The two leading characters of Amazon Prime Video’s “The Underground Railroad,” portrayed exquisitely by Joel Edgerton and breakout sensation Thuso Mbedu, are undeniably complex. Their performances are heightened by the work of the supporting players around them, particularly William Jackson Harper and newcomer Chase W. Dillon. Adding layers to Barry Jenkins’ visceral and ingenious series, they showcase the narrative strands often overlooked in large, sprawling epics. When Cora (Mbedu) is utterly grief-stricken following a particular loss in “Chapter 9: Indiana Winter” or when Ridgeway (Edgerton) is freed in “Chapter 6: Tennessee – Proverbs,” Dillon and Harper help underscore the emotional impact.
With only six available slots in the supporting actor in a limited series category and an embarrassment of riches among contenders, Dillon and Harper are two of many in the hunt for Emmy attention.
Harper, who was nominated for a supporting actor in a comedy Emmy last year for his work on NBC’s “The Good Place,” has cemented himself as an actor that can take on any genre and make it his own. The 41-year-old has been climbing the ranks as one of Hollywood’s most exciting actors, whether in television, film (playing Josh in Ari Aster’s “Midsommar”) or theater (playing James Harrison and Stokely Carmichael in “All the Way”). “I have a real soft spot for theater,” Jackson tells Variety. “That’s where I’ve started. Being on film or television — that’s a whole different set of skills that you have to learn to try to render something truthful because you don’t have that rehearsal time.”
With each new role vastly different from the last, Jackson takes on characters that reflect his sensibilities to a certain extent. “I find myself drawn to what’s going to be a challenge and what do I think I can maybe pull off,” he says. “I want to revel in some of the things that are me, and that I hide from my friends, family and society. I like playing with that liminal space. It’s something I can show isn’t quite me, but understand, and also something that I’m hiding that I would like to express in some way.”
Harper doesn’t look at just his role, but also examines and dissects the actions of Homer, played by his co-star Dillon. “Homer is the victim of psychological terror. This is a kid who’s been indoctrinated, and it’s incredibly sad,” Harper says. “I don’t think these men [Royal and Homer] inhabit any similar ethos at all, and their choices are just the circumstances of the world, and I don’t want to judge for that.”
It’s been encouraging to hear Dillon’s name in the awards conversation this season. He embodies the role family and community play in enriching and building the next generation of performers. Inspired by Nickelodeon and Disney shows, in addition to some of the greats in the business, such as Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish, Dillon told his mother he wanted to become an actor. She enrolled him in an acting boot camp in Las Vegas, which led to his first role and instilled him with the discipline he needed to harness his craft. “Being an actor, I need to study,” Dillon tells Variety. “I study by watching movies.”
The actions of young Homer are especially complicated, particularly for a nine year old (Dillon’s age at the time of filming). His decisions leave viewers to reckon with their feelings about a Black child brainwashed to believe Black people should be enslaved. Interestingly, Dillon didn’t hate Homer after reading the script initially. “I grew up in a house that we do not hate anyone,” he says. “He shouldn’t have any hate put towards him because he was in a survival stage. He was desperate; just a kid out in these terrible times with nowhere to go.”
Dillon is now inspired to direct and produce after working with the Oscar-winning filmmaker of “Moonlight.” Already writing and developing an animated project, he’s ready to take on Hollywood with the same fervor and passion he approached Homer. Now 11, he could make history as the youngest male actor nominated for an Emmy, beating Fred Savage (who was 13 when nominated for “The Wonder Years”).
“The Underground Railroad” may be too simply dismissed as a “hard watch” rather than an imperative, dazzling and raw expression of art that’s not often displayed in television. Dillon and Harper are vital pieces of its success.