Famous Cast Words

FULL EPISODE

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.

AIRED: April 21, 2021 | 0:23:59
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TRANSCRIPT

♪♪

"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

gender-switching babies.

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.

You know?

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,

"Okay, um,

uh,

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.

-Really?! -Yeah.

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.

Yeah, yeah.

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.

Alright.

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 ]

Jesus.

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.

Lord, dude.

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.

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

this language,

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.

Alright.

There --

What fresh white hell is this?

Yeah.

What the f...? Dude.

Perfectly put.

Yeah.

-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?

Yeah.

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.

Yeah.

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.

Absolutely, yeah.

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.

Yeah. Yeah.

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 ]

No.

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 ]

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

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