William Jackson Harper: the Making of a Very Modest Leading Man

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

When he heard that he had been nominated for a Tony Award for Lead Actor in a Play, William Jackson Harper didn’t believe it, and—shocked and confused—called his agent.

The Emmy-nominated star of The Good Place thought his character, the lovelorn, restless doctor Astrov in Lincoln Center’s revival of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (booking to June 16), would surely be defined as a featured role. The lead actor/lead character nomination, if awarded to anyone to anyone in the production, would surely go to Steve Carell, in his Broadway debut playing Vanya himself.

“I was hopeful, sure,” Harper, 44, told The Daily Beast of receiving the nomination, “but expecting it? Absolutely not at all. I guess the real surprise was the category I was in. I asked my agent, ‘How did this happen? What the fuck is going on?’ And he told me that there had once been a production of Vanya where the guys playing Astrov and Vanya were listed above the title, meaning both could be considered as lead actors. Because of that precedent, it was decided to consider me as a lead actor. For me, this is an ensemble show. Everyone has about the same amount of stage time. Honestly, we should all be in the ‘featured’ category together.”

Had the nomination caused any issues at work, given Carell’s fame and traditional leading-man title role?

Why Steve Carell Is Not the Star of ‘Uncle Vanya’ on Broadway

“No, Steve is chill, he’s great about it,” Harper said, sitting at an outside table of a café a short walk from his home in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. “We also just don’t talk about it, or think about it. We all had a group ‘hooray’ when the announcement was made, and that’s about all. Now we’re just trying to do this play which feels like taking a tiger by the tail every night. For me, the nomination is a huge win itself for me. This is my first Tony nomination, and it’s coming at the end of the only year where I have received this kind of recognition from the theater community. It’s cool. It would be a much headier thing if I were ten years younger. I have been doing this for a minute. I never thought I would be doing Chekhov professionally, let alone on Broadway. Getting to do these things, period, is a huge honor—I’m really appreciative.”

Performing Vanya “morphs every night,” he said. “The first preview was white-hot terror, now things are settling, we’re learning more about the play.” Carell is “the most generous, adventurous, easy, effortless performer. I think it says something that someone of his caliber would take on this role. It’s such an ensemble show. One of the things I enjoy about his performance is that on the page, it’s easy to see Vanya as someone who whines. In Steve’s hands, you just want things to be better for him, that he could catch a fucking break.”

William Jackson Harper and Anika Noni Rose in 'Uncle Vanya'

William Jackson Harper, left, and Anika Noni Rose in 'Uncle Vanya.'

Marc J. Franklin

Harper may be best known for playing Chidi Anagonye in The Good Place, and last year made his Marvel acting debut, but his Tony nomination caps a stellar theatrical year for him, after critical raves and many more award nominations for his astonishing performance as Kenneth, a socially withdrawn man who slowly emerges into the world in Eboni Booth’s Primary Trust, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. (For this author, it was the best play on or off-Broadway last year, and Harper’s measured, nuanced performance was similarly distinctive—alongside his excellent co-stars April Matthis, Eric Berryman, Jay O. Sanders, and musician Luke Wygodny.)

The day we met, Harper had just won an Outer Critics Circle award for his performance as Kenneth; he has already won the Obie. He was nominated for a Lucille Lortel award, and is awaiting to see if he will be victorious in the Drama Desk and Drama League awards.

Review: ‘Primary Trust’ Is One of NYC’s Best New Plays, Mai Tais Included

In person, Harper is modest and self-effacing, sharing some trace characteristics of the roles he has become best-known for—a self-defined “weirdo” in accordance with the nerdier realms of that word. While very much a leading man, he will talk about confronting his own resistance to that label (which gives his suspicion around his Lead Actor Tony nomination another edge), and about the grief that followed his father’s death when he was just 8—the residue of its long-term impact informs the extreme anxiety and “apocalyptic fixations” he feels today, which therapy has helped to moderate and contextualize.

