It’s been a decade since The West Wing wrapped, and to celebrate the series, ATX Festival hosted a reunion panel with Richard Schiff, Joshua Malina, Janel Moloney, Bradley Whitford, Dulé Hill, and Melissa Fitzgerald with director Thomas Schlamme and series creator Aaron Sorkin.
After the panel, I was able to sit down for an exclusive interview with Richard, an actor that I’ve always greatly admired – and first knew as Toby Ziegler on The West Wing.
Is this surreal, being back and doing interviews for the series?
Richard Schiff: No, no it’s not surreal, actually. It’s real. It’s cool. Surreal moments are very different than this. You know. Winning an Emmy was a surreal moment, you know, where you’re not in your body. I very much feel like I’m here enjoying it, enjoying reflecting on our years together, enjoying being in the company of people I love. No, it’s very real and made a good run.
Looking back on the series, what really impresses you about what all you guys were able to accomplish or what all you did? What kind of stands the test of time for you with West Wing?
Richard Schiff: I call it a perfect storm of very good things coming together. You know, Aaron spoke today at the panel about the luck involved in the show even getting a green light in the first place. It wasn’t going to happen and then it happened. Then, it didn’t test well and then blah, blah, blah.
It was also a perfect storm of assembling this ensemble and this cast because it could have easily been much more difficult and maybe not as great. If the egos had gotten out of hand. If somebody who was used to being treated as a star was dominating the set everyday. If people had to accommodate unpleasantness, which happens on a lot of sets. Everyone came ready to play ball and then when Martin Sheen joined, he brings so much love that even if there was that ego thing, you just would feel embarrassed to do that in front of Martin because there’s none of that.
Between Martin and John Spencer and Brad and Allison, who is such a great person, and the supporting cast, like you saw Melissa Fitzgerald today. Such a lovely and beautiful spirit, and Janelle and everybody. All we were interested in was doing the work and solving problems. Especially that first year.
That’s the gift and people don’t realize that. You see it in basketball. You see it with the Golden State Warriors right now. It’s not about Steph Curry scoring 80 points. It’s about who’s got the open shot, how can we get the easiest basket, how do we play team defense, how do we switch. That’s what an ensemble does. That’s what a team does. They play together and they set each other up.
We set each other up for stories and for moments and it doesn’t happen all the time, you know?
You see it on Broadway now in Hamilton, which was inspired, apparently, as Lin-Manuel Miranda told me backstage, by The West Wing, which flipped me out. He was a West Wing freak and what he created is an incredible ensemble that has changed the course of theater history, in my opinion.
I think he captured not only the political storytelling that inspired him from The West Wing, but the nature of ensembles. The nature of giving everyone a thing to do. That comes up the spine of the point of your storytelling. It’s very, very rare. We are celebrating that as much as anything.
If The West Wing was currently on today, how it would affect the political landscape of everything we see going on right now? Or would it?
Richard Schiff: I don’t know. I don’t know if anyone would be paying attention. I don’t know. I honestly don’t have an answer to that question. At the time of The West Wing, I thought, I used to deny our effect on the political landscape, because Bush actually won the re-election. I still, to this day, think he didn’t win the first one.
He actually won by a wide margin the second time. I thought, we’re having the opposite effect of what people think we have. This liberal administration is affecting America the other way, you know? Then, in ’08, going around, I was very involved in the campaign. I campaigned for Joe Biden in those days. Very clearly, a generation had come out of watching The West Wing that got inspired to get into politics and was very much a part of the foot soldiers of the Obama army.
That directly affected the election because that foot soldier army is what probably won him the caucus states. It’s the caucus states that won him the primary cycle and what got him nominated to be president. That’s when I went, wow, we actually have a direct effect on the course of history, if you’re willing to accept that thesis.
If it came on today, I think we’re too busy. I think it’s way too noisy. One of the great things about the old days of television, 10 years ago, or 15 years ago, was that it was water cooler television. People would communally watch the same hour. People used to tell us all the time, we turn off the phones, we put the kids to bed and that one hour is uninterrupted. Then, the next day at the water cooler, they all talk about it. As they did with The Sopranos after Sunday nights. For us, it was after Wednesday nights.
You don’t have that communal experience. You have Twitter, but it’s not quite the same thing as talking about it person-to-person and being excited about it and discussing issues and not just pontificating on Twitter and spitting out what your opinion is. It’s actually creating dialogue. I don’t think that can happen now because no one watches it at the same time. People won’t notice it until seven years later. You know what I mean? Because there’s too much noise. It’s too noisy out there right now.
My best friend is getting her PhD in political science, and I know that they reference The West Wing constantly in their coursework. What do you think about that – the series being used as a resource in school for students studying politics?
