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Interview: William Jackson Harper on ‘The Underground Railroad’ and Playing the Romantic Lead

Actor William Jackson Harper is best known for his Emmy-nominated performance as the highly moral Chidi Anagonye in The Good Place. After that show wrapped its four-season run just over one year ago, Harper is stepping into the role of a man with a very different but equally compelling set of ethics. In the upcoming Amazon Prime Video limited series from director Barry Jenkins, The Underground Railroad, Harper plays a free man named Royal with strong connections to the network of trains that spirit enslaved people to freedom and a kind eye towards the show’s protagonist, Cora.

Awards Radar had the chance to speak with Harper about what attracted him to this project, working with Barry Jenkins, and being cast as the romantic lead.

Q: How did you come on to this project? Had you read the book?

A: I had not read the book beforehand. I got an audition for it, and read the material for the audition. It was just so well-constructed and lovingly rendered that I just wanted so badly to see what the rest of the story was. And I also really wanted to work with Barry Jenkins. But then, after getting the part, I did read the book and it informed me very, very well about the direction to take the character and ways to move through that world. It was a book that I was actually a little bit afraid to read for a long time because the subject matter was something that I knew would upset me. But I think that reading it, the thing that sets it apart is that it’s a story of resistance more than anything else. That kernel of hope and fire in the middle of all that made it a little more palatable for me. I didn’t just hang on the trauma alone.

Q: What appealed to you specifically about the character of Royal?

A: I always thought of him as being slightly ahead of his time. He’s within this world where people were bound and determined to not let him be his authentic self, to not let him live his life according to his own rules, and he just gave them the finger and did it anyway. I love that. There are so many things that he embodies that I wished I was. He’s a calm and confident in person and he has a very strong moral center. He’s front-footed and proactive. These are all things that I hope to embody someday. I’m still working on it. These are the things that I really love. The fact that he is someone who is a part of a resistance. In certain ways, I want to be him when I grow up. That’s the way I felt about it.

Q: You don’t come into the show until a good deal of the way into the season. Do you like joining an established story late into its run, or does that sort of change the experience?

A: We shot a lot of things out of order. So I wasn’t there at the very beginning, but I was in and out for a lot of the actual shooting of it. It’s like the first day is always the first day of school. Who am I going to sit with at lunch, what am I going to do? You know, is everyone cool, am I cool, am I doing something wrong? But the cast and crew and the designers and the production, everyone was just a big family united in trying to tell this story as truthfully as possible. That is the overwhelming feeling as soon as you set foot on that set. And so, yeah, I mean, it is nice to be there at the very beginning, of course, it’s always nice. But, when you have the right group of people, it’s easy to come in when it’s time to come in and I just find your stride.

Q: You mentioned your excitement about working with Barry. Is that what you expected?

A: It was better. It was much better. He’s a brilliant guy, but he’s also really down-to-earth and normal. And really collaborative. He trusts his actors. For someone who I trust to the ends of the earth to tell a story effectively and truthfully, and for him to give me that trust back just really warmed my heart. So yeah, it was great. I had to get over being intimidated, of course, because I just had all the respect in the world for him, but, yeah, you eventually just settle in because he’s so down to earth.

Q: As you alluded to before, this is a very difficult show to watch in terms of the violence and horrors and general content it showcases. How does that impact what it’s like on set?

A: Well, we had a guidance counselor just in case we found ourselves unable to cope. But I think that for a lot of us, especially in my piece of the story, we really clung to the joy that we had and all those things. There’s a lot of positivity in the story as well. You know, there is the trauma, obviously, and it’s really intense. But I think that what I clung to as an actor was the good stuff and the positivity, and I feel like that was something that a lot of us were doing on set. As a character and as an actor, that’s the thing that keeps you going.

Q: Of course, you’re best known for your fantastic performance as Chidi on The Good Place. This is a very dramatic departure from that. Do you find yourself missing comedy when you’re doing drama like this, or do you like both?

A: I like both. They both come with their own set of challenges. You’re very aware of the clock and the timing, like, how do you make this thing work? Especially on The Good Place, we had so many great writers writing these amazing jokes that you just wanted to do it justice. I think that with this, it’s about really being truthful and letting go of the outside eye that I think comedy can sometimes foster. Where you’re like, is this working? Things like this, you have to get rid of that thing and just really be present with your partner and just be in the moment. And so the comedy muscle has been something that I’ve been working for a lot of years, and this was something that was very different. My career up until The Good Place had been just flipping back and forth and then whoever would hire me. So it was good to get to do something like this again that was going to challenge me and then I was going to learn from.

Q: I have to mention the recently-released film We Broke Up, which is really terrific, and I also know that you’re going to be starring in season 2 of Love Life on HBO Max. Do you enjoy playing the romantic lead, whether its comedy or drama?

A: Sure. It’s actually relatively new for me. This is not the sort of thing that I’ve done in my career up until now really. And yeah, it’s fun for me. I am a pretty unsentimental guy and I’m not romantic. I’m working on it, but I’m not that. It’s fun because it is very far from what my everyday is like. I’m more of a lasers and tacos kind of guy, you know? That’s me.

Q: I know that you’ve also done a lot of theater. Do you have plans to do more in the future if that becomes possible again?

A: Oh yeah, absolutely. I love the process of getting to make theater, because you’re in a room and you’re rehearsing and trying to find an inevitable but surprising way for the scene to play out. You also just go into the room and you fail and you succeed. You’re in charge of that experience once that audience sits down. And I really love that feeling, and I feel like it’s really useful in every medium to have done some theater. Just because it’s just a way to really lose yourself in a role for an extended amount of time.

Q: Aside from Love Life, what else is actually on the calendar for you?

A: Right now, Love Life is all that I have lined up. We’re getting ready to start shooting that and I’m working as a producer on it as well, so I’m getting to weigh in on the storytelling and stuff like that. That’s really my focus. I just want to do my job there and I’ll see what comes up next.

All ten episodes of The Underground Railroad will premiere on Friday, May 14th on Amazon Prime Video.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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