"I want people to be angry": William Jackson Harper on viewers' takeaway from "Underground Railroad"

"The Good Place" star appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss Barry Jenkins' adaptation of "The Underground Railroad"

By D. Watkins
Published May 13, 2021 6:42PM (EDT)
William Jackson Harper in "Underground Railroad" (Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon)
William Jackson Harper in "Underground Railroad" (Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon)

When I was a kid, they would play the TV adaptation of Alex Haley's "Roots" every year around February as some sort of Black History Month initiative, for us inner city kids in Baltimore. And many of us young fidgety viewers, including myself never really took a liking to the watered-down version of slavery –– we had nothing against the art, we just didn't like seeing ourselves or people who look like us captured in chains and constantly beaten. The film never ended with us having deep conversations about the impact of slavery, just us wild kids joking around about LeVar Burton's character Kunta Kinte, the way he had his foot chopped off, and how we would have fought our way out of that impossible situation. 

And then the pre-Civil War movies had magically disappeared as if the kidnapping, raping, enslavement and murdering of a whole people didn't happen . . . until Steven Spielberg's 1997 film "Amistad" came out, poured into our classrooms and in my opinion sparked a new era of documenting the darkest era of American history. Now we have a constant wave of films, television shows and books that capture that era from each and every angle  ––  some of these projects are so fragile that it downplays the pain slavery has caused for generations to come, and some so harsh that it gives you chills and you can feel the pain through the television screen. Amazon's new series "The Underground Railroad" represents the latter. 

"The Underground Railroad" – based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Colson Whitehead and directed by Oscar winner Barry Jenkins – reimagines the underground railroad in an alternate history brilliantly through the mind of Whitehead. The 10-part series stars Thuso Mbedu, Chase W. Dillon, Lily Rabe and "The Good Place" actor William Jackson Harper who plays Royal. Harper detailed the struggles of accurately capturing this era of American history on an recent episode of "Salon Talks."

You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with William Jackson Harper here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I'm honored that I got a chance to see the show early. I love Colson's novel. And I love the show, but in a different way. As a actor, do you run into this issue? Because people always say, no, you got to read the book, or you got to see the film, and vice versa. But do you run into that? Or is it a challenge to take on a role from a book that was so popular?

You can't let yourself get too wrapped up in what everyone's ideas or opinions of the book are, and try to play all of that. I read the book and I have my interpretation of the character that I play, and that's what I have to adhere to. What are the things that I drew from reading the book about who Royal was, and what are his relationships, how do they manifest? How does he interact with people? And I just needed to hew close to what personally struck me, rather than trying to get too swept up in a larger idea of how people might have viewed the thing. Because everyone's got an opinion, and I'm not going to be able to satisfy everybody's ideas, you know?

How'd you get involved with the project?

It was an audition, man. I knew that the project was going to be happening, back in the day. It's been in this sort of gestation phase for a long time, but it wasn't anything that I was actively pursuing. I was just like, if I'm lucky enough to get an audition one day, cool. But if not, also I'm sure that Barry Jenkins has his people that he wants to use in this project, and that's the way it is. And I will gladly watch it because I just want to see how this story gets told on the screen. But I just got an audition for it, and I read the audition material, and I just thought it was fantastic.

I just thought it was really nuanced and interesting, and I wanted to play the character. And there's no guarantee you're getting the part, obviously. So I guess, for me, it was like, I'm going to spend the time with the audition that I need to give the performance that I want to give. Because this may be all that I get with this project, and all that I get with this character, and then lo and behold, it actually went my way, and I got the opportunity to join this group of people to help tell this story.

How do you pick and choose the roles you go out for?

I don't really pick and choose much. It's usually a lot of, I audition, and then maybe I'm invited. I audition for things that I'm interested in, but there's no guarantee that I'm going to get that part. Most likely, I'm not going to get that part. But it's not like a whole thing where it's like, there's a lot of offers, and I'm reading things, and then talking like, ah, no, no, I don't want to do that. Or, oh, this sounds good. It's more just like, just waiting for the right things to come along, and giving yourself a chance with a decent audition, and then just hoping that the things that you're interested in come your way. So, I've been really lucky in that a lot of the stuff that I've auditioned for has been varied, and I've found things really interesting, or really odd that I just wanted to experiment and see how they turned out.

