In Barry Jenkins’ acclaimed TV adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, William Jackson Harper plays Royal, a freeborn man who helps a runaway slave named Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu) as she goes on a harrowing journey through the antebellum South to find freedom by way of an underground network of trains, tracks and tunnels.
“I just figured this is the kind of job that goes to other people,” Harper tells ET about coming off four years of The Good Place, where he earned an Emmy nomination for playing Chidi, and interested in doing something completely different as a performer. “This is something that I really wanted to do, so I had to throw my hat in the ring and hopefully they would pick me.”
Amazingly though, Harper could have missed out on this opportunity completely, if Jenkins had known he was previously on the beloved NBC comedy. “Thank God I hadn’t seen him as Chidi because maybe I would have been like, ‘Oh, I don’t know,’” the director admits.
Luckily for Harper, Jenkins didn’t have any association with that character and only knew the actor from the 2019 folk horror film, Midsommar. But upon hearing his voice on the audition tape, the director knew he found Royal. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, this voice is amazing,’” he recalls. “’Cause I knew at the moment that Cora encounters this character, there needs to be something very caring, very soothing, very reassuring. And William just had it.”
Appearing halfway through the limited, 10-episode series, which is now streaming on Amazon, Royal represents a shift in Cora’s journey, where she finds herself no longer on the run as she settles into life on the Valentine Farm in Indiana. As she struggles to adjust to living in a world without fear, Harper’s character provides a reassuring presence that helps Cora navigate their way of life.
“He’s never known what it is to be in bondage and his outlook is very different from Cora’s. They develop a sort of connection because I think that in a lot of ways he represents some hope,” Harper says of Royal. “He also represents a kind of paradigm shift. The way he moves through the world is very different from a lot of the things that Cora had seen. And so there’s a very different and very unique bond that he forms with her.”
Being on set, where the series was shot in Georgia, allowed Harper to push himself in unexpected ways. “I really like trying new things,” he says of finding his confidence in the quieter scenes that required a certain kind of stillness. “The whole thing, in a lot of ways, me feeling out of my depth and just trusting that Barry was going to help me do the most truthful world that I could, it was really a whole new thing for me.”
Jenkins adds that Harper brought everything he needed, including building chemistry with Mbedu, which “culminates in the episode with the ‘Claire de Lune’ sequence, and it was really beautiful to see.”
In the end, Royal is someone who has a very clear idea of what his morals are and what he’s willing to do in order to live his life the way it needs to be lived. And Harper fully embodies that role, bringing Cora’s journey to an emotional high that’s hard to forget, even when the story moves past his time onscreen.
“Royal, in a lot of ways, just embodies a lot of things that I aspire to,” Harper says. “And so I just wanted to lean into those things as much as I possibly could.”
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