“It’s really cool,” Harper said of the most recent award win that morning. “I was on my way to brunch with my partner to meet my mom and sister. Things didn’t really set in for a second. I wasn’t thinking about it—the play was so long ago. Once Vanya started, I wasn’t thinking there would be love for Primary Trust, because it was so long ago. It’s really surprising, the amount of people whose heads that play has stuck in. And I love that play, oh God I loved it. Parts of that character really affected me on the first read. After the first read-through we were all a mess, we were all deeply affected by it. I think there were certain things about Kenneth’s self-defense mechanisms that are not necessarily like mine, but I do understand them. The stuff I didn’t understand I wondered if I could figure out.”

Jay O. Sanders, William Jackson Harper, and Eric Berryman in 'Primary Trust'

(l to r) Jay O. Sanders, William Jackson Harper, and Eric Berryman in 'Primary Trust.'

Joan Marcus

Harper is “so happy” for Booth’s Pulitzer win. “She deserved it. Primary Trust spoke to a certain kind of loneliness everyone is still experiencing, and reeling from, from the pandemic.”

The play began unusually, with Harper as Kenneth addressing the audience direct. Usually, the actor he says, the lights are out, so the audience is invisible, which makes existing in the world of the play easier. “But with Primary Trust, seeing the audience there, made it like ‘We’re all in the room together having this moment.’ That was really vulnerable and tough—then calibrating his recessive nature. Finding that balance took a while.”

Harper hopes the many plaudits, awards, and nominations may open up other avenues of work, although—with the Tony Awards taking place on June 16—he says the idea of making any acceptance speech is “terrifying. I’ve been nominated for a few things, and lost every single one until this year. Whatever touch of disappointment I felt was also alongside watching someone making a speech and thinking, ‘I don’t want to do that.’”

Harper has “no idea” if there are plans to bring Primary Trust to Broadway, “but I would love to play Kenneth again if it does. The only thing I wonder about is the size of the play and the size of a typical Broadway house. For me, the play is a communal experience, and a big Broadway house could make the characters feel far away. A small Broadway house would be great. I love the play, I loved working with Knud (Adams, director) and Eboni. It was a really cathartic, emotional experience for me on a lot of levels.

“I felt the actors and characters and audience were seeing each other and understanding each other. I felt elements of loneliness of Kenneth, and then felt lighter at the end of the run. In a lot of ways it felt like an emotional release. I have been always interested in withholding personalities being somewhat prickly. There’s something in the way this play is constructed that my character, a withholding person, is not prickly, not actively avoiding humans—but what is he hiding from facing? It felt really familiar to me, and it felt like people had met before.”

Harper appears too modest to say so, but audiences rooted for Kenneth because of the nuanced, heartbreaking, and waspishly witty mixture of qualities Harper gave to him. It’s the same, embracingly human reading he brings to Astrov; there is something so fresh, immediate and legible in both characters that transmit very directly to audiences.

Harper thinks Primary Trust struck a nerve because “we are coming through a time of seeing a lot of ugliness in each other. A neighbor said she had a hard time watching TV shows full of evil, pain, hurt, and betrayal. In this play people are nice to each other, being kind without being asked to be kind.”

With Kenneth and with Astrov, Harper tries to find ways “to make it feel like I’m just a guy in a room with you.” In Heidi Schreck’s contemporary-vibed adaptation of Uncle Vanya, Astrov feels an approachable, understandable mixture of lovelorn and careworn—a doctor adrift in the countryside with a family he shouldn’t be so involved with.

“I always had a hard time connecting with Chekhov,” Harper said. “Being fortysomething, and realizing certain chapters in my life are now done makes Astrov’s journey more palpable for me. I don’t have the deep regrets I think Astrov has, but I do have a kind of nihilism setting in—especially about the state of the world that keeps me from sleeping in late. I have this thought that occurs all the time: I sometimes wonder if I love what I do, or is it just what do now? Astrov is in that place as a doctor.

“Being a doctor is what he does, he had do a lot to do to get there, and now he’s not 110 percent sure this is the thing he loves top to bottom in the way he used to. He has had to cut certain things off in his life. He hasn’t found a partner. We never hear about his family, he has decided to stay out in the Boonies rather than finding a community of like-minded people in an urban setting. If he uprooted himself there is a possibility of damaging himself, which wouldn’t be there if he had uprooted himself as a twentysomething. Even though I am happy, there are things that I am curious about—what if I had chosen that thing ‘back there’ as opposed to this thing.”

