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With 'Love Life,' William Jackson Harper reaches a good place in his career -- as leading man

Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

As recently as five years ago, William Jackson Harper's career goals were simple: He wanted to reach a level of success where he wasn't worried about rent or in need of several roommates.

To be where he is now — in London, shooting a film he can't discuss, no really, not at all — is, to his mind, a wild turn of events.

Until 2016, when he landed the role of Chidi Anagonye, the endearingly indecisive and anxious former ethics scholar, on NBC's "The Good Place," Harper was the definition of "working actor," competing for on- and off-Broadway roles and landing guest spots on shows like "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" and "30 Rock."

"Just before booking 'The Good Place,' I was at this place in my career where I was like, 'I'm not sure that I like this anymore,'" he says. "'I'm not sure having several roommates and living paycheck to paycheck and being in my mid-30s and wondering, "Is this what my life is going to be forever?" is it. Where I'm just always a little bit scared about rent, and I can never take the vacation, or I can never visit home for weddings or a funeral. I can't do any of the normal stuff people do in life because I have to make sure I'm making money to get to next month and also auditioning enough to get the job that will give me the money to get to next month.' I was always just a little bit freaked out."

He hoped that Chidi and "The Good Place" would result in steady work for a season, at most. The series lasted four and gave him the momentum to snatch up roles in the 2019 films "Midsommar" and "Dark Waters."

So Harper, 41, can breathe a little easier now.

 

Not only is he appearing in a secret film project, but he's also headlining the new season of HBO Max's anthology series "Love Life." Premiering Thursday, the show explores the ups and downs of adulthood and the romantic escapades that present themselves along the way.

It follows other recent projects that have placed Harper in leading-man territory. Earlier this year, he gave a soulful performance as a freeborn Black man in pre-Civil War America who has a sweeping romance with a runaway slave (Thuso Mbedu) in Barry Jenkins' limited series, "The Underground Railroad"; he also starred in the film "We Broke Up," about a couple who call it quits but pretend to still be together to fulfill a wedding obligation.

"I never thought that being the central character in anything on-screen was in the cards for me," Harper says. "I always figured, at best, I'd get to be a really strong left-of-center supporting character. That was where I thought the journey ended for me. I still would love to play those roles too. But I never saw this side of it for me. And I like it. I feel like I'm reading a book where every time I turn a page, it's empty and being written right in front of me a little bit. And there's possibility."

It's just past 10 p.m. in London, and although Harper began the Zoom conversation resting his head on his hand, he grows more animated as he considers how a life spent chasing down opportunities has resulted in him reaching ones he didn't think were possible.

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