William Jackson Harper
Actors William Jackson Harper (NBC’s “The Good Place”) and Lynne Marie Rosenberg (HBO’s “High Maintenance”) discuss representation and inclusion in the entertainment business.
"An African American
who is very Americanized and acts more white than Black.
[Bleep] y'all, man.
Hi, I'm Lynne Marie Rosenberg.
Welcome to "Famous Cast Words: Quarantine Edition."
I'm coming to you today from my Brooklyn apartment.
I'm joined by actor, writer, and percussionist
William Jackson Harper.
You might know William
from Broadway's "All the Way,"
HBO's "High Maintenance,"
the Amazon series "The Underground Railroad,"
and, of course, his Emmy- and Critics' Choice-nominated
performance as Chidi on NBC's "The Good place."
You might not know him from his high school production
of "Natalie Needs a Nightie,"
which, somehow, isn't porn,
is what you're telling me?
It is not porn? -It'snot porn.
Maybe it was meant to be racier than teens in Garland, Texas,
are allowed to portray onstage,
but it's not porn.
There's like a couple of different
There's a boss that needs to take a shower.
That's the guy that I played.
I don't remember much of it at all.
I just remember a lot of closing doors
and me holding a baby,
being confused at the gender switch.
I mean, it basically sounds like Shakespeare.
It basically sounds like some of the greatest work.
[ Laughter ]
Now, you are joined in the home
you're staying in currently with Chico,
your unbelievably --
I want to say expressive dog,
but it's actually the opposite.
I think Chico is trying to game on my deadpan.
Like I feel like his deadpan
is the only one I've seen more intense than mine
and it makes me feel attacked personally.
I mean, he's good at the deadpan.
He's very funny on accident, very, very often.
Sometimes I think the greatest use
of our skill sets we can do is
voicing actual dogs in real life,
of what they're thinking.
Chico, sounds like a dude
who found religion in jail.
Like that's, in my head,
that's what he sounds like.
He's like, "I haven't seen you in so long, man.
How have you been? Praise God.
You know? Like he's that guy. Like.
That is the most descriptive and accurate metaphor
you possibly could've offered.
That is amazing.
Years ago, you were on a kid's show
called "The Electric Company,"
which is part of the public media family,
as we are part of the public media family.
What was it like to be famous from a children's show
and the responsibility that comes from a children's show,
versus something like "The Good Place,"
where you're finding yourself a celebrity now?
You know, the weirdest thing about it is
like the kids that were watching it
when it was on the air,
they're like in college now.
-Right. -And it's the weirdest thing
to see a person that pretty much looks like an adult
coming up to you and being like,
[ Baritone ] "Hey, man,
I remember watching you on 'The Electric Company'
when I was like a little kid, man.
I mean, I loved that show so much,"
and it's like taller than me, voice lower than mine.
Just more of a man than I will ever be.
That's right. Lot of beard.
Just a lot of beard. -Full-on beard, yeah.
You know, you know, teeth are all straight.
They're taking care of themselves.
You know, it's just like -- Just like I'm like, "Wow.
You're like a full-grown, functioning human adult
and you watched me as like a little kid."
That's always fun for me.
But it is like, for folks that grew up watching that show,
I don't want to be a "Don't let this happen to you"
type of person. I want to be the guy
that lives down the street that you know
that used to be on that show that you liked
and he's still around and he's just a guy.
And so there is like a --
there is a kind of responsibility that you feel.
Like I don't know. It doesn't feel like celebrity.
It just feels like more like you made yourself
a part of the kid's psyche.
I want to protect that image a little bit, yeah.
As I was pulling breakdowns for your episode today,
it is so disturbing, when you look
at Black male roles,
the language that is used, you know,
that you see repeated
over and over and over again.
But I was thinking about your career
and you've had a really remarkable group of roles.
Do you say no to things a lot,
in terms of poor representation, or...?
I don't say no a lot, just because a lot of those roles,
honestly, don't come my way.
For me, I've been really fortunate
in that I've been able
to sort of fall in the same lane as so many other Black actors
and actresses that have sort of carved out a space
that is outside of the sort of
stereotypical white gaze, you know?
