William Jackson Harper

William Jackson Harper Is in a Brand New Good Place

The former Good Place star on his new role in Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad, his favorite Hollywood Chris, and the only acceptable bagel order.
By Kimberly Truong
May 13, 2021 @ 9:00 am

If you believe in divine intervention, then divine intervention is, in part, what we have to thank for bringing William Jackson Harper to our TV screens. 

Harper's origin story, well-documented by now, goes like this: He was on the verge of quitting acting altogether just before he auditioned for — and booked — his role as Chidi Anagonye on The Good Place, and became the subject of critical adoration and fan thirst tweets, seemingly overnight. But as it often goes, what looks like instant success or an act of fate belies years of fortitude and dedicated work — in Harper's case, guest spots on TV series like Law & Order and 30 Rock (staples for any working actor in New York City), and a stage career both on and Off Broadway. While the work may have been enough to get him by, he remembers hitting a phase of feeling stuck and a little uninspired, on top of being "freaked out about rent every month." 

"I felt I was kind of just walking, but just staying in one place. I felt like I was on a bit of a treadmill," he recalls, adding that the early buzz of starting an acting career had temporarily dimmed. "It just seemed like there were bigger moments like that earlier in my life, and they had kind of stopped happening, in a way."

Four seasons of Chidi's journey from Bad Place to Good Place and beyond, plus one Emmy nomination later, a lot has changed for the 41-year-old Dallas-born actor. Harper joins our Zoom call on a recent Friday afternoon from his home in New York following his InStyle photoshoot, an aspect of press duties he admits can be uncomfortable for him "because I feel awkward as hell." 

"It went as smoothly as it possibly could, given the dude in front of the camera," he jokes self-deprecatingly.

William Jackson Harper
Credit: Kendall Bessent

Over a year into the pandemic, Zoom fatigue may be settling in for us all; Harper has undoubtedly spent countless hours in virtual junkets promoting his most recent projects (the price of staying booked and busy in TV and movies, even during a pandemic). Still, dressed in a grey T-shirt and red knit hat, he radiates a patient, laid-back, if somewhat reserved ease. It's an energy that's miles away from the neurotic philosophy professor he's most known for playing, which tracks with his post-Good Place career trajectory. Since the show aired, he's taken on a variety of parts that veer away from Chidi's charmingly chaotic anxious energy, from tackling horror in Midsommar to taking on rom-com stardom in We Broke Up

"I want to try to do things that are varied as much as I can, but also it's really just a matter of the stuff that I get the opportunity to audition for," he says. "I'm not necessarily choosing anything, it's more that I try to go for things that are just different from the character that I think I'm the most known for." (Harper certainly isn't the first actor to have a pivotal sophomore act moment after a breakout role, but he may be one of the few actors so closely associated with said role to successfully avoid typecasting.) 

His openness to the new and wide-ranging came into play when he auditioned for The Underground Railroad, director Barry Jenkins' first TV outing, a ten-part adaptation of Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Harper had known about the project for some time (Jenkins optioned it in 2016) before auditioning during the final season of The Good Place, but true to the actor's humility, he was so unconvinced he'd actually get the role that he told himself while preparing the tape that if the audition was his only experience with the project, he'd enjoy that as much as he could.

"I was just sort of like, 'I'm sure Barry Jenkins has his people that he's going to use and folks in mind, and I'm just going to let it be that,'" he remembers. "Then I got the part, which just blew my mind. I mean, it was something that I just didn't think would come my way and it did, and I was invited to help tell the story."

William Jackson Harper
Credit: Kendall Bessent

Though Harper hadn't read the book prior to preparing for the Amazon series out of a wariness of the potentially triggering nature of reading about slavery and oppression, he eventually delved in and found it to be "inspiring in ways that were pretty unexpected," as well as a formative text when it came to crafting his character's story onscreen. Harper is luminous as Royal, a freed man who crosses paths with The Underground Railroad's heroine, Cora (Thuso Mbedu). The role as a quiet yet confident, open man gave him a chance to flex different acting muscles from some of the comedies he's been involved in, especially since "confident" and "open" aren't necessarily qualities he'd attribute to himself.

In addition to poring over Whitehead's novel, he spent time reading through slaves' narratives to get more of an understanding of just how monstrous the institution was, and to intuit Royal's motivations. Given the series doesn't shy away from portraying the violence and brutality of slavery, Jenkins employed a therapist on set of The Underground Railroad for anyone who needed someone to talk to. While Harper didn't see the therapist himself, he says he and the cast worked to lean into the joy they could find, spending weekends bowling and karaoke-ing together.

"I think in spite of all of the terrible things that happen in this story, there are a lot of moments of hope and lightness and positivity, and we really clung to those a lot," he says.

One such moment of joy comes in the show's ninth episode, with Harper shining as the sensitive hero who becomes a balm for the traumatized Cora. It's one of the best hours of television so far this year, and a lot of it largely rests on his compellingly warm performance.

Viewers who come out of The Underground Railroad rightfully hoping to see more of Harper as a romantic lead won't have to wait long for their wish to be granted — the actor has begun filming the second season of HBO Max's Love Life, which he's starring in and producing.  

With his career's upward trajectory, I ask how Harper feels about this point in his life, versus the earlier years, when he was nearly ready to give up on acting.

"I always feel a little out of my depth and a little unprepared, which is kind of wonderful," he says thoughtfully. 

