(Warning: This post, which was first published May 15, contains spoilers through Episode 9 of “The Underground Railroad.”)
“The Good Place” alum William Jackson Harper takes on a very different role that may surprise his fans with Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad” limited series, which launched Friday on Amazon Prime Video. The series as a whole is obviously darker than the Mike Schur comedy based on its subject matter alone, but Harper’s character — that of free Black man and Underground Railroad conductor, Royal — is one that is somehow more at ease and calmer than the neurotic philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye he played on “The Good Place.”
And it’s this attitude and confidence that finally allows runaway slave Cora (Thuso Mbedu) to feel comfortable and safe after starting a new life on Valentine Farm in Indiana, where Royal and other born-free Black people live and work together. However, it’s not long after Cora and Royal make their romance official that his life and many others are cut short in a massacre at Valentine Farm, enacted by white men who are scared of the threat these free Black people could pose to their society.
See TheWrap’s Q&A with Harper below.
TheWrap: How would you describe Cora and Royal’s romantic relationship, and what it’s like for an escaped slave and born-free Black person to be in a relationship at this time in history that “The Underground Railroad” takes place?
William Jackson Harper: She’s luminous. I think that he is drawn to her instantly. And there’s something just in her bearing, especially in the way that Thuso plays Cora, that is just transfixing. And that’s really what it’s about. There is just the connection that instantly happens between them and the relationship that forms between them. It’s a really uneasy pairing for a while because they just come from two completely different societies. And they’re trying to find their way to each other because I think they’re both drawn to each other by something that is sort of undefinable.
What was it like for you filming the massacre scene on Valentine Farm, a brutal attack that culminates in Royal’s death while he and Cora are trying to escape?
It was tough. It was obviously really triggering for me and I found myself blind with rage in certain moments when we’re shooting those scenes. But the thing that we really leaned into was the hope and the light that is Valentine Farm. It’s an interesting thing. I deal with people asking me questions about race and stuff a lot. And my sort of instant reply all the time is, ‘It’s never really a problem until someone else makes it a problem.’ It’s like, my life is fine and then someone does something and then all of a sudden, there’s this component that just sort of throws everything into this really dark place. But it’s not like I go through the world looking for everything to sort of fall apart. And I think that that’s sort of what the deal is with Valentine Farm. It’s been successful and safe for a very, very long time. And that is our existence. The moment that you’re talking about, that’s the anomaly. The massacre at the end of Episode 9, that’s something that is out of the ordinary. And that’s not what anyone was expecting. And so it’s tough. But in order to just kind of continue through your life, you need to live in the positivity as much as you can. And that’s what we did — until things changed. And the same thing goes with Cora and Royal, they get to a certain place, but life has other plans for us and that’s just the way it is. But in the meantime, you just live in the beauty and the peace of those relationships as much as you can.
In the closing moments of the episode, Royal is already dead, but Cora thinks back to the day he taught her how to shoot a gun in order for her to gain the confidence she needs to kill slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton). Did you and Barry and Thuso work through the importance of that scene when you first shot it, knowing it would come back to play such an important role in Cora’s story immediately after Royal’s death?
We didn’t really talk about that exact moment as it played out. Honestly, that moment where I’m teaching Cora to shoot, that’s just a moment where I think that she needs to know how to shoot. I think that she needs to know how to protect herself and defend herself. And this is part of being a free person, especially being a free Black person, is you have to know how to protect yourself in this world. And so that’s really all it is. I think it’s really sort of playing it as it plays. I think leaning into or trying to play the foreshadowing, it doesn’t– for me, I don’t think it really serves me as an actor. I think it’s much better that it’s a thing that happened and letting the story do that work for you. Letting the character who is having the flashback, letting them have that moment rather than trying to play, ‘This is a significant thing that will play in later.’ I think that also helps it be more effective. You don’t want to tip your hand, especially with things like that. And it actually went through different iterations of how the final chapter would unfold and the way that it played was definitely somewhat of a surprise to me.
“The Underground Railroad” is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.