Commanders-in-Chief: Playing the President: The New Yorker Festival 9 October 2016

My trip to the second event I was seeing on Sunday at the New Yorker Festival was 20 blocks north and 5 (long) blocks east from where I was. Normally I have enough time between events to walk to each location. This panel was supposed to take place at the same venue as the John Goodman interview but then they changed the location to the Directors Guild Theatre. My original plan was to have lunch between the two events but now there wasn’t enough time. And there wouldn’t be time to eat after this event and the next. I had planned poorly. I walked quickly east and made a last minute decision to take the bus instead of walking south a couple of blocks to the subway. I thought I could make it to the bus stop in time but the bus passed by just before I got there. Luckily another bus came a few minutes later. Midtown traffic was worse than usual for a Sunday because of a parade and the rain. I got off two blocks before my stop and walked because that would be faster. I managed to get there just before the event started and got a decent seat on the right side.

This event was a panel of actors who have portrayed the president of the US. The main reason I bought the ticket was an opportunity to see Nick Nolte. I have a soft spot for him and I still remember that beautiful man in Rich Man, Poor Man. The rest of the panel was Tony Goldwyn (President Fitzgerald Grant, Scandal), Bill Pullman (President Thomas Whitmore, Independence Day), and Alfre Woodard (President Constance Payton, State of Affairs). When the actors sat down and we saw that there were only three of them, moderator Michael Shulman said, “Nick Nolte didn’t quite make it.” The audience laughed knowingly. Shulman introduced each actor first by their character’s name and then again by their real names. Before the panel sat down we were treated to a series of film clips of many TV and movie US presidents. One note – I have never seen the movie or TV shows that these actors starred in as president.

Shulman asked what went into playing the president. Woodard said that there is protocol. It has to be realistic or people will notice right away that something’s wrong. The person comes into the job, which doesn’t change. Goldwyn said that for every minute of every day every mistake is hot. He said Barack Obama said that every decision that comes to his desk is already an impossible decision. That’s why he gets it. Pullman was more interested in what the other actors had to say. He said it’s a question of identity like Hamlet. Asked if there was any hesitation when offered the role of president, Woodard said that she said, “Of course I’ll play the president.” Goldwyn said it was an easy yes. And Pullman had responded that it must be a comedy when they asked him.

What does the word presidential mean to you? Pullman thought a lot of it would be directing people. Everyone would have to triangulate to me. Goldwyn said that all eyes are on you 24/7 and everything you do; you are speaking for the entire country. You have to have grace under fire. Woodard said there was a different awareness for her coming in as a woman since she had no role models. She felt a responsibility to the character and she gave Payton a backstory as a combat vet. She asked herself, “How does a woman become president?” The audience may not know the backstory but if you believe the actor then she’s done her job. Pullman said it was important for Whitmore to have a military background because the then current president (Bill Clinton) did not. He recalled the scene with him wearing a flight suit on the aircraft carrier and then a few years later seeing George Bush replicate that in real life and how strange that was.

They showed the clip of Whitmore giving the speech to the troops at night and Pullman hid his face in his hands. Shulman said he remembered the speech as to the nation and was surprised when he saw the clip. Shulman felt like the speech had happened in real life. Pullman said that Fox wanted to call the movie Doomsday because they thought Independence Day was a stupid name since they wanted people to see the film all year round and not just on July 4th. So in order to convince the movie executives to keep the original title, the filming of the speech scene was moved up so that they could show the scene to the executives. Because of the scheduling and set-ups, by the time they filmed the scene it was 4:00am. There was no applause when he did it, especially since he had to do it several times. But what makes the scene are the cutaways. For the speech, Pullman studied a cd of RFK’s speech after MLK was killed. He thought that RFK spoke beautifully to fear. Woodard thought that Bush’s post-9/11 speeches sounded like he’d been watching Independence Day.

Pullman said that when you’ve played the president you will see a look in a real president’s eyes that says, “You’re one of us.” They love the theater of saying ‘Mr. President’ to an actor. He told a story about meeting Obama. He was in a room full of verbose writers for 1600 Penn (a comedy where Pullman would be playing the president). He wasn’t wearing a tie but figured it would be okay because, you know, artist. But all the writers were wearing ties so Pullman was feeling very badly and then Obama showed up and the normally verbose writers were star struck. Obama went down the line shaking hands and Pullman was at the end of the line. Hopelessly, he kept wondering what he was going to say, how was he going to apologize, would the lack of tie be noticed? Obama shook Pullman’s hand and said, “So, you’re me!” and Pullman answered, “That’s why I didn’t wear a tie. So they could tell us apart!” Obama had fed him the line he needed.

