Bradley Whitford is taking a digital leap of faith.
On Valley of the Boom, NatGeo goes outside the box once again, this time unfurling the fascinating tale of the Internet’s formative years in the 1990s pre-Google, pre-Facebook and pre-YouTube. Like Mars, this six-hour limited series — from House of Lies creator Matthew Carnahan — supports the scripted drama with documentary-style interviews featuring experts and tech players. Unlike Mars, Valley of the Boom breaks the fourth wall, infusing flash mobs, dream ballets and even puppets (yup, you heard right), to enhance the story.
“Precisely because it was so risky, it was going to basically find a way to tell a story that resonated with the material about a wild, unconventional time,” Whitford told ET. “You don’t know it’s going to work until you see it with an audience laughing along and understanding it all. But we’re not serving historical vegetables here, it’s a very entertaining way to tell the origin story of this digital water that we’re all swimming in, this thing that’s overtaken our lives and reached into our brains and our children’s brains and rearranged the way neurons fire.”
Whitford plays Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale, the real-life face of the company that had goals of being the No. 1 Internet browser. Embarking on a show that required one to suspend an element of disbelief was a challenge Whitford wholly embraced.
“When I read the script, I thought it was great. I thought it was weirdly clear in telling a very complicated story and I had never seen anything like it. I couldn’t compare it to anything,” the 59-year-old TV vet explained. “Those are the things in my career that have been the most exciting. When I read Get Out, it was like, Oh my god, this could really not work. Those are the ones that tend to be the most satisfying to pull off. There was a joyous exploration while we were doing it. You certainly don’t know it’s going to work until you see it with an audience.”
It wasn’t until Whitford saw the first two episodes for the first time at the Tribeca TV Festival in September that things clicked. This might actually work. “Man, they were totally with it, laughing along. It was a tough room of reporter types — like yourself,” he said with a chuckle.
Whitford recalled witnessing the tech boom in the infancy stages of the digital age, crediting Apple co-founder Steve Jobs for being an instrumental voice in creating and streamlining a tech movement that was both user-friendly and innovative. He also recalled “tangentially” experiencing the rise and fall of the dot-com bubble through a friend who one day had hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposable through a successful IPO, and the next was making ends meet by selling cars.
“I knew the Wild West aspect of it. I don’t think the Google guys understood how fundamentally this would change the world. Maybe they did, but it’s been a radical, radical change,” he shared.
Whitford didn’t meet Barnsdale before he jumped into the role, partly because there was little time for him to do so.
“I had a pretentious way of rationalizing not talking to him but it’s dishonest,” he confessed. “Logistically, I was working on something else and I had to go right into shooting [this]. The good news is the one thing the Internet has done is — it may have destroyed democracy but it’s been a wonderful resource for actors doing research. I had hours and hours and hours of videotape of him in all sorts of different situations.”
“If I was playing Jim Barnsdale 20 years ago, I would have come to New York and gone to the Museum of Broadcasting, had 45 minutes to watch him and maybe snuck a tape recorder in so I could get his voice down. But now I can just bring up one of his speeches on my phone while I’m driving my kids to school and practice,” Whitford said of his preparation process, adding that he “would like to speak to him.” “I’m hoping at some point in this process that I will. He was a guy who I really fell in love with. I think he’s a really honorable guy in a difficult environment, and he’s incredibly funny in a very understated, deadpan way that I loved.”
The West Wing alum grew to respect the real Barnsdale through playing him, elaborating on why he’s symbolic of what’s missing in the current Internet age.
“He had a decency, in terms of his obligation as the head of a business venture, to make sure that it was run well. He was not a guy who was not going to cash out,” Whitford said. “It’s something that I think is absent in a lot of digital Godzillianaires. There’s a tendency to fall back on making as much money as you possibly can, and I loved that he was tortured by business fundamentals and the ideas about the most ethical way to run a business. A lot of that, unfortunately, is absent now.”
Valley of the Boom launches with a two-hour premiere Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NatGeo.