The Underground Railroad star William Jackson Harper on the pain and pleasure of working on the show
The actor discusses how director Barry Jenkins surprised him, and if there's any takeaway from the Amazon limited series that he's bringing with him to Love Life Season 2.
By the time viewers meet Royal, the character William Jackson Harper plays on Amazon's The Underground Railroad, he is an incredibly welcome addition to the show, who helps rescue runaway Cora (Thuso Mbedu) from the persistent bounty hunter Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton).
"A gentle soul," as Harper describes him, Royal asks himself "Who do I need to be to make this person feel comfortable and safe?" Even though he escorts Cora to the free Black community of Valentine Farm in Indiana, it takes a second to ease the formerly enslaved woman who, at the point in which he meets her, has long been running from her native Georgia. "She made Royal work for it a little bit to gain her trust. But when her trust is won, it really feels like the clouds break and the sun is out," notes Harper of their eventual romance.
While his part as Royal represents the most joyous parts of Cora's journey, Harper admits "I had to very much take my time with watching [the show]... it's really pretty harrowing stuff." The actor talks to EW about director and showrunner Barry Jenkins defying his expectations, the pleasure and pain of shooting the Valentine Farm arc, and if there's anything from The Underground Railroad experience he's taking with him into Love Life Season 2.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How'd you become involved with this show? Was it an audition process?
WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: I didn't think that a project like this would come my way. I'd heard about the book, and I was afraid to read it because that subject matter is very upsetting to me, but I had every intention of reading it at some point. And then I actually got the audition, and I read the materials, and they were just so great, and so nuanced and interesting. And I was like, "Well, I wanna at least enjoy the opportunity to say these words and to give some kind of performance." And if the only chance I get to do that is in this audition then I just want to make sure that I give the performance I want to give.
So I auditioned, and I sent it off, and a few weeks later while on the bus going down to the final Comic Con for The Good Place, I got the call that I was being offered the role. It blew me away because it was just that one tape that I sent off, there was no process of callbacks or several meetings or anything like that. It was just "OK yeah, this is it." For a project of this size, and for a role like this, I anticipated a very painstaking process of trying to get myself invited to tell the story along with so many many great collaborators, but it was really very swift. It was surprising.
In your opinion, what does Royal see in Cora?
Well, there's a couple of things. The first time that Royal sees Cora, there's a deeply messed up thing that he sees, which is a man pulling a woman down the street in shackles, and then a young Black boy dressed up in a suit just walking freely behind them. There's something about that that's just like, "What is going on here? Something's very, very wrong." That set off the alarm bells for him. And then beyond that, once she got to Valentine Farm, this is the place of peace and freedom, and she's not fully letting herself enjoy those things. And [as Royal], I just want her to really enjoy the benefits of what it is to be a free woman.
I think that there are also just people who have the strength to, from Royal's standpoint, to run away. There is something in them that is stronger than anything that I've ever had to be, because Royal is a free-born man. So there's a level of admiration that's already there that it's like "Good for you. The world told you, you weren't allowed to be a free person. You weren't allowed to have self-determination and all that. And you decided that you were going to say, 'Screw all that. I'm taking it anyway and dealing with the consequences that they come with.'" And so I think there's admiration there as well for what she's been through, and that she's not necessarily at home on Valentine Farm yet because she is in this weary place. There's a tenderness that I feel towards her as well as respect for taking matters into her own hands, and changing her circumstances.
What was it like working with Barry Jenkins? And getting to be part of some of his cinematic signatures, like the romantic glances?
Barry's great. He's so down to earth. It's really strange. I always expected directors like him, who visually make such striking pictures, to be very much like, "This is how it has to look. This is how it has to be." And [Barry's] so collaborative. He's the exact opposite. He is open to you experimenting and trying new things and surprising him in takes. And when I first met him, he was just a normal guy. It's hard for me to imagine someone so normal and chill telling these stories so effectively, and so lovingly and respectfully. He takes the work very seriously, but he doesn't seem to take himself so seriously. He's a lot of fun on set, and when we needed to loosen up and just shake off some of the heaviness of the scenes that we were having to play, he was right there doing it with us. He trusts us a lot. It was just a great process. I feel like I learned a lot just by being in his presence and getting to work with him for a few weeks. It was amazing.