In preparation for this, I watched a lot of different things that you've done. I binge watched "The Good Place," and I watched "We Broke Up," and then obviously, "The Underground Railroad." And I know as an actor, your job is to take on these different roles, but they all seem so different. And it left me thinking, I wonder what is your prep work like? Or how much of you goes into the characters that you play?

My prep work actually varies from part to part. For "Underground Railroad" I had to do some reading, just to try to understand and get a more visceral feel for what the story is dealing with. Because I have ideas. We have plenty of stories that deal with slavery floating around out there, but there's something about reading actual accounts of enslaved people that escaped, or fought their way out, or something, that it affected me differently. And then, also reading Colson Whitehead's book affected how I approached the character.

With "The Good Place" it was like, "I am not a philosophy professor. I only understand so much of it." And so, that was a lot of just focusing on the relationships with the other humans, and with everyone else, the entire cast. But really focusing on, we are four humans in this weird situation, and we're leaning on each other in a very specific way. And then, we have Janet and Michael, who were these other beings that become part of our crew. And then when it came to the philosophy stuff, I would try to read these intellectual articles and stuff, and I would just find myself completely out of my depth, and I would just have to go to Wikipedia, and just be like, okay, I understand this. Let me just do this.

It's good to understand how smart you are not. That's what I learned. I was like, okay, I am of average intelligence, you know? I am right in the middle of everybody else. But it just depends on the piece. And I think that so many actors, the reason that I think that we get into it, is to try to see if we can play different parts, and have it work, and have it feel real and lived in, in some way. And so, that's the joy of it, is just for things to be different.

A lot of my favorite actors, they play similar roles over and over again. You are extremely different, and bringing something different to the table every time, which is playing at a high level. You play Royal, who was a very, very, very important character. And just for our viewers and our readers who aren't really familiar with the book, who are getting ready to check out this program, could you just tell us a little bit about Royal, and his context from where he enters the world, just without giving too much away?

Royal is a freeborn man that Cora encounters on her journey. Cora's our main character, a central character, played by Thuso Mbedu, who's amazing, and they strike up an interesting relationship. And he's a man who has his own code in a time when that was not going to – where society didn't want to afford that to a Black man. And so, it's a really interesting dynamic. He represents, I guess, a paradigm shift in a lot of ways, from a lot of the things that Cora has experienced, to what her life will be going forward.

For me, the story, it's less about endurance and more about resistance. Like entirely about Black resistance. And there are stories that go into this that exist in the zeitgeist as well, you know? It's not the only one that does this. But I feel like the thing that really stuck out to me was that, at the heart of this story is resistance, rather than endurance and waiting for things to change. It's about the agency of Black people resisting and changing their circumstances. That is what the story is about. And it is about a woman dealing with trauma in her past that has nothing to do with slavery, but just to do with her family situation, and the people that she's dealing with every day. And so, there's just a lot of levels to what's happening, that I think distinguish this project from others.

It's my hope that people will watch this and then see it the way that I see it. And also, I hope that this starts some really thorny, uncomfortable conversations about who we would have been in these times. I think it's very easy for everyone to think that they would have just been an abolitionist. Everyone thinks that they would have, you know? And it's like, no, a lot of times we deal with our circumstances and we just accept them. And I want people to ask themselves these tough questions, and start some really tough conversations, and hopefully we can push things forward a little bit.

What are some of the main things you do want people to take away?

Well, I think just that. I don't have a thing that I want, specifically people to be like, I want you to feel this, or think this afterwards. If there's anything, I want people to be angry. I do want people to be angry after watching this, because slavery was monstrous, and it should be as monstrous . . . It should be rendered as such. I think that it's pretty brutal, some of the things that happen in this story, and I think that that is going to help us tell the truth about ourselves a little bit more as a country. And I want people to be angry, and then I want people to realize that it was a society where, again, people can have opinions about slavery and the institution, and disagree. But that doesn't mean that you're going to be an abolitionist.

