William Jackson Harper Makes Some Noise

The actor discusses reuniting with Cristin Milioti for The Resort and his rock band with a group of fellow actors.

by Max Gao

A portrait of William Jackson Harper in a grey shirt and a grey blazer with a blurred pink backgroun...
Photo by Getty; Image treatment by Ashley Peña

William Jackson Harper’s love for percussion began in church. As a child, the actor would watch in awe as the house drummer of his local congregation performed during the weekly service. And while he was too shy to join the small group of churchgoers who took turns on the drum kit after the ceremony, he still found his own way to get in on the action.

“I would take my drum sticks to church and just whack on the pew for however long,” Harper tells W over Zoom with a laugh. “I had a friend that had a kit, and I went over to his house for a birthday. It was the fourth grade or something like that, and I got behind the kit for the first time and played, and I really took to it.”

Over the years, Harper has played the drums intermittently—sneaking into his high school auditorium to take a crack at them before a big concert, buying and experimenting with his first kit in his early 20s, and learning enough to play in a couple of small bands in his native Dallas and his own band in New York—but he reiterates that he never had any illusions about his skills as a novice drummer. In other words, he has no plans to quit his day job anytime soon.

After rising to fame as the perpetually overwrought ethics professor Chidi Anagonye in NBC’s The Good Place, Harper—whose other screen credits include The Electric Company, Midsommar, and The Underground Railroad—stepped into his first leading role in the second season of HBO Max’s rom-com anthology, Love Life. His latest project, Peacock’s The Resort, finds him in another starring role, albeit one in which his character fights to stay in his waning marriage on an ill-fated anniversary trip rather than navigating the New York dating scene as a newly divorced Black man.

Created by Andy Siara, The Resort, which premiered July 28, follows Noah (Harper) and Emma (Cristin Milioti), an unhappily married couple thrown into one of the Yucatan’s most bizarre unsolved mysteries when they set out to solve a pair of disappearances that took place fifteen years ago. The “propulsive,” genre-blurring nature of the show—which blends murder mystery, dark comedy, and relationship drama—was part of the immediate appeal for Harper, who found the premise and first two scripts “funny and very uncomfortable, because it deals with a relationship that is morphed into more of a friendship.”

“I think a lot of people are in relationships they’re too comfortable to leave, or the passion is gone but the love is still there and they don’t know exactly what to do about that,” he says. “Stories are allowed to be the most surprising when you jump in and out of very grounded, quotidian things to straight-up zany comedy—and there’s something about the comedy that disarms you for those gut punches that might come later.”

Below, Harper discusses his fondest memories of shooting the eight-episode first season of The Resort in Puerto Rico, and the burgeoning rock band he has formed with a group of actors in New York (they just released their first album last Tuesday).

The Resort marks a reunion for you and Cristin Milioti, with whom you starred in the play After the Blast in 2017. What does she bring to the table as an actor that makes her such a successful collaborator?

We met doing theater in New York, and we really got to know each other when we worked on this play. It was intense—we were also playing a couple in marital distress. She is a very special performer; every choice she makes is organic, unique, and specific, and she doesn’t lean into the idea of what a scene is supposed to be. I will say that when we first met, I thought she was so cool that I was intimidated. And over the years, I learned, “Oh, she’s a weirdo and chucklehead just like the rest of us.”

Are there any memories that stick out from working with the cast and local crew in Puerto Rico?

It’s tough shooting there, just because it’s really hot and humid, so a lot of us were wilting. They were always telling us to drink water and we were doing the best we could, but the crew was amazing. We shot in some locations that were a real challenge, and everyone brought their A-game while also maintaining a really positive attitude and being kind and funny. I feel like I’ve hung out with this cast more than any other cast I’ve been with, because every day something came out of left field and made it harder. [Laughs.] We needed to decompress a lot, and we did.

Honestly, my favorite memory was going to El Yunque, which is the national forest there. We did that a couple of times, and we would swim in waterfalls and go on these really challenging hikes. We spent a lot of time in Old San Juan, out on the beach or up in the woods just getting weird.

Through your work on The Good Place, you were able to broaden the representation of Black masculinity onscreen by playing a nerd that you and so many other viewers could relate to. How did that experience change the way you move through the world as an actor and as a person?

There are certain traits that we both share. I’m a pretty anxious guy, and that’s something I’m always trying to hide, because as a man of a certain age, it feels like you’re not supposed to be nervous around people all the time—and I just am. There are a lot of guys that have the same mental quirks I do. In media, we don’t get to see a lot of Black dudes exhibit those traits. It’s not like I’m the only anxious Black dude on TV—there are quite a few—but it’s not the broadest interpretation of Black masculinity that we see often.