"I'm in a brand new space where I don't know how everything works and I'm figuring it out, and that's fun," he continues. "I mean, it's stressful at times, but I just feel like things are moving forward. My life is progressing and I am changing again in a way that feels fulfilling."

William Jackson Harper
Credit: Kendall Bessent

Read on for Harper's favorite villains, the cheesiest pickup line he's used, and his favorite ("terrible") joke. 

What is the last thing you do before you fall asleep?

Sadly, I am on my phone, just doom scrolling. I'm on Twitter, just working myself up, and then I'm like, I gotta go to bed. I'm doing that. It's so dumb and I need to stop it.

Who is your favorite villain?

There was this show Daredevil on Netflix for a while, and I loved when the Punisher came in. He was kind of a villain, but you kind of understood where he was coming from — a really complicated villain. I guess he's more in the realm with the antihero, but I just loved that portrayal of the Punisher where I'm like, ah man, he's brutal, but I get it.

Wilson Fisk was also great on that show.

Yeah, he was fantastic, everyone was really complicated. I think also — just going straight to comic books — Killmonger as played by Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther, that performance and what he did with that part, I found myself somewhat on his side at times. I just love that. So that kind of villain that you're like, I should not be rooting for you, but I'm kind of am, but I don't want you to get what you want either.

Can you describe a memorable dream?

Last night I had — it's kind of a weird effed up nightmare — but last night I had dreamed that I was waiting on a train with some friends. Then all of a sudden, these cops came and told us to go get down on the lower platform. We went down the lower platform, and then there was this door. We went through the door and then I guess there was like a nuclear explosion, and we were all really upset about that. So to soothe ourselves, we turned on a Radiohead song and learned a cheer routine to it, while, like, somewhat sobbing.

William Jackson Harper
Credit: Kendall Bessent

What was the first album you owned?

It was Shaquille O'Neal's single, his first rap single, which I think was like Shaq Diesel. I think it was my first, that was the first CD that I got. You know what, actually, let me go back. Even before that, I grew up really religious, and there was this Christian rap group called Preachers In Disguise, P.I.D., I think that was like the first cassette that I bought with my own money. [I was] maybe eight or so.

What is your favorite cheesy pickup line?

Me and my buddies had this thing where we always dared each other to go up to a woman in a bar and be like, "so ... you got any food?" That's it.

Did you ever use it?

It's funny when you know it's coming. When you just go, a lot of people, like their sense of humor is just not that, they're not ready for that. It's a little too weird. So I think I may have tried it once and I think I just got a look from the person, and then I was just like, OK, cool. I'm never going to do that again. It's only kind of funny. It's only funny if your friends are watching you do it. If they're not there, you just look like a nut.

William Jackson Harper
Credit: William Jackson Harper

If you ran for office, what would your slogan be?

"Look, man, I'm just doing my best."

Who would you pick as your running mate?

My girlfriend, Ali Ahn. She would be my running mate because she would actually be running things, not me.

Name one place you've never been, but have always wanted to go.

I have always wanted to go to Machu Picchu. Always been super curious, thought about it for a long time, and just haven't gotten it together and done it.

William Jackson Harper
Credit: William Jackson Harper

What is the most uncomfortable outfit you've ever worn?

I had to wear a complete green spandex suit one time when I was shooting this kid's show, The Electric Company. I was supposed to show up in this episode as a giant apple. So I was in this thing, like in this spandex green suit, and everything is exposed. I looked wrong, and I sat in this sort of like, makeshift — maybe even more like a really sadistic — dentist chair. We were like that for hours, and I was having a rap battle with Lin-Manuel Miranda. He was a hot dog and I was an apple, and we were both in these chairs with these green spandex suits on.

What is your favorite joke? 

Favorite joke — it's terrible. Okay. So, two muffins are in the oven and then one muffin and turns to the other and says like, "Hey man, this is getting kind of hot in here. Don't you think?" The other muffin says, "ahh, talking muffin!"

Who is your favorite Chris: Pratt, Evans, Hemsworth, or Pine?

I gotta be honest. I have a real soft spot for Chris Pine, just because when I see a dude getting a little bit of gray in his beard and stuff like that, I'm like, oh yeah. Look at that grown ass man. If I get older, I'm just like, yeah, yeah, that's right. I also just think he's a super talented performer, but all those dudes are dope. All those dudes are really good. I mean, I want a little bit of all of their lives.

Do you have a favorite movie of his?

I really liked him in the Star Trek movies a bunch. He's just so great as Captain Kirk, he's got a sense of humor that really shines through in so many of his parts that I just find him, like, incredibly watchable.

William Jackson Harper
Credit: William Jackson Harper

When was the last time you cried?

This is going to sound weird, but it was on my 40th birthday. Not because I was 40 — I mean, that was weird enough as it was, but my girlfriend gifted me this painting of our dog as a Saint. He's holding like a bone, you know, like those pictures of saints, where they hold like icons of some sort? He's holding a bone and a PlayStation controller, and it says Saint Chico of Puerto Rico because that's where he was from before we adopted him, and I was a wreck. I was just like, Oh god, this is my favorite thing ever. I loved that so much.

What is your favorite bagel?

Everything. Everything bagel with scallion, cream cheese, lox, and tomato.

Photographs by Kendall Bessent. Polaroid Photos by William Jackson Harper. Special thanks to Polaroid. Booking by Isabel Jones. Production by Kelly Chiello.