Bradley Whitford Opens Up About How Seeing His Mother Suffer from Cognitive Decline Shaped 'SVU' Role

Whitford also exclusively tells PEOPLE about the genesis of a special nod to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit star Mariska Hargitay's mother, Jayne Mansfield, in Thursday's episode

Actor Bradley Whitford attends the opening night performance f "Hadestown" at Ahmanson Theatre on April 27, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo: Paul Archuleta/Getty

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Thursday's episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

This week's Law & Order: SVU featured a special guest star: The West Wing alum Bradley Whitford in the role of Pence Humphreys, a man suffering from dementia who believes he killed his beloved wife Winnie (Nancy Travis).

For Whitford, 63, getting the role right meant starting with the internet. "You Google the condition and learn what you can about it," he tells 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 says, sharing that his mom would have turned 108 this week.

When he prepared to portray his character's cognitive deterioration, Whitford tapped into what he saw 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 shares. "So the key to it was basically watching my mother think when she had this cognitive decline."

When it came time to translate that preparation to his performance on set, Whitford says, "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 quips, "If you want to think a lot, [you] wouldn't become an actor."

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT -- "King of the Moon" Episode 24015 -- Pictured: (l-r) Bradley Whitford as Pence Humphreys, Mariska Hargitay as Captain Olivia Benson
Peter Kramer/NBC

Whitford knew his performance had to be nuanced, and he was cautious of leaning too far into the confusion dementia inevitably causes 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 notes.

He continues, "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 a trauma while your mind isn't working is even more frustrating."

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT -- "King of the Moon" Episode 24015 -- Pictured: Bradley Whitford as Pence Humphreys
Peter Kramer/NBC

The episode, directed by SVU star Mariska Hargitay, relies heavily 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 act.

Leave it to Hargitay's Captain Olivia Benson to determine Humphreys' innocence thanks to his sleep apnea machine, which catalogued that he was in bed during the time his wife was murdered.

But when Benson informed Humphreys of her discovery, he completely broke down.

"Of his realization [that he didn't kill his wife], it was almost easier for this particular person [that way]," Whitford explains 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 perhaps the most 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 -- "King of the Moon" Episode 24015 -- Pictured: (l-r) Nancy Travis as Winnie Humphreys, Bradley Whitford as Pence Humphreys
Peter Kramer/NBC

And Whitford's mother wasn't the only maternal presence that factored into "King of the Moon" — Thursday's episode featured a tribute to Hargitay's own late mother Jayne Mansfield.

In one of the two stars' scenes together, Benson visited Humphreys in the hospital. The suspect was out of it as he flirted with Benson from his hospital bed, telling her, "I could never forget a gorgeous face, or an hourglass figure."

His next comment was even more direct as he describe Benson as having "an ass like the devil and a face like Jayne Mansfield."

Benson simply raised her eyebrows and shared a knowing look with ADA Dominick Carisi (Peter Scanavino) before walking out of the room.

Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay With Their Children
Bettmann/Getty

In real life, Hargitay is the daughter of the legendary screen siren and former Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay. Mansfield was just 34 years old when she died in a 1967 car accident, which her then-3-year-old daughter survived. Mickey died in 2006, just weeks after Mariska picked up her fist Emmy for her work on SVU.

"I saw that in there," Whitford says of the Mansfield reference. "I didn't know that — I didn't know the whole story. I asked her [Hargitay] about it, and I knew that she lost her mother when she was very, very young, which I can't imagine. I knew about her dad and I knew she was very close to her dad. I think I said, 'Did they just put this in? Are you okay?'" he recalls.

Turns out, the nod to mom was very much intentional.

"She's like, 'Yeah. No, I wanted it. I wanted it in there,'" Whitford says. "I thought it was sweet."

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Law & Order: Special Victims Unit airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET

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