William Jackson Harper: “Before ‘The Good Place’, I was lost and confused”

From nearly quitting acting to the best year of his career – life lessons with TV's rising star

When William Jackson Harper moved to New York 18 years ago, it was the bright lights of Broadway that drew him there. “I wanted to do theatre and if you wanted to do new plays, that was the place to go,” he says, speaking on Zoom from his Brooklyn home. “I didn’t really, initially, have a whole lot of interest in doing stuff on camera.”

Fast forward to 2022 and Harper is on camera a lot, though not during this interview, throughout which he opts to keep his face hidden. Fair enough – it’s still early in New York and the 42-year-old says he’s sweaty from working out.

William Jackson Harper

You’ll probably know said face from Harper’s breakthrough role in The Good Place. He played hilarious over-thinker Chidi until the sitcom came to an end a couple of years ago, but has definitely maintained his career’s upward trajectory since. Last year was perhaps his best yet. He starred in romantic anthology series Love Life, a rare lead for an actor mostly content to excel on the periphery. And he also shone in The Underground Railroad, Barry Jenkins’ stunning limited series about Black Americans trying to escape from slavery in the early 1800s.

His latest series, The Resort, sees Harper take another leap forward. It’s a genre-straddling eight-parter premiering on streamer Peacock later this month. He and Cristin Milioti (Palm Springs) star as Noah and Emma, a married couple who arrive at a fancy Mexican hotel to celebrate – or at least mark – their 10-year anniversary. At first, Noah seems upbeat if not quite perky, but Emma is clearly stuck in a rut and having serious doubts about their relationship.

William Jackson Harper
CREDIT: Sela Shiloni

The couple’s disconnected dynamic is fascinating, and Harper has clearly thought hard about their differences. “I think that he’s content and fine with being just content as opposed to happy,” he says. “Whereas I think Emma might be looking for excitement and that rush again. I think that she probably has a deeper connection to nostalgia and, like, [this idea of] what her life was supposed to feel like at this stage.”

Harper describes Noah’s attitude to being “somewhat youthful, but no longer young” as “adult” in the sense that he is mature and realistic. “But,” he continues, “you can’t help but wonder if there’s something there that needs to be examined – like, why is he willing to accept… I don’t even want to use the word mediocrity. But why is it that he is willing to accept things not being as good as they could be?”

The Resort
William Jackson Harper in Peacock’s ‘The Resort’. CREDIT: Peacock

Midway through episode one, Emma stumbles on the rush she’s been craving when she heads off the beaten track and finds a vintage flip phone. The battered old device won’t switch on, so Emma removes the SIM card and puts it in another phone she buys at a local market. It turns out that the original mobile belonged to Sam (Skyler Gisondo), one of two teenagers who went missing 15 years ago, right before a freak hurricane came along and wiped away the evidence. Immediately intrigued, Emma persuades Noah to liven up their vacation (and their relationship) by playing detective and piecing together what happened.

Co-created by Mr. Robot mastermind Sam Esmail, The Resort pivots between the couple’s endearingly amateurish present-day investigation and flashback scenes sketching out the connection between Sam and fellow missing teen Violet (Nina Bloomgarden). Based on the first two episodes that NME has seen, the show is a bold hybrid of black comedy, murder mystery and relationship drama. Its 35-minute episodes have moments that make you snort, but the mystery has some potential to become properly gripping.

The Resort
Cristin Milioti and William Jackson Harper play a couple in strife for ‘The Resort’. CREDIT: Peacock

For Harper, the show’s shapeshifting quality was a key part of its appeal. “The thing you said about it being a tough show to sum up is exactly why I was interested in it,” he says. “The fact it was so hard to pin down and hard to know what was going to be the most important [element] in each scene, that was very intriguing to me.”

At this point in his career, The Resort is exactly the sort of unique challenge Harper is looking for. “I like weird – stuff that’s unexpected,” he says. “When it comes to [picking] roles, I need to explore some other parts of my personality. Acting for me is highly therapeutic. And if I keep on going to the same well [of emotions], doing the same kind of character, it becomes less satisfying.”

“I don’t need to be the lead; I just need the part to be interesting”

Interestingly, though he’s stepped up to lead roles with Love Life and The Resort, being top of the call sheet isn’t a priority. “That’s not the driving force at all,” he says. “I’ve mostly played – especially doing theatre – a lot of supporting roles, and that’s fine with me. I don’t need to be the lead; I just need the part to be interesting. I just need to have something to do that lets me feel I’m getting out some stuff that I need to get out.”

Harper pauses, then demonstrates the killer comic timing he deployed on The Good Place. “Also, not being a lead means you don’t have to be there as much. Which is also great.”

