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Joshua Malina – Hail to the Chief

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

Joshua Malina in “The West Wing.”

Joshua Malina

Hail to the Chief

by Jay S. Jacobs

There are lots of ways that people go about trying to get their first big break in acting.  Some people kill themselves working a minimum wage job while floating from audition to audition.  Some try other arts, like music or modeling, as an entrance. Some people sit on a stool in a Hollywood soda fountain and wait to get discovered.  Some eat something gross on national television.

Joshua Malina took a simpler road, and he didn’t even realize it at the time.  He just listened to his mother.

When he graduated from college, he was trying to break into theater.  “In that way that Jewish mothers have, she said, ‘you really ought to call Aaron Sorkin.  I understand he’s writing, or he has something to do with theater.’”  Malina smiles, “So, I followed my mother’s advice and I called him, and we became friends instantly over a poker table.  We used to play at his house once a week.”

Malina and Sorkin became close friends, discussing theater and acting and what it would be like to eventually make it.  Sorkin finished work on a play called A Few Good Men, a drama about a Marine who dies under mysterious circumstances on Guantanamo Bay.  Malina tried out for a part and became an understudy, eventually working hard to become a standout cast member.

Since then, Malina has become sort of a good luck charm for Sorkin, appearing in all three of his films and both of his TV series.  In the films, he played mostly bit parts.  In the movie version of A Few Good Men, he played a Marine orderly.  As he later explained, he had five words of dialogue and three were “sir” and the other two were “yes.”  But his first film role was played against Jack Nicholson, so that wasn’t bad. 

Soon he appeared in other projects like Clint Eastwood’s In the Line of Fire, Sorkin’s Malice, the TV movie Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills, doing a recurring role on Garry Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show, the indie film Clockwatchers (with Lisa Kudrow and Parker Posey) and Warren Beatty’s Bulworth.  Malina also received good notices for the supporting role of a lobbyist in Sorkin’s The American President.

It isn’t just friendship that keeps Sorkin coming back to Joshua Malina.  Sorkin is not the kind of writer that just any performer can pull off.  His dialogue is quick and intricate and overlapping and has a very precise beat.  Much like the work of David Mamet, it takes an actor who is clever and quick on his feet.  Sorkin keeps going back to Malina because he knows he is one of those special actors who will not be flummoxed by the pace and the complexity of the wordplay.

“Once he works with somebody and likes them personally, and likes the way they work, he really does tend to use them again,” Malina explains.  “There’s sort of an informal group of us that I think of as the Mighty Sorkin Players.  I think what he sees in us as a crew are actors that are able to speak his dialogue in a natural way, in the rhythms that he hears in his head.  He’ll tell you he has a very musical approach to writing.  There are very specific cadences and rhythms.  Some people naturally get it, some don’t.  He likes to work with people, first of all, that he gets along with… I think that reflects nicely on him.  He likes to be around his friends.  He likes to employ them.  And he likes to work with actors who can sort of make the dialogue come alive, the way he envisioned it.”

While Malina had enjoyed the smaller roles in the films, he felt ready to play a more substantial role.  He saw his opportunity when Sorkin was hired to create a TV series for ABC in 1998.  Malina loved the scripts that Sorkin had shown him about the relationship of workers on a cable sports news show.  He read several times for the role of Dan Rydell, the hotshot young co-anchor of the series.  Malina thought he had nailed the auditions, but time passed, and he didn’t hear back from the network.  Then he heard that Josh Charles had been hired for the role.  Malina figured that was the end of it.

“Some time passed, and I was sort of licking my wounds,” Malina recalls.  “I got a call from Aaron at home.  He said, ‘Look, hear me out before you say no.’ As if I ultimately would.”

Sorkin asked Malina if he remembered the character of Jeremy in the script.  Jeremy was a young kid working as a production assistant.  “It never would have occurred to me that I might play the role,” Malina says.  Sorkin suggested maybe he could make the character a little older – 27 to 28.  Sorkin could make him an Associate Producer instead of a PA.

“I interrupted him and said, ‘Aaron, if you’re asking me whether I’m interested in playing a different role in this pilot… Yes!’  I don’t care what it is.  That’s certainly one of the endearing qualities of Aaron…  that he would think that he would have to sell me on the idea of a different role,” Malina laughs.  “He did tinker with the script a little bit.  I had to go in one more time, and read with Felicity Huffman and Sabrina Lloyd, who had been cast already.  They did this sort of great opening scene that Jeremy has in the pilot.  I walked out into the hallway.  About 45 seconds later, Aaron came tearing out of the room and literally picked me up.  I said I hope this means I got the job.  So that was Sports Night.

Sports Night debuted to overwhelming critical success in the fall of 1998.  Sadly, the ratings were not quite so good.  Sports Night was scheduled against NBC’s Will & Grace, putting the only two critically acclaimed new half-hour comedies in direct competition with each other.  However, with the reasonable ratings and critical prestige that Sports Night brought ABC, it was renewed at the end of the season.

