The resilient Hallmark Hall of Fame franchise premieres its first installment of the season on Sunday (November 27) night, but after years as destination viewing on CBS, Hallmark is moving to ABC for “Mitch Albom’s Have a Little Faith.”
The movie also marks a change of pace for leading man Bradley Whitford, who has to set aside the ace sarcastic delivery that he’s brought to “The West Wing” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and “The Good Guys,” to play the mostly-earnest small screen proxy for Albom, who also served as writer and executive producer.
Based on Albom’s book, “Have a Little Faith” finds the less-than-religious sportswriter learning life lessons from a pair of clergymen: His childhood rabbi (Martin Landau) and the ex-con preacher (Laurence Fishburne) at a cash-strapped Detroit church.
I got on the phone with Whitford earlier this week to discuss his schmaltz radar, his impressive “Faith” co-stars and whether he’d be interested in working on Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series.
Click through for the full Q&A.
HitFix: I watched the movie yesterday and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you so prolongedly earnest on TV before. Was that part of the draw for you?
Bradley Whitford: [Laughter] Yeah. It was different from the wise-cracking cynic, so that was a part of the attraction.
HitFix: Did it present any kind of challenge?
BW: You mean being irony-deficient? [More laughter.] No, because the minute they’d turn the camera off, I just started messing around as much as possible.
HitFix: How much was Mitch actually on-set during production?
BW: Mitch was there all day, every day. Occasionally he would run off to do his radio show during the middle of the day, but he was an amazing resource to have. There’s some very emotional stuff that he was going through and having him to talk to was both intimidating, but also helpful in terms of getting it right.
HitFix: How much would you say you’re playing Mitch Albom, the real guy, and how much are you just playing a character from Mitch’s script?
BW: Well, I’m certainly not trying to do an impression of Mitch. It’s not like you’re playing a Kennedy or somebody who the audience is going to be very familiar with in terms of speech or movement. With someone like Mitch, not that many people know what he looks like or know what he talks like, so it would be distracting to do an imitation like that. But you are trying to, as you would with any character, you’re trying to think up the thought process and how these different events affected him and I found it very helpful. And he was not at all dogmatic with me about “Tone it down here” or “Pick it up there.” He was an incredibly supportive presence.
HitFix: It wasn’t an impression, but were there any mannerisms or intonations that you picked up from him that you specifically wanted to make sure you put into the performance.
BW: Absolutely not.
HitFix: Calculatedly not?
BW: I think perhaps some of the behavior may have synched up a little bit, just because Mitch is always thinking a lot and that gets into the way that he presents himself, so that might have synched up a bit, so I was really not trying to do an imitation of him.
HitFix: Directing this, you have Jon Avnet, who’s almost made a career out of making things less schmaltzy than they might otherwise be. How did you sense that tone was being monitored when Jon was on the set?
BW: I think anybody who’s any good has an incredible fear of schmaltz, because schmaltz is sentimentality and I think you can define sentimentality as “unearned emotion.” So I don’t think he’s just trying not to make it schmaltzy. He’s trying to be absolutely true to what is going on. There certainly is a balance, because there are some powerful scenes in there and you don’t want to shy away from that, but you don’t want the currency to be cheap. You don’t want the audience to feel manipulated. You want to feel like it’s earned. That’s just because Jon is an incredibly smart and talented storyteller, but anybody who’s any good has a big, big schmaltz radar on.
HitFix: For you in particular, how finely attuned is your schmaltz radar?
BW: I was always concerned about it. I was concerned that the audience saw Mitch’s trepidation about connecting with these men, that they saw his reticence to hook up with dogma, his suspicion of organized religion. And I thought that ultimately, this story was one that transcends all of those issues and it wasn’t until they were transcended that I felt like Mitch’s character really connected. You just don’t want to do that too early.
HitFix: You’re working opposite two very formative and formidable co-stars here. What are some key differences between acting opposite Martin Landau and acting opposite Laurence Fishburne?
BW: Well, hopefully it’s different with everybody. These are radically, radically different human beings. The good thing about both of these guys is that they’re so good that you don’t even have to act, that you can just kinda shake your Etch A Sketch before the scene starts and they’ll take you there. And they, in very, very, different ways, do that. Landau is funny as hell. I had no idea idea how funny he is. And Laurence is an old friend from theater days in New York, so it was great to see him again.
HitFix: You emphasized just how different they are a couple times. Give me a couple ways that a day working with Fishburne is different from a day working with Landau…
BW: Well, in these particular roles, Laurence is such a graceful, powerful presence that my character was much less familiar with and he has a kinda danger about him that, for the Mitch Albom character, is something you’re kinda looking up to like a scared dog. With Martin, for Mitch’s character, there’s much more of a cultural familiarity and a sense of humor. The challenge in this with Laurence is that Mitch’s character is certainly a fish out of water in there. I can tell you that my preparation for both of them, which I think they will confirm, stays the same. And that’s “F*** around as much as possible between takes.”
HitFix: With Aaron Sorkin twice and with Matt Nix on “Good Guys,” your past few television projects have been with some of the most distinctive voices in the industry. How does that impact that choices you make in TV projects going forward?
BW: You know, Marlon Brandon in a Crest commercial is still a Crest commercial. No offense to Crest. Without the writing, none of it matters. If the writing isn’t there… If it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage… All of the cliches, but that is the most important thing. You want a writer with a vehement kinda voice that is distinct from all the other stuff going on. It’s very interesting to me, just as an actor, in my personal experience, you do a lot of development in television. If “The West Wing” had been developed, it would have stunk. My wife at the time, Jane, was on a show called “Malcolm in the Middle.” If that had been developed, it would have stunk. What you had was two writers who for very different reasons were able to execute their vehement visions. That’s what makes these things work. Mitch, who’s working in a very different medium in terms of his writing, I would include him in having a very clear vision of the kind of thing that he wants to get across and he was able to define that in “Tuesdays with Morrie,” which gave him the power to keep it growing with the fiction books he’s written and with this story as well.
HitFix: Aaron obviously has his new HBO show. Will there be a role for you?
BW: I have no idea. Aaron does not need to give me a role. I would go to his house and mow his lawn. If he wanted.
HitFix: But you’re ready?
BW: Yeah, I’m ready. I’m ready and I’ll be in the makeup trailer as soon as he… *if* he needs me.
HitFix: Obligatory last question for this particular movie. So, what is *your* glory?
BW: Honestly, and I hope this isn’t corny, my glory is my children and the time I get to spend with them. They’re definitely the best characters I’ve ever created, I can tell you that.
“Mitch Albom’s Have a Little Faith” premieres on Sunday, November 27 at 9 p.m. on ABC.