Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux on new Watergate series White House Plumbers: ‘It’s absurd and ridiculous’

Louis Chilton speaks to the actors, as well as co-star Lena Headey and writer David Mandel, about the new miniseries – which tells the story of Watergate like you’ve never heard it before

Monday 29 May 2023 13:54 BST
Another fine mess: Justin Theroux and Woody Harrelson make for a clownish double-act in ‘White House Plumbers'
Another fine mess: Justin Theroux and Woody Harrelson make for a clownish double-act in ‘White House Plumbers' (HBO/Sky)

We all know the story of Watergate. At least, we all think we do. The 1972 scandal – in which a team of Richard Nixon’s subordinates burgled the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Office Building in Washington, DC – as well as the ensuing cover-up, constituted a controversy so monumental that it toppled a presidency and coined a whole new suffix.

Watergate has been the focus of many films and TV series before, from All the President’s Men to Oliver Stone’s Nixon. Most of these films tackle the story from the top down, framing the scandal as a tale of Machiavellian politicians and heroic investigators. White House Plumbers, a new five-part miniseries premiering on Sky and NOW, flips this narrative on its head, and looks at the men actually responsible for the break-in (or, to be more accurate, four separate break-ins). Here, Watergate becomes the story of bungling dogmatists run amok.

Specifically, White House Plumbers is about two of them: E Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and G Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux). Hunt was a former CIA agent whose reputation was shredded by his involvement in the Bay of Pigs debacle; Liddy was a lawyer and ex-FBI agent who had a disturbing fascination with Adolf Hitler. “White House Plumbers” was a name euphemistically given to a covert Special Investigations Unit, established after the Pentagon Papers leak in 1971. The group served as the Nixon administration’s de facto “fixers”, ostensibly charged with preventing further data leaks. “[White House Plumbers] is about this budding bromance,” Theroux tells me. “Two guys with enormous egos who had such a glorious downfall. It’s a love story, really,” he adds. “I’m joking, but I’m half not joking.”

Watergate storytelling is often treated with a kind of po-faced sense of democratic indignation; White House Plumbers is best characterised as a black comedy. David Mandel, who directed the series, was an apt choice in this regard, having previously worked on sitcoms such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and Veep. “I like to call this story a very funny tragedy,” Mandel says. Theroux agrees: “It’s all so absurd and ridiculous. We didn’t ever wanna lean too hard into the comedy of it… it was just funny by itself.” The miniseries’ belief-straining comic details are indeed its strongest suit. Liddy, in particular, makes for a captivatingly off-kilter antihero.

One particularly outrageous scene sees Hunt and his ex-CIA wife, Dorothy (Lena Headey), attend an intimate dinner party thrown by Liddy, who begins playing a vinyl record of old Hitler speeches. In another scene, the click of a toy gun around a breakfast table prompts Liddy to point his weapon in the face of a small child. Theroux is utterly transformed in the role, which involved a number of physical prosthetics (including a “mouth plumper”) and a bizarre, pathologically intense manner of speaking. The real Liddy was even stranger. “You had to like dial back from what Liddy was really like,” Theroux explains. “If I did a real Liddy, it looked like a cartoon – because he was kind of a cartoon in and of himself.”

Harrelson, meanwhile, opted against mimicry. Eschewing Hunt’s “boring” speaking voice for a loose impression of General Patton, the former Cheers star gives a solid if relatively unshowy performance as the straight man of the pair – a bitter, jilted ex-spook with shades of Burn After Reading’s Osbourne Cox. Politically, Harrelson has described himself as “purple” and “more Marxist than fascist”: he could hardly be more different to the staunchly right-wing Hunt. “I used to be zealous,” Harrelson tells me. “In fact, I was a zealous Republican at one point, when I was 18. So I kind of get that ideology. But I don’t relate to it anymore.”

Adapted from the book Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons from the White House by lawyer Egil “Bud” Krogh and his son Matthew Krogh, White House Plumbers takes the cold, hard truths of what happened and bounces them around a little. Many of the nuttiest details were in fact true; the vague suggestion that Liddy was involved in the assassination of John F Kennedy is one of the wilder conspiracy theories entertained. Of course, things do not quite work out for Hunt and Liddy, both of whom are now dead after serving prison time for their role in Watergate.

Headey, best known as the scheming Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones, describes her character as “the smartest person in the room, surrounded by idiot men”. “Getting to do some comedy is something I’ve always wanted,” says Headey. “[Creators Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck] wrote such great scripts, and we had Justin, and Woody, and Judy [Greer, who plays Liddy’s wife, Fran] to play with. It was the first time I’ve been able to do that, instead of being angry on a throne.”

Man on a mission: Harrelson as Howard Hunt in ‘White House Plumbers'
Man on a mission: Harrelson as Howard Hunt in ‘White House Plumbers' (HBO/Sky)

When White House Plumbers was first announced in late 2019, Donald Trump was still in office. As a series of legal battles involving the twice-impeached president continue to intensify, the significance of Watergate has only sharpened. “It’s a lesson in the perils of zealotry – people who will do anything to die for their own cause,” says Theroux.

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Mandel, too, alludes to this lesson, which he fears is not being heeded. “There is a danger that people have forgotten the lessons of Watergate,” he says. “That’s why we made this show. Even in the last few months, with a former sitting president [Donald Trump] getting indicted here in New York.”

Lena Headey as Dorothy Hunt in ‘White House Plumbers'
Lena Headey as Dorothy Hunt in ‘White House Plumbers' (HBO/Sky)

Earlier this month, the US Department of Justice announced that more than 1,000 Trump supporters have now been charged in connection to the 6 January, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol Building. Nearly 600 of these have pleaded guilty. Today, as half a century ago, the consequences of zealotry can be ruinous.

Says Mandel: “There are lessons from Watergate about the abuses of power, about ‘true believers’ – this idea that people support this guy so much they will go against their best interests – that have become more relevant today than they even were 51 years ago.”

All episodes of White House Plumbers available from 30 May, Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW

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