stuff is wild. I love it. I can't get enough of it. The thought that I might be in someone's locker somewhere. It's exciting because that's just not been my role in this life at all. To reach 40 and be seen that way is great, but I'm not going to pretend that I believe it for a second.
DS: Richard, you just returned from filming a movie with Al Pacino. Were you intimidated working with someone of his stature?
Schiff: He is my idol. I did City Hall with him, too, but I never worked with him directly scene to scene until now. It was awesome. He's full, he's alive and anything can happen. He is an artist who was the greatest of his era. We don't have much of a need for someone who actually bores into his own soul for the sake of his art. We don't have that in our culture much these days. Mostly we have crap. We gloss over everything. When the era of the performance doesn't really matter, touching the deepest part of your soul during a take doesn't matter. It's absolutely death to give a flying fuck what anyone thinks of what you're doing. But I would do his take and he'd go huddle with the director. I thought, Oh my God, he hates my shit.
DS: John, you worked on last season's The West Wing while starring in a play.
Spencer: I'll never do it again. It was called Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine. I played a junkie. I worked here and raced over to the theater every night. By the 10th or 11th week it got pretty hairy. Afterward, I felt like I needed a month in Barbados. I would never do double duty again unless I found myself in this similar situation--material I cannot say no to. I was lucky I was playing a dying junkie, because that's what I looked like.
DS: Your character on The West Wing is a recovering alcoholic, too. Was it written that way from the beginning?
Spencer: I didn't know Leo was a recovering alcoholic at first. I don't think Aaron knew. It came in at about the fourth or fifth episode. Since I'm a recovering alcoholic and I'm open about it, I've been asked if it was based on my life experience. When I asked Aaron about it, he said my recovery didn't influence him any more than his own.
DS: Aaron, your recent arrest for possession of drugs was widely reported. What happened?
Sorkin: Last season was over, I turned in my last script and I was going to go away for the night. I was in rehab six years ago for an every-day, all-the-time drug habit. It was six years later and I thought I could have one potato chip. That's it. It was extremely embarrassing. Legally everything should work out, but now it's a matter of crawling out from under a rock.
DS: Others in this show are open about recovery. Martin, your days of alcohol abuse are chronicled in Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now. What's it like to watch it now?
Sheen: The only way I can watch it is to say, "That is who I was, not who I am."
DS: Your son Charlie had a harrowing experience with drugs. What was the experience watching him after your experience?
Sheen: Terrifying. I'm very proud of Charlie. As long as a friend or spouse or child has a drug or alcohol problem, you have a dishonest relationship. You're only able to speak to the drug. Only if they get clean can you begin a relationship. It took his getting clean for us to have an honest relationship. Now it is even and direct. He has become my hero. I know how hard it is. We have a serious problem in this country with addiction. The 12 steps work. It's the largest underground spiritual movement in the world. We need spirituality to counter the great evil of addiction. It is an evil force. When confronted by it, everybody gets his ass kicked. No one is immune. At some point alcoholism or drug abuse becomes intolerable because you realize the cost.
DS: There's lots of talk about The West Wing being entertainment, not politics. But is there a hidden hope among you that you might be able to change a mind or two?
Hill: I wouldn't mind changing a mind or two. Of course you want to touch people.
Moloney: It's great to think we might stir up some good debates.
Janney: I like the idea of stirring up controversy.
Schlamme: It's not necessarily my interest to change people's way of thinking, but the best art inspires people to think. It's what we're supposed to do as artists.
DS: But do you feel as if you could influence your audience?
Spencer: That's too awesome a responsibility for me. I'm an entertainer.
Lowe: You have to hope we're not influencing events. It would be scary to think that what we're doing here on Stage 23 is having any effect on the serious business of running the country.
DS: But might there be a more subtle impact? Apparently the number of people who went into emergency medicine shot up considerably because of ER. Might you inspire a new wave of politicians?