And so, you know,
I feel really lucky that I get to sort of like,
you know, a lot of folks have already paved that path
and I just get to jump right in and --
But, no, I haven't really come up against it that much.
I mean, a little bit, here and there.
But I go in and do my thing with it,
which usually means that I don't get the part.
But I mean, like it's --
I mean, like I think,
when I feel like it's an idea of "blackness,"
you know, I sort of find myself just wanting to --
just wanting to not do it or push against it,
in some way, when I'm auditioning for it.
So it's not necessarily like a, "No,
I don't want to, you know, represent that,"
it's more like, "I'mma do my thing
and see how they like it." Oh, they didn't?
Yeah, okay, well, then, fine, you know.
Do you have any true horror stories
or, on the other hand, any amazing stories
that have occurred for you
during your audition life?
I remember I went in for this show
and they required an accent,
but they didn't specify what kind of accent.
And I'd just been doing "Ruined" and I was like,
"Okay, well, this is an accent that I've done most recently.
I've done it for like a year.
I'm going to use this accent."
And I definitely went in and did my own little thing with it
and, at the end of it, they were just sort of like,
what accent was that?" And I was like, "Oh,
it's sort of like, you know, it's sort of rooted
in this sort of French Congolese kind of thing."
And they were like, "Okay, yeah, no, no, no, no.
Can you do a British one, instead?"
And I was like, "I mean, I can,
but we're both gonna be worse people,
for what's about to happen now," you know?
And so, you know, I mean, I did it and it was terrible
and I was dismissed like so quickly.
Before getting cast on "The Good Place,"
you had mentioned, in an article,
that you were considering leaving the business.
What was going on for you right before that dropped?
I was just tired. I was tired.
I was getting bitter, you know.
I was getting angry, you know.
I was actually working fine.
I was doing a lot of off-Broadway stuff
and some Broadway stuff and some on-camera stuff.
But, you know, it just wasn't enough to actually,
you know, keep me afloat.
And so I was like, "Okay,
maybe it's time to give something else a shot."
And the thought of not being an actor anymore
felt like a release.
I was like, "Oh, I feel lighter."
So I was like, "Well, I'll just do one more pilot season,
have a good time, and see what happens."
And, lo and behold, "The Good Place" came in.
you know, not to get too woo-woo about it,
but there is something spiritually,
of like just saying, "I'm okay with who I am,
whether or not I'm booking roles or not,"
and that, when that occurs, artistically,
things start to sort of siphon into your life.
Chidi, in "The Good Place,"
is an expert in ethics and philosophy.
I was curious.
Did working on a character
that is engaged in ethics and philosophy
shift how you sort of look at the world
or how you approach thought, in any way?
I mean, yeah. I mean, there have been some decisions
that I've actively sort of gone back to what Chidi would do.
You know, one was regarding a job opportunity,
actually, that I was like, "Is it okay to do this job
or is this something that I would be sacrificing
my personal moral stance to take the job?"
The thing that kept playing in my head,
when I was going through this whole thing
was like, you know, there's this line that Chidi has,
like, "Morals aren't morals
when you pick and choose when to apply them."
And so I was like, "Dang it!
I don't get to pick and choose. I have to --
Agh! I can't do it."
And so I felt like a crazy person, but, you know,
in the end, I feel like I can look myself in the eye
and I feel proud that I did not do it.
It feels like that was the right choice.
I don't feel any kind of regret over having not done that work.
I think any role we do, we get affected
by any information gained through that exploration.
And I love leading one's life
through the concept of, "What would Chidi do?"
I think we could all stand
to focus a little more on WWCD.
[ Laughter ] Yeah.
Now, you are a writer, as well as being an actor.
Have you been writing at all during quarantine?
I tried. I got like 30 pages of trash.
I just don't have a whole lot
cooking right now. -I can't write at all.
There was something about this experience
where I'm like, "No, I'm out.
I can journal. That's about all I got."
Yeah. You know, it's interesting.
I've actually -- because I did start something
and, you know, I called it 30 pages of trash.
It's actually not. [ Laughs ]
I'm actually interested in it,
but like I realized that, somewhere at its heart,
Black suffering is taking center stage
in the thing that I started to write
and I just don't want to do it, you know.