That doesn't mean that you're that you're going to lead a rebellion. It means that you have an opinion and you may do nothing about it, because that's what the law of the land is. And I think about the ways in which I see injustices now, and I'm like, someone should do something about that.

But it's not going to be me, you know? And I have to be honest about that. And I've had some moments with myself where I'm like, okay, I'm perfectly happy showing up at a protest, and lending my voice, and lending my body, but I am not going to be the person that leads it or starts it. Because I just don't feel that I am capable. I don't feel like I'm – that's not in my skillset, and I don't feel like I'd have the mental capacity to actually be effective. And so, it's my hope that people realize, or think about who they would have been, who they are now, and what are the ways in which they can improve the world that we live in a little bit more. And what are the things that you can do that will push things forward? That's what I hope people take away from this.

I feel like Hollywood has really been stepping up, in allowing a lot of content to be created. And I wanted to ask you, do you feel like with this explosion of content dealing with these issues, revolutionary leaders, different times in slavery, and so forth, do you feel like they're starting to wake up and say, we got to tell these stories? Or do you feel like we're just in a moment right now, and it's just going to pass by, and the moment will shift to something else?

I don't know. I feel like both the things you're saying, they are true to an extent, right? I feel like it's going to be – I think people are telling these stories right now, because they are really weighing on their hearts and minds in a way that perhaps it wasn't a few years ago, right? But then, there will be, I think that there is a desire to get back to not having certain things in the forefront all the time. I think that it's interesting. I feel like as a Black dude, people are acting as if everything that we're experiencing right now, and all the upheaval is something that's brand new. And I'm like, "We've been saying it."

This is not new. Everybody else is shook, but we're like, "This is the way it's always been. This is not new stuff." And so, there's something about thinking about, we're having this moment in Hollywood where a lot of these stories are coming to the fore, and like, we're in a moment. And I'm like, well, yeah. I think more people that aren't Black are looking and being like, hey, that's messed up, and we should talk about this. But for Black folks, it's like, we've been over here. This has been messed up a long time and no one's ever dealt with it. And I think that there is a desire even for Black folks to maybe put away certain things for a second. Just to be like, "You know what? I know things are messed up. I know things are hard. But I have other things to do right now, and I don't want to deal with this right now." And I get that.

So, I think it'll be a lot of ebbs and flows. We'll have these moments where people will unpack some of this stuff, and perhaps investigate it and interrogate it a little bit, and then go off just for a second, because you don't always want to deal with it. Sometimes it's just hard. And so, yeah, I think to an extent both things that you're saying are true and will happen as far as I know, as far as I think, you know?

Has your experience working on this show going to affect what you do next?

Yeah, I think so. There's a lot of stuff in this story that's triggering, and it was hard, and it was difficult. I found myself completely angry at times. Yeah, there's certain aspects of this where I'm like, okay, I want to do something very, very different. And I'm getting to do something very different with "Love Life." It's weird. I wrote this play a few years ago, and a friend of mine came up afterwards, and she was like, "Really great. Really great work. But why do our stories have to be always rooted in trauma?" And I was like, "Well, I didn't think it was about that." I thought it was more of just an intellectual unpacking of certain things.

I thought about what she said, and it did affect me. And I actually sat down to write recently, and I realized that the thing that I was trying to react to what's going on right now, and I was like, at the heart of it was trauma in some way. And I actually just stopped, because I'm like, you know what? I don't want to do this. There's a way in which just being a Black person and just being in a public space, in some way, can be interpreted as a political act.

And so, I was like, you know what, I don't want to do this right now. I want to do something very different. And I keep going back to what she said after my play. And I was like, yeah, I think that I do want to see, what are the other ways in which I can unpack some of the nuances of interacting with people as a Black man that I have? How can I do that without putting trauma at the heart of the story? Because that's not always my story. It's not trauma all the time, you know?

"The Underground Railroad" premieres on Friday, May 14 on Amazon Prime.


D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir." His latest book, "We Speak For Ourselves: A Word From Forgotten Black America," is out now.

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