“Hey man, if you need to share my dad, you can”

Harper grew up in the suburbs of Dallas. His father, a former Marine who was a computer operator for a power company, died aged 31 when Harper was 8. “He was a tough dude. He knew he was dying from the time I was 2. It was cancer, leukemia. He didn’t think he was going to live as long as he did. I didn’t know my dad knew he was going to die. He was in and out of the hospital. Sometimes he was really sick, throwing up all day. I knew he was sick, and had to go to hospital, and sometimes be at home lying down.

“It didn’t hit me he was going to die until a couple of months before it happened. He wanted to take me and my sister and I out on little adventures in his ’77 Impala to the library, zoo, and park. He was building memories. Sometimes he would pull over and throw up, then get back in the car, shut the door, and keep driving. He spent lot of time making sure I was tough. I remember getting into a lot of fistfights with other kids. If someone picked on my sister it was my duty to defend her. I am curious if he were still here who I would be. He was a very traditional guy in a lot of ways.”

After his dad died, “grieving was intense,” Harper said. “At 8 years old, my dad was my hero. I wanted to do everything just like him. After he died, the only thing I remember is not being able to get out of bed, and crying all day for days. My mom at one point made me eat something. For several days she kept having to make me eat because I was just laying down and crying. So much of that time was a blur. My mom (an executive assistant who later returned to school to get her nursing degree) had just turned 30 herself, widowed with two kids. She was so young, they were both so young. I was looking at them as adults, but looking back now they feel so young to me.”

Harper recalled being in a fog when he went back to school to begin 3rd grade, people “trying to be nice and make it better,” with friends saying sweet things like, “Hey man, if you need to share my dad, you can.”

“I was like, ‘Thanks,’ but really I was thinking, “It’s not the same, it’s not my dad.’ That year, I don’t remember much of anything for six or seven months.”

His dad wrote letters to Harper and his sister, with Harper’s saying he was now “the man of the house,” which Harper tried to live up to “as best as I could,” even being so very young himself. He hopes his dad would be “pretty psyched” by his acting success; his mom and sister are his biggest, proudest cheerleaders—ever since his mom encouraged him to act as a child, she has attended all his theater productions.

“My favorite performance was by the dude who looked like me”

Harper’s mom “pushed” him into to acting in middle school. “I was a shy kid. I had moments where I was really extroverted and stuff, but generally at my core I have always been more introverted. I get why Kenneth has a hard time dealing with waiters and new people.”

Harper didn’t want to act initially. “I wanted to do music, play trumpet and drums, but my mom made me do sports and theater. She said, ‘This will help get you out of your shell a bit more.’ I didn’t want to make it anyone else’s problem. I didn’t want to display any grumpiness or sadness to anyone. But my default is slightly more depressive. I thought theater would be a playground for outgoing people in pumpkin pants. It took me a minute to get into acting, and my teachers were a huge part of the reason of me wanting to act for real. They showed me all the possibilities.”

His high school drama teacher, Mr. Kersh, introduced Harper to the absurdist comedies of Ionesco, which he loved, along with improvisation and the general craft of theater. Thinking he “should try to find a job that is stable and make money,” he toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer. But he auditioned for acting courses in a “bunch of colleges,” looked into scholarships, and thought, “I’ll carry on doing it until I don’t like it any more. I thought at every stage, ‘Once people ask me to stop doing this, I’ll stop,’ and it never really stopped.”

Marc Evan Jackson as Shawn, Tiya Sircar as Vicky, William Jackson Harper as Chidi, Jameela Jamil as Tahani, Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop in 'The Good Place'

(l to r) Marc Evan Jackson as Shawn, Tiya Sircar as Vicky, William Jackson Harper as Chidi, Jameela Jamil as Tahani, Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop in 'The Good Place.'

Colleen Hayes/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Asked if he had faced racism or prejudice as he pursued his craft, Harper said, “One of the things that feels good about being an actor in Texas was the fact it did feel like a very open community, and a very socially progressive community. The only time I wondered about any kind of discrepancies between the races and the access people have was around the issue of access itself. I know when I was first starting out, there were times where I had white friends getting more parts more often. I was having a much harder time. That may not necessarily have been about race, it may have been about other things. But I had to have a high hit percentage because I was not going to have auditions every day or several in a week. But then I also knew white actors who weren’t getting many auditions.

