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June 10, 2020

Harmony and Dystopia

Bradley Whitford finds himself in two very different worlds these days, but he's happy to inhabit them both.

Melissa Byers
  • Perfect Harmony

    NBC
  • Perfect Harmony

    NBC
  • Perfect Harmony

    NBC
  • The Handmaid's Tale

    Hulu
  • The Handmaid's Tale

    Hulu
  • The Handmaid's Tale

    Hulu

Bradley Whitford is no stranger to television that makes a statement.

Not that he sets out to do it. In fact, he says, "I think it's very dangerous - and this may sound weird coming from me - to have a social agenda be the motivation for you to tell a story."

Perhaps Whitford's best known role was as Josh Lyman on Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing. That's where he learned the lesson that story must come first.

"I think it's because Aaron was always acutely aware of that and knew that," he says. "The reason Aaron was such a spectacular writer on West Wing is that he is this completely impatient showman who wants to use absolutely everything he wants. He just wants to keep the audience's attention. "

So, when he was offered the part of Arthur Cochran in the NBC comedy Perfect Harmony, he looked first for the story, but he couldn't help thinking of the larger story, as well. He says, "I've been wanting to do a comedy, and in this peculiar, polarized time.

"As a kid, I grew up watching all the great Norman Lear shows. And at the center of those it was always a bunch of radically different human beings colliding with each other in a sort of loving way. And I wanted to do something [like that].


Bradley Whitford: [Perfect Harmony]was just based on the idea that it's really hard for radically different, culturally different people to be mad at each other if they're making a song together.


"it was just based on the idea that it's really hard for radically different, culturally different people to be mad at each other if they're making a song together. That was kind of the basic premise."

He also connected with the character. He notes, "Lesley Wake Webster is who wrote that. Lesley had this idea that was based loosely on her grandfather's experience. And it just felt personal. And I love the idea of an irascible snob being cut down to size."

He appreciates the feel of the show, too. "There's always a surprise. I really was proud of the sort of tone of it, which was there's a real sweetness to it, which my character tends to be uncomfortable with. But it's absolutely, absolutely there.

"And it's not - and this may be weird to hear from me because some people think I've built a career on snark - it's not snarky. I mean, the character gets snarky, but ... And, man, I hope we get to do more.

"Because the most difficult thing that I think people outside of the experience making the show [don't understand], when you're doing a pilot, and when you do the first year of a show, you're building the plane while you're flying it.

"And you learn a lot. And that was true on West Wing. It's basically been true on almost everything I've worked on, and we really realized what was working and what was going to make this show work relatively quickly. So I really hope we get to come back. [EDITOR'S NOTE this interview was conducted before Perfect Harmony was cancelled by NBC..]

"You look at a show like Schitt's Creek. You look how that built because these moments come where an audience finds something. Somebody said something to me really interesting that I think is true, which is television is so personal and intimate. You're in bed with people, you know?


Whitford: I realized a long time ago, and I remember saying to people and to myself, 'man, don't let the feature people know how great a wonderful television experience is.' But they seem to have gotten hip to it.


"I realized a long time ago, and I remember saying to people and to myself, 'man, don't let the feature people know how great a wonderful television experience is.' But they seem to have gotten hip to it.

"But the reason is that when you're making a movie, you have no idea if this is going to work at all. You really don't. When you do a show like West Wing, yeah, there's a bunch of people who don't like it. But you have your audience. And you lose this sort of existential insecurity, and you have a very pure creative experience.

"You have this long, fascinating relationship with the character, and you have this long relationship with an audience.

"And when Tony Soprano snaps at his wife in the kitchen in season 5 of The Sopranos, you're endowing that with his yo-yo-ing weight, the pressures he's been under, the things the marriage has gone through.

"It's just a deeper experience than you could get in a two and a half hour movie about a mobster. You're not going to have that emotional connection because you feel like you're living with them. And that's just a really wonderful thing about television."

Whitford's other ongoing role of late is in a very different show, Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, where he plays Commander Joseph Lawrence opposite star Elisabeth Moss.

