"They did not think that the splits should be done atop the desk," the actress remembers with a laugh.

By Sydney Bucksbaum
August 28, 2020 at 09:30 AM EDT
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Let it be known: the desk in the Oval Office is no place for the splits. Even if it's the fake Oval Office set on The West Wing.

Emily Procter learned that lesson the hard way while playing Associate White House Counsel Ainsley Hayes during her time on the iconic political drama. But it's also her most cherished memory. "I have a picture of it somewhere," Procter, 51, tells EW with a laugh. "I said, 'It would be hilarious to do cartwheels in here and I'm going to do a split on the desk after.' I did the cartwheel, and then I started to climb up on the desk, and I don't even remember who it was but they were like, 'How dare you?! This is the Oval Office!' And I was like, 'Well, not really. It's a set.' But they did not think that the splits should be done atop the desk."

Splits, scolding, and all, looking back on her West Wing career — Procter recurred on the series for seasons 2 and 3, and guest starred in the final season — brings the actor joy because all of her favorite moments happened not onscreen but rather behind-the-scenes. Even before she arrived on set, she already knew this role would be a career highlight. "I had a very stoic Southern father," she remembers. "But when I called my dad and I told him that I had gotten the part, he cried. It was so sweet. So that's how it began for me. My parents were very proud that I had been asked to join such a prestigious show."

But she never imagined what it would be like when she actually got on set, like the time she was rendered speechless by her onscreen love interest Rob Lowe's beauty. "He was a teenage heartthrob!" Procter admits with a laugh. "I will never forget being on the set, and having Rob walk out of his trailer and he was sort of fussing with his hair, looking all gorgeous. I was so slack jawed and his, wife Sheryl [Berkoff], followed him out and saw me and goes, 'I know, it's just always like this.'"

Procter laughs again. "I just had this flashback to all of these movies that he was in when I was a teenager and just thinking like, 'Oh my gosh, he is the ultimate,'" she adds with a sigh. That certainly made working with Lowe to build Ainsley and his character Sam Seaborn's onscreen chemistry no job at all. "Getting to be in a scene with him, it was hard not to swoon and I don't think Rob gets the credit he deserves for being able to make anyone or anything, male, female, even a prop on set feel special," she says. "Like he just thinks they are the dreamiest. It made cultivating that relationship very easy because he made me feel special."

But Lowe wasn't the only one from The West Wing that Procter looks back with fond memories. What's stayed with her all these years later is how everyone who worked on that show treated her in between takes. "There were just so many moments with [creator] Aaron [Sorkin], he and I have had a relationship that has continued on, and I think about all the laughs we've had together," she says. "I think about dancing with Allison Janney." And there's one cast member she wishes she had more time working with onscreen, if only because he took time to go above and beyond to help her nail all those signature Sorkin walk-and-talk scenes.

"I loved working with John [Spencer] so much," Procter says of the beloved, late cast member who played Leo McGarry throughout the whole series. "He would invite me to his home and we would walk around his pool and he would set up this little mini obstacle course, because you always had to do everything in The West Wing at such a rapid speed." Procter remembers how Spencer would set up a spread of bagels and cream cheese alongside the mini obstacle course, and they would walk through it and run lines together over and over again until she got it just right. "We created this really nice flow with one another," she adds. "And that was entirely him, that rhythm and kindness that those two characters have for each other. He was really instrumental in making that happen. And he was so special: he did that with everybody."

When Spencer died in 2005 before the end of the show's final season, Procter remembers how his loss hit everyone hard. "John was the loveliest," she says. "He was so dedicated to making every scene the best, so when he did pass away someone said, 'Only John would would die on hiatus.'"

As for the legacy of her character, Procter is proud of how Ainsley helped push forward a different kind of image of what Southern women are like, which is something she had yet to see represented on TV. "From the moment I got the chance to audition through the entire run of it, she was very Southern, and people often miswrite Southerners, especially Southern women," she says. "I love that she was very Southern and very strong, very dedicated, very committed, but she was also able to laugh at herself, and she was very fair. To see that in a character was, for me as a young woman in Hollywood, very unusual; those were not the kind of opportunities that I was being offered, and I loved that Aaron took the time to write a woman that way, especially a young woman."

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It's why Procter isn't surprised that when fans approach her on the street, they bring up her West Wing role in a different way than when they talk to her about her other best-known TV character on CSI: Miami. "I find the way people talk about Ainsley to be very endearing and special because in many ways, especially for a lot of Southerners, she represented feminism in a very real way," she says. "Because Southern women are very strong. And so when people talk about Ainsley there's an appreciation for who she was as a person who stood for something that they appreciated, whereas when people talk to me about CSI: Miami it's always about that character's relationships."

If The West Wing was on today, Procter knows it would be a very different show. But she also has high hopes for what Ainsley would be doing now. "What I would wish as a woman, I wish she would be president herself," she says. "But what do I think she's probably doing? I think it's possible that she would be helping to run the campaign of someone that she thought was incredibly gifted and wish to see in the Oval Office." And she'd definitely be urging everyone to use their voices at the polls by voting.

To register for the upcoming election and find other voting resources, visit When We All Vote, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to ensuring everyone is registered to vote.

For more on The West Wing cast reunion and EW's 30th anniversary, order the September issue of Entertainment Weekly now. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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The West Wing

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