For Bradley Whitford, being bad has had its benefits.
Since first attracting notice with his Emmy-winning portrayal of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman in “The West Wing,” the veteran character actor has been a steady presence in several TV series and films, including “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” “Trophy Wife,” “The Cabin in the Woods” and “Saving Mr. Banks.” His specialty has been playing intelligent guys who may have a bit of an edge.
But Whitford’s career received a healthy jolt in the past few years, with revelatory portrayals of dangerous, menacing characters in high-profile projects. His role as an awkwardly pleasant neurosurgeon with a sinister racist agenda in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” was highly praised, and his work on Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” as the ominous and contradictory Commander Lawrence, one of the key architects of the oppressive Gilead, has earned him an Emmy nomination for guest actor.
That momentum, after a résumé full of supporting and featured roles, has finally led Whitford to his first solo lead, starring in NBC’s new comedy “Perfect Harmony.” This time around, he’s breaking good (well, sort of), playing a decent guy with more than a few chips on his shoulder.
The silver-haired Whitford regards “Perfect Harmony” as the latest highlight in a career that has taken on new vitality. In addition to having his name above the title, he’s also an executive producer.
“It’s an obnoxiously good and lucky time for me,” Whitford says with a knowing, good-natured laugh during lunch earlier this month at a noisy Pasadena restaurant. Although the temperature outside has topped 100 degrees, he looks cool and upbeat — despite the fact he’s wearing a denim jacket over his black T-shirt.
He makes a joke about his recent gallery of dark characters: “My wheelhouse seems to be playing creepy white privilege.” But the challenge of taking on figures whose political philosophies are diametrically opposed to his own liberal views — and the success he’s had doing so — has given him the confidence to take more risks as a performer.
And if professional accolades weren’t enough, he got married just a few months ago to Amy Landecker, who also appears in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The couple met around five years ago when they were in the cast of “Transparent.” (He previously was married to actress Jane Kaczmarek. They divorced in 2010.)
Whitford is still getting used to his heightened celebrity. He is particularly amused by the “very weird” phenomenon of young black men who recognize him and want to take selfies, “with me acting like I’m auctioning them off.”
“Perfect Harmony” stars Whitford as Arthur Cochran, a former Princeton music professor who feels he has little to live for after the death of his wife. But when he happens upon a small-town choir who lack the requisite chemistry, the crusty Cochran finds new purpose in trying to get the singers in sync. The members of the choir in turn believe Cochran might be the answer to their prayers to deal with their dysfunction and help them in competitions.
While the series is worlds away from the gloom and doom of “Get Out” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” there’s still a hint of darkness and bitterness in Cochran. The concept is a showcase for Whitford’s slow-burn, dryly comic delivery.
When the first episode opens, a despondent and drunk Cochran is sitting in his car, contemplating suicide. When he asks for a sign from God showing him why he should live, he hears an off-key rendition of the “Hallelujah” chorus coming from the church — which horrifies him so much it spurs him into action to make the group sing better.
“The biggest trick was to get the tone of that beginning right,” Whitford says. “How do you make this scene funny when this guy’s life is falling apart and there’s so much sadness? It was a character I was very attracted to, the grieving and the bitterness.”
Executive producer Lesley Lake Webster, who created the series, said she felt the role was a perfect fit for Whitford: “When we first met to talk about the show, it was a real whiplash for him. The night before, he had been filming ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ Bradley can do horrible things onscreen and you still love him. Here he’s playing this very damaged human being hiding his wounds, behind his intellect. He’s not afraid to go full throttle for the verbal or the physical joke, and he’s not afraid to make himself look silly.”
Although “Perfect Harmony” has elements of “Glee,” “Sister Act” and “Pitch Perfect” (the show co-stars Anna Camp of the latter franchise), both Webster and Whitford say it has plenty of originality as well as optimism — in contrast to current political and cultural headlines.
“It’s about being celebratory and joyful and enjoying all the things we have in common,” Webster says.
Or as Whitford puts it, “You can’t be mad with people you’re singing with.”
He’s not concerned about being compared to similar projects. “ ‘Glee’ was constantly stampeding toward a musical production number,” he says, while “Perfect Harmony” has the more varied goal of finding humor in attaining understanding amid conflict.
“I call it ‘Hoosiers’ meets ‘Glee,’” Whitford says with a chuckle.
He is equally thrilled about his involvement with “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which he calls “a fascinating acting experience. Commander Lawrence is in play. He’s a brilliant man who changes from moment to moment, and I’m trying to connect with his humanity inside this unstable canvas. It’s a very dangerous dynamic. There’s like five different things going on with him.”
The show reunites Whitford with Elisabeth Moss, who was a teenager when she played Zoey Bartlet, one of the daughters of President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) in “The West Wing.”
Says Whitford, “I can’t say enough about Lizzy Moss. She is amazing. She does everything. I’ve never seen an actor who is so totally the creative foundation of a show. She’s heading up ‘Sophie’s Choice: The TV Show,’ and she’s incredible.”
Discussing Moss leads to the subject of a possible “West Wing” reunion.
Whitford smiles. Although he felt the cast would be on board, he said it would be dependent on the show’s creator, Aaron Sorkin, who he speculated may not be interested in pursuing the project at this time.
Whitford’s fine with it: “There is so much else going on. I just feel so lucky.”