Sorkin: That'd be great, though I don't hope for anything from the show other than to capture your attention for an hour. I don't have a political or social agenda.
DS: Not even a little bit, Aaron?
Sorkin: It's not what's going to make the show good. The most important thing to me is being a good writer.
Caddell: I don't agree. Everyone around here says this is just a TV show. But it's not just a TV show. Why would people spend more time watching something that you could watch on the evening news every night? People hate politics. They come to this show because people want to be uplifted. We forget that we don't live by bread alone. This show taps into the hearts of Americans. It's about our spirit.
DS: How about you, Martin? Do you want to change minds?
Sheen: You bet your ass. If it weren't about this subject matter, I wouldn't be interested, and I don't think anyone else would be, either. My greatest fear was that I would end up doing a meaningless television series. My greatest joy is doing this one.
Sorkin: If in the process good things happen, I'm all for good things.
Wells: I wouldn't mind if the show helped people think politics might be an honorable life. The pendulum has swung much too far. Now, we are suspicious of anyone who chooses public service. If the show helps to allow it to be OK again, that would be nice. It doesn't have to get cool again. If it makes it all right for you to tell your friends that you're in politics, it would be a great thing.
Janney: The show makes it OK to feel patriotic and I'm proud of that.
Wells: The Kaiser Foundation has conducted a number of studies that show that ER is the primary source of health information for many people. The exception is a major health crisis about which everybody is reading. If the show brings up a new cancer treatment, people ask their doctor about it. If there's a show about the newest date-rape drug, there is a rush to campus health centers by people who may have been raped. When you do a show that deals with real issues like ER or The West Wing, you have an additional responsibility. You can't be glib about how you present issues. Aaron does extensive research. We have doctors on the set of ER and we have political consultants on The West Wing and we do a tremendous amount of fact checking. So yes, it's entertainment, but there is a fine line. We take that responsibility seriously.
Sorkin: Lots of times I don't start out caring about an issue that much. However, the way this works is that two people in a room have to disagree about something. I don't care whether it's affirmative action or the correct time of day. They have to disagree or you're not going to get much of a scene. As a result, I look for things where there are two strong arguments. Through the process of writing, I'll start to give a damn.
Sheen: If we can have an impact in the course of our work as well as in the course of the rest of our lives, we have to do it. We can't continue as if nothing is happening. There is a big-ass third world where people are suffering. The third world is on our streets now in every major American city, too. They are surprised that the census discovered about a million Hispanics living underground in Los Angeles alone! These ass-holes have never focused on the pain that's right under their noses. There are the bastards making money off the suffering of millions with illegal drugs. There are the bastards making money off the addictions of people with prescription drugs.
DS: When will you be protesting next?
Sheen: Every day is a protest with me. I don't have a specific agenda. I try to be present. I put a voice, however small and insignificant, on the voiceless and the marginal. I just try for my own sake to be present on social justice issues. Sometimes all you can do is stand there.
DS: After 70 arrests, do you feel as if you have made a difference?
Sheen: Everything has gotten worse since I started. Nothing has gotten any better.
DS: Are you disillusioned?
Sheen: We have to do whatever we can to tip the balance. I think it's real clear we cannot depend on ourselves or the better side of our nature. But God is present in the universe. God is present in the goodness we see every day. Define it however you want--God is our humanity when it rises up to do good. God is the part of us that rises up against the evil forces of addiction, greed, war, starvation, hunger. There is more goodness than there is darkness. There's more light. We have grandchildren. We hurl them into the future that we'll never see. We have to be accountable, to do whatever we can to make the good win out. And that's the thing I've come to: I love being alive, even with all the misery. The only thing that pisses me off about getting older is that I know it's eventually going to end. The mystery is extraordinary. It is extraordinary to have this much fun and this much love and this much consciousness.
We are in a desperate, desperate time. I don't think anyone should be placated by our show. The Republicans are back in business. The ramrods are rolling.