At the same time, NBC went to Sorkin to create a new hour-long drama based around the White House, to be called The West Wing.  The thing is, Aaron Sorkin is not the type of writer who believes in delegating his vision.  He had written all the scripts for Sports Night in the first season.  Even though it was a monumental task, he was determined to write every episode of the second season, as well as the new series.  Publicly, Sorkin questioned his own sanity, wondering if he’d ever have time for stuff like sleeping and eating.  Nevertheless, Malina had faith in his friend.

“It’s always a mistake to underestimate Aaron.  He is like a writing machine.  I really don’t remember being overly worried.  My feeling was Aaron has an innate ability to rise to a challenge.  He also has a way of just piling challenges on himself.  It sort of seems to be his preferred mode.  I’m the complete opposite.  I hate being under pressure.  You know, I still have nightmares about having a paper due in school.  Aaron thrives under that pressure.”

With a lot of discipline and a lot of caffeine, Sorkin was able to finish helming a season’s worth of two series.  The West Wing became a big hit right out of the gate… political infighting and partisan battles in real life made the White House of President Josiah Bartlet seem to be a wonderfully sane place.  While the characters in the White House staff of the show did have to deal with many life or death problems, political battles, moral and ethical dilemmas, as penned by Sorkin the public knew that these were smart, dedicated and fair people deciding the country’s direction.

Sports Night cast (l to r) Joshua Malina, Sabrina Lloyd, Josh Charles, Felicity Huffman, Peter Krause and Robert Guillaume.

Sports Night continued to be a cult hit, getting good – but not great – Nielsen ratings.  ABC was torn about keeping the show, which was still a huge critical favorite and thus a jewel in the crown of a network that didn’t have too much to be proud of at the time. However, this was the time when Who Wants to Be A Millionaire became a cultural phenomenon.  ABC was desperate for the ratings and the buzz that Millionaire was generating, and they decided to play the show several nights a week.  Sports Night was the last show set adrift to make more room for Regis’ dominance of the web’s schedule (and look how well that worked out.)  The show still had fans in the industry, and cable networks HBO and Showtime made overtures to pick up the series.  Sorkin thought long and hard about it.  In the end, he decided it was just too much work to do both series.  So, as much as he loved Sports Night, it was no more.

One thing Sorkin worried most about was the cast and crew of the show, but the cast has mostly ended up doing well on television.  Peter Krause went on to star in the critically acclaimed HBO series Six Feet Under.  Felicity Huffman has a recurring character on Frasier, as well as starring in the new Showtime drama Out of Order.  Sabrina Lloyd ended up on Ed.  Joshua Malina co-starred with Hank Azaria on his short-lived sitcom Imagine That.  He also acted in the Gwyneth Paltrow movie From the Top, Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg’s epic miniseries From Earth to the Moon and a TV movie called How to Marry A Billionaire.

All the while, Malina was a big fan of The West Wing.  Last year, when he heard that Rob Lowe was thinking of leaving the show, Malina shot off an exploratory e-mail to his old friend Sorkin.  By strange coincidence, Sorkin had just been speaking with series director Thomas Schlamme (who had also helmed Sports Night) about the possibility of writing Joshua into the show.  Sorkin created the character of Will Bailey for Malina, a brilliant political strategist who was running a California campaign that had no chance of winning, as the candidate had died.  Rob Lowe’s Sam Seaborn was trying to rejuvenate the chances of winning and somehow ended up promising the widow and the party that if the spot was won, he would fill in.

Will Bailey is a prototypical Sorkin character; intelligent and hard working, with a complete train wreck of a personal life.  The only reason he doesn’t work himself to death on the campaign is that he is watched over by his sister.  She is played by Danica McKellar, who is best known for playing Winnie Cooper, the love of Kevin Arnold’s life on the old series The Wonder Years.  Malina says that it felt natural working with McKellar from day one.

“She’s a doll,” Malina says.  “I liked her immediately.  It was a funny thing… the nature of working on an Aaron show is that each week you may discover something new about your character.  It was only the second or third episode when we got our scripts and realized we were related.  We said to each other, wow, I’m glad we weren’t doing anything flirty for the first couple of episodes.  That could have been weird.  It is interesting to work with somebody who you’ve essentially watched grow up on TV.  She has that weird thing that I don’t have.  I was a child actor, but I was an amateur.  Then, to watch somebody who’s so much younger than you are and has been in the business so much longer.  She couldn’t be nicer, or more professional.  She’s a terrific actress.”

Another thing that came naturally to Malina was to step in as Lowe was leaving.  Some people would be afraid to replace such a popular character, but it never even occurred to Malina.

