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William Jackson Harper (‘The Underground Railroad’) on Royal living ‘by his own code’ in 1800s America [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

“Royal is very much a guy who lives by his own code,” describes William Jackson Harper in regard to his character on Barry Jenkins‘ 10-episode limited series “The Underground Railroad,” which is based on Colson Whitehead‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. In our exclusive video interview (watch above), Harper delineates his character’s outlook, discusses Royal’s relationship with Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and teases his upcoming starring role on HBO’s romantic comedy anthology series “Love Life.”

A freeborn Black man, Royal is wearing his own coat and living by his own code “at a time when that was not afforded to Black people as an opinion,” elucidates Harper. When Royal gazes after a shackled Cora as she trails Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) through a Tennessee town in the sixth episode, “Chapter 6: Tennessee — Proverbs,” it’s a “messed-up picture” for Royal, says Harper. The cruelty of Cora being shown “what she can’t be, what she can’t have” is “highly triggering” for him, especially in a town in which Black people are enjoying at least a version of freedom. The actor continues, “It clicks for him [Royal] that he’s got to do something for Cora.”

After Royal frees Cora and takes her to the Valentine farm, Cora struggles to trust the community and hesitates to open her heart to Royal. “It’s hard to trust a good thing when your life has been nothing but struggling,” Harper underscores, expounding that from Royal’s point of view, Cora is always waiting for “the other shoe to drop.” Royal, however, deeply wants her to trust the Valentine community and to “come through the psychological terrorism that slavery was.”

Eventually, Cora does indeed confide in Royal and open her heart to him. “There’s a spark between them,” describes Harper, highlighting that “there’s a determination in her [Cora] that she just exudes” and Royal finds very attractive. He admires the strength “radiating” from runaway slaves “after having been through so much,” the actor adds. Ultimately, Royal, whom Harper considers emblematic of the entire Valentine farm, represents the possibility to flourish in a system “that works its hardest to bring you down and to keep you in bondage.”

In regard to his upcoming starring role in the second season of “Love Life,” Harper reveals that it’s “brand new territory” for him as an actor. After the debut season centered on Anna Kendrick‘s Darby, a twentysomething seeking a happy romantic relationship, the second will follow Harper’s character, a thirtysomething who has “his life mapped out in a lot of ways” but has to rebound after it gets “thrown up in the air,” the actor teases. When asked about whether it’s important for him to constantly change things up in his career, Harper admits that, upon entering adulthood, “it’s easy to be on autopilot and just do the things that come easy.” Nevertheless, he emphasizes, “I like to try things that are going to challenge me and are a little bit frightening.” To that end, working on “Love Life” is a challenge he’s certainly anticipating.

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