William Jackson Harper, who appears late on in Barry Jenkins’ recently released televisual masterpiece The Underground Railroad, on how it helped him to understand his ancestors, getting ripped for The Good Place and his potential superhero future
How do you promote a show like The Underground Railroad in 2021? How do you convince viewers to watch a ten-hour-long drama – artful and beautifully told as it may be – that forces them to re-examine historical atrocities wrought upon black lives in the United States during a time when that trauma has been dredged to the forefront of modern politics?
It’s a question that filmmaker Barry Jenkins – best known for 2017’s instantly classic, Oscar-winning Moonlight – and the cast members of the show have had to weigh up in recent months. For William Jackson Harper, who plays a free man who helps his enslaved compatriots escape the clutches of their white masters in the series, it’s simple: you don’t.
“There is a lot of trauma, and that is a discussion that there’s room for tons of opinions on, and anyone who says, ‘I don’t want to see this and I don’t think we need to do this again…’ I think that those feelings are totally valid,” he tells GQ during a Zoom call. “You don’t have to watch this. If it’s too much, it’s too much.”
What he can do, however, is explain the value that he saw in the telling of such a difficult story (and difficult it truly is: in the first episode a black man is publicly lynched and burned alive and further episodes feature similarly horrific scenes).
“I think that I felt that this story was unique because, as Barry said, it is very, very much about resilience. It’s about resisting more than it is about enduring. And I think that in a lot of stories that deal with this subject matter, you see a lot of people enduring things and waiting for something to change, or you watch a lot of trauma, but even within that trauma there’s a certain sort of passivity. And I think that’s really tough to watch. But this story in particular is not about passivity, it’s about someone who’s saying, ‘F*** all y’all, I’m out.’”
The Underground Railroad, adapted by Jenkins from Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel of the same name, takes place predominantly in the southern states of the US in the mid-1800s, where slavery was still very much the norm. It follows the resilient Cora (Thuso Mbedu), an enslaved person who escapes captivity via a subterranean locomotive. In a mildly surreal twist from Whitehead’s novel, the “underground railroad”, which in reality was a network of safe houses and routes managed by allies and abolitionists, is a functioning rail network. Cora’s great foil is the slave-hunting psychopath Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), who furiously pursues her throughout the series alongside his young assistant Homer (Chase W Dillon). Harper appears in the latter episodes as Royal, a free man in Tennessee who gives Cora a helping hand.
It is, put simply, a masterpiece, perhaps the most visually stunning series of recent memory. It is also brilliantly acted, too, and Harper is no exception. Although it is a difficult watch, there is a hopefulness that runs through the series – even when it seems like things only go from bad to worse for Cora – which makes you want to persevere through the tougher scenes. Cora is down, but she is not out and she will fight for her freedom with everything she’s got. As writer Scott Woods put it in the New York Times, “Cora is not merely an avatar for enslaved people, she is a person complete with emotional range and interiority and even agency.”
The story is told predominantly from Cora’s perspective, meaning many of the characters, Royal included, exist in her orbit. Half of the battle for Harper was getting on Mbedu’s level. “Thuso is an incredibly truthful performer,” he says. “I needed to rise to that as a character, to be the person that she needed me to be in those scenes, you know… That was something that we talked about a lot. Who do I need to be for her in this moment?”
Jenkins was apprehensive about tackling this story from the beginning, but he emerged from it, he says, with a greater sense of closeness with his ancestors, who will have endured much of what we see depicted on screen. Harper feels similarly.
“They were greater people than I’ll ever be. And that just keeps playing in my head, you know, every time I sit down to talk to anyone about this. I think also about the ways in which I am more passive than I should be, you know, the ways in which I’m seeing things happen in the world and I’m sitting there and I’m like, ‘Someone should do something about that.’ And that’s about as far as my thought goes. There’s a lot of ways in which I’m like, I’d like to think that I would have risked my life and done all this stuff or would I have just made sure that I was OK and just left it alone, you know? It sort of brought some of my flaws as a person to the fore.”
Harper started filming The Underground Railroad immediately after wrapping the final episode of The Good Place, the great existential sitcom – about a group of kind-hearted people in a bureaucratic, terribly run afterlife – that made his name. It was an emotional moment and not just because the episode depicted the already-dead characters of the show choosing to end their afterlife experiences for good and accept the vast nothingness of death (it was funny too, though, we swear).
“It felt really final when [Kristen Bell and I] were shooting that last scene on the bridge in Paris,” he says. “I remember just being like, ‘I’m gonna stay in this scene until it’s actually done.’ I just kind of wanted to stay in that moment, you know, and really savour that I got to do a job where I got to go to Paris and act with this incredibly talented, wonderful person.”
The Good Place – in which he played anxious moral philosopher and eventual romantic lead Chidi – was his first major starring role after more than a decade of smaller jobs off broadway and on US TV (like any other American actor worth his salt, he guest-starred on Law & Order). It was an international hit and it brought him a surprising – to him, at least – amount of attention, particularly one moment in series three in which he appeared shirtless for the first time in his career. Good Place fans got extremely thirsty on Twitter. “Playing spoons on Chidi’s abs would be nice,” one tweeted.
“Growing up I never received any attention from my looks or my physique or anything like that, ever. And so it’s just sort of weird in your late thirties, early forties, to sort of get that kind of attention. It’s hugely flattering. I do work out and I try to eat right, but it’s really more to avoid getting ridiculed. That was a lot of my childhood: it was just like, people making fun of the way I looked. So it’s really nice. But I was not prepared. It’s not what I was expecting it all.”
When I tell him that in my research I came across a load of tweets from Marvel and DC fans citing him as their favourite to be the next person to play Reed Richards from The Fantastic Four and Superman respectively (the Superman one had 55,000 likes), he’s even more surprised: “55,000 likes, for me? That’s crazy. That’s nuts to me.”
“I would be absolutely psyched. But I haven’t gotten any calls from anybody or anything. And I think it’s really cool that they would even think of me for a superhero. I grew up with those characters, so it’s a dream, it is something that I would be over the moon to get to do, but I just never thought [about] that. I’m just really flattered.”
It would take something remarkable to make either of those characters more empathetic and heroic than Royal. For now, Harper is still digesting the lessons learned from working with one of the greatest living filmmakers. “I think at the heart of it, for me, I thought that this story could really start some interesting conversations. And that’s really why I wanted to be a part of it so badly.”