William Jackson Harper won fans’ hearts (and earned a supporting actor Emmy nomination) as Chidi in “The Good Place.” But now that the NBC comedy has reached the afterlife, the actor is stepping into rom-com leading man status with “We Broke Up.”
Harper, who will next star in HBO Max’s romantic anthology series “Love Life” and has a role on Barry Jenkins’ Amazon limited series “The Underground Railroad,” plays Doug in the new indie relationship comedy from director Jeff Rosenberg. The pair previously collaborated on “The Good Place.”
In the film, Doug and his girlfriend Lori (Aya Cash) have been together for a decade, but when he spontaneously proposes and she vomits in response, the relationship comes to a screeching halt. The one wrinkle, the breakup comes just days before Lori’s little sister’s wedding, where both are expected to attend (Doug is, as he notes in the trailer, “the king of the ushers”), so the couple decide to pretend they’re still together until the weekend is over.
Harper says the film’s script, which was written by Rosenberg and Laura Jacquim, drew him to the role, with its unique take on how relationships work – or why they don’t.
“It felt more like relationships that I have seen and some of the relationships that I’ve been in,” Harper tells Variety. “It’s not necessarily that people break up all the time because there’s a huge betrayal. Sometimes it’s just the end of your time together, or people want different things and the love isn’t gone, but you don’t know what the way forward is.”
Harper was also taken by the way the story subverts the typical romantic tropes. Instead of working toward the idea of happily ever after, the film affirms that the final endgame for a relationship might look different depending on the couple.
“I also like the idea of putting it out there that marriage isn’t always the goal. That’s not the goal for certain couples and that’s fine,” he adds. “There’s a lot of stuff about the movie that I feel is sort of jagged in a way that I really appreciate and I can identify with.”
Granted, Harper isn’t much of a rom-com fan himself, joking that he’s “the textbook definition of a late bloomer” in the romance department.
“Sadly, I’m not the most romantic man, you can ask my girlfriend,” Harper laughs. “I try sometimes, but I’m afraid I’m gonna get laughed at because I’m so bad at it.”
The actor adds that he’s always been a bit of a cynic when it comes to watching meet cute movies, normally passing on the “mushy stuff” for something a bit darker.
“I’ve always had sort of a harder edge in all of my tastes, when it comes to music, love songs just sort of get on my nerves,” he explains. “I’d rather have people dealing with real dark stuff or a bunch of people pointing laser blasters at each other; I’m a typical nerd in that way and I’m 41 years old. Maybe in the next 10 years, I’ll kind of shake that off, but right now, I’m still just that guy.”
However, the actor recently watched “Crazy Stupid Love,” the rom-com classic starring Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.
“I had just never seen it, and I know it was one of those movies that everybody freaked out about Ryan Gosling’s body,” Harper says of the film.
Harper endured similar oohs and aahs when Chidi showed off a surprisingly swole physique on “The Good Place,” but for “We Broke Up,” he was fortunate not to have to get his abs on-camera ready. Sorry fans, you’ll have to romanticize without objectifying this time around
“I did [get shirtless,] but it didn’t make the cut,” he admits. “It’s probably for the best; I wasn’t in tip top shape at the time anyway and nobody needed to see me in the off hours.”
He explains: “I’d been good timing it and the holidays had just passed, and I was not where I needed to be to feel all confident about that. For me to try to look to look a certain way, it actually takes a lot of effort and I don’t always have that effort to give.”
In fact, it was the character’s everyman qualities that Harper found most appealing about the role.
“Doug’s not the prettiest dude in the room. He’s not struggling to find love,” Harper explains. “He was not an archetype, he was just the kind of guy that you meet around that age. There’s something about him that feels very real to me.”
Similarly, he adds, the couple don’t have any crazy quirks that telegraph to audiences they shouldn’t be together.
“There’s just something about the idea of marriage that is very unappealing to Lori, but it’s super appealing to Doug,” the actor explains. “It’s not like there’s something wrong with him specifically that she just doesn’t want to be married to him; the idea of marriage is something that she’s not into. And I think that feels real, because sometimes that’s the way it goes.”
“We all have damage and we can’t always point to exactly where that came from. And who’s to say that not wanting to get married is a kind of damage? It’s not. Some people just don’t want to and that’s okay. Both of the characters together, they’re good people, they’re people that you do want to root for, but they just have things that are just germane to who they are and there’s no real explanation for it.”
Another bonus for Harper was having the perfect scene partner. Harper and Cash (known for “You’re the Worst” and “The Boys”) have been “floating around each other” in the theater world for years, participating in workshops and readings, so he was thrilled to get a chance to work one on one.