Though he’s now best known for his TV work, Harper racked up quite a few stage credits after he moved to New York in 2004. A year earlier, he had graduated from the College of Santa Fe in New Mexico, around 600 miles from where he grew up in Dallas. Harper’s father died when he was eight, so he was raised mainly by his mother, an executive assistant who later became a nurse. His birth name is William Fitzgerald Harper, but he figured it was “too long” for an actor and swapped in his mother’s maiden name, Jackson, so that his career honours both parents.

While working steadily on stage in his twenties and early thirties, Harper also picked up TV guest parts in shows including 30 Rock and Law & Order. It wasn’t until 2014, when he was cast in All the Way, a highly acclaimed play about 36th president Lyndon B. Johnson, that the stars really seemed to align. “It was the first time I was doing exactly what I wanted: a really cool, hyper-political play on Broadway,” he says. “I was making a living wage, I wasn’t worried about paying rent, and I was doing what I had come to New York to do.”

“I realised I hadn’t figured everything out. I was getting my ass beat again”

But when All the Way ended, so did Harper’s professional high. Acting gigs he was counting on didn’t pan out, and he struggled to get work. “I was like, OK, I didn’t figure this out [after all]. I’m getting my ass beat again,” he says. For a time, Harper even contemplated packing in acting and going back to Dallas. “I’d had some pretty big disappointments and I was just tired of being panicked about rent,” he says. “You know, I was lucky to have really great roommates. We were essentially like this Brooklyn home for wayward young men. We were all a bit lost and confused, and we leaned on each other a lot.”

At the same time, Harper was starting to realise he didn’t want to live in a flatshare forever. He was also sick of not taking holidays or being able to fly home for family events. “I was just tired and feeling a little beat up,” he says. “I was deriving a lot of my self-worth from whether or not I was working, and I noticed things were starting to get a bit shaky for me mentally. Like, you know, it’s starting to get nasty.” During previous career downswings, Harper felt convinced that quitting acting would make him even unhappier. But this time, he wasn’t so sure. “That was the closest I came to being like, ‘I don’t want to do this any more,'” he says.

The Good Place
In ‘The Good Place’ with Kristen Bell. CREDIT: Alamy

Then he was cast in The Good Place, an addictive comedy series set in a heaven-like realm reserved for people who lived morally righteous lives as humans. As Chidi Anagonye, a hyper-anxious ethics professor who overthinks every single decision, Harper was hilarious and heartwarming. “I’m just not a ‘new experience’ kind of guy,” Chidi says in one episode. “My comfort zone is basically like, that chair, and honestly? The arms are a little sharp.”

When it debuted in 2016, The Good Place quickly locked in the rhythm that defines all hit sitcoms as Harper bounced off talented castmates Kristen Bell, Jameela Jamil and Hollywood legend Ted Danson. “After the first season, we knew we were getting a second, and I was like: ‘This is great, I feel like I’m getting somewhere,'” he says. For his performance in the fourth and final season, which concluded in 2020, he was rewarded with an Emmy nomination.

“I didn’t think I’d be part of something as important as ‘Midsommar'”

A year earlier, with his profile growing, Harper demonstrated his range by appearing in Ari Aster’s nerve-shredding horror film Midsommar: an instant cult classic. “I didn’t think that I was going to be part of something so important,” he says, modest as ever. “I was just like, ‘Hell yeah. This is 100 per cent my jam.’ I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought it could be something really cool and interesting. And I was watching Florence Pugh work every day. She was really good, so I knew that if nothing else, people would respond to what she was doing.”

Fans now want to see Harper in a film that will probably be even bigger: Marvel‘s upcoming Fantastic Four reboot. If you search the actor’s name on Twitter, it’s filled with people dream-casting him as Mister Fantastic: a superhero with an elastic-like body and genius-level intellect. Today, Harper says he’s flattered by the attention, but points out that “Twitter doesn’t cast movies”.

‘Midsommar’ saw Jackson Harper dip his toes in the horror world. CREDIT: Alamy

“I’d be really happy if Marvel was listening, but they haven’t called me and I’m not going to be in Fantastic Four,” he says. “As far as I know: maybe they have something [in mind] up the docket, but no one’s reached out to me.”

In fairness, Harper sounds really happy with where he is even without a call from Marvel. “There are people whose careers are far exceeding mine, and I’m completely unbothered by that. Like, fucking go for it,” he says. Harper confides that he still gets “crazy nervous” when he arrives on set, but considers this an integral part of the job that “never goes away”. “I’ve learned to cope with it and to a certain degree, calm down,” he adds. “And, you know, I do work really hard. I know I’m supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be doing this work in this scenario right now.”

‘The Resort’ comes to Peacock, available exclusively on Sky and NOW in the UK, on July 29

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