‘West Wing’ Stars Talk About Show’s Rapid Dialogue, How Hard It Was To Learn It

by Suzanne Halliburton

You remember all that noble West Wing chatter. It came at you hard and fast. That’s a calling card for show creator Aaron Sorkin.

Now, imagine having to memorize all those words. And then on top of memorizing the sentences, you needed to understand what you were saying. West Wing was based on an authentic experience of a president, his staff and cabinet. The actors playing the characters needed to be believable.

So in other words, memorizing said words was a tough job. Let Bradley Whitford explain how tough. “It would be a soul-sucking day if you came to work and didn’t know your lines.”

And all that fantastic Aaron Sorkin dialogue also was a topic earlier this month for Variety’s Actors on Actors digital series. Whitford, who portrayed Josh Lyman, talked West Wing with Marlee Matlin, who played recurring character Joey Lucas.

If you know your West Wing history, Josh served as deputy chief of staff to the president. Lucas was a pollster.

Bradley Whitford, Aaron Sorkin, Marlee Matlin (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Matlin, who is hearing impaired, marveled at the quick clip of the dialogue. Then Whitford offered his own anecdote on how tough it was to make The West Wing sing.

“By the way, for my father, who I loved very, very much. He was having some cognitive issues, God bless him,” the West Wing star recalled. “He only saw the pilot before he passed away. I remember him turning to me and saying, ‘It looks great, but I have no idea what’s going on.'”

Then Whitford discussed the genius of Sorkin. “Aaron knows what he’s saying, these characters know what they’re saying. But Aaron is (writing) racing just ahead of the audience. He’s remarkably articulate, but he’s pulling you. It’s crystal and it’s clear, but the mind of the story is racing just ahead of the audience.

“When it works, that’s part of what makes it so addictive It was something that taught me that just learn your lines as fast as you can. You would not only have to get them memorized … After I had them memorized, I would do endless repetitions of it because you had to get it in your subconscious so that the technical aspect of the performance was removed and then your blood can flow. If you’re just trying to memorize complicated lines you’re like walking like a llama.”

As everyone got the visual of a llama in their heads, Maitlin remembered asking Sorkin if she could cheat a bit with her sign language with her West Wing lines.

“I’m playing a pollster and my job was to remember numbers,” Matlin said. “And I was crummy at math growing up. So numbers, I had to memorize numbers. So I asked Aaron ” do you mind, because not everybody knows sign language, so I probably could get away with it. Can I just make up some signs with numbers?’ He says no, you have to be as specific as the script is. And I thought to myself if you and the rest of you have to deliver your lines exactly as written, then I have to be just as precise with my sign language. But I was really impressed with your work, everyone’s work.”

You can check out the rest of the interview below. Since Sorkin isn’t in the room, you probably can slow down all those West Wing memories.