William Jackson Harper on Starring in “Love Life”
The “Good Place” actor stars in the second season of “Love Life” on HBO Max.,
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The second season of “Love Life” premiered Oct. 28 on HBO Max. This time around, the anthologized show stars William Jackson Harper as Marcus, a book editor navigating his divorce and the subsequent absurdity of dating.
I recently caught up with Mr. Harper, who is known for playing the brilliant but perpetually overwrought Chidi on “The Good Place,” about the romantic comedy genre, the nuances of depicting Blackness onscreen and what it was like to play this season’s central character on “Love Life.”
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed and contains some spoilers for Season 2.
What was an example of a poignant or favorite scene to film? Something that really stuck with you?
There’s a couple of scenes in Episode 6 where it’s basically just Mia (Jessica Williams) and Marcus walking around and talking for the majority of the episode. That felt special. There’s something about taking that time in a TV show to just live with characters. It feels really salient and important to me because I think that TV, so often, is very much about just moving to the next thing and not sitting too long with any one state. It’s trying to keep people engaged and entertained by keeping things moving, and I appreciate that, too, as a viewer. But when you have so much of that, it’s really nice to sit and meditate sometimes, and that’s what that particular episode felt like to me.
It’s very clear that this character is lost and going through many life changes. How did you interpret that and put that energy toward the work?
I definitely have had moments in my 30s where I had to reconstruct my identity. It’s weird because you feel like at that age, you should be a little bit more settled and a little bit more certain of who you are and what you’re doing. When that is called into question, it’s tough; it’s frightening.
For me, it was tapping into old memories of, I don’t know if I’m going to do this acting thing anymore. I had been in a long-term relationship for most of my 20s, and it ended in my 30s, and it was like, well, who am I? When you’re in something that long, that relationship becomes a part of who you are, and when that goes away, it’s like a big hunk of who you are disappears with it. It’s remembering some of those feelings that I had during that time.
There’s a lot of ways in which I can relate to Marcus. He’s a lot messier than I, he’s going through a lot of stuff that I have never experienced, but there’s things in his experience that remind me of certain things that I’ve experienced, and it was useful in informing what his journey was going to be like.
What drew you to the show?
I don’t typically gravitate to rom-coms. I fell in love with the first season because it felt like it was so much more than just, “It’s hard to date!” It was about a woman (Anna Kendrick) growing up and figuring out who she is, and a large part of that for so many of us is, who do you date? Are you going to date?
It was a character study that used the rom-com genre as a Trojan horse to sneak a whole bunch of other ideas and a whole bunch of different relationships to explore. So that really drew me in: This isn’t just going to be cute and corny. This is going to get weird and specific about what it is to try to date, like what it actually feels like, and not just have it be all drama or all misunderstandings, all cute little teddy bears left on a train that you know that your beloved rides on. It’s going to be something a little bit more human and real.
What was it like to be the star of the show, versus starring in something like “The Good Place”?
It’s a trip, because I tend to gravitate toward ensemble storytelling. I really enjoy diving in a voyeuristic view of a bunch of different characters. The schedule of being on every day, being in every scene — because this is slightly different from being the lead of other shows, because it’s not like there’s an A storyline, a B storyline, a C storyline, where your central character will get some significant hunks of time off. This is Marcus’s journey from beginning to end, for the most part.
I was trying to be as open and ready to work and available and alert to give my scene partners what they needed to do the job they do so well. The subject matter is so intriguing, and I find it so human and raw and truthful, and our cast is incredible. It’s tough to be the central character, but it’s also a really rich journey, and I got to work with some incredible people that made me excited to get up and go to work every day.
I mean, Aunt Viv (Janet Hubert) played your mom!
Janet is such a mom. The energy you saw onscreen is very much her energy on set in a lot of ways. She’s a sweet, kind, wonderful, protective, funny, genuine person.
I kept coming back to how different this season felt because we’re looking at a Black man’s experience; we’re seeing a Black family onscreen. The cadence is different. The writing is different. Was that something that you felt and thought about?
Our co-showrunner, Rachelle (Williams), I think that she dove into some of these nuances of how we interact. Beyond that, there are so many different ways to be Black. It’s not monolithic. For a lot of us on the show, we just came at it with us. We’re coming from a truthful place and there is a different vibe. But I think, too, the specificity of it is coming from us not overthinking and making sure that this feels like the idea of Blackness that we see in media, but rather us just being honest and being who we are in those scenes.
We’re Black people; it’s just going to feel the way it feels. The cadence and the vibe is going to be different. CP (Christopher Powell) is very much like Yogi, and there’s ways in which I’m very much like Marcus, and we leaned into those similarities, but also really try to remain truthful. It’s important to see all different manifestations of Blackness, and our show really strives to show different facets of it.
That’s often the burden or the trap, to feel like you have to be an ambassador, to provide that experience for someone who doesn’t understand it.
Black people forever have been watching white people and identifying and understanding them in all sorts of media. I would like to believe that white people are capable of doing the same thing. I think they can see themselves in us as much as we see ourselves in them sometimes, when it comes to characters in certain stories. If it’s not something that’s instantly recognizable, that’s OK. It’s more important to engage and to keep things specific so people can be more open to experiences that they may not know much about.