When Eboni Booth’s “Primary Trust” begins, William Jackson Harper stands alone onstage. His weight shifts from foot to foot; his fingers knead the air. He is smiling, but that smile looks as though it comes from a place of pain.
Harper (“The Good Place,” “Love Life”) plays Kenneth, a 38-year-old bookstore employee unmoored when the store closes. A play about loss, loneliness and the hope of connection, “Primary Trust,” which runs through July 2 at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater, is also a shrewd and gentle vehicle for Harper’s particular gifts — vulnerability, thoughtfulness, emotional lability. There are few actors who can better convey the awkwardness, the messiness and the unanticipated joy of being alive.
On a recent Monday morning, at a colorful cafe near his home in Brooklyn, Harper, 43, provided an offstage illustration. His matcha had slopped onto one of his tan suede loafers. “I’ve ruined these shoes,” he said as he studied the green stain. And then, after a pause, “Or maybe I’ll just look like a painter.”
Harper, who spent a dozen years Off and Off Off Broadway before making the move to television, tends to get nervous in interviews. And he was nervous here, too — the veins in his forehead were pulsing. But he persevered. He is an artist who wears his heart on his sleeve. And under it, too: On his left arm was a tattoo of the cottonwood tree that stood in his grandmother’s yard. (“It reminds me of a time when everybody was alive,” he said.) Over tea he discussed the appeal of returning to theater and the lessons that the play can offer. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
When did you know that you wanted to be an actor?
My mom made me take these theater classes in middle school. Because I was pretty shy. My mom was like, “We’ve got to work on that.” So I started taking these theater classes. Acting was the only thing that I was actually pretty good at.
Did it make you less shy?
Maybe it made me better at pretending. And I felt there was finally some place to put my feelings. I didn’t really have an outlet. Being loud and being onstage expelled some of the stuff that was bugging me.
You spent a decade working in New York theater. But I understand that before you booked “The Good Place,” you almost quit acting?
I was doing OK. I had some really good roles in some really good projects. Stuff that I was proud of. Like getting to do “All the Way” on Broadway. Doing “Placebo” at Playwrights Horizons, the “Total Bent” at the Public. But God forbid my mom gets sick. God forbid I get really sick. Just the uncertainty of the day-to-day, month-to-month, paycheck to paycheck nature of it was a little too much. Like, I’m in my mid 30s. I’d like to be just a little more stable. So I was like, I don’t think I want to do this anymore.
How did TV feel different?
There’s no rehearsal, which is wild, you just memorize your lines and then you go. And it’s a hell of a lot harder to keep your concentration because people are in the room with you — people looking at the monitors five feet away. You can’t suspend your disbelief at all. And since there is no audience reaction, you’re just like, Am I doing OK? But they pay you way better. They also feed you, which is amazing. And the fact that you get to do stuff over and over and over again is kind of nice. Because eventually through that repetition, something unlocks.
Why do you keep coming back to theater?
I just love it. I also feel like it expands my tool kit when it comes to just being an actor, because when you want something to change and you want something to go differently, it means that you have to shift your thinking and open yourself up. And I like being in charge of the whole ride. Once I’m doing a run of a play and just getting to stay in it, rather than only doing a minute at a time and then resetting, it’s easier to feel like I’m fully inhabiting a character. Because there’s no start and stop, you just go.
How did “Primary Trust” come to you?
Eboni and I had done some shows together, hung out socially. She was doing a workshop at the Roundabout and was like, “Hey, would you want to do this?” She sent me the script, and I had an emotional reaction to it immediately. The character of Kenneth is closer to me as a person than anyone I’ve played. And there’s things that character says that I’ve said in my life. That’s never happened to me before. I needed to do this play. I just needed to, I was going to be upset if I didn’t. Because I really felt like I just understood this character really, really deeply.
Who is Kenneth?
Kenneth is a 38-year-old who’s led a very small, isolated life out of self-preservation. He loses his job and has to be open to people in a way that he isn’t ready for. It’s all brand-new to him. This is a guy who found a way to make things work and to not get hurt. Now he has to risk really getting hurt and really making a mess.
How did you find your way into Kenneth?
Him being a foster child feels like a significant piece of things. I didn’t want to go asking people, Hey, do you know anyone who was raised in foster care? That would have felt really terrible and callous. But I watched a lot of documentaries about people that had been in the foster system. Then there’s a big traumatic loss early on in