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Richard Schiff: “I’m Useless to a Convention and so is Clint Eastwood”

Actor Richard Schiff was celebrating his anniversary last week during the Republican National Convention, so he didn’t watch very much of the days-long extravaganza.

It was probably for the best since he gets “a little angered about the carefully rehearsed political advertisement” that he argued the political conventions have become. “They are frustrating to watch,” he said.

Schiff – best known for his role in the Aaron Sorkin television drama “The West Wing” – hasn’t had to watch the conventions on TV for years. Except for last week’s absence, he said that every four years his work with the Creative Coalition takes him to both conventions. He puts his head down and gets through the pageantry and nonsense in order to get to the moment that makes the craziness worthwhile. It happens after the hoopla when, at 2 a.m., the Washington pols stagger through his hotel lobby and belly up to the bar next to him.

At that point, Schiff is able ask about the truth beyond the political spin. He opens with a line like, “Come on, between you and me …”

“I learn more that way then I do reading the New York Times or the Washington Post,” he said.

Schiff and the rest of his West Wing colleagues have a unique view of the sometimes baffling, often forced intersection of Washington, D.C., and Hollywood. After all, more than one District transplant can trace their passion for politics and political engagement directly back to the show.

Recently, however, the fascination between the world of celebrity and the world of politics, which has always been there, now feels so extreme that it dips towards farce. This was, of course, best symbolized by actor and director Clint Eastwood’s cringe inducing speech at the RNC.

Though Schiff hadn’t watched the speech, he did watch the public blowback unfold over social media.

“The very good lesson here is to keep Hollywood and actors out of the mainstream [political] communication viaduct. It is silly,” he said. “We don’t belong in that arena.

“I get interviewed all the time [about politics] and I don’t know why. It’s kind of the equivalent of asking Anthony Edwards to do your surgery,” he quips. (Edwards, of course, played Dr. Mark Greene on the long-running NBC drama “ER”.) “[The political] world fascinates me, so I go. But, I don’t spend 18 hours a day studying policy. I’m useless to a convention and so is Clint Eastwood.”

How celebrities such as Eastwood and others best serve the public is by “directing movies and doing what they do so beautifully well,” Schiff said.

For fans of “The West Wing,” and any TV junkie with an internet connection, Schiff makes a return to political drama in the second episode of the Web series “Chasing the Hill,” created by Brent Roske, which airs tonight.

Schiff, whose next project is playing opposite Al Pacino in the David Mamet classic “Glengarry Glen Ross” on Broadway, said that participating in the low-budget, independent Web-based show reminded him of his early career in New York starring in off-off-Broadway shows.

Back then, he said, there was an excitement. Someone would have an idea, and they would plan to meet at a coffee shop to work it through late at night. Schiff would join after he finished driving his cab for the night.

He said he was tired of saying “no” to projects simply because there is an association between his character on “The West Wing.”

“This is a well-put-together show,” he said. “We created a character that was different from Toby. He just looks very much like Toby.”

“What’s different about [“Chasing the Hill”] is that it focuses on a small Congressional race that is kind of under the radar,” he explained.

The show takes a microscope to the reality every House Member and their team is faced with: running for re-election every two years. It examines the lives of the characters and the race from close range and considers the toll of politics, especially in the post-Citizens United era, on individuals and communities.

The writing is strong, as are the actors, Schiff said. Plus, the Web-based show is a way he can work with, and help out, group of artists.