Politics has provided a backdrop to Treat Williams’ acting career dating back to his breakout role as anti-war hippie Berger in Hair. Now, Williams appears on-screen in this election year portraying members of the elected class—both historic and fictional—in a pair of films exploring divisive discourse in Washington, D.C.
In The Congressman, the Closing Night Film for the Sarasota Film Festival, Williams portrays principled Congressman Charlie Winship, a politician who finds himself in a public relations nightmare after declining to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to start the workday. Sarasota cinephiles saw the only festival screening of the comedy on April 9 at the Sarasota Opera House. The film will open in New York and Los Angeles on April 29. But before that, Williams fans can see the actor portray the late Sen. Ted Kennedy in Confirmation, a film exploring the controversial Clarence Thomas confirmation to the Supreme Court that premieres on HBO this Saturday, April 16. We spoke with Williams at the Longboat Key Club Resort about both roles.
What first drew you to the role of Charlie Winship in The Congressman?
I’m always drawn to a good story and good character. The character of Charlie Winship is going through this turmoil in his life. Those are fun characters to play because things happen to them. We always say Charlie has had a very very bad day. That bad day turns into a really huge kind of battle, where they try to have him removed from Congress for things he did and eventually he has to decide whether or not he is going to fight back.
Were there any real world scandals affecting members of Congress that you thought about when filming?
No, it was so specific to him. These scandals happen to people in all walks of life, not just politics. But he is a certainly similarity to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, the great Gary Cooper film that Frank Capra did. I had friends in that movie, one who blackballed from movies for a while. because of the House Un-American Activities Committee. But there is a period in that movie where someone really lets Gary Cooper’s character down. He is really blindsided by her. She was someone he was becoming fond of and she was doing an expose on him being a rube from Vermont, and he decided not to fight her, and they will put him in an asylum and he doesn’t care. He just feels so let down by humanity in general. iIthink there is a parallel for Charlie when it’s just too much. Then he fights back.
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/159196773″>THE CONGRESSMAN Trailer</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user49281549″>The Congressman</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
You live in New England yourself?
I do. I’m from New England. I am a staunch New Englander. I keep playing New Englanders. I just played Ted Kennedy for HBO.
And what attracted you to play a figure like Kennedy?
Ironically, I was sleeping on a boat when Kennedy went off the bridge at Chappaquiddick. I was a 17-year-old kid sleeping on a boat about 50 yards from the bridge. In a way, my childhood and his childhood are similar in that we are both went to prep schools. We both vacationed in Cape Cod at Martha’s Vineyard. I did not have a Boston accent, so that’s the part I had to work on. That was one of the things that was very important, that my accent meshed with and was at least similar to Kennedy’s. It was an interesting part to play. I have mutual friends who were fiends with Ted. He was really gregarious, kind and fun to be around. But this particular period in his life was just before his nephew’s rape trial was set to begin. You know the house where that all took place. There is a man who lives in the house named Trump. That was the Kennedy compound. So Kennedy, when this all came out, says ‘I’m not the guy to be the forefront of this.’ Not that he did anything wrong at Mar-A-Lago, just that he thought it would be inappropriate to take the lead on this, but it was Joe Biden who was the chairman of the committee anyway. So he was quite tamed by the event.
Which is more interesting, playing an historic figure like Kennedy or a created one like Winship?
Well, playing Kennedy, you have a certain obligation to behavior and voice. I studied for hours and hours. Charlie Winship was more fun for me because of the fact he came from inside of me. I made Charlie Winship. There was nobody I had to study and and no one to tell me all his great exploits, which half of them probably weren’t true. Charlie was a character that came out of my brain. Also I had more to do. [In Confirmation] I sat at a dais, and we sat for long hours listening to testimony. It’s hard, but it’s a lovely film.
Do you think as a New Englander, Charlie Winship is someone who could be elected as a representative for the area?
I would like to have Charlie Winship representing me. He is a Vietnam veteran . He cares deeply about his constituents. He goes back and listens to them. How many guys go home and sit in a trailer and listen to their constituents, about some things that are really mundane? I think he is a guy with a really big heart. He doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. He’s a little damaged, but I think I want somebody who has a very strong moral compass, and that’s what he has. It is revealed to us as the film progresses. He is a bit of a drunkard when it starts, and we see this kind of evolution of Charlie over a period of three or four days, which is quite wonderful.
Where do you rank The Congressman in your entire portfolio of work?
It’s right up there. It was made on a shoestring budget. It’s an independent film so it doesn’t fit in a category of the big movies I have done, but if you ask me for a list of the 100-some-odd films I have done, and the television I have done, then it’s up there in the Top 10 easily. It’s funny. You can take it if you want or you can just enjoy the movie. It’s about loyalty and it’s about patriotism and it’s about all these highfalutin words. but they are not on a signpost somewhere. I would put it right up there with Prince of the City and Hair and Once Upon A Time in America and The Deep End of the Ocean. My friend Ryan Merriman played my son with Michelle Pfeiffer in that movie (The Deep End of the Ocean) and now he is 33 years old and plays my aide in The Congressman. Everybody in this is really wonderful. So I am thrilled.
In advance of the festival, there has been a lot of talk about this particularly rancorous political season. How do you feel about this movie screening in this political climate?
This is not choice, by the way. It is all by happenstance. We made this film three years ago. I was hoping the film would have come out two years ago. This is not some sort of maneuvering to put this film out in the right atmosphere. And I truly believe the film stands on its own, even if this weren’t an election year. I think the film will have a life after this election year. But it does examine certain aspects, particularly the ability of a news station that hates somebody to take a soundbite, cut it and edit it in such a way as to make the person look really bad. That’s dangerous to me, and I’ve seen it done on both sides of the fence. This sort of examines that. We get to see what he (Charlie Winship) says and does, and then we see what the news station does with it.
Can this film improve the national dialogue?
I’m not the one to do that. I hope that people gave a good time and have a nice dinner afterwards. What we are geared to do and what I like to do is entertain people. I make people laugh. I like to be a part of good storytelling. And if somebody learns something, that would be a wonderful piece of icing on the cake. Somebody said once if you want to send a message, call Western Union.