William Jackson Harper Wants to Expand How We Think of Black Masculinity - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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Because for him, the classic canon doesn't go far enough.

By Pallabi Munsi

William Jackson Harper stole everyone’s heart in his role as nervous philosopher Chidi on The Good Place, playing the romantic hero in a way rarely seen on TV. He and Carlos Watson broke it all down on The Carlos Watson Show — here are a few of our favorite excerpts from their conversation.

On Black Masculinity in Theater

Carlos Watson: How did you get comfortable … with that idea that you want to be unusual, because most of us don’t say that out loud, people want to kind of fit in.

William Jackson Harper: I’ve always felt a little bit of an outsider anyway. And so really trying to wedge myself into a specific idea of how I should present myself or exist in the world, it never really worked for me. People will see right through it. And so the only way for me to move through the world is to just be comfortable in being a little bit strange and a little left of center. That’s just where I live. 

CW: How much has your height and how much has race do you think tied into that idea that you’re an outsider and that you need to be yourself?

WJH: Look, man, it’s when you study in theater, one of the things that I think a lot of Black actors probably run into is a lot of the things in the great American canon, there’s not a lot of roles for us. There’s not a lot of things for us to sort of latch onto. It’s like, I don’t read Tennessee Williams and see me and say, “That’s the thing. That’s my dream role is to be Stanley in Streetcar.” It’s something that, it’s changing and there’s a lot of great theater artists that are turning all these things on their head and sort of being like, why do we have to adhere to these strict sort of ideas of race in regards to these roles in the great American canon? These people are flipping that as we speak and even before.

But I think that, for me, my race has always played a factor in how I navigate this business and how I navigate my art. And maybe not in a way where it’s like I’m at odds with it or combating the system all the time. I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been more selective about being … I don’t want to lean into an idea of what Black masculinity is supposed to be. That’s a wide thing and that’s a huge thing and there’s many different colors and facets to it. And so I want to be able to just sort of introduce my little corner of it, which is really just my view of the world.

So I think realizing that there are certain ideas of blackness and certain ideas of maleness that sort of pervade a lot of art and media, I like to subvert that when I can. It’s just if there’s a way to add a certain depth or understanding that is something outside of just the agreed-upon idea, that there’s a way to insert something else that might just color it in a different way, I want to do that as much as I can. So being an outsider, being and really sort of embracing what that is for me, is something that’s important. And especially as a Black man, I feel like we have to really sort of dive into the nuances of these experiences because it’s not monolithic and it’s really useful to get it. I think everyone will benefit from having a deeper understanding and a broader understanding of the different renderings of Black masculinity. 

On the Turning Point of His Career

CW: Was there a turning point for you? Was there a moment when it all started to go well? Has it just been a gradual ascent? Tell me from your vantage point, as a person who actually lived it, what has your story of success been?

WJH: I was doing a lot of theater in New York. That was my bread and butter. That’s what I thought I was going to do. And everyone told me, “You ain’t going to make no money in theater.” Everybody said it. But I was like, “Man, but look, if you look in the Samuel French guide and you see the initial cast, you know they made some money.”

But then, again, I was broke all the time and I was employed all the time. And living in New York as an actor on stage is really difficult. And so I had decided, after one of my bouts of “am I going to keep doing this theater thing?” I decided that, a few years ago, I was going to come out to LA for pilot season. I was going to get a full team behind me. I was going to get a manager and an agent, and just have all hands on deck, go just all in and try to get a job on TV and just see what it is. And if I do, great, if I don’t, that’s enough. I’m not going to do any more of this. I’m going to try to figure out something else to do with my life so I can invite more things in instead of just chasing the next job all the time. So I think that the real success moment for me was coming out and getting The Good Place, literally within like two weeks of actually coming out to LA. So that was the real turning point. And really, ever since then, it’s been sort of a slow build, over the last four years, of different opportunities that I’ve always been really excited about.

CW: What would you tell your younger self about why you scored that pilot that you did? Like, if you tried to deconstruct it and you tried to go back and give him advice, or give someone else, what did you do? 

WJH: Well, a couple of things that sort of shifted in my thinking that I think were really useful: One, because it was my last pilot season, as I had told myself, I was just looking to have a good time. I was looking to go in there and enjoy being an actor, because I may not do it again. … And so, I feel like if I was going to give myself some advice to younger me, I’d say: (a) Don’t go in there looking to get the job, go in looking to give the performance; and (b) Just relax, enjoy it. 

On the Best Advice He Ever Got

CW: What’s the best advice you’ve received or given about dreaming fearlessly and realizing your dreams?

WJH: Especially when it comes to being an actor, there comes a point where I think for a lot of us where you hit the point where you’re just sort of like, “I am not sure I’m enjoying this right now,” and it’s totally fine to get your bearings and to check in with yourself and the industry’s going to be there. You know, it’s not always now or never. It’s like, it took me from the time that I got my first professional job to The Good Place, it took 15, 16 years. And you know, there’s a lot of jobs in between there. And so there’s moments in that, in that 15, 16 years, where I was feeling on top of the world and moments where I was like down in the dumps and then moments where I was just desperate and chasing.

If the dream becomes something that is making you unhappy and making you feel desperate and afraid, step back for a second, breathe, like take some time. It’s OK. It’s going to be there. The dream isn’t going away, but just pursue the thing that makes you happy. And as long as it’s making you happy, go for it. And if it’s not, take a second, because you might get happy again. You probably just need some time.

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