For a network sitcom, Perfect Harmony executive producer and star Bradley Whitford surprisingly found himself asking “Is this guy too dark?” early on in making the show.
The new NBC series opens on the former West Wing actor as retired music professor Arthur, a man questioning what life he has left with his wife now deceased.
Arthur miraculously finds new purpose directing a struggling Kentucky church choir, a concept based on creator Lesley Wake Webster’s real-life family church experiences in choirs where “radically,” as Whitford echoes, “people often in conflict can transcend that when they’re singing together.”
EW talked to Whitford about making the surprisingly dark heartland comedy, and what it was like returning to NBC.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What drew you to Perfect Harmony?
BRADLEY WHITFORD: I have been wanting to do a comedy for a long time. I was really thrilled to be asked to meet [Director/EP] Jason Winer because I think Modern Family is just an astonishingly wonderful piece of art and he told me that he was working with this writer Lesley Wake Webster, and would I be interested in coming in and hearing an idea. I knew immediately that it was something I wanted to be a part of because this is a personal story, it’s kind of about her, what her grandfather went through after her grandmother died, and she’s from Kentucky, and it had an authenticity, and the great thing about Lesley is the humor is really biting and acidic, but it’s not a cynical show. It’s got kind of a huge heart. And then all the elements came together, we got exactly who we wanted, and I am totally in love with Anna Camp. I just think she’s absolutely dead-on perfect for this. That was a moment where I got really excited and realized “Oh this could really work.”
So did you hear it as a pitch or did you have a pilot script?
I heard it as a pitch, but of course you don’t know until you see it.
Because I just imagine that first scene, in which your character is contemplating suicide, is one of those things where you’re immediately drawn in.
Well I have to tell you, Jason and I talked about this a lot, that’s a very weird scene to begin a comedy with and so finding the tone where you’re telling the story of someone in that dark of a predicament when the show starts, you have let an audience know tonally that this is going to be a comedy, and that was the biggest challenge.
Yeah, it was interesting because I remember watching the trailer for it and seeing that that was how he gets drawn to the choir, but watching the pilot I’m like Oh wait we’re going right into it…
Oh, it’s just immediate, yeah. You could, and it’s something I actually loved about the writing too is, and I think it was a conscious decision on Lesley and Jason’s part, don’t hold anything back, throw it all into the pilot. You could extend the first 30 seconds of the show into five episodes, but I love that it just puts you into the story like you’re in a rocket ship.
What was it like coming back to NBC? Was it a bit of a homecoming?
Yeah it was. I mean, look it sounds stupid and of course, you’re dealing with these big corporations in reality, but I really do, NBC even before West Wing, was a place that was interested in working with me. It’s really kind of been a home, and NBC has this history of these amazing comedies that still hold up perfectly. Jason and I knew that we wanted this to go to NBC because they have a history of doing these quality comedies that hold up, and they know how to develop and take care of them. You can feel the heritage of Parks and Recreation and The Office. We definitely share that DNA.
We’ve heard a lot of talk recently about focusing on the heartland audience, or using other coded language, and this show is based in Kentucky, but it feels like a more accurate representation of Kentucky in that there are all different types of people in it.
Clearly, the number one priority is to make the show as funny as possible, and as joyously musical as possible. Obviously, there is a lot of fear and division in the country, and this show is a really non-preachy, joyous way to transcend that. Lesley always talks about the fact that no matter how scared you are, or how much you don’t like somebody, it’s very hard to maintain that when you’re making a beautiful piece of music together, so that’s sort of at the heart of it. Lesley is from Kentucky and I am from Wisconsin, and I often see condescending renditions of where I grew up, and it was important to me that this was personal to Lesley.
In building your character, what was the thought process going into it, and working with Lesley? There’s definitely an anti-hero quality to Arthur.
I didn’t realize how fun it would be until I started doing it, but what’s great is there’s an infinite range on this guy. There’s this bitter darkness, and yet he is a heartbroken widower, so there’s a lot to play [with] in between. But the combination of his sharp, condescending tongue with this real heart that he has is what’s most fun about it.
Was it nice to remix that darkness that you had been tapping into in some recent roles?
Yeah, I’m getting to the point where I just want to take like a totally different acting attack on a role and this was an opportunity to do that.
Is it comfortable enough now to where you can improvise a bit? When you’re insulting something, is that written?
It’s a very loose, goofy shooting process. Lesley is very open to pitches. The writers are always pitching, you try to get to a place where the atmosphere on the set is best idea wins, and it’s not like a dictatorship.
What’s been the fun part of producing it?
Honestly just putting the elements together was the most interesting thing to me. It was painful, being a part of the audition process is just heartbreaking. I have a lot of compassion for people subjected to the auditioning process, but it was such a joy to find exactly who these people were and see it come to life. Jason and I were saying we were shooting the pilot a year after I first met him. It all came together very quickly, and it’s really fascinating to have a vague idea about what you want to do, then have this great idea show up, and then having it actually come to fruition is a miracle.
One thing I like about your work is you know how to pick an ensemble, what do you think makes a great ensemble, and how did you take the lead with this one?
I think the atmosphere on a set is for me the most crucial predictor for the quality of the product. I think you need a supportive, loving, joyous—it’s got to feel like recess and not like school. That’s my goal, is to encourage that atmosphere as much as possible.
Did you have to do any training for conducting or singing?
A little on the conducting [side], we’ll see how much singing comes in, I know some will, but I am the director, not the performer. It is an incredibly wonderful element of the show and Adam Anders, who’s also an executive producer, who was a priority to bring on because he knows how to do musical, he did all the music on Glee and everything and he knows what he’s doing.
Are there any songs that you would want to see on the show?
Oh yeah, there’s a million. I’m compiling the list. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but most people don’t know the artists of my favorite songs, so that’s good because they may be cheaper to get.
Finally, is there anything you’re excited for people to see this season?
Last night we were shooting until very late and Anna Camp was singing [Dolly Parton’s] “Here You Come Again” and it was just incredible. I was just standing there, supposedly in the scene, but just thinking Man I’m lucky getting to watch Anna Camp kill this song.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Perfect Harmony airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
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