Because I remember talking to a woman after my play
and she was like, "Good play, but why is it
that Black folks always got to be suffering in stuff?"
And I'm like,
"I don't know. I don't know."
It's like I was really just sort of writing,
you know, what was sort of fueling me,
you know, but I thought about it, you know,
and it stuck with me and so, when I sat down to write again,
I was like, "I'm doing this thing
and it's like it's juicing me
because it's like I'm angry about something
and I feel fired up," but then I was like,
"What am I going to say that is going to really be
all that different from what other people
have been saying for decades, at this point?"
So I'm setting it aside, until I can find a way
into my personal experience
that doesn't just deny the existence
and the brutal history of racism in this country,
but that doesn't put that center stage
and put it in all of our faces
to where it's something that like keeps beating us up.
Writing is always a delicate balance, in that regard,
because, on the one hand, whatever you are angry about
or feeling intensely is going to find its way
onto the page. Like you don't have a choice.
It's not going to give you any excuses.
I wonder if like, you know, there's any use in,
you know, sort of forging this path where it's like
where you see microaggressions, you see what it is to just
sort of deal in the world where this is the past,
but it's not always just hitting you in the face
in the same way, you know,
but it's something that pops up and you deal with it
and it hurts and it stings, but, you know,
we're not always in the '60s, we're not always
in the '30s, '40s, or in slavery.
You know, it's like what is it to deal with it now?
I want to, you know, I just kind of want to like
lean more into that because I think that that will --
I think it can be healing.
It can be something that we can all identify,
but I also think it'll be something
that will indict more people
just because, you know, it's really easy,
as I think, particular, as like a white theatergoer
or a white viewer of anything
to see all these really terrible, racist white people
and be like, "Well, that's not me
and that would've never been me."
But when you are the person that's just sort of
talking out of turn or engage in the microaggression,
it's like, "Oh, snap. Is that me?" You know?
And I think that that's -- I feel like that's useful.
I feel like there's a lot of creators that are doing that,
so I just want to figure out if I can do that, too.
There takes a real digging into some ugly stuff
that not everyone wants to participate in.
It sucks to realize that you are not the --
you are notthe hero ofthe story, you know?
And I think that that's something
that a lot of Americans, in particular, white Americans,
are sort of having to run into a little bit,
where it's like, "No, there's like, you know,
not all in all," you know?
It's like there's a lot of back and forth.
It's like, you know, the hero and the villain sort of exist
in the same place. We're both things all the time.
And it's just like, you know, when you come away
with this narrative of,
"The right thing was done all the time,"
it's just not real.
So, now, we'll look at some language from breakdowns.
As a reminder for those at home,
breakdowns are the brief character descriptions used
in the casting world.
Will, you are a Black man.
I thought we would take this opportunity
to see what sort of language pops up
for Black male characters.
I'll be sending you some breakdown language
in the chat and, if you would be so kind
as to read it for us.
Any good character description,
of course, begins with a name.
The good news is you can be
absolutely certain what race they're looking for
because it's often
right there in the character's name.
[ Laughs ]
And the character names
will tell you exactly where they lived.
I don't know if there was
a Corner Boy number 2, or not. [ Laughs ]
The descriptions will give you clear information
on what sort of things to wear...
I always love when they put questions into breakdowns.
[ Laughs ] -Yeah.
"I leave this to you guys, but, maybe..."
-[ Laughs ] -Oh, my God, dude!
...as well as what sort of props you might need.
Must be comfortable -- Oh, okay, hang on.
[ Laughs ]
I am exceedingly uncomfortable with guns,
by the way. -Oh, please, tell me about it.
But I also like the idea that you're literally
just carrying a rifle around.
Carrying a rifle.
That's a lot of equipment.
Generally, you can expect to embody
a range of appearances...
[ Laughs ]
...with one category appearing more than others.
I could wallpaper my apartment
in the amount of breakdowns I have
that have the word "thug" in it.
But be prepared to stretch your range.
[Bleep] y'all, man.
-[ Laughs ] -[Bleep] y'all.
African American, but Americanized.
So I'm not American?
I'm not American? -[ Clapping ] That was real.
I mean, they're all real. -Yo!
See? That's the problem, right there.
[Bleep] that. Okay. -Right.