He recognizes the variety he's been able to convey. He says, "I'm so embarrassingly lucky, and have been for a long time. But it's such a joy. I mean, on the one hand, Handmaid's is the most complicated, fascinating sort of immersive acting experience I've ever had. And Perfect Harmony is just a complete and total joy."

Whitford's role in The Handmaid's Tale takes him back into the political arena - albeit a futuristic, dystopian one. The parallels with our current world can be chilling, even to those making the show.

Whitford says, "Those flashbacks are really spooky because there is a very recognizable sense of the unreality of reality when June suddenly can't have a bank account. And the weaponization of a completely hypocritical sort of inverse religious values - the cruelty that religion is a cover for is very familiar, too,

"And now, if you look at right-wing conversations, they also call themselves strict constructionists.

"And you just want to ask them, 'wait. It was difficult kind of coming up with this constitution, but one thing they felt pretty clear about was separation of church and state.' I mean, the whole point of this country was a rejection of rule through religious decree."

In the midst of the difficulties inherent with a show with such dark themes, Whitford gives credit to his co-star and one of the producers of the show, Elisabeth Moss. He says, "What she is doing in that show is so incredibly difficult. I always joke that it's Sophie's Choice: The Series.

"And it is such a joy. I've gotten to act with amazing people, and there is no sweeter feeling than knowing you're about to do a scene with her because you don't know where it's going to go. Mostly, even really nice people, when they are forced to go through all of that emotional stuff, it can make you really grumpy.

"Because you do a take and the focus was off, or we have to go back. The tone she sets there, she is completely loose, and funny, and completely concerned about everybody on the crew. She's in on every draft of every script.

"She's actually directing. She directed me for the first time. And we haven't finished her episode. She was so nervous about directing. I'm like, 'you are so ready.' And she clearly was. So I can't wait. I can't wait to get back to that.

"The funny thing on that set is partially because of Lizzie, and partially because, I think, because the material is so brutally dark, it's a super sweet, easygoing set. And they're all Canadian, so they are genetically, stereotypically the sweetest people in the world.

"But the contrast between the sweetness of the process and the brutality of the material. You'll be on the set, and you'll hear something like, 'OK, I don't want to rush ya, but I think we should get the nooses on the girls.'"

"It really sort of changed my thinking about acting, which was exciting. Because on most characters, there's a kind of narrowing of the aperture of just figuring out what someone is. And with Lawrence there's this weird freedom in there because you've got everything in there.

"You know, he's in play. So even when he's just sitting there, there's a struggle going on."

There are no struggles on the set, though, and for that, Whitford give the credit to Moss. He says, "Tom Hanks is a total angel. Yeah. Meryl Streep, the sweetest human being you've ever met. But Lizzie is a freak. I would be really grumpy if I had to burst into tears every 10 seconds.

"But that whole atmosphere there. I mean, most of my stuff is with Lizzie, but you know what's interesting, too, about that show? I was thinking just in terms of sort of big trends.

"I grew up in the school of the verbal torrent, right? Geysers of words. And there's something -- you see it in The Crown, and you see it in Handmaid's. It's just something that's working in right now. I joke that they sort of Hemingway the fuck out of the script. The script is really sparse. And you can really take time.

"The first time I did Lawrence, I had a scene where I had to open a beer. And Daina Reid is directing. She's doing a whole bunch of them this year. She's wonderful.

"The note you always get is, 'it's great. Can you tighten it up a little?' Every actor gets that note, and it drives them crazy. But it's always going to that. And Daina kept saying, 'I think you can take more time. I need you to take more time.'

"It was like my first day there, and I said, OK, watch this. I was sort of joking. And I tried to take more time than I could possibly take doing something incidental, which was opening a beer and pouring it. And I basically get a joke take. The joke was all the time I was taking. And that's what we used.

"And it was actually terrifying. It's interesting because the silence functions in different ways on different shows. I think it accentuates the terror on Handmaid's because these women just don't know what's going to happen at any moment. And it somehow makes it more terrifying."

Those on the show are quite aware of the stories they are telling and how they might resonate with the current world.

Whitford notes, "And there is a sense of mission with that show because of the unfortunate contemporary resonance. And so everybody's walking around like they're holding something precious and really want to get it right. That character I get to play, is just absolutely fascinating."

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