'The Handmaid's Tale': Bradley Whitford Reveals the Real-Life Inspiration Behind His Cryptic Role (Exclusive)

The Handmaid's Tale

The actor also opens up to ET about reuniting with Elisabeth Moss and which former ‘West Wing’ co-star he’d like to see on the show.

Bradley Whitford is no stranger to making the most of a supporting role. 

Ever since he became a certified TV star thanks to his quotable, Emmy-winning role as Josh Lyman on The West Wing, which ran for seven seasons from 1999 to 2006, the actor has made memorable appearances on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Mom, Parks and Recreation, Transparent and Valley of the Boom while flipping his entire persona on its head in films like The Cabin in the Woods, Jordan Peele’s Get Out or opposite Nicole Kidman in Destroyer

This summer, he’s at again with back-to-back roles in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which sees him playing a scientist loosely inspired by Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty, and reprising his role as Commander Lawrence on The Handmaid’s Tale.

Back for season three, the Emmy-winning Hulu drama continues the story about a woman named June (Elisabeth Moss), who is forced into child-bearing servitude when the totalitarian society of Gilead took over America. Season two saw the introduction of  Lawrence, when he’s assigned the handmaid, Emily (Alexis Bledel), whom he later decides to set free along with June and her baby, Nichole. Following her decision not to go through with her escape, June was later reassigned to Lawrence’s household, setting up a face-off between him and the defiant handmaid. “We have a new dimension of the power of Gilead in the form of Commander Lawrence,” executive producer Warren Littlefield explained. “He ushers [Emily and Nichole] into freedom. He’s not a commander who believes in the ceremony. He’s an architect of this world. Good guy? Bad guy? Both? Maybe.” 

While an enigma from the outside, Whitford’s way into the character was to channel former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who served under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and played a major role in the country’s growing involvement in the Vietnam War. Like Lawrence, Whitford says he’s “a cultured, privileged, sophisticated man with a big brain that obliterated his humanity.” 

“He applied big ideas of maximizing efficiency in the auto industry to systematically exterminating millions of people in Southeast Asia and then felt conflicted about it later,” Whitford continues, explaining his way into understanding the methods behind Lawrence’s madness and suggesting some decisions he makes are to assuage his guilt. 

The result is a delightfully unexpected push-and-pull relationship between June and Lawrence, which is tested throughout the first three episodes. By being assigned to his household, the commander ultimately opens up June’s world by exposing her to inner-workings of the society he had a hand in making while he knowingly allows her to work with the Marthas, who are running a resistance network out of his house. But then he later punishes her for letting an escapee die in his basement by forcing her to choose five women to save from going to the colonies. 
While Lawrence’s motivations -- and the extent of his arc -- remain unclear, Whitford says “the writing of this character is an example of doing justice to the complexity of what someone in [June’s] situation has to fight through.” 

Writing aside, Whitford’s role on the series was a welcome chance to reunite with Moss, who appeared on The West Wing as first daughter Zoey Bartlet. “I don’t think I’m overstating it. I think she’s giving a performance of a generation,” he says, crediting her for his performance. “On top of that, I find this guy in her eyes. She’s absolutely one of the most fascinating actors to work.”  

Although The West Wing has been off the air since 2006, it hasn’t stopped fans from clamoring for a revival of the series. While creator Aaron Sorkin and actor Richard Schiff have both pitched how to continue it, nothing more than “talks” have been confirmed. Of course, that doesn’t mean the cast can’t reunite elsewhere as Whitford and Allison Janney did on Mom

When asked about who else from The West Wing he’d like to see on the Hulu series, Whitford immediately deadpans that he would get Joshua Malina to “play a guy sitting in a car who never speaks,” before joking that “they could bring President Bartlet back just to clean it the f**k up.” But kidding aside, Whitford offers up Janney, whom “everybody loves working with,” suggesting she would make a welcome addition to the show.

But until then, it’s anyone’s guess how long Commander Lawrence will continue to push June’s buttons on the series. Does he make it beyond season three? “I really hope so,” Whitford says. 

New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale debut Wednesdays on Hulu.