“I always questioned how much when I first started out how much race played a role in the opportunities I had. I couldn’t clearly correlate that. At this point of my career I feel like there are certain things in the industry that have changed a bit. I think a lot of people are getting shots who wouldn’t have gotten shots when I first started out. There are still ways to go. I think Black people are represented in the media, which feels like progress, but other ethnic groups are not seeing the same progress or visibility.”

Harper recalled seeing Billy Eugene Jones (most recently on Broadway in Purlie Victorious) playing Macduff in a Dallas production of Macbeth. “I thought he was the best, this dude who looked like me on stage doing Shakespeare. I was completely rapt by his work—he was my favorite character, and my favorite performance, in that play. His interpretation felt immediate to me that felt different to the other actors in the show—no shade to them. There was something specifically about his performance, and the fact that he was a young Black dude—and my favorite performance was coming from the dude who looked like me in this Shakespeare play. It felt really significant for me. I go back to that performance in my head a lot, because it made a difference.

“It’s been great to see him killing it on Broadway in Purlie, as well as (fellow Tony nominee) Kara Young, who left me a howling mess in every scene she was in. She’s a performer who’s so many steps ahead of the audience. You never know where she’s going. You’re just along for the ride.”

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, and the subsequent efforts to increase visibility and representation on Broadway and in Hollywood for Black and other actors of color, Harper thinks “some” progress has been made. “Much more work is needed. Much more, much more. With me, there has always been more access in theater than on TV and film. There is a little more rigidity in how Black people are represented on screen. There is a lot of naked commerce that dictates some of the decisions being made. I feel like theater is a bit more open—not all the time, but I’ve always been able to play parts where race is not a factor.”

“Are we making honest work that we can stand by?”

After graduating from the College of Santa Fe in New Mexico in 2003, Harper came to New York, and like any jobbing actor waited tables and did other odd jobs as he worked to build his career. Early key roles included his 2006 New York stage debut, Full Bloom, and a two-hander play, Neglect, the first moment as an actor, Harper thought, “I won’t fuck this up. I can put in the effort and it will work out.” Taking on every new job today, there are still nerves, he said—will this work, how will it work, how can he challenge himself, while remaining true and honest to the work and working collectively with one’s castmates. “The thought is: are we making real, truthful, and honest work that we can stand by?”

Other off-Broadway roles followed in After The Blast, Ruined, and Titus Andronicus. Having met in New York, Harper and his longtime partner Ali Ahn performed in a 2012 production of Romeo and Juliet in Greenwich, Connecticut. Before The Good Place came smaller roles in Law & Order: Criminal Intent and 30 Rock.

Harper’s Broadway debut was playing activist and organizer Stokely Carmichael in All the Way (2013), in which Bryan Cranston played Lyndon B. Johnson at the outset of his presidency, post-JFK’s death, seeing the 1964 Civil Rights Act through to fruition. Harper said the play, which went on to win a Tony Award, had been an “interesting” experience. “I had been doing plays with bigger roles, but this was on Broadway. It was a smaller role, and I thought a great way to ease into a much bigger space that was more high-profile and visible.”

Harper contemplated giving up acting after performing in All The Way. “I had gotten close to getting a TV job that would pay the rent for a good long while. It was the second or third of some really close calls that had gone the other way. This was one that could have given me some stability, and allowed me to live like a grown up. I thought I would finish All The Way, then shoot this show. Then I got a call from my agents, who told me, ‘They’re canning everybody, retooling the whole thing.’ I thought, ‘I won’t get many shots at this kind of thing. It might be two or three years before I get the next thing.’ It was really demoralizing, it really hurt. I was thinking, ‘I’m tired of never being able to plan anything, enjoy life, always waiting to see if someone will call me. What can I do besides this?’ I wanted to enjoy life outside of chasing the next job.”

Harper considered becoming an acting teacher, thinking he may have useful wisdom and “war stories” to impart to students. Then he won his role as the neurotic Chidi in The Good Place, and not only did the success of that role allow him—resoundingly—to continue acting, it afforded him the financial freedom to take on the theater work he wanted to do (like Primary Trust and Uncle Vanya).

