After winning more than a few fans’ hearts — and a supporting actor Emmy nomination — as Chidi on “The Good Place,” William Jackson Harper takes center stage in HBO Max’s romantic anthology series “Love Life,” playing Marcus Watkins, a newly single 30-something trying to find his way.
“Marcus, first of all, is a much better dresser than I am,” Harper quips, admitting his uniform is jeans and T-shirt versus his character’s suit and tie. But wardrobe aside, Harper can relate to his character’s internal struggle: “I am the very definition of a late bloomer. Here I am at 41, just feeling like I know what my life is.”
Over the course of a 10-episode season, Marcus starts to figure things out with the help of his best friend Yogi (Chris “Comedian CP” Powell) and his outspoken sister Ida (Punkie Johnson), and by navigating a will-they or won’t-they romance with Mia Hines (Jessica Williams), among this season’s other paramours. Narrating his journey is actor Keith David.
“I wish that my thoughts sounded like that to me; my thoughts have a much higher voice and they stutter a lot more,” Harper says with a laugh. “Keith David is one of those actors that anytime he shows up in anything, he surprises me. I find it equal parts amazing and infuriating that he has so many gifts at the same time — you don’t get to be that funny, that adept at pathos and also have a voice like that. You get one!”
“Love Life” marks your first lead role and first time executive producing. What was the greatest challenge of taking on both simultaneously?
Honestly, everything about producing was a challenge. People were asking me questions and actually cared about my opinion on certain things, and I’m not used to that. As an actor, I’m used to getting the script and trying to figure it out. It’s negotiating when I should speak up and when I let people who’ve been doing this longer than me do their job. But it’s really great to throw in little grace notes as the thing is being created.
What attracted you to this series?
A character like Marcus, he’s the kind of guy who had his life together at 30, and I very much did not. I was just sort of bopping around and pinballing from thing to thing. My late 20s up to my mid-30s were really me just chasing rent and trying to forget about how broke I was all the time. [Editor’s note: Harper cut his teeth on the New York theater scene before making his Broadway debut in 2014.]
Marcus has a real, steady job. He’s married. He’s done all the stuff that I thought that I was supposed to be doing at that stage in my life, but I was nowhere near it. But then by the same token, he thinks he knows more than he actually does. And he’s flailing just like everyone else.
Honestly, we’re not reinventing the wheel here. It’s a very common, very easily identifiable story. It’s a love story full of very real, very flawed people. It’s just people trying to figure out this thing that is such a big piece of so many people’s lives: Who do you want to be with, if you want to be with anyone? I feel like the stories are very real and they’re highly relatable. It’s not the Hollywood version.
The show shot in Brooklyn, where you’ve lived since 2007. How’d you get used to being in someone else’s shoes in your neighborhood?
The first thing I had to remind myself was that Marcus is not me. I couldn’t just get up there and just play me. We have the same face and we sound the same, but he’s a very different guy in a lot of ways. So [filming] is like a bizarro version of my experiences being in New York, where I’m close to home, shooting in places that I actually go to and hang out in, and remembering what it felt like when I was that age and how I felt too insecure to be myself and hang out in some of these spots in Brooklyn.
One of the places that we shot in was Walters just off of Fort Green Park, which I love. It’s this really cool spot with really good food. Everyone just feels so much cooler than me there. I remember walking by places like that and thinking, “I can’t go in there. That looks like a place where real adults go eat. I need to get a falafel.” It’s a headcase, but that was me for the majority of my 30s.
What was it like filming in New York so soon after the pandemic?
I really love New York. It’s the place where I feel most myself, like I belong. It’s really important to me to be part of a group of artists that are trying to bring people back out of the house again. New York got hit hard, and people really dealt with a lot.
I spent most of the pandemic in L.A. There was part of me that really felt like I needed to be back in the city because it becomes an organism. It makes no sense, but I felt like if New York City is going through some shit then I need to be going through it too.
So for us, every now and again to pretend everything is normal for 30 to 45 seconds at a time — not to get too mushy, but it really warms my heart. New York is part of who I am now, and it’s really important to me that the city begins to thrive again.
This is your fourth very romantic character in a short time, (after “The Good Place,” “We Broke Up” and Royal in “The Underground Railroad”), have you become comfortable playing a romantic lead?
No, I’ll never be comfortable with that. I remain unsentimental, I remain completely unromantic. Every now and again I’ve managed to land these parts, and it’s great because there’s so much more to them. It’s not the straight-up romantic lead who goes out, gets the girl and he’s really charming. I’m not that guy, I’m something else. But no, I’m still wildly uncomfortable; I can’t wait to play somebody who’s just a really unsentimental prick. [Laughs.]
You’ve previously admitted you haven’t seen many rom-coms. Did you brush up on any to prepare for this show?
I actually steered away from watching rom-coms because I felt what we were doing was very different. But I did watch the whole “Before Sunrise,” “Sunset” and “Midnight” series, which are interesting character studies where there’s a romantic aspect but it’s more about people relating. The thing that excited me about the series is that we’re not going for anything cute. It was just about people relating and existing as much as we can render. That’s an interesting and rare thing to see on TV.
Things you didn’t know about William Jackson Harper:
Acting idol: Brian Tyree Henry. “This is a guy who has chops and charisma for days, is incredibly funny and interesting to watch and has this deep emotional well. I have a talent crush on the guy.”
Last play he saw: “Letters of Suresh” Off Broadway; “Pass Over” on Broadway
Up next: A top-secret project in London. “It’s a departure from anything I’ve ever gotten to do. That’s the cool part of being an actor — you wind up out of your depth on every single job.