Bradley Whitford on his Handmaid's Tale directing debut and Lawrence's end game plans

Bradley Whitford on his Handmaid's Tale directing debut and Lawrence's end game plans
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Warning: This article contains spoilers from season 5, episode 9 of The Handmaid's Tale.

When Bradley Whitford calls EW in late October to talk The Handmaid's Tale, a sense of irony looms large.

"I'm rushing to get on a plane to go to Wisconsin, to make sure it doesn't turn into Gilead," the politically minded actor says with the midterm election just days away.

Whitford's get-out-the-vote trip comes as his character on Handmaid's, Commander Lawrence, is in the middle of his own political maelstrom. All season, we've learned more about his role as the architect of Gilead, and his plans for the future in a possibly too-little-too-late effort to make things better with his New Bethlehem project.

By this week's episode, things have come to a head for just about every character heading into the finale, including Lawrence. But the episode is special to Whitford for other reasons — it marks his directorial debut.

Here, Whitford opens up about the experience and what it meant to him, how fellow actor-turned-director Elisabeth Moss inspired him, his thoughts on his character's arc this season, and more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We're on season 5 now — when did you know directing on Handmaid's was something you wanted to do?

BRADLEY WHITFORD: Way back in my The West Wing days, I was asking to direct. Then the episode I was going to direct, I got an opportunity to write, and you couldn't do both. So I got the chance to write on West Wing instead. So I did that. But then it was something I wanted to do on Studio 60, and I did it. And when I came on Handmaid's Tale a couple of years ago, [I said] if the opportunity comes up, and it seems like it makes sense — I don't want to take anybody's opportunity away — but just know that if you ever think it is the right time for me to direct, I'd love to. And then last summer, they let me know that I was directing.

And was it an immediate yes?

Honestly, it's one of those careful-what-you-wish-for moments because it's like, "Yeah, yeah, I really want to direct!" and then it's like, just terror. First of all, I'm an actor. So we all have opinions about directors. We all know, believe me, what episodes are working and what aren't. So it was quickly replaced by a kind of fear. But I do want to emphasize how safe it is for me to direct [on this show]. I'm working with a crew that I love, with actors that I love. One of the hardest things I think in television is guest directors coming in and having to be an authority when they're kind of an outsider, you know? So I didn't have to deal with that.

And, of course, Elisabeth Moss also paved the trail for Handmaid's actors to direct.

Lizzie [Moss] is the most impressive person I've ever worked with in television. I mean, creatively, I've never seen anything like it. And before she was directing, she's been in on every draft of every script. She's been on every cut. Even before she was directing, she was doing shot lists with directors and DPs. She was nervous to direct, but she's an incredible director. She directed almost a third of this season. I knew she would know what she was doing. And Lizzie laughed at me when I said I wanted to trail her. But I really wanted at this late stage in my life to be like the 62-year-old, now 63-year-old, sort of freshmen in film school and just go through the whole process for a show that I love and just see how it was done.

I've always wondered with actors directing on their shows, do you get to choose which episode you direct?

Ask any directors — you have no idea what you're gonna get. And I assumed stupidly that it'd probably be what we call a bottle episode, which are episodes that take place basically in the studio, with the main cast, and there's not a lot to it because it's much easier to shoot in a studio. Going on location is tough. And I also thought, well, I probably won't be in it much. And [I get it and] I'm like, "Jesus Christ. I'm all over this thing." And there's a shooting, and military stuff. So, no, you don't know what you're going to get. [Laughs]

Tell me about that ending scene, with the shooting in Canada.

