The upcoming Amazon Prime series The Underground Railroad brings to life the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel from Colson Whitehead. The result is an unflinching look at how slavery robbed Black people of humanity and dignity, and how enslaved people fought to take it back.
One of the breakout stars of the series is William Jackson Harper. Fans who know him as the terminally indecisive professor, Chidi, on The Good Place may be surprised by his new role as Royal, a man dedicated to freeing his people by any means necessary. On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with Harper about making it in Hollywood and what it’s like being a Black nerd icon. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason Johnson: So I’ve seen a lot of The Underground Railroad, where you played a character named Royal. What actually drew you to this role, because there’s a lot of discussion now about, “Ah, do we want to do too much Black trauma? Do we want another slave story?” But you’re also a working actor, so hey, it’s an opportunity to work with Barry Jenkins. So what drove you to this and what did you want to put into this character Royal?
William Jackson Harper: Yeah, the thing that really attracted me to Royal just, as I started to work on it and the thing that I really started to like about it, was that in a lot of ways, he’s a freeborn man, and so there’s a way in which he’s ahead of his time. There’s a code that he has, that he lives by, that society at large tells him he’s not allowed to live by and he’s not allowed to have. And so for me, that was the starting point and the thing that I really latched onto, and the thing that was really fun to play. He’s a resistance guy. That felt really cathartic for me to dive into those aspects of his character.
When you took on this role, were you thinking about previous slave narrative things that you had seen growing up? Did you look at previous work, or did you just sort of dig into writing? I know you’re from Texas. Did you ask about historians from Juneteenth? What did you dig into creatively to create Royal?
I read the book The Underground Railroad, which was something that I was a little bit afraid to read, just because stories like that can be really triggering for me. And I can get really upset. I definitely read some narratives of enslaved people after they had freed themselves and that was really what I latched onto, rather than stories of enslaved people in dealing with the institution of slavery.
And so I also felt like when it came to a lot of the movies that I saw as a kid and a lot of those stories that dive into that particular aspect of Black trauma, there’s something about it that’s really more about endurance and waiting for the world to change and, not that every story was that, and there’s always a piece of resistance in it, but it’s like the overall thing is that it’s going to get better eventually. And this one is very much about Black people saying, “Hell nah.” I really wanted to find those things that express that at the forefront, more than just the trauma of slavery.
Whenever you have these slave shows, there’s always this question of, “Well, Black people are going to see it one way. How are the white folks going to see it?” From your perspective, what’s the different thing that a white audience is going to get out of this story that may be different from Black audiences who are watching it?
Well, I don’t want to get too much into predicting what someone will take from it. It is my hope, though, that white people, white audience members, will look at this and then question who they would have been in this story. I think that we look back at the time of slavery and we all think that we would have been abolitionists and that’s just not true. You can have all kinds of opinions and not act. I do that to this day. There are things that I’m like, “That’s wrong. Someone should do something about it.” But I’m not going to do anything about it. And so it’s my hope that people ask themselves some really tough questions and push the conversation forward and just realize that if you’re just existing in the laws of the land and you’re adhering to them, and there’s something unjust happening that the law allows, and you’re not going to fight that, that says something about who you would have been in that time and who are you now.
And so that’s the thing that I’m hoping that the white audiences come away from this story with. I think that with Black audiences, it’s my hope that they look at it as “This story is about resistance rather than endurance for me.” At its heart, it’s really about a woman changing her life because she is going to change her life, and the consequences and what everyone says be damned.
Most people are going to know you as playing Chidi on The Good Place. Look, Chidi was always one of my favorite characters in all of TV history, but most people, at any point in their career, don’t play a character that becomes this important. What did you do to prepare for this guy?
OK, so that was one of those things that, when we were initially casting for the show and I auditioned for it, I didn’t know what the whole premise of the show was until I got the job. And then [The Good Place creator] Mike Schur called me into his office and was just like, “Hey, those audition materials that you got, that has nothing to do with what we’re doing on the show, come and I’ll tell you what it is.” And so when it came to preparing for it, there’s no way that you can garner any real understanding of philosophy in a month. And so, the thing that started to take over was the indecision and the neurotic nature of Chidi and just general lack of confidence in his own decisions.
