Lena Headey is frustrated about the current state of politics. “We just need to advance,” she tells POPSUGAR. “We need to see sense, not money. I don’t know if that’s ever gonna change.”
Frustration with the political powers at large is certainly something that her “White House Plumbers” character, Dorothy Hunt, can relate to — albeit for different reasons. The real-life Dorothy was an ex-CIA operative who was married to E. Howard Hunt, one of the major drivers of the Watergate scandal. Dorothy never fully witnessed the fallout of her husband’s crimes, though, as she died in a plane crash in 1972 while leaving Washington DC. Since her death, rumors about the level of her involvement in the efforts to steal classified information from the Democratic Party have marred Dorothy’s legacy. Per The Washington Post, she was identified as a “paymistress” who bought off defendants in order to keep them quiet about the scandal — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Regardless, it’s clear that Dorothy definitely wasn’t completely out of the loop.
Headey’s Dorothy is a sharp-witted housewife tasked with supporting her children by herself, all while her husband gallivants off on missions that usually end in disaster. At the beginning of the show, she’s a muted presence. By the season’s conclusion, though, Dorothy’s free.
Portraying Dorothy allowed Headey to experience the “joy of playing someone . . . who is wholly underestimated,” she says. “She’s way more calculated, and she plays a better game than anyone gives her credit for, because she’s a woman and she’s in the background. Howard’s out front with his ego, being brilliant, as he would say.”
Howard, played by Woody Harrelson, is indeed portrayed as a bumbling, overconfident agent endowed with too much power. Originally a CIA operative like his wife, Howard’s ego swells when he’s tasked with being a “white house plumber,” aka the party responsible for identifying government information leaks. Ultimately, his dedication to his job gets a little out of hand. Along with G. Gordon Liddy (played by Justin Theroux in this series), he becomes one of the responsible parties for the Watergate burglaries that eventually bring down his beloved Nixon.
As Harrelson’s Howard storms his way through absurd mission after absurd mission, Dorothy is always there in the background, handling their daughter’s ongoing mental health crises and plastering on a smile during painful dinners with Liddy and his wife (who have a penchant for listening to Adolf Hitler speeches on their record player).
Dorothy’s arc is a slow burn, and of course Howard never notices his wife’s long-simmering rage until she’s walking out the door. “She’s constricted by the period that she’s living in, and the expectations of a married woman and of a mother. But Dorothy knows — she always knew — she’s the smartest person in the room,” Headey says. “I speak for a lot of women [when I say] women tend to take their time as they move along, while men get hit with certain realizations. Mostly, when women go, ‘I’m done,’ [men] go, ‘What?’ That’s what happens in Howard and Dorothy’s marriage. She’s like, ‘I’m done. I have worked hard. You’ve not seen it. I’ve held this together.’ And Howard’s left reeling by that revelation, but we’ve hopefully seen Dorothy’s evolution towards realizing her truth.”
Watching the finished show for the first time made her realize just how pronounced the contrast is between her character and the show’s mostly male cast. While she plays Dorothy with a certain dramatic seriousness, the men are fully in comedy mode most of the time, and the effect is startling. “It really is just this sort of throbbing heap of idiot men, with a sort of sparkling smart nugget of a woman in the middle who’s barely seen but is observing it all,” Headey says with a laugh.
Headey has played the role of underestimated woman lurking behind the scenes of political machinations before. As the cruel, relentless Circei in “Game of Thrones,” she embodied someone willing to sacrifice just about anything to acquire power.
Headey, herself, is also a mother who cares about politics — though unlike Circei, who merely wants to attain power, or Dorothy, who operates firmly from within political systems, the real Headey instead seems to spend most of her time fighting the powers that be. She’s been a staunch advocate for refugees, working with the International Rescue Committee to draw attention to the global refugee crisis. The British actor has also been unapologetically political on her social media platforms, and after trolls shamed her for posting a video of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2019, she had a clear message. “I care about the climate, I care about my children and their future, I care about my friends and their children and their future, I care about the crisis going on all over the world, the humanitarian crisis,” she said in a video at the time. “If that offends you, or you think actors have no place in the world to have an opinion — f*ck off. Unfollow me and I shall not weep.”
Like Dorothy and Circei, Headey loves her kids — but while her fictional characters’ progeny often find themselves a little too close to explosive consequences, the real-life actor takes care to make sure her children, 13-year-old Wylie and 7-year-old Teddy, aren’t too exposed to the toxic wasteland that is the political sphere. “I find it like such a circus of madness. It’s a dark path,” she says. “I get into certain issues and subjects, but it’s not a generally political house. I do talk to my kids about everything, because this world is insane.”
It’s hard for anyone of any age, she clarifies, to live in a world where political motivations are so often rooted in greed. “It’s painful, right? It’s painful in the chest,” she says. “It’s painful in your head when you wake up and you’re like — it’s another day faced with greed and stupidity, and we’re supposed to be in line and hold true.”
Still, despite her doubts and fears, she’s not going to stop fighting for a better world anytime soon. “You have to advocate. You have to raise your voice,” she says. “I think that’s probably what I teach my kids, hopefully more than anything. You’ve got to be on the good side.”
“White House Plumbers” is now streaming on HBO Max.