The actor talks to ET about reuniting with the original cast, welcoming Sterling K. Brown into the fold and the power of democracy.
When Dule Hill got an email from Aaron Sorkin asking if he and his West Wing co-stars would reunite for the first time in years for a special episode, it didn't take Hill long to say yes. In fact, the answer was immediate. "Aaron does not make a lot of requests with The West Wing. He holds it to his heart and is very protective of his material so the fact that he reached out to do this, I think, was already a stamp of approval," Hill tells ET of the show's HBO Max team-up with When We All Vote. "There was only one acceptable answer for all of us, so let's do it. We love each other and The West Wing is family. We haven't lost contact over the years. This isn't the first time we've seen each other since the show ended... It was a no-brainer."
Filmed in late September over the span of four days in Downtown Los Angeles' Orpheum Theatre and following COVID-19 safety regulations and guidelines, Hill was joined by original stars Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, Janel Moloney and Richard Schiff in a special theatrical staging of the season 3 episode, "Hartsfield's Landing." Sterling K. Brown stepped in to fill the late John Spencer's shoes as Chief of Staff Leo McGarry.
The episode, which originally aired Feb. 27, 2002, follows President Bartlet (Sheen) as he engages speech writers Sam Seaborn (Lowe) and Toby Ziegler (Schiff) in chess matches as he strategizes Chinese war games, while Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Whitford) agonizes over 42 deciding votes in a competitive primary. To add levity, press secretary C.J. Cregg (Janney) and presidential aide Charlie Young (Hill) attempt to one-up each other in an epic prank war. The special is being presented in partnership with When We All Vote, a non-profit, non-partisan organization co-chaired by Michelle Obama to inspire Americans to go to the polls, and will feature special appearances by Obama, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Bill Clinton and a performance by the Avett Brothers.
"I was thankful to be able to tell this story, to be able to offer this up [during] this election cycle, to hopefully get people to engage some more, to be able to join hands with When We All Vote to inspire others to get involved," Hill, 45, says. "And hopefully it would have a little bit of an effect and make a little bit of a difference in course-correcting the direction of our country. Because here's the thing, one thing that really affects me and gets me is that when I look out there and I see our leadership, I don't see that there's an effort to get people involved. I feel like there's an opportunity to get people pushed out and it always bothers my mind because we're supposed to be a democracy. They talk about this great democracy, then let's truly live up to what we say we are. Why are we trying to ostracize people instead of pulling people in?"
"I'm thankful to have been asked to be a part of this project with When We All Vote to get people involved, and hopefully turn-out numbers will be greater than they were in the last election. I'm not saying it'll be because of what we did but if all of us as individuals can do our little part, knowing what our circle of influence is, then we can make great change in this country," he adds. "It really was, 'This is your circle of influence right here, Dule. You can help encourage people to vote by doing this. This is one thing you can do. Will you do it? Yes.'"
Ahead of the West Wing special, ET spoke with Hill about returning to the presidential halls of the White House more than a decade after the series wrapped, the most surreal moment he shared with his castmates, his thoughts on the gender-swapped She's All That movie and if a third Psych movie is in the works.
ET: Did you think, in 2020, you would be reuniting with your friends from The West Wing for a new special?
Dule Hill: I did not. I mean, when the show ended, I really thought that that was the end of the show. I had no idea that 15 years later the show would still be as popular, if not even more popular, than it was at that time. It's an amazing experience. It's a humbling experience and I'm really thankful to be able to be a part of revisiting these characters and telling this story once again, at this time.
It's been so long since this specific group of actors has been in the same room together doing something West Wing-related. How did it feel seeing everyone again?
It really warmed my heart from the time I walked onto this set and I got to the trailers, and I saw Allison and I saw Rob and I saw Martin. It really blew my mind a little bit. It was hard for my mind to even connect that, "Wait a second, we're actually here to shoot The West Wing. We're getting together to actually... You're Sam, you're Susan, you're Toby. This is crazy!" But it really warmed my heart. I appreciated the blessing to be able to revisit it one more time, to be here, to tell this story one more time, to get people to engage in democracy. It's like John Spencer would always say, "Wouldn't get this if you were on a cop show." He would always say that when we had a phenomenal experience and it really is true. I don't believe that if I was blessed to do a different type of show, would we be having this same experience? Because this is a show that has connected with, or spoken to, the fabric of our nation, the consciousness of our nation. Every election cycle, The West Wing kind of has a little resurgence. But even so because of where we are -- just the bridge that we have to cross and where I believe we should be, at least where I think most people believe that. There's such a divide right now. I think the bridge to cross to unify is the reason why The West Wing is in the consciousness right now, and I think why it's so important and why this is the right time for us to be revisiting these roles.
You have Sterling K. Brown stepping in to play John Spencer's character, Leo. What energy did he bring to the table that surprised or thrilled you?
Sterling has a lot of strength in his performance. He doesn't have to do a lot to exude a lot of power. In that way, he did fit the role perfectly to step in and he's the perfect person to step into John Spencer's shoes. I think John would have been completely over the moon about Sterling stepping in for the role. He brought power and he brought that presence to be the chief of staff, of being the right hand to the president and knowing how to get people to fall in line, which is what the chief of staff has to do, especially with C.J. and I, as we go off the rails with our hijinks.
