From creator Matthew Carnahan (House of Lies), the National Geographic series Valley of the Boom follows the rise and fall of three different companies – Netscape, TheGlobe.com and Pixelon – whose founders were trying to change the world using the technology of the internet. With an unconventional hybrid of scripted storytelling and documentary interviews with the individuals whose stories are dramatized in the show, the six-episode series illustrates how a con man, college dreamers and professional businessmen were all able to make their mark on the industry until it all came crashing down.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Bradley Whitford talked about the appeal of playing former President and CEO of Netscape Communications Corporation James Barksdale (who is also featured through interviews), whether he met the real guy, how much he knew about Netscape prior to this project, how much of a role technology plays in his own life, and the fun of getting to do some of the crazy things that take place in Valley of the Boom. He also talked about whether he’d be game to be a part of a revival of The West Wing and why it’s dangerous to even consider doing it, as well as his desire to take more responsibility for the stories he’s a part of telling.
Collider: Thank you so much for chatting with me. I’ve been a fan of your work since Adventures in Babysitting.
BRADLEY WHITFORD: Good, god! That was in the ‘80s, right? Jesus!
Yes, it was. And Valley of the Boom is clearly a very different, but interesting project, especially with this mix of documentary and narrative storytelling.
WHITFORD: Yeah. When I read the script, I was incredibly excited about it. You have no idea, when a director is trying to do something this cutting edge and joyous, if it’s gonna work, at all, and it turned out to really be a lot of fun. It’s a way of telling a story that resonates with the story that it’s telling. There was a wild mish-mash of forces coming together. It was the Wild West with high stakes. You were either gonna be Bill Gates, or you were gonna be taking a shower in a parking lot.
It seems like whether you were a teenager, or a con man, or a professional business person, nobody really knew what to do, but anyone could find success.
WHITFORD: Yes. Listen, it reminds me very, very much of show business. It’s a lot of people who are trying to act like they know what would be the right thing to do, but the truth is that you have no idea. You’re constantly trying to apply logic to these things, but there’s an element of alchemy to it.
You’re not only playing people who are still alive, but they’re also actively involved in the project. What is that like?
WHITFORD: There are decisions that you’ve gotta make when you’re playing a real human being, which I’ve done before, but I’ve never had to play a human being, where that human being would be speaking right before me. It’s an added problem. Anytime you play a real person, you don’t want to just do an imitation. It was interesting to play with that. The great thing about the internet is that it gives you access, and it gave me access to [James] Barksdale. I could not watch all of the YouTube videos on him. You can really live with him. The YouTube videos would be playing in the car, just so I could hear the way he talked.
Did you ever talk to him directly?
WHITFORD: No, I didn’t. I logistically was in a situation where I was shooting something else, so I didn’t have time, but I would love to meet him. I did have all of those hours, living with him on the internet. He’s a great guy. He is a profoundly ethical, generous guy who really cared about his employees. And he is one of the great deadpan faces, of all time, with a really great sense of humor. He was fun.
Was this something that you knew anything about, prior to doing this, or do you feel like you’ve become an expert in this subject now?
WHITFORD: I was aware of the name Netscape. Basically, computers bewildered me until Apple came along and made it all really easy. The idea of coding is beyond my cosmic eggshell. I was aware of it. I knew somebody who had gotten very rich through an IPO, and then lost it all and ended up selling used cars. I knew it was going on. This is the origin story of the digital soup that we’re all swimming in now. It’s changed everything. It’s reached into my kids’ brains and changed the way the neurons fire. It’s really interesting to see where it came from, and it’s interesting to see the idealism that was there, that we’re realizing now was either disingenuous or unfounded. It was this euphoric, wonderful place, where you were gonna be able to talk to your high school classmates, and you can do that, but the Klan can talk to each other, too. The Russians can affect voter turn-out in Milwaukee. It’s not a utopia. That’s a little frustrating to me because I think that these big tech people get an ethical pass when, at the end day, all they really care about is making money.