There's certain things that you don't anticipate. The final shot with the flag — that whole event is a night shoot. And at that particular time of year in Toronto, if it was in the winter, you'd have, I don't know, maybe 10 hours of darkness. But it was in the summer. So, I think it's like seven hours, and you've got hundreds of extras, and you've got squibs going off. You're shooting that thing in super slow motion. Normal motion is like 24 speed, 48 is slow motion, and I'm shooting that in super slow 200 frames. This is like the cable access show you never want to see, Actors on Math, we can't even figure out a tip. And I'm realizing, okay, it's 200 frames, and I have to match it to a song that I knew I wanted, and I'm so grateful that we got, the Janelle Monáe song "Americans." But I'm timing it to a 32nd thing in the song. But you're shooting it at 200 frames. So it comes out to, I don't know three point something seconds. So that whole shot takes place in about three seconds. So then you have to work with the special effects guys, and get like a cadence of the squibs going off. One has to go off at 1.3 seconds, one has to go off at 2.1 and, you know, I wear makeup for a living, man. So that's a night where you're like, "Oh my god, are we gonna get it?" And it's toward the end of the shoot, it's in the final block of the year. Our incredible crew is exhausted. There is an incredible DP Nicola Daley, who came on the show this year. I mean, if I didn't have Lizzie, Nicola and Michael Johnson our first AD, I mean, I can't imagine. And an incredibly hard working crew that's very invested in the show, no matter how tired they are. Yeah, it would have just been a disaster.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE, Bradley Whitford, ‘Ballet', (Season 5, ep. 502
THE HANDMAID'S TALE, Bradley Whitford, ‘Ballet', (Season 5, ep. 502

Everett Collection Bradley Whitford as Commander Lawrence on 'The Handmaid's Tale'

Would you like the opportunity to direct again?

I'm not as cynical as Lawrence. I was so grateful for the opportunity. This is a show that I love, these are a crew that I love, and characters that I love, actors. And when you're directing, however much you thought you appreciated it, you're blown away by this sort of communal effort and commitment that makes a show like this work. I really hope to do it again. Put that in the article, so the powers that be can read it. [Laughs]

I want to talk about Lawrence for a bit. We've gotten a lot more from him this season. What do you think his end goal is, and how do you feel about him now versus when you first started playing him?

Well, it's a fascinating thing to play because he's not static. There's two things that I'm always thinking about. One, is his love for Eleanor was real. And then, immediately when I got this part, there's a guy, Robert McNamara. He was Secretary of Defense, and escalated the Vietnam War, and a brilliant economist, who streamlined auto production in the United States, and then used those same ideas to incinerate about a million people on the other side of the planet. He's one of these guys that I always thought Lawrence was, someone whose huge brain obliterates his humanity. [Now] I think Lawrence feels like he has an opportunity — and it may be naive, and it may be misguided — to some path of redemption that has to do with Eleanor, and I think it's an interesting discussion in the world of Handmaid's Tale. Basically democracy and freedom, an open society that we take for granted, mistakenly, almost destroyed everybody. And I think that what Lawrence is trying to do with New Bethlehem is it's basically an argument. If he can gain power, and I'm not saying I, Brad Whitford, agree with this, but in a world where democracy just doesn't work and is going to fall to fascism, [Lawrence says] let's make the rising fascist power a little more humane. So let's turn North Korea into China. Help me do that. That'll save more people than doing these sort of misguided guerrilla tactics.

Interesting. So you think there is humanity there, and he's not just a psychopath?

No, I don't. Do I think he just is seeking power for the sake of having power? No, I think that was what he did before you met him. I think he enjoyed the status as a commander and I think it ruined him and it killed his wife. So no, that would not interest me at all. He's done that. This is something different.

Towards the end of the episode, and heading into the finale, Commander MacKenzie suggests to Lawrence that June needs to be taken care of, and Lawrence agrees. Previously, he's been such a big ally to June, but does she now need to worry about Lawrence?

Yeah, I don't think Lawrence is in complete control. I think he's powerful in Gilead, but I don't think he's in complete control. And I think people like MacKenzie want to take her out. I think that's part of what I am saying to her with the New Bethlehem offer is, "You're in danger. You hear those Canadian trucks honking? That's the sound of the death of open society in Canada. You're holding on to something that doesn't exist anymore. I can keep you safe. I know it's not ideal. I know it's a horrible quandary to put you in." But yeah, I think she's in a lot of danger.

What can we expect in the season finale?

As you can see at the end of 509, June is no longer safe in Canada. I think I kind of have to leave it at that. [Laughs]

And what about Lawrence? How are things going for him?

I don't think he's in as much control as he wants to be. How enigmatic.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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