The dudes who reached out to me were like, “I have not seen a guy like this on TV in a while, and it felt therapeutic to see him struggle in the way that he did and have his moments.” I’m just bringing things that are me into these characters, and this is what these traits look like on a Black body.

How do you choose projects at this stage of your career?

I always try to make sure the project I’m going to do is different from the project I just did; I don’t want to go to the same emotional well every time. The fun of being an actor is that you get to try on different things—sometimes it’s a slight difference, sometimes it’s a little bit bigger—but I do look for things to be very different from one project to the next. I want to be able to play a variety of roles and have a variety of experiences. If I was just doing the same thing over and over again, it would start to feel more like a job and less like a calling, as it is for me right now.

How do you feel about constantly being “fancasted” for the next Fantastic Four film?

I guess that’s cool, but Twitter doesn’t cast movies. [Laughs.] And it’s really sweet, I get a kick out of it. But Marvel has not called me, and I’m pretty sure anyone who’s in that movie has been called. So I’m flattered, but I’m not holding my breath.

You’ve mentioned in past interviews that you’re a bit of a music nerd, and you’ve chosen drumming as your One Fun Thing. How would you rate your own skills on a scale of novice to expert?

I’m definitely a novice. I never really studied it; it was so rare that I could get behind a kit and play. We couldn’t afford to buy one when I was younger, so I never owned one. But every now and again, if there was one sitting in my high school auditorium, if they were getting ready to do some sort of concert with the jazz band and no one was there, I would sneak in and play around.

But I really started to play with more consistency after college, and I bought a kit in my early 20s. It was just sitting in the dining room, and every now and again, I would play and annoy the neighbors. I was loud and I wasn’t very good, but I was having a blast, and then I got a little better and played in some bands in Dallas, just a couple of gigs here and there. When I moved to New York, I put that kit into storage. I really don’t want to play a kit inside my New York apartment—that’s the quickest way to make a whole bunch of enemies—so I didn’t play much for a while. In the last five to seven years, I’ve picked it back up.

Courtesy of William Jackson Harper

Who are some of your favorite drummers?

I really loved Neil Peart, the drummer from Rush. I’ve always been a big Art Blakey fan, Max Roach—these are jazz guys, but they played in this explosive way with these really interesting fills. Every drummer I like is a drummer that does things I could never imagine being able to do in a million years.

You also play music in a band called the US Open with a few other actors. Who else is in this band?

The band is comprised of Steve Boyer, Jeff Biehl, Diana Oh, Shawn Randall, Bobby Moreno, and myself. We all met doing theater, and Bobby got a guitar and started learning to play and then was like, “Hey, you know what? I think I want to start a band.” And we’re like, “Yeah, cool.” I happen to play the drums, Steve plays guitar, Jeff learned bass just to start playing with us, and Diana is this crazy multidisciplinary artist and a hell of a singer. Shawn is a great improvisational singer and keyboardist.

We all got together and started jamming, doing covers and playing the songs we like—usually rock, because that’s what we had the instrumentation for—and then we wrote our own songs. It’s meant to be fun; it’s this thing that’s not tied to my livelihood. I get a big kick out of it. It’s really cathartic for me. I just love going into a room with my friends and whacking on drums and sweating and sometimes making a song and sometimes just making a whole bunch of noise.

Where did the name come from?

There’s this [indie-pop] band I like called Tennis, and I thought the name was cool. We were joking around with names for the band, and I brought that up, and Steve was like, “So what? Should we be, like, the US Open?” And we’re like, “Oh no! Not that! But wait…” We’ve just been calling ourselves the US Open ever since.

How often do you meet in person to practice?

It’s [only] when we’re all free, because we’re all actors and we’re usually out of town or doing a play. So whenever we have down time together, we jam, and sometimes we write some songs and we play gigs. But it’s really just for us. And every now and again, we like to share it with our friends. Our schedules are so erratic and hectic, and two of the guys are parents now, so it gets harder and harder to get together [regularly].

You just released your first album. Do you have any plans to make more music or play some gigs in the future?

Yeah, we definitely plan to make more music, but we’ll see if those songs see the light of day! [Laughs.] Hopefully, our schedules will align and we’ll play some gigs and invite all our friends out, and hopefully we won’t trip all over ourselves in songs, and we’ll stay together as a band because we play so infrequently that we get jacked on adrenaline when we’re playing in front of people. I like to manage the expectations. We definitely are not pros; we just really like playing together.