William Jackson Harper as Royal in 'The Underground Railroad.'

William Jackson Harper as Royal in 'The Underground Railroad.'

Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon Studios

On screen, Harper starred as the freeborn Royal in Barry Jenkins’ slavery-era drama The Underground Railroad (for which he was nominated for a Critics Choice award). Jenkins, the Oscar-nominated director of the Oscar-winning movie Moonlight, was an “incredibly accessible, open person” with “an amazing, surprising vision,” Harper said.

Harper starred in Midsommar, Dark Waters, and was the lead in (and executive-produced) the Max show, Love Life, playing a book editor re-entering the dating world after the end of his relationship. Last year, in Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, he played Quaz.

Of whether he prefers stage to screen, Harper says he loves the “process” of theater, “the interactive way of creating”; TV and film work “requires a different kind of concentration,” and he was particularly curious how—as a “great fan” himself—working on a Marvel film would be. “What would it be like to act with a tennis ball? How much is physically there, and how much is painted on afterwards? It was amazing to act on these huge sound stages. It was painstaking, meticulous.”

Harper deliberately combines the big, boldface projects with parts like Kenneth in Primary Trust. “Part of me fears of being seen as only one thing. I want to disrupt that as much as possible. The thing I can control in this privileged position is what I say yes to. Everything I do at this point comes from a place of curiosity primarily.” The Good Place appealed to him because of it “being a big swing and high-concept and its sense of the absurd. There’s a little bit of me in just about every part. Chidi was a lot more openly and demonstrably anxious than me. I’m a little more backfooted than that.”

Harper says he is attracted to roles that “affect or scare me, or make me feel really curious. A sense of challenge is really necessary. I like that feeling. When I first start any project, I always feel, ‘I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know what I’m doing.’ I feel like I am learning something all the time. Uncle Vanya is a good example. When we first read the play, I thought there were several things about Astrov I understood, and other moments where I had to ask, ‘Am I thinking about this in the right way?’ I’m intrigued by this guy who is trying to be the best version of himself, doing his best, and sometimes his best sucks. He is trying to find as much joy as he can, while also having a really fucking hard time.”

“I find myself in a constant state of hopelessness”

Away from acting, Harper plays with a band called, “for reasons too complicated to explain,” The US Open. Therapy—which he has been doing for two years—has been helpful. “I was having a really hard time finding any joy,” he said of why he sought it out. “I knew it had nothing to do with my life, everything was great, everything was, is, fine. Things could not be better, but for some reason I was numb, and not enjoying any of it. In fact I was a little annoyed by everything in a world that felt terrible, awful. I was like, ‘I need to do something about this. I can see objectively things are good, but I am not.’

“Therapy has made it more manageable. I know I have a tendency for my thoughts to go dark. I’ve always been that way, and the older I get the more I am aware it’s happening. I certainly didn’t want to be the type of person who made it anyone’s problem. I always felt when I did talk about it I felt like an asshole doing it—just because things were objectively not bad. I didn’t feel justified. I felt there were people with ‘real’ problems and struggles, and that I should stop whining, go the gym, and figure it out.”

Therapy has helped Harper realize all these feelings are validly felt, and why “certain moods become so overwhelming at certain times,” helping him to accrue some psychological tools to healthily deal with it.

“It’s not like I’m sad. It’s not sadness,” Harper says of these times. “When it happens it’s more a numbness, a sense that nothing matters.”

While he was experiencing this, Kenneth in Primary Trust and Astrov in Vanya—both going through varying degrees of distress themselves—must have been pretty raw to do? “Actually, acting gave me the chance to shake my feelings up a bit, and vigorously dance with them a little,” Harper said. Primary Trust helped Harper feel positively connected to audiences who may have felt some of the things the play’s characters did, whereas Astrov’s nihilism is “front-footed, which is more where I am right now, with the state of the world. It’s very hard to feel optimistic. Astrov expels his feelings with really mean jokes or a raw admission of ‘Who the fuck cares?’ To just say that can be useful. Better out than in.

