"One thing...I specifically took from my experience with my mother is, when your mind isn't working right, it's extremely frustrating," he said.
This week's Law & Order: SVU featured a surprise guest star, the West Wing alum Bradley Whitford in the role of Pence Humphreys, a man battling dementia who believes he killed his beloved wife Winnie (Nancy Travis). As for Whitford, 63, getting the role right meant starting with an internet search. "You Google the condition and learn what you can about it," he told PEOPLE, but he also drew on personal experience.
"I'm from a big family, and I was the baby. My mother died about 10 years ago. She lived a very long life, but she had — it wasn't exactly [dementia], but she was living with me at the end of her life when she had this cognitive confusion," he said, adding that his mom would have turned 108 this week.
In his preparation to portray his character's cognitive deterioration, Whitford tapped into what he observed in his mother. "The tragic thing about this, especially in a younger person [like Humphreys], is that you wouldn't know it walking down the street. It comes in these waves when certain synapses don't connect," he shared. "So the key to it was basically watching my mother think when she had this cognitive decline."
As for taking this preparation to his performance on set, Whitford said, "You definitely don't want to be thinking about research when you're doing it. You don't want to be thinking a lot." Plus, he quipped, "If you want to think a lot, [you] wouldn't become an actor."
Whitford knew his performance had to be nuanced, and he was cautious of going too far into dementia and missing the mark on helping viewers connect to his character. "As I always am, I was worried about overdoing it, because you want to do justice to how tragic a condition like this is," he noted.
He continued, "One thing that I really specifically took from my experience with my mother is, when your mind isn't working right, it is extremely frustrating. To go through trauma while your mind isn't working is even more frustrating."
The episode, directed by SVU star Mariska Hargitay, depends immensely on the thematic arc of Humphreys' love for his wife leading up to the point where Humphreys confessed to killing her despite not being able to remember actually committing the crime. It was left to Hargitay's Captain Olivia Benson to determine Humphreys' innocence because of his sleep apnea machine, which cataloged that he was in bed during the time his wife was murdered.
When Benson informed Humphreys of his discovery, "Of his realization [that he didn't kill his wife], it was almost easier for this particular person [that way]," Whitford explained of the scene. "He had accepted the fact that he had done this because of his condition, but the idea that someone else would do this?"
For Whitford's character, that was an unbearable outcome. As Benson put it in the episode: "We took his only comfort away. He wishes he was brave enough to do it himself."
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET.
Cover Image Source: Getty Images | Dimitrios Kambouris