Warning: Spoilers ahead for The Handmaid’s Tale, season five, episode nine.
By his own admission, Bradley Whitford is well aware that a white man in his 60s might be an odd choice to helm an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. Still, he’d floated the idea of directing to creator and showrunner Bruce Miller after joining the cast in season two as Commander Joseph Lawrence. After years of working so closely with the cast, he couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a seat in the director’s chair.
“It was something I’d always wanted to do more of,” says Whitford. “My impulse to direct really rears up when [I] love the show, I love the actors.”
It’s not Whitford’s first time in the director’s chair in his 37-year career—that was in 2007, for the series finale of Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. He’d wanted to direct while he was playing deputy White House chief of staff Josh Lyman on The West Wing, but the closest he came was writing the 2005 episode “Faith-Based Initiative,” in the show’s sixth season. It’s been 15 years—“Was it 15? Jesus. Yeah,” Whitford realizes on the other end of our transatlantic Zoom call—since he directed.
“There is a psychology of submission that I struggle with as an actor,” Whitford, clad in a plain white tee and seated in front of a semi-unorganized shelf of dozens of books, tells Vanity Fair. “We all have to wait for someone to write it, someone to choose us, and I find that really corrosive.”
In the same stream-of-consciousness response, he offers a contradictory reason for not having directed more: “I think I’ve been so lucky as an actor that I get distracted from wanting to take more responsibility for stories.”
Whitford expounds on the virtues of the cast and crew that he’s spent the last four years working with on The Handmaid’s Tale, and though he gets hyperbolic, none of it feels insincere. He’s especially animated talking about Elisabeth Moss—the show’s lead as intrepid June Osborne, as well as executive producer, and oft-director—and how specifically she galvanized his desire to get behind the camera again.
“I have never seen any actor who was also a producer so involved in every draft, in every cut, in every choice,” says Whitford, who met Lizzie, as he calls her, in 1999 when she played first daughter Zoey Bartlet on The West Wing. “It’s unheard-of for an actor, let alone one who is doing a part as difficult as [June], to be that involved. I remember her expressing some insecurity about [directing] and I was like, ‘Oh, man. You are so ready.’ And then being directed by her and being boggled by her ability at that—it really inspired me.”
So in April of last year, Whitford was given the outline of this season’s episode nine, “Allegiance,” which he would get to direct in June. He spent those two months shadowing Moss as much as he could while she directed the first two episodes and the finale, even standing in for every character while lighting and blocking were designed. He leaned heavily on cinematographer Nicola Daley, whom he describes as a fierce advocate for the show’s integrity. He rewatched every episode of the show from the beginning.
“I don’t think I’m being too self-deprecating when I say fear [was what made me rewatch the entire series],” says Whitford. “The show is so visually stunning, it’s intimidating. The strength I am bringing as an actor is not necessarily an extraordinary visual grammar. I wanted to see what worked. The first time you’re watching something, you’re just sort of experiencing it. I was watching it with a consciousness [this time]. By the time I got my actual script, there was a sense of freedom.”
The surprise for Whitford, when he got the outline, was just how much his character was in the episode. He assumed his episode would be fairly self-contained, but “Allegiance” begins with a military operation to save Hannah (Jordana Blake), which quickly goes wrong; Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) continues to live a trapped existence with the Wheelers but plots her (second) escape from them during the opening of the Gilead Fertility Center; June secretly meets up with Nick (Max Minghella) on the border; Commander Lawrence proposes (if you can call it that) marriage (is it?) to the newly widowed Naomi Putnam (Ever Carradine); there’s a mass shooting at the end of the episode; and back at the midway point, there’s an extremely intimate and devastating phone conversation between June and Joseph, as she refers to Commander Lawrence these days.
“I think I’m in it more than I’m in any episode I’ve ever been in,” he says.