“People ask me that frequently, so I guess something about it must seem daunting,” Malina says.  “Maybe it’s a weird combination of confidence and obliviousness.  Literally, [there was] not a twinge of discomfort or nervousness about it.  It was such a great call to get.  I was a big, big fan of The West Wing as a viewer from the first season, when I was still on Sports Night.  Plus, it was a hit show.  To be cast onto what for my money was the best show on TV, and also a promise of work for a few years.  Which is a rarity in any actor’s career, certainly in mine.  It was just pure joy from the moment that Aaron sort of tossed it out there.  I never felt any pressure to be a replacement for Rob.  Plus, I have very thick skin.  I knew there were going to be some people who would never accept me, or these hardcore Rob Lowe fans or Sam Seaborn fans.  That’s fine with me.  I’m not worried about pleasing all the people all the time.  The whole thing has just been a delight for me, from the very beginning.”

The cast and crew worked hard to make it a smooth transition.  Malina had a leg up from the start because he’d already worked with Sorkin and Schlamme.  Also, the cast was warm and open to him immediately.  He knew he’d be okay on the day of Malina’s first table read, when it was still far from clear whether he would become a regular.  John Spencer, who plays chief of staff Leo McGarry, came up to introduce himself.  He told Malina he’d been watching Sports Night in reruns on Comedy Central and was a huge fan.

Malina considers it a perk of the job that he can work with such a strong theater-trained cast.  He compares it to playing doubles in tennis, when the other three players are much better than you.  At first you get your butt kicked for a while, but you play harder and better, to the point where you do the best you possibly can.  “I sort of felt that way coming in and doing scenes with Martin and Allison and John Spencer and everyone.  They’ve sort of raised my game.”

The West Wing cast (l to r) Joshua Malina, John Spencer, Dule Hill, Stockard Channing, Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, Janel Maloney, Richard Schiff and Rob Lowe

Which is important, because the characters of The West Wing are some of the most complex and interesting currently on television.  It certainly is a show that is very much about the workplace.  It circles around people doing real jobs… very important, vital and life altering work that affects not just the country, but the entire world.  These people are brilliant professionally, yet for the most part they are sort of flailing away at their personal relationships.

“That’s actually a very well-articulated description of a Sorkin world,” Malina agrees.  “I think he is a real workaholic, who lives for his job.  I don’t want to say to the exclusion of his personal life…,” (he laughs) “…I can’t comment on that.  But I think his sense of obsessive dedication to his job exists in almost all his characters.  It’s a lot of fun to play.   The people tend to be not only way committed to their jobs, but also incredibly good at them.  When you get to play an Aaron character, there’s a good chance you’re going to be hyper-literate.  Incredibly smart.  Possibly about arcane subjects.  So, it’s a lot of fun to embody the type of character that he creates.”

Perhaps the simplest way to put the charm of The West Wing and Sorkin’s other work is that his writing makes nerdiness sexy.  “I laughed when he started writing me a romantic subplot with Sabrina Lloyd on Sports Night,” Malina admits.  “Only in a world created by my friend Aaron would I be getting romantic subplots.  In his world, if you’re smart and funny, you’re generally going to get the girl.  God bless him for that.”

While the critical acclaim for The West Wing has continued unabated, this season, for the first time, the show had a slight problem in its Nielsen ratings.  Silly reality programming like The Bachelor and Joe Millionaire eroded the show’s dominance in its timeslot, and while the series still finished with high ratings for the season, it was a bit of a letdown.  All of which makes one wonder, is there a place for intelligent fare on TV when some programmers think all they need in a show are masked men and Monica Lewinsky?

“Yes, it is a very disturbing trend,” Malina laughs.  “Although one, to be perfectly honest, I’d have to admit to be a part of.  I do watch some of those shows.  I’m not proud of it, but I’m willing to admit it.  I feel there are two different kinds of TV.  There’s turn your mind off and turn your mind on.  They’re very different.  Sometimes you get home and you’re tired and you want to watch someone else making an ass out of themselves.  Rather than a TV show where you suddenly have to rewind and say, wait a minute, what are they discussing in the scene?  That being said, it is disturbing the extent to which they are taking over TV.  First of all, just as an actor…  They don’t use actors, so watching the job pool shrink the way it has is very distressing.  Also, I do think in the end, it certainly doesn’t have an ennobling effect on our culture to have so many of these shows.  I won’t damn the whole genre, but there’s such a lemming-like quality.  If anything works, you’re going to see another hundred of them.  I hope that the tide will ebb on these.  It was sort of a relief that The Real Cancun wasn’t a big hit.  Because, that was all you need… for them to take over movies, too.  Next thing you know you have Reality Theater, and there’s going to be no outlet for actors.  So, yeah it is disturbing, but at the same time, a lot of people still watch The West Wing.  You don’t feel like it’s going to go away.  It’s still got a battle to fight for a while.”

