The cast of The West Wing celebrated the 10th anniversary of the show at The ATX Television Festival, and Melissa Fitzgerald and Janel Moloney were on hand to talk about both the West Wing and Fitzgerald’s position as Director for the organization Justice For Vets.
Fitzgerald’s jump from actor to political advocate is not as big a leap as it sounds – she grew up surrounded by politics. Her father was a judge who advocated early on for reform in the criminal justice system, and among many other things, she’s a co-founder of Voices in Harmony, a non-profit mentoring organization that uses theater to work with underserved teens.
This being the ATX Television Festival – and Austin, the interview was visited in the middle by Katy Sagal, who dropped by to say what a big fan she was of The West Wing.
Interview by Michele Williams
MICHELE: Was politics interesting to you before you were part of it?
MELISSA: It was always interesting to me. I can remember as a kid going door to door campaigning for different candidates. My parents are both very involved in our community and my father ran for political office when I was growing up. He ran for judge, has been in criminal justice my whole life, he’s been an assisstant D.A. He is still a judge on the superior court of Pennsylvania. He was on the state supreme court of Pennsylvania…it’s always been an exciting part of my life, so it’s been quite a gift to do what I love, which is acting, and also be part of such an incredible show on so many levels.
Obviously the writing, directing, the other actors I had the great fortune to work with. The level of excellence was so high and it was a show that had a very positive social impact, and showed the nobility of public service.
I believed that growing up. When I went to college, because my dad was the assistant D.A., all of the men and women he worked with (actually it was mostly men back when I was a kid) were the smartest most noble people I knew. They all could have been making far more money doing anything else, but they chose public service because they believed in something bigger than themselves.
I remember when i went to college and heard a lawyer joke for the first time, I legitimately did not get it. I didn’t get it because all the lawyers I knew worked in the District Attorney’s office in Philadelphia, and they were there because they believed in making their community better. I think the West Wing really celebrates those kinds of people – the people who go into public service because they want to make our country stronger and better. And their intentions are always good.
MICHELE; See, it’s really interesting to me to hear that story, because of the fact that sometimes, for an actor, acting is a job. It pays the bills, and you take the roles that you are offered, and continue to work to get the money. It’s really rare to find something that happens to align with your own value system.
MELISSA: Several people have said it today, and I’ll just repeat it. It’s like capturing Lightning in a bottle, and that’s what it was.
MICHELE: Janel, do you happen to have anything in your family background that’s similar to Melissa’s?
JANEL: No, I don’t. My parents are very liberal, Lefty, incredibly generous kind-hearted people. It was exciting to be able to do something that was my point of view, but that paled in comparison to how exciting to be doing something that i love to do, and doing it with a group of people who appreciated what I did. I was so unappreciated for so long as an actor. To be made to feel special by people that I really respected was out of this world.
MELISSA: I think everyone agreed that she shone.
MICHELE: I watched West Wing after it was off the air, and binged watched it straight – all the way through. It was something that was – I wish I had seen it in context when it was airing, just because I know that there were parallel things that were happening in history, and the poignancy. Social comments were being made at that time that were important.
MICHELE: How did the Involvement with The West Wing bring you to Justice For Vets?
MELISSA: It was Martin Sheen, directly, and indirectly and many other paths. He’s a major champion of Drug Courts, upon which the Veterans Treatment Court model is based. We’re the only national organization that champions Veterans Treatment Courts, which are alternatives to incarceration for veterans who struggle with the transition home, get in trouble with the law because of substance use disorder, mental health disorders and/or trauma. They get the structure, treatment and mentoring that they need to get their lives back on track.
They are incredibly successful programs, and they are based on the drug Court model. Martin Sheen has been a Champion of Drug Courts for over 20 years – That’s pretty remarkable thing, because drug ports have only been around 25 years, and Martin was one of the pioneers.
He did at a time when it wasn’t popular and the example that he set is incredibly powerful. He is committed to social justice and championing causes that other people won’t champion. Now Veterans Treatment Courts are proving to be such a successful model, based on the most successful criminal justice model in our country. So Martin asked me to get involved in 2011.
MICHELE: Other people are involved in this too, but you jumped in at an active, really high level…
MELISSA: Boom! That’s how I roll!. Just kidding, If I care about something I get involved.
JANEL; This was a leap for her, a big change. Up until then, she’d always been an actress who did all of this other non-profit work in addition to acting. Then something changed in her life where she was ready to make advocacy work her primary job, with all of the implications and it’s an incredible amount of responsibility.
It’s no joke, you’re not an actor who’s going to do a little vanity speech and then going home. You’ve got the whole organization resting on your shoulders. People are really suffering and it’s your responsibility to help them. It’s a very very very different thing. There’s nothing easy, or sweet or interesting about the day to day work.
I’ve seen her, and you’ve never seen a person who works as hard as Melissa works now. It puts any actor to shame, because she is really doing something that is tough and important, and she’s not getting a lot out of it other than the satisfaction.
MELISSA: It is incredibly satisfying when you get to meet the families of the men and women who are getting their lives back. They’ve given so much for their country, and it’s really a gift in a small way to be able to support them.
MICHELE: What are your opinions about the current law making policies that are going on federally in the last eight years with veterans benefits in particular? Trying to get them access to medical care, and the push and pull that’s been going on in Congress? Is this organization an answer to that?
MELISSA: The organization, Criminal justice was born in action, that’s what veterans treatment courts are. I’m so grateful that veterans treatment courts have received so much bi-partisan support. It’s a non-partisan issue.
Veterans treatment courts are working, and they are working in every way possible. It’s impossible to deny that, the results are so remarkable. People are getting their lives back, and they are returning to our communities as leaders and civic assets. It’s really exciting to work on something that so many people agree on and support. It’s been wonderful.
MICHELE: It seems like any veterans benefits and support for services to veterans should be bi-partisan, but there’s so many little things that have been caught up in Congress for so long, there shouldn’t even be a question of why these benefits are created.
MELISSA: They are in veterans treatment courts. What’s been exciting to see is that they’ve really streamlined the process, it’s a one-stop shop for veterans, and there is a veterans justice outreach specialist in every single veterans treatment court across the country, connecting in real time veterans to the benefits they’ve earned, that they deserve, and they need, and that the judge orders them to receive.
It’s a rigorous program with strict accountablilty, but it also has tremendous hope and feeling. I encourage everyone to look into it more, they are unlike any other courtrooms that you’ve seen before. Each veteran in this program receives a mentor, someone who can help them navigate through the benefits they’ve earned, and it’s remarkable.
Today, there are over 13,000 veterans who would otherwise be incarcerated that are receiving life saving treatment in these courts across the country.
JANEL: I think it’s a great model for our criminal justice system, we naturally have empathy for our veterans, but what about everyone else? The single mom who made some terrible choice because of her circumstance, or the guy who’s own parents dropped out of school…everyone has a story. They should all be respected.
MELISSA: The Veterans Treatment Courts and Drug Courts not only save lives and restore families, they also reduce crime, and save the taxpayer a tremendous amount of money. This is criminal justice reform in action. It’s a model that’s working. It’s been working in drug courts for 25 years – and I’m excited to see it applied to veterans.