“I do feel like it’s good to certain things off my chest, because I find myself in a constant state of hopelessness all the time—not because of my personal life, just with the way the world is right now, politics, the environment. Everything has got me waking up at 6 a.m. regardless of when I go to bed. I have always been like that. This ‘state of world’ panic has always been there. It has increased in the last couple of years. When I was little I was always really, really afraid that the people I loved were going to go away, or be taken away. No one would leave me, but they would be taken from me. The people I love were going to die, or I was going to die, or we’ll all be sad. That feeling is maybe down to losing a parent, and realizing really early that the worst can happen.”

This Harper has talked about in therapy—“how much my sort of anxiety and fear around everything is borne of a big loss very early. Part of it too is that I have so many good memories with my dad when we were all together, the whole family unit, then coming to terms early with the fact—even as a little kid—that certain things will never be like that ever again. That door is shut. I won’t have that feeling of the first Christmas when we moved to our house, or the time my dad fell over when he was ice skating outside, breaking his glasses. We’re not going to have moments like that again, that there will always be this hole. This is part of where my apocalyptic fixations come from.”

“I don’t think I am a lot of people’s idea of a leading man”

Harper has been with Ahn, who has starred in Billions, Orange Is the New Black, and The Diplomat, for 12 years. “Sometimes we give each other lot of space and other times that space gets on our nerves. We’re both very understanding of each other’s jobs, support each other, and we prioritize all the time we get to spend together.” Much affection is lavished on their dog Chico, who—when one partner is away—gets to sleep in the bed with the partner left behind. She is working in London right now. “Life feels incomplete when Ali is gone,” said Harper. “I feel like I’m running a beta version of the program.”

After Vanya, Harper has nothing planned, “and I’m fine with that.” As far as dream parts go, he doesn’t have classic stage roles in his mind—Shakespeare and such—saying, even inadvertently, one could end up echoing or copying an actor that has come before. Harper prefers the challenge of “finding something unique” in originating roles in new plays like Primary Trust.

William Jackson Harper as Quaz in Marvel Studios' 'Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.'

William Jackson Harper as Quaz in Marvel Studios' 'Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.'

Jay Maidment © 2022 MARVEL

Harper is also a playwright himself. His 2018 play, Travisville, was intended as a way to “tell a slightly messy, less noble version of a civil rights story,” focusing on the displacement of a poor Black community situated near the grounds of the Texas State Fair, and centered around discussions and disagreements within the Black community over civil rights. Harper has “like 40 documents on my desktop” of other works in gestation. He laughed, mulling these so-far-unfinished efforts. “You know you’re in trouble when you’re getting bored and getting sleep sitting there typing. You think, if you feel like that, you’re not going to put anyone else through this.”

Harper says he is ambitious, but “could never” have imagined in his early aims to “cobble together enough jobs” that he would end up leading a TV show. “I honestly thought my lane was ‘left of center best friend.’ It was wild to be a lead. My idea of a person who gets to do that was not me. I also thought, ‘I am going to occupy this space as me. I’m a weirdo, and I’m going to be weird.’ I don’t think I am a lot of people’s idea of a leading man in any way, and that’s fine. Right now, my ambition takes the form of wanting to indulge my curiosity as much as possible, and being able to take some big swings and try some hard parts. What I hope to gain more than anything is the latitude to try stuff, and try and fail and try again. I don’t want to be a failure, but theater especially is try, fail, try, fail, try, win.”

But, as Harper’s success with Primary Trust and his lead actor Tony nomination both show, he is now a classified leading man, I say. He was the lead in Love Life. Isn’t being the lead something he may have get to used to being seen as?

“I didn’t see them as lead characters,” Harper said of his lead roles. “I see them as interesting characters to play, and central characters to those stories. I feel like sometimes central characters aren’t the most intriguing characters. Sometimes it’s the supporting characters creating the mess. So, as long as the character I’m playing is interesting, fun, and engaging, I’m happy.”

Does playing a secondary character, or seeing his characters as non-leads offer Harper more freedom, I ask; does being known as a lead bring its own inhibiting pressure?

“Yes,” Harper said, smiling. “Archetypal lead character energy psychologically messes me up, whereas thinking of these characters as just interesting characters keeps me from psyching myself out too much about what space this person is supposed to occupy in people’s minds, as opposed to the person I want to play.” So, yes, William Jackson Harper is very much a lead actor, even if he does his best work very deliberately never thinking about it.

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