Another potential problem for the ratings is the current attitude of George W. Bush’s you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us patriotism.  The show tends to be rather open-minded and Sorkin and Martin Sheen have been vocal about questioning the war in Iraq.  While the show has always had a liberal slant, it has continually been very good at balancing the left and the right.  Malina doesn’t want to believe that politics has been a substantial problem for the show.

“It’s hard for me to say.  I’ve certainly read enough speculation about that for me to wonder.  I don’t ultimately think that’s a big element in our ratings decline.  I’ve just spoken to enough people who say that, ‘well, I don’t like the ideas behind the show, but I love the show.’  I feel like the writing is too good for it to be taken as a purely partisan show.  There may be some people who are never going to turn it on…   But, I think, in the end, any issue that Aaron had the characters discuss, always was an issue that was provocative to him.  In other words, he could see both sides of it.  I don’t think he spends a lot of time writing about things that he saw in black and white.  So, yes, it is a Democratic administration.  But the show is frequently unfairly painted as being this super liberal podium.”

A little over a week before this interview took place, a bombshell was dropped on The West Wing.  Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme, two of the three men responsible for the look, and sound and style of the show, decided to step down.  John Wells, the third executive producer of the show, who is also one of the creators and guiding forces of E.R. and Third Watch, agreed to step in and take over.  This upheaval left the show in the middle of a complex cliffhanger, both on the screen and in real life.  The President’s daughter had been kidnapped, the Vice President had resigned due to a sex scandal, and President Bartlet was giving over his power to his opposition, a Republican senator played by John Goodman.  How was the show going to survive without the view of its creators?  Sorkin was notoriously the type of writer who flew by the seat of his pants, made up plot points in the heat of writing and later spent time cleaning up the messes that his characters had gotten themselves into.  Famously, Sorkin gave President Bartlet multiple sclerosis simply because he wanted to write a scene where Bartlet would be able to watch daytime TV.  Could other writers extricate the characters from the myriad of sub-plots Sorkin had so deftly juggled, and could they make the characters as unique and interesting?

Malina was still taken aback by the news when I spoke with him.  He allowed that he’d heard rumors there were some big changes coming up.  He had somewhat thought that Schlamme may be moving on.  As the season had gone on, the veteran director had been allowing others to take over the reins.  But Sorkin leaving blindsided him.

“That came out of left field for me,” Malina says.  “I think, the other people like Brad [Whitfield], who have known him for a long time feel the same way.  We just said, Aaron will never not write The West Wing.  I just can’t see him walking away.  He’s so proprietary and so invested in his characters and his situations.  I can’t see him handing it off.  That being said, I believe he must have very good reasons for deciding to do so.  Certainly, if it’s purely that he’s ready to take a break, he’s earned it.  It’s almost like a singular achievement, to have written like ninety episodes in four years.  It’s astonishing.  Particularly given how good they all are.  So, I bear him no grudge, no resentment for whatever his motivation is.

“As far as the future of the show, my initial reaction was, creative devastation.  I can’t believe it.  I don’t even have a full season under my belt, and he’s leaving.  I still feel sort of heartbroken on that level.  This friend of mine for fifteen years, who’s just a genius writer, created this character for me and has been writing me great stuff every week.  That’s not going to be the case anymore.  That is personally a huge loss.  I’ll also be disappointed just not to be working with Aaron.”

Malina is taking some solace in the fact that Wells has stepped up to the plate for the show.  “It’s going to be under the supervision of John Wells, who is no slouch.  I’m glad that in the giant vacuum left by Tommy and Aaron there is a John Wells.  Somebody in whom you can have great confidence, somebody who has been very successful in the industry and has been involved in the creation of really good shows.  I read a quote somewhere where John said that Aaron was irreplaceable, and that actually buoyed my spirits.  I thought, this is a good thing.  I’m glad to hear him say that.  I think what that means is that we’re going to go through some kind of transformation.  The show is going to become something in some way new, rather than John trying find people who can sort of ape Aaron’s writing.  I don’t think there is anyone [who can do that.]  You’re better off, given a tough situation, going back to the drawing board a little bit and think, okay, how do we make this work without Aaron?”

If history and talent in front of and behind the cameras are any indication, The West Wing should make it through the rough patch and emerge all the stronger on the other side.  It won’t always be pretty.  It won’t always be easy.  It won’t always be right.  However, it will be well thought out and executed the in the best way possible by the smartest people available.  And they’ll probably work too hard, eat on the run and let personal relationships suffer to achieve their finest.  Sounds like business as usual at The West Wing.

Copyright ©2003  All rights reserved.  Posted: May 14, 2003.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2003 Chris Haston – Courtesy of NBC Television

#2 © 1999 Courtesy of Dreamworks Television

#3 © 2003 Courtesy of NBC Television

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