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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

In the new season of "Love Life," Harper carries the lead baton passed on by Anna Kendrick in Season 1. He plays Marcus Watkins, a 30-something book editor who dives back into the dating pool after blowing up his marriage in ways only he didn't see coming. The story follows Marcus over several years as he floats in and out of relationships while in various stages of self-discovery.

"It is more than just a story of dating and romance. It's really just a story of a person growing up," says Harper, also an executive producer. "There's so many changes that happen in those years, in your 20s and early 30s. You become — at least I became — a very different person from when I first moved to New York to now. And I feel like a big part of that growing up, a big part of that change, comes from the people you date. And sometimes it's funny, and sometimes it's really uncomfortable and sometimes it's messy."

Harper knew that with a series that revolves around dating, showing a bit of skin was to be expected. He's been the subject of thirst tweets before; when Chidi went shirtless on "The Good Place," showing that the philosophy nerd had a surprisingly buff physique underneath his sweaters, Twitter exploded. Still, the call to show his body provokes a very specific kind of dread.

"I was terrified of taking my shirt off [on 'The Good Place'] because I'd always been made fun of as a kid," Harper says. "And as I've gotten older, and especially as I started to work on TV, I started working out a little bit more and trying to eat a little bit better. Working out was something that was very meditative for me, and I really enjoyed it. But when I got that script, I definitely ramped it up. I found myself at the gym at 5 a.m. before going to set.

"I was fully prepared to just get made fun of and roasted. I do think a lot of dudes have some sort of body dysmorphia, body issues and a lot of fear around it. Men are mean to each other. When I have a show that requires me to take my shirt off, it's a highly regimented, sometimes destructive process that I go through to get to a place where I feel comfortable with my body."

To add a level of connection to the character, Harper visited the writers room a few times to share his own mistakes and the questionable decisions he's made in relationships, but he's careful to note: "Marcus' journey is not my journey."

 

Co-showrunner Sam Boyd agrees, sort of. With Harper, he says: "You feel like you're watching a movie star and a real person at the same time, which seems kind of contradictory, but you're like, 'Oh, this is like a real guy in the world, and he also has this incredible gravitas and this incredible kind of star power and charisma.'"

For nearly a decade, Harper's own love story has been strong and steady. His partner is Ali Ahn ("Billions," "Orange Is the New Black"); both were in relationships when they began doing theater together in New York. Eventually, they starred in a production of "Romeo and Juliet"; both single by then, "it just spiraled up into the sky from there." (Kristen Bell, his former co-star on "The Good Place," points out that another piece of Harper's heart is slightly less romantic: "He loves his dog Chico to pieces and would often make up songs about Chico and sing them to us on set.")

"I feel like I sort of took some lumps for a long time in my career, so with all the things that are happening now, like, when I get to go to those big fancy parties and stuff, it still feels really alien," he says. "I'm not in my element, and I'm sort of waiting for a suitable time to escape and just go hang out with Ali and just be in a dive bar."

Harper was raised in the Dallas suburbs. He was 8 when his father, a computer operator for a power company, died. His mom, an executive assistant until Harper was in middle school, went back to school to get a nursing degree.

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