And therefore he dispelled any hesitations you may have going into a project that, as you said, covered upsetting subject matter like chattel slavery?
Yeah. I trusted him with this because he's not a person that just does things because they're cool. There's a reason for everything, and he was going to direct each and every episode. You need to make sure that if you're doing a project like that, where it's going to take that much of your life and your time and your mental wellbeing, that you're really invested in the story, and that it's saying something that you think needs to be said. And so I really trusted him to tell the story with tact and compassion. The other thing is he really empowered us to embrace the aspect of resistance in all of our portrayals, and that is something that is very present in the novel, and also very present in the series; that it's not about enduring things and waiting for something to come, and being long suffering. It's not about that. It's about taking matters into your own hands when things are wrong, and what society says be damned.
When EW talked to Barry Jenkins, he described the episode "Indiana Autumn" as a romantic drama, and compared "Indiana Winter" to an action film. As you were shooting, did you feel too that you all got to explore multiple genres through making this?
No, I really didn't think of it that way. I guess that there is some truth to that, right? Like it does feel like in certain scenes, certain genres are being explored. But I just thought of it from Royal's point of view, which is there's a woman that is in a deeply screwed up situation, that I have the ability to help. As the relationship changes over the course of the next couple of episodes, it's just being present in those moments, and thinking less about what genre we're in. That's one of those things that I really trust Barry [with]. If he wants it to feel that way, it'll feel that way. But I think that I was just really concentrating on playing Royal, and being the person that Cora needed me to be for her. So she could just relax and enjoy peace and freedom on Valentine Farm.
Do you have a particular favorite scene that you all shot?
Honestly, the Shucking Bee was so much fun. We were just, as a cast, getting rowdy and having a good time. Actually, any dialogue you hear is largely unscripted stuff. Barry would throw out some lines and people would improvise some things, and do some stuff randomly, and he would just catch it. And we were just having a blast while we were doing that. And I remember actually Barry at the end of one particular take was like, "Okay, everybody cut. I love Black people. And let's reset." I think that was also how we approached Valentine Farm. This is a happy, safe place, until it's not. And we really leaned into how comfortable we were around each other and playing that and enjoying that. There was even a moment where like Mingo and I, who disagree on so much, we even put our differences aside during the Shucking Bee. There's something about that that feels really beautiful. We may disagree on the methods, but we all want something very similar, which is to exist the way we want to exist in the world. That really doesn't want to allow us any of that. So yeah, that was my favorite scene to shoot.
What were your feelings surrounding the demise of Valentine Farm and Royal's death? It feels sudden, and hard to watch, but I found that debate scene that precedes it so powerful. So I wonder what it was like to be a part of that experience.
Triggering, really. I definitely found myself almost feeling I was about to lose control in the fight, in the battle. It was a really tough scene, and also near the end of shooting. It was sad and infuriating, and you know, I really don't have the words for what that felt like, but there's something about it that felt sadly very real and very possible. So to be going through that on set was hard. It was a really tough day. There were a lot of tears, a lot of anger, a lot of people checking in with each other. But it's in the story, and it's part of what happens, and things like this have happened, and it's really important to show that.
To end on a lighter note, this show is a show focused on one main character, while other characters and settings come and go, which in that aspect is parallel to HBO Max's Love Life. Is there anything from your experience working on The Underground Railroad that you're taking with you into playing the lead on Love Life Season 2?
Oh, I'm not really sure yet. There might be something that will surprise me at some point as we're exploring the character and shooting things. We shot the pilot. There's nothing that I've consciously realized that I've carried over from The Underground Railroad, but it's also been—Oh man, it's been more than a year since I finished my time on The Underground Railroad. So in that year, a lot of the feelings and things that I had while working on that are further in the past and a little bit fuzzier. And so, I don't know. Maybe later on I'll find something, or I'll find myself in a moment where there's something from The Underground Railroad that makes its way into this character, but I'm really trying to just focus on creating something different and new with [my character] Marcus. Past experiences play into it, so we'll see.
The Underground Railroad is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
This interview has been edited and condensed.