It's been a minute since you stepped into Charlie's shoes. What was the most exciting part about playing him again? The most nerve-wracking?
The most exciting part was to be able to play opposite Allison. This is one of my favorite episodes in terms of the Charlie-C.J. relationship and to be able to revisit D.C. once again and to play opposite Allison, once I knew that these were the scenes, it was like, "Oh, this is going to be great," because I just love Allison so very much. She is someone who, I mean, no matter how much she's tried to get me out of her life, she just can't. (Laughs.) I'm always somewhere lingering by. There wasn't any part that was really nerve-wracking. I guess the part that would be nerve-wracking would be to make sure -- which is the same thing that I always had when I was doing the series -- to honor to Aaron's words. I do believe that they are some of the best words, if not the best words, put down on paper, and I want to do justice and honor to the words that he has written.
If we're going to revisit these characters and this episode, let it not fall short. That was always my thing being a part of this cast: "Dule, don't let your stuff be the weak link." If it was a great episode before, as a cast and crew, let's keep raising the bar. Let's keep doing better. If that was a great episode, if that was a great season, this next one has to be better. Let's not just rest on our laurels from yesterday. Let's keep pressing towards the betterment of ourselves for our tomorrow. And so, that would be the same thing with revisiting this material of, "All right, we're going to do these scenes, but it has to be good. It has to be not just good, it has to be better than it was," if we're going to do it. And you're working opposite Allison Janney, so she won't let you [be less than your best]. It will be very clear if you don't come with your A-game when you're working with Allison Janney.
Did you rewatch "Hartsfield's Landing" before you began filming?
I did. I went back to watch just to refresh my memory of what the episode was about, what was going on and seeing some of the energy that was there. I didn't try to replicate the energy because I didn't play Charlie to be 23 years old now, I played him as myself. So he's older, but still in the same position. I did watch the episode to get a refresh on what was the energy, what was the cadence, what was the rhythm of the show? How were we interacting with each other?
Did the episode land differently for you now than when it aired in 2002?
Yeah, I think it does because television has changed so much since then, and when you're in it, you're in it. To be able to step back and look at it, I was able to take it in and realize how good the show was and realize how timeless the show is because even watching it, I'm like, "No, this would be a good episode now. This would be a very good episode of television now. Wow, this is right in the middle of the conversations of what is considered to be dynamic television now." That was something that hit me that I would not have experienced back then.
One of my favorite parts of the episode is C.J. and Charlie's prank war. Do you have any fun memories from filming those scenes?
I loved filming the scenes back then. This was one of my favorite episodes to film because Allison and I had so much fun shooting it. We'd just be two big kids pranking each other. So, to be able to go back and do it again, we had just as much fun now. It was like, yeah, it was fun then, it was fun now. I'm sure if we get a chance to do this 20 years from now, it is going to be fun again.
Did you have a surreal moment seeing everybody together again in the same room? Was there a "pinch me" moment?
There were a couple of surreal moments. There was one when I first arrived to base camp, I was able to see the trailers, and Allison and Rob and Martin and everybody. But then there was one time we all were in the theater together and we took a group shot, and that was a really surreal moment of, "Wow, here we are at the Orpheum Theatre where we shot." We had filmed there before. I didn't remember that we had filmed there before until I walked inside the theater. After a while I asked [executive producer/director] Tommy Schlamme, "Did we film here before? Didn't we do something where there was a play or something happening? And John Spencer was right up there in that booth up there." So that happened for me -- one of the memories just coming back. But also, we were here filming The West Wing. I'm having a memory of us filming and we're filming it now. That was a surreal moment.
It's the sum of all parts that is more powerful than one individual trying to get the word out, so you're doing your part with this special.
And hopefully inspire other people to do their part as we all come together. Hopefully, we will get more people to vote, at least of those who are allowed to vote. We should all have a say. I believe all citizens of this country, we should have a say in what this country is. You should never be able to take away my right to have a voice. I don't believe that. As long as I'm here and I'm a citizen, I should be able to have a voice to speak.
Switching gears, since you were in the original She's All That movie, what is your take on the gender-swapped remake that is being made by TikTok star Addison Rae?
I mean, I love it. I'll be in line to buy a ticket to go see it. I think it'll be fun. It was a fun movie back then. It spoke to people. It was a film that has lasted and people seem to remember over time. I think it would be fun to go back and revisit it and see how, I don't know what her name is going to be, but how she rolls into it. Because [Freddie Prinze Jr.'s character] was Zack. So I don't know what her name is going to be, but I think it'll be nice to revisit it and approach it a different way.
I can't let you go without asking a Psych question. Have you heard any rumblings about another movie and are you hopeful something will come to fruition?
Yeah. There's always a rumble. I would tell folks to keep listening for the sound. (Laughs.) I have a very funny feeling that this is not the last we'll see of Psych. It's kind of like Lassie telling Shawn and Gus to go home, somehow they seem to show up again. I would just tell Psych-Os to remember that Shawn and Gus aren't that because Psych isn't that quick to go home. I think there's a rumble for us to come back again.
A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote drops Thursday, Oct. 15 on HBO Max.
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