-Yeah. -I mean, there is so much baked
into that sentence that is wrong, yeah.
But, ultimately, there seems to be
just one thing content makers need you for.
[ Sigh ]
It just never ends.
And, lastly, you could see
about which I have nothing funny to say
and can't believe came from professional breakdowns.
[ Laughing ]
Yo, okay. Yo.
Yo. Wait. Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.
What fresh white hell is this?
What the f...? Dude.
-Ooh! -I will say that was
from a while ago, so I don't know
what sort of project it was.
I mean, but by "a while ago,"
I mean like within the last five years.
You know, you realize, when you see these parts on TV,
when you see them in movies, that it's just meant to --
it's meant to create fear.
It's meant to create hatred.
It's like if this is what the idea is,
you know, it's like this language,
this is damaging.
This is actively damaging,
to say, you know, like "hot tempered, belligerent,
rules through violence, violent, soulless, heartless."
It's like, come on, man.
Let's take very frightening
and aggressive language and ideas
and just put it in a nameless Black body
-Yes. -to be dispatched
without anyone feeling any compunction
about what's happened, you know? Yes.
And it's like
that's the sort of thing that makes people afraid.
I think sometimes breakdown writers --
and they can be anyone in a production team.
You know, there's many different people,
for anyone who's not
involved in the casting world.
Writers write them, producers write them,
sometimes casting directors write them.
You know, there's any number of people
in the production team that could've had
the hand in that language.
But, often, I think they forget
that these are instruments of employment.
That's actually what these are, fundamentally.
And this is not legal language.
This is not -- You know, this is --
You would never see language like this make it,
if you were applying to be an actuary
or applying to be a notary,
you know, like to be a lawyer.
Like none of this would pass.
But, for some reason, we have decided
that instruments of employment
in the entertainment industry
can have this sort of
really harmful language in it
and that that is just okay.
Yeah, that's exactly what -- it's harmful.
-Yeah. -It's harmful, you know?
Like this is the narrative that so many people are fed,
that makes them afraid of each other.
Honestly, this could be anybody,
but it's reserved for Black men, in particular.
And I think that's the thing that's dangerous here, you know?
It's like there are some scary white dudes that exist
and like it's --
I don't know. I don't know why this particular
sort of fearmongering is reserved for --
Well, no, I think I know why, but, you know,
but it's like it's really awful
that so many people just kind of participate.
And I also wonder like what does it feel like
to read language like that about your demographic,
you know, that that is what is being written?
You know, for me, I just like,
"Man, this is just lies."
I don't know any of these dudes, you know what I mean?
Like these are not the dudes that I hang out with.
These are not the dudes that I have ever hung out with,
at any point.
It's like, man, it's like, you know,
I walk around with my hoodie up all the time
when I'm in New York and it's like, "Okay,
so just being a Black dude with a hoodie on,
this language is what people are assuming ofme
and assuming of the people that I work with
and that I hang out with and that I talk to
and that I run into, you know,
and it's like it's just -- it's a lie.
It's just lies.
I think the thing that really gets me, though --
and I find it really funny,
but I think it's really telling -- is...
So, by default, American equals white.
And everyone else is a tourist and just visiting and, you know,
and I'm like, See? That's the problem,
you know? -Yeah.
It's the defaulting.
It's defaulting whiteness, basically.
That annoys me.
That like, okay, so he's white, he's American,
but a Black America is not really an American.
It's something else. Yeah.
It's like, no, no.
That is one plate of $5.99 hot bull[bleep], you know?
It is just like --
And it's just annoying to me.
I just really wanted to ruin your day.
That was my hope.
[ Laughter ]
Man, I know this exists.
It's, you know, it's always there.
I think it's just like I always like to be a part
of the conversation, which is like,
"Yo, we're not done."
Like this exists.
In a professional setting,
these are the adjectives we use for Black men.
Like we're not done.
We have some work to do.
Will, thank you so much for joining me today.
As much as we have tormented you with breakdowns,
and it's been a delight to talk to you.
Yeah, no, it's been fun.
And these breakdowns are hellacious.
They make me want to fight.
[ Laughs ]
And, on that note,
take care of each other and be professional.
[ Laughter ]
I mean, I think we found our take.
[ Laughter ]