Richard Schiff: I get that a lot. I get it on Twitter. People send me a note saying, “You inspired my high school class.” “Because of you, I’m working on staff at the senator’s office.” That’s great. The fact that kids are being shown episodes of The West Wing in high school for social studies is awesome. I wish I had that in high school to help me understand how government works.
Senators and people on the Hill would say, “If I tried to give a one-hour speech on the census, I would completely fail to hold peoples’ attention for more than 30 seconds, and you guys did a whole episode and managed to make it entertaining and helped me to understand what a census is more than I understood before.”
That’s pretty remarkable. All of that’s very cool.
You have such an expansive and awesome career with all of the roles that you’ve had. How would you say that Toby compares in the grand scheme of all of the roles that you’ve had?
Richard Schiff: Probably the longest role I’ve ever played. I got to know him more deeply than most. It’s almost like when you do a play. You live, breathe, and everything else with that character 24-7 for six months or four months or whatever, and that gets very deep in your blood. When you do a TV character for seven years, that’s a long time. It becomes a seminal era in your life. Toby’s up there, of course.
I don’t say he’s my favorite character because there was a character that Jason Katims wrote before he became a big deal on a show called Relativity, which was a kind of Willy Loman-type character. It was something very touching and very hard for me to play for him, because he was really not a smart man but yet very touching to me.
He remains in that special place as my favorite character, because he broke my heart. Toby was complicated and difficult and also heart-wrenching at times and so much fun at times, and was a much more well-rounded experience because he lasted a much longer time. I will probably be remembered for him more than anything else. Obviously, a big deal.
Was there a specific moment, whether it be a scene or episode that you remember where you felt like Toby really clicked for you? The first, initial “I’ve got him now.”
Richard Schiff: Yeah, one is a moment in the pilot in which I was supposed to get upset at Mary Marsh, the Christian right woman, because that New York sense of humor line. I remember we were rehearsing it and all of a sudden I’m supposed to blow up. It’s the scene that I auditioned for and I remember saying to Tommy and Aaron, you know, I don’t understand why I’m blowing up at this woman.
Tommy goes, it’s the Judah button. It’s the Judah button. You’re just so heavily sensitized to any antisemitic, and I go, no. I don’t buy that. I don’t believe that. He’s been around the world and he’s experienced antisemitism everywhere. No, she’s got to want something. She’s got to want something in this scene because of our mess-up.
Aaron wrote a line, which is, “Let’s deal. Okay, let’s deal.” Toby goes, “I’m sorry?” Does a double take. “I’m sorry. What do we get?” That’s when I start doing a slow burn and realize that she’s just crossed the line. That’s what made Toby, in my mind, transcend. Just being emotional about and sensitive about antisemitic stuff. Being a real political operative, understanding his world and knowing the exact moment that someone has crossed the line and letting them have it.
That was one moment. The other moment was in In Excelsis Deo, which is in the first season, and it’s the scene under the bridge when I found the homeless vet who had died on the bench, and I’m looking for his brother to tell him about his brother dying. I come up with the idea of having a military full-honors funeral. Before that happened, it’s that moment and he says, Toby says, because the guy’s slow and he can’t understand what I’m saying. I get frustrated and I say, “I’m an influential and a very powerful man,” he says.
I remember being embarrassed to have to say that out loud, the actor, and then realizing, no it’s Toby that’s embarrassed. Toby is mortified at having to explain that he can do something because he works in the White House. That moment, I did the same thing on every single take, which is I put my head in my hand and swallowed the words “I’m a very powerful man” and that, to me, defined who he was as someone who was embarrassed by his power and was very careful how he was going to utilize that. While he was stepping over the line in this particular, as far as the rules go, in order to give this homeless vet a full-honor funeral at Arlington. It’s something he had to do and he was embarrassed that he was able to do it. It’s a complex compilation of feelings but that was very important in discovering who this guy really is.
Talking about that discovery, what do you feel, either personally or professionally, you learned about yourself while on the series?
Richard Schiff: Well, one thing you learn is that you can handle pressure. There was an incredible amount of pressure and frustration because, Aaron … Every episode of Aaron’s had the potential for brilliance and that made me always want to reach that ceiling. You don’t always get there.
The frustration of that was a beautiful battle that elevated all of us and made us constantly work harder and harder and harder. I discovered how important that was. I had always known that, but I discovered how important it was for me to reach the potential that was handed to us on a platter. That’s one thing.
Surviving the grind of 18-hour days and getting up at four in the morning to work out for an hour so I’d have the energy to do it again the next day. I did not know I had that discipline. I did not know I had the discipline to learn a seven-page scene in three hours to shoot that day or the next day. I didn’t know that I was capable of realizing that potential.
Be sure to catch Richard Schiff on Rogue on the Audience Network, on Ballers premiering July 19th on HBO, and on The Affair on Showtime this September!