Bradley Whitford Talks Risky 'Law & Order: SVU' Episode and 'The Handmaid's Tale' Season 6 (Exclusive)

Bradley Whitford on SVU Season 24
Peter Kramer/NBC

The actor talks to ET about his latest guest-starring role on 'SVU' and the end of 'The Handmaid's Tale.'

On Thursday, during the season 24 episode, "King of the Moon," Bradley Whitford made his second appearance on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. This time, however, The Handmaid's Tale star was playing a very different character: Pence Humphreys, a neurologist with early onset dementia who confesses to a murder in a rare departure for the series, with the episode directed by star Mariska Hargitay showing flashbacks of his life and how his memories have been muddled in the years since.

Familiar with his work, Olivia Benson (Hargitay) is immediately suspicious of his confession and lends a hand in the investigation only to learn that, in the end, the professor was not responsible for the rape and murder of his wife, Winnie (Nancy Travis). The episode then ends on an unexpected note, with Olivia reading Pence's childhood story as the sequence shows him appearing as the king on the moon and reliving some of his other memories.   

After getting the part, Whitford realized how much he "wanted to do it justice," he says. "It scared me in a way. And I felt like Mariska was taking a risk and the show was taking a risk. And that kind of challenge is really energizing." 

When it comes to the final scene, he was "thrilled to hear" that it made the final cut. "Because when you're shooting it, you don't even know if the powers that be are gonna look at this and go, 'This is not our show,'" Whitford says. "And I was really proud of Mariska when I heard they kept it in and she was really happy with it."

While speaking to ET about his latest turn on the Law & Order franchise -- he also appeared in a 2011 episode of the short-lived spinoff Los Angeles -- Whitford opened up about working with Hargitay, filming the episode's unexpected dream-like scene and gearing up for the end of The Handmaid's Tale with season 6

ET: Considering you previously appeared on SVU in 2014, what attracted you to this role and this episode in particular? 

Bradley Whitford: The first thing I heard was that Mariska was directing and that made me really want to do it. Then I sort of got an inkling of what the story was, and I knew that there were people who were putting the story together from personal experience with the difficulties that my character was going through. So, it was really kind of a no-brainer.

Mariska is beloved in the acting community because she's incredibly talented and notoriously joyous and kind… And she's an incredible director. I mean, if you care about storytelling and you're an actor on a long-running show, you really get to learn a lot about directing because you see so many different people do it… I could tell the story meant a lot to Mariska. And I could tell she was taking a risk. Because very rarely when you're doing a guest shot on SVU are you flying around in the air with a cape and a pair of pajama pants. 

I definitely want to get to that scene in a moment. But this episode is obviously very different from the last time you were on SVU. How'd it feel to come back and have another part in the Law & Order universe? 

This show is, you know, it's beloved. It's amazing when you do an episode of this when you realize the sort of fervent nature of the fandom out there. And I had a very good feeling about this show because the first time I did it, Jeffrey Tambor was doing it. He came in and said, "I'm not sure what streaming is, but this show I did a pilot of just picked up." And that was Transparent. And he suggested me for a role in that, and that's where I met my wife Amy [Landecker]. So, I have a very warm feeling about the show. 

Peter Kramer/NBC

Well, let's dive into the closing sequence because like you said, it is a risk for the show. As a longtime fan of it, it caught me by surprise because I was like, "Oh wow, we're really doing something different here." And I was just curious what it was like filming those scenes, from being on the moon to appearing back in the classroom. 

I think I joked -- so you know, it was the first day -- and those things are complicated. You're flying up in the air and you're spinning. And I think at one point, during day one, I was like, "I thought I was playing a drug dealer. It's SVU, you know." But here I am playing an old man in pajamas with a cape on, hugging a rock.

And that was the first thing we shot. We shot that on a Friday and didn't start the other stuff until later in the week. But I gotta tell you, the fact that Mariska can make that work is just absolutely phenomenal to me. I think it's actually a smart thing, it's an energizing thing. In my experience, my very fortunate experience in long-running shows, it's energizing for the crew, it's energizing for the writers, it's energizing for the actors and it's energizing for the audience. 

To take them, you know, on a show like SVU, which obviously a lot of the fandom is predicated on a certain amount of predictability, I thought it was exactly the kind of chance that only someone like Mariska, who lives in that, can have the confidence to know that this will work. 

In the episode, you also share most of your scenes with Mariska and you two have a couple of weighty moments toward the end. You've mentioned how wonderful she was as a director, but what was it like to act with her in that moment?  

She is absolutely wonderful to work with. She, like me, I think aspires -- I don't quite know how to articulate it but I aspire to take the work seriously without taking myself seriously in the work, if that makes any sense. And I think the best way for me to be the most free when I'm acting, no matter what the material is, it doesn't help me to make the process precious. And we agree on that…. And I think we sort of intuitively agree on the best way to get there. So, she's a very comfortable person to act with. 

Switching gears if you don't mind. Right around this time is when The Handmaid's Tale usually goes back into production. Have you started filming or reading any scripts for the final season? 

No. In fact, I just heard we're not going back until August. I don't know what the logistical reason for that is… As you know, there's a lot of labor issues that need to be solved in Hollywood. But yeah, we're gonna be going back for one more season. And that'll be it. 


When it comes to the final season, what are you most looking forward to in terms of closing out Commander Lawrence's story and his part in this saga? 

Wow, you know, I have a lot of hopes for him. Dramatically, I don't think -- look, I'm not writing it -- but I think that the basic sort of arc of this guy, for me, was somebody who was seduced by power… And through his relationship with June [Elisabeth Moss], June reignited a little flicker of humanity in this guy. 

I don't think it would be remotely appropriate for a man to be especially heroic and we know that the story is going to continue much farther down the line with the sequel that Margaret Atwood wrote. But I think he's in a place he's familiar with. He's been seduced by power before. And I guess I'll leave it at that. You know, these are not things that I control.   

Since you mentioned Amy earlier, hopefully she'll be back as Mrs. Mackenzie and hopefully you two will get some scenes together before the end.  

I would love to have Mrs. Mackenzie back. 

You know, I've talked to her about doing Law & Order a few times in the past as well. And since you returned to the franchise with this episode of SVU, have you guys ever swapped stories about being on these shows? 

Oh, yeah. In fact, she's not unique in this, but early on -- because Amy started doing on-camera stuff relatively late -- she was doing an episode of SVU and Mariska was incredibly supportive of her.

I think one of the most difficult things in show business is not a guest shot like this guest shot was for me, where it's a featured thing, but those smaller guest shots on these shows are some of the most difficult things that actors have to do because you're coming into a well-oiled machine with actors who've been doing it for a while and are no longer nervous. And you have to wait around and then it's like, "OK, make sure your foot's here and now go." And it's a very tricky thing to do.

Part of the reason that Mariska is so beloved is she is incredibly kind to everybody and insists on creating an atmosphere where everybody can do their best work. And she said something incredibly supportive to Amy that she had told me a long time ago.

And to wrap us up, after appearing on the Law & Order franchise a few times, what will it take to get you on Organized Crime, tussling with Christopher Meloni?  

I love Chris Meloni. Chris is a character. I have never seen any human being do so many squats in my life. You could break your hand on his gluteus. Really, and I'm not just saying this, I really admire him as an actor, going back to Oz. I mean, this guy is, he did a show that O-T Fagbenle wrote called Maxxx. This dude is fearless. So yeah, I'm totally open to that. 

Law & Order: SVU airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.