William Jackson Harper has scored an industry hat trick. The veteran stage and screen actor co-stars in Oscar winner Barry Jenkins’ Amazon series “The Underground Railroad” and headlines Season 2 of “Love Life” (HBO Max), which just wrapped shooting on it
Published: 2021-05-21 06:20 pm
William Jackson Harper is having a moment (or three)

William Jackson Harper has scored an industry hat trick.

The veteran stage and screen actor co-stars in Oscar winner Barry Jenkins’ Amazon series “The Underground Railroad” and headlines Season 2 of “Love Life” (HBO Max), which just wrapped shooting on its first episode in New York City.

He also takes a memorable road trip in the recently released movie “We Broke Up” — or, as he calls it, “an indie anti-rom-com” co-starring Aya Cash (“The Boys”).

“It starts off with a couple who’ve been together for 10 years. I play Doug, who asks his girlfriend, Lori [Cash], to marry him — and she throws up,” said Harper, 41. “The movie takes off from there as they’re heading to a wedding and trying to get through that weekend.

“It’s a really thorny thing when two people are in a relationship and love each other, but want different things. Somehow that feels very grown-up and interesting to me.”

On the TV front, Harper plays Royal in “The Underground Railroad,” the 10-part Amazon series based on Colson Whitehead’s 2016 alt-reality novel. Set in the 19th century deep South, it envisions a world in which slaves trying to escape to their freedom use an actual underground railroad — complete with train tracks, engineers, a conductor, etc. The series focuses on Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar (Aaron Pierre), who are attempting to flee from a Georgia plantation. Royal, who’s also featured in the book, is a freeborn black man and an operator on the railroad who helps get passengers as far North as possible — and strikes up a friendship with Cora.

William Jackson Harper and Thuso Mbedu in a scene from “The Underground Railroad.”
Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon

“It’s a real paradigm shift for Cora when she sees Royal because she says, ‘He’s just looking people in the eye and talking to them — there’s nothing subservient about him,’ ” Harper said. “There’s nothing about him that feels obsequious in any way, and that’s something I held on to when trying to play the character.

“I wanted to get a feel for how Royal moves through the world,” Harper said. “There is such a thing as doing too much research for certain parts, but that wasn’t the case with this piece. I think Royal has arrived at certain conclusions…and I really latched on to that.

“I knew about the book for a while; it was one of those books I kept meaning to read but avoided because I knew it would upset me,” he said. “I knew the project was coming to the screen in some capacity, but I didn’t think in a million years that I would get to audition for it, much less be involved. When I did read the book I couldn’t put it down — it was heartbreaking and also very hopeful in moments and I was really cheering for Cora.

“It was so effective, evocative, harrowing and important in so many ways.”

William Jackson Harper and Kristen Bell as Chidi and Eleanor in a scene from “The Good Place,” for which Harper received an Emmy nomination.
©NBC/Courtesy Everett Collectio
William Jackson Harper

Harper, who played Chidi Adagonye on “The Good Place” for all four seasons of the NBC afterlife sitcom — for which he received an Emmy nomination — pivots next to “Love Life,” taking over in the anthology series from Anna Kendrick’s Season 1 character, Darby Carter.

“I’m playing Marcus,” he said. “The first season was about what it is to be in New York in your 20s and finding love being a big part of that, along with a host of other issues tied to being a young person new to the city.

“My story takes off from the point of view of a person who’s lived in New York for a while, is a little more stable and a bit older [than Darby] and thinks his life is going to be this way going forward — and what happens when all of that is thrown up in the air…what it’s like to be older and trying to date and figure out who you are when everything you thought you were has completely shifted.

“It’s exploring other issues through the lens of trying to found who you’re meant to be with.”

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