I don’t remember the topic but at one point Pullman said to Goldwyn, “You’re buff!” Goldwyn said that in Shondaland (the shows by creator, producer, writer Shonda Rhimes) all the men have to be naked. At this point they showed the inauguration scene where Fitz tried to convince Kerry Washington’s character to have sex in the Oval Office while she kept insisting they needed to end their affair now that he was president. Many of the women in the first couple of rows applauded and cheered and when the scene ended abruptly they were disappointed. A couple of women in these rows had to be told to stop recording (they were only recording Goldwyn) and during the Q&A section they directed gushing questions to him. After the event was done, the women surrounded Goldwyn. Goldwyn said that sex scenes are difficult to film because they’re technical. There was a scene where Washington is on his lap and the director is saying, “Now put your hand on her breast. And put your hand on his butt.” Shulman said the Fitz was using power as an aphrodisiac in that scene but Goldwyn has to think of Fitz as not using his power that way. At least not consciously. Shulman asked what presidents he looks at and Goldwyn said he looks at Clinton for the heart and Obama for the grace under fire.

Shulman wondered if the 2016 election had changed the rules. Woodard said a script of the 2016 would never have gotten a green light. We will probably be saying Madame President and the charac…candidate will go on with the life that he had. But the country has been poisoned. We have unleashed the worst and now our children are going to absorb it. Woodard hopes that they will say, “Go collect your Social Security and be gone.” Shulman said that plots used to be considered crazy but now real life is crazier. Is that a problem for the show? Goldwyn joked that that is Shonda’s problem. She used to be ahead of the curve by writing plots that later became real-life stories but now she can’t keep up. Shonda entertains in a mainstream way.

Shulman asked if the show reflects the mood of the country. There is a reverence for fictional presidents but Veep now makes a buffoon of the president. And there’s President Underwood in House of Cards.

Shulman wondered if fictional presidents are a counterbalance to the actual president in power. Woodard said she has been knocking on doors since she was 10 years old. She has been around the political process all her life. Some say she was brought to the center by her allegiance to Obama. You must govern from a place that takes care of everyone, therefore, no one is satisfied. You must be able to speak well for your side. The impulse, for her, would have been for her character to go the other way but instead she’s a military person. Michael Skolnik gave her a copy of How to Be President to prep for the role. Shulman asked Woodard what it felt like to be the first female black president. Woodard said we owe our boys positive representation just as much as we owe it to our girls. But she can’t think about how the character is perceived because then she’s stepped out of character.

The first question from the audience was from a woman who had served in the military who asked what would your character say to make me vote for you. Woodard asked what branch and it was Army, which is also where her character served. Pullman joked that his character was Air Force so he had no chance for her vote. Woodard said she would tell her that she will take care of her family, make sure all veterans had access to good hospitals, and that she had access to business benefits. She would make sure that your girls played sports because studies show that that gives them a better sense of self and your sons had access to higher education. Goldwyn said that he would like to concede to Woodard. Woodard whispered in Goldwyn’s ear and then revealed that she’d told him to woo her. Pullman said that we prepare our vets to go into battle but there had to be a boot camp that helps them reacclimate to civilian life. But you don’t have to vote for me for that (speaking as Pullman and not as Whitmore).

The next person thought that many fictional portrayals of presidents have made us lose respect for the presidency. Goldwyn disagreed. This election cycle bar has been lowered so much. Woodard said that Americans are smarter than that and these portrayals don’t change the discourse. You came from somewhere and everyone has a right to say something.

Were any of the actors concerned with offending a president? And was there any president they would like to portray? Woodard worked for the Obamas and she saw Obama and his wife in the trenches. She was afraid to tell him that she would be playing the president and when she finally told him, he said, “Yup. I heard.” He hadn’t had time to see the show and she does not want him to see it. There hasn’t been a president she wants to portray. Goldwyn said he didn’t know if there was any president he’d like play because he’s been too busy playing a fictional mess. Maybe George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. Woodard joked that Jefferson had so many children and Goldwyn said she could play Sally Hemmings. Pullman stroked his beard and said, “Martin Van Buren. I have the muttonchops now. But no one has written the script.”

The next person told them that the characters they play are all great characters. Goldwyn said it’s all about characterization. He is so lucky to be developing Fitz for Shonda. The way a creator works with you is important. Shonda doesn’t ask his opinion but when she’s in the editing room she sees how the character grows by what’s happening in the show.

Then one of the Goldwyn fan girls came up and said she’s a Fitz fan for life. She said she cries from all the hate in this election and asked if any of them had Trump supporters among their friends. Woodard said she has equal part Hillary and Bernie friends. You can disagree on policy. She works with Trump people because she works throughout the country. Her job is to understand their point-of-view and to use her words to get them to see her point-of-view. She said you can’t just talk with people who think like you. Shulman said we need Woodard to run for office and she said, “I don’t behave.” Goldwyn thought Woodard had a brilliant answer and said we need to keep having this conversation. He works for Hillary and activism is back in vogue. He kept referring to young people like her and his and Woodard’s children (college age) and the questioner finally had to tell him that she’s 36.

The panel was thanked and the women swarmed around Goldwyn and I ran off to get to my final event of the weekend, which was down on 23rd Street.




By Carene Lydia Lopez