It really just became about the relationships that he forged with the other humans and the demons in The Good Place. And honestly, I would read the Wikipedia article of every concept that we were discussing before we did the episode just so I could feel like I kind of understand it, but if I tried to read any academic articles, I was just like, “OK, I got nothing. I don’t understand a single word of what I just read.”
Did you see yourself as, like, “Oh, I’m the next cool nerdy Black dude that people are going to pay attention to?” Or were you just absorbed in the role and didn’t find that out, I guess, until you were talking to people after the show became a cult classic and a hit?
I didn’t really think about it all that much. I think it’s definitely the latter. I just feel honored to be counted among those dudes that played those characters. I feel like it’s one of those things that it pops up a lot and this type of dude exists in the world a lot and you encounter this guy a lot, especially dudes like me. Nerdy dudes encounter other nerdy dudes, and it’s a kindred spirit, and it’s like, “Yo! You!”
And I feel like it’s not common to see that guy on TV. There’s something about these characters that make me feel seen and feel very comfortable. And it’s taken me a long time to be more comfortable in my own skin, but I realize that it just makes me feel a little more at home to have these guys on TV. And it’s really great to have contributed in some way to one of those characters that, hopefully, other nerdy Black dudes out there can see and be like, “Oh yeah, I know that guy. And that’s me and my group of friends right there.”
This was think-pieced to death. So, the famous ‘Chidi takes his shirt off’ scene—and I know you’ve been interviewed about that 50,000 times—but I’m curious from your perspective, when you did that, was it something like, “Well, dude, I work out anyway, because I’m an actor and I have to be in good shape.” Did you see it as this contrast to the outward nerd thing? Because you got a lot of attention for that, which in a lot of ways you seem really shocked by, this sort of, “Oh, he’s the low-key, hot nerd thing.”
Yeah, bro, all that… That was all fear. Me working out is exclusively about me trying not to get made fun of. I’ve always been made fun of for my appearance and there’s this kid that I went to high school with and he used to call me “the head detective” because I had a big forehead. Everybody used to make fun of me for how I looked and all that stuff. And then, yeah, I have in the last 10 years started to work out more. And when I read that script where Chidi gets hit with sprinklers and takes the shirt off and then goes to the grocery store shirtless, I was just like, that was just terror. I was just terrified. I was like, “No, no, no! I don’t want to!” I’m the dude that would go swim in an Ocean Pacific T-shirt, that’s me.
So I was scared of doing it. So for me it wasn’t like, “Oh, this will be a great moment.” The goal was to not have anyone make fun of me. And then when there was positive attention around it, that blew my mind because I was really fully prepared for a lot of people being like, “What’s wrong with that dude?” And when it wasn’t that, I was shocked. So there was no game plan of, like, “Oh, this is going to be great.” It was more like, just don’t get your feelings hurt, just face your fears and get over it. And then the result was very, very different from what I expected.
In a lot of the movies that you’ve been in, like We Broke Up and Midsommar and to a certain extent, The Good Place, you’re the lone Black guy around a bunch of white folks. And I’m curious, when you were growing up in Texas, were you that guy? Were you the only Black guy in the theater group? Were you the only Black guy in the art club? And does that inform some of the things or some of the ways that you’re able to be that comfortable in these environments, or was it just random?
Yeah. I definitely was the only Black dude in certain circles. It wasn’t always like that, but in my high school, there weren’t a whole lot of Black kids doing theater. They would be in the classes with me, but it wouldn’t be in the extracurriculars. It was very, very small participation. I’m not uncomfortable around large groups of white people. I will admit to a weariness, though, just because in my experience, there was a moment where all of a sudden, my Blackness in a white space became very salient and became kind of a thing.
It’s like somewhere around middle school, things started to shift. And you’re just, “What is… Why?” All of a sudden, people were saying weird things and doing and behaving in ways that are just a little bit off and I’m just sort of like, “OK.” For me, what it did was it just made me be a little bit more back-footed in certain ways, because I’m not trying to have a fight or get my feelings hurt. People will surprise you with some weird stuff that comes out of their mouth.