“The best thing about Aya is that she’s really good at portraying very complicated things very subtly and completely wordlessly. [I thought,] ‘This is the kind of person I need to be working with and learning from,’” Harper says, noting Cash’s ability to be fully present in a scene.
“It gives you a lot to work with, because she’s not just waiting till the camera’s on her to actually do the work. She’s giving 110% all day, every day, whether she’s on or off [camera],” he adds. “When it came to finding the relationship, we both came at it with different points of view, but we really just sort of played it as it laid [in the script] and it all kind of clicked.”
Harper squeezed in the romantic comedy while on a break from shooting Barry Jenkins’ limited series “The Underground Railroad.” It was a tight window, with just days between each project, but the comedy provided a welcome break from the emotionally challenging work of filming the slavery drama, even though it was tough for the actor to move between the two tones so quickly.
“At the heart of ‘We Broke Up,’ there is a positivity and a lightness, because it’s a wedding celebration, so even if we’re feeling bad, we don’t want to bring anyone else’s good time down,” Harper explains. “And ‘Underground Railroad’s’ about fighting for justice, and resisting unjust laws, so it’s a weird switch.”
“But I found myself often pretty triggered by a lot of the things that we were recreating and making in ‘The Underground Railroad,’ so it was actually kind of nice to go to something that was a bit lighter in order to shake it off,” he continues. “It was nice to put that heaviness aside for a second, because it’s a pretty harrowing journey. It’s good to be able to step back from it for a second and just take a breath.”
In Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad,” Harper plays Royal, a free man Cora (Thuso Mbedu) meets as she escapes slavery in the deep south.
“Royal is someone who takes a particular interest in Cora on her journey,” Harper says, afraid to divulge more for fear of spoiling the experience for audiences.
“It’s one of those stories that it’s best if you really go in not knowing anything,: he teases. “Of course, people are still going to read the book and have some expectations; but if you have not read the book, I thoroughly encourage watching this and just taking it in.
The actor dove into the project similarly. “Getting to work with Barry, that’s been a dream of mine,” Harper says, sharing that he’s been a fan of the Oscar-winning “Moonlight” filmmaker since his 2008 feature debut “Medicine for Melancholy.” “I just wanted to get into that brain and try to understand it.”
Of the series itself, believes there are lessons for the todays’ audiences to sit with, as well as a challenge to stand up against injustices.
“Not everyone was down with abolition. Even if they didn’t like the institution of slavery, some people were just like, ‘Well this is the way it is,’” he explains. “I think that a lot of us think that we would just take our modern sensibilities back and just be like ‘No, this is wrong and we’re gonna fight until it stops.’ And that’s just not true.”
“There’s a lot that — even today — we just let go and don’t really get too involved with, even if we do have strong opinions on it, and there’s some people that really form zero opinions on certain injustices,” he continues.”My hope is that people will go into this universe that Barry has created, and start to ask themselves questions, and start to get angry, and think about who would you have been had you seen these sorts of things going on and be honest with yourself.”
Next up for Harper is the HBO Max series “Love Life,” which is in pre-production and will shoot in New York City. Created by Sam Boyd, the comedy’s first season followed Anna Kendrick’s character Darby and her modern love story; the new season will center on Harper’s character, and like Kendrick, the actor serves as both producer and star.
“It’s been great being able to weigh in on the directions the story will go and to have a hand in guiding what we’re actually saying,” Harper says of producing on the series.
“I do get a big kick out of getting a script and not knowing how to play it, and then just figuring it out,” he adds. “Or not quite understanding where the character is coming from and trying to find my way into it. But the cool thing about [producing this show] is I get to create it in a much deeper way.”
It’s a series that asks its creative team to dig deep into their own personal relationship stories, Harper explains, saying he’s shared a few of his own tales.
“The writers room has been throwing in all sorts of interesting stuff,” he says, teasing the new season. “In a lot of ways, the story is something I can identify with, but it’s not my story, which is great. There’s just little personal touches, which make it a little easier for me to get into.”
Speaking of his post-‘Good Place’ roles, Harper is focused on the bigger picture, explaining that it’s been a great challenge to not only be able to work, but to join projects that are markedly different from the NBC comedy.
“The overwhelming feeling of these last 18 months has been gratitude,” he says. “Gratitude that my family’s safe, that most of my friends have made it through just fine. It’s hard to just focus on career when such big things have been going on with the world in general, and to come out okay the end, I feel really, really fortunate.”