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HBO's 'White House Plumbers': Woody Harrelson, Justin Theroux tap into absurdity for political satire

"Most Watergate stories have traditionally been told in the White House. ... Let's hear about the guys that actually did the break-in," David Mandel said

When it comes to blending politics and comedy in entertainment, no one does it better than former Veep showrunner David Mandel, who has now taken on the Watergate scandal in the new HBO series White House Plumbers, starring Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux (streaming on Crave in Canada).

A guiding light for Mandel and the writers of this limited series was to focus on the story that we've never seen before on this Nixon-era scandal.

White House Plumbers tells the story of E. Howard Hunt (Harrelson) and G. Gordon Liddy (Theroux), who were hired by the White House to investigate the Pentagon Papers leak in 1971. They end up on the Committee to Re-Elect the President but after trying to break into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate in 1972, they end up toppling the presidency.

“Most Watergate stories have traditionally been told in the White House, in the paths of the corridors of power, if you will,” Mandel explained. “The burglars are always a tiny little part of it, they're always, if you will, the first minute or two of the movie. You see the flashlights, you see the break-in and then all of a sudden you hear a phone ring and someone gets told there's been an arrest.”

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“It seemed like this was the opportunity to tell this other story of those guys on the ground. We always hear about the break-in … and let's hear about the guys that actually did the break-in, and let's find out about what they were like before the break-in and why they did the break-in, and what this did to their lives. … They're the guys that end up in jail, not the president.”

Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux in the HBO series
Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux in the HBO series "White House Plumbers" (Phil Caruso/HBO)

'I found my character rather reprehensible as a human'

Both Liddy and Hunt have this unwavering commitment to the U.S. government and their president, to the point where they are willing to make some rather outlandish sacrifices in their commitment to the State.

“In fact, I was a zealous Republican at one point, when I was 18,” Harrelson said. “I kind of get that ideology. I don't relate to it anymore, but I do get it.”

As Mandel describes, one of the biggest challenges of crafting this story was that Liddy and Hunt are unlikeable characters, but in order for the series to work, the audience does need to be able to put themselves in their shoes, and even feel bad for them at times.

That's where Harrelson and Theroux come in, absolutely thriving as these almost unbelievably odd individuals.

“I found my character rather reprehensible as a human,” Harrelson said. “But I was quite enamoured of Liddy.”

“Whenever anyone mentions Watergate, you immediately think of Woodward and Bernstein and the journalism, and how they sort of came to find out about the break-ins,” Theroux added. “But this is the story of the Watergate and it's kind of hilarious, because it's the actual crime that brought down Nixon.

“I also find aspects of my character reprehensible, but in the playing of him I kind of really fell in love with him because he's such an optimist. I fell in love with certain traits of his.”

Aside from their individual performances, Harrelson and Theroux are even stronger as a dynamic duo.

“We did kind of think of it as kind of this sort of budding bromance," Theroux said. "It kind of follows that trope of the buddy cops.”

“The truth is, I think it's two guys with enormous egos that ... are trying to do something together, which is probably part of the reason why they had such a glorious downfall. It does sort of follow the trajectory of a love story, of two guys who meet, not sure of each other at first, then they start to really like the way the other works and what they bring to the situation.”

Harrelson added that there were even some great "buddy" moments that didn't make it to the final cut of the series.

“We had this one thing where we get approval to do something ... and we just start celebrating,” Harrelson said. “It never made it into the show, but I loved it because it was great just to see how far [Justin Theroux] would go as a dance partner.”

“He goes the limit. We ended up on the floor, leg wrestling, and it was great. That dynamic, you have to ultimately work up trust for your fellow actors. We did that relatively early on and I've got to say, it gave me all the trust in the world for him.”

Justin Theroux, Judy Greer, Lena Headey and Woody Harrelson in HBO's
Justin Theroux, Judy Greer, Lena Headey and Woody Harrelson in HBO's "White House Plumbers" (HBO)

'The story of Watergate is the story of Dorothy Hunt'

While the story of these men is fascinating, Mandel's telling of the story brings forward the often neglected wives of Liddy and Hunt, Dorothy Hunt (Lena Headey) and Fran Liddy (Judy Greer).

“In some ways, the story of Watergate is the story of Dorothy Hunt,” Mandel said. “It is the story of these two women, in a way, trying to keep their families together.”

“Dorothy, in particular, is a fascinating character. In some ways she may be the smartest person in this entire misadventure. She was a former agent, she says at one point she was on the last train out of Shanghai … with a gun strapped to her leg. When she says that you're like, 'holy crap this woman seems dangerous,' in a really great way."

As Mandel describes, Hunt's wife is often "the voice inside his head."

"[Dorothy is] saying, This is not right. Why are you doing this? Yet at the same time, not necessarily being able to put a stop to it," Mandel said. "Then when things go really wrong she's the one that goes, 'I'm going get us out of this,' and she almost did.”

“We don't necessarily always bring women to the front of anything,” Lena Headey said about her character in White House Plumbers. “She enjoyed the money, as well as Howard, but she always knew that there was a better way."

For Liddy's wife, Mandel praised Judy Greer's interpretation of this character, who is committed to sticking by her husband.

“Mrs. Liddy, this is the beauty of Judy Greer, she comes off initially as perhaps a little simple, but especially when you get to that end, the fifth episode, … you realize she knows what she has here,” Mandel said. “She knows who her husband is and in some ways, she's made a similar decision of, ‘I'm going to stick with you. This is what we do.’”

“I feel like Fran was more kind of under the thumb than Dorothy was,” Headey added in a separate interview. “Dorothy kind of made the break to escape at one point, she'd had enough.”

Justin Theroux, David Mandel and Woody Harrelson on the set of HBO's
Justin Theroux, David Mandel and Woody Harrelson on the set of HBO's "White House Plumbers"

While it can be quite easy to draw parallels between some of the political actions that take place in White House Plumbers and the current political environment, particularly in the U.S., Mandel believes there is a "danger" in people forgetting the Watergate scandal.

“I think if nothing else, that is a great reason for why we made this show,” he said. “In the United States, ... a former sitting president getting indicted here in New York City. It's more relevant than ever."

"There are lessons from it about the abuses of power and about what I call ‘true believerism.’ This idea that, ‘I support this guy, this party so much that I will do things that are go against my best interest in the name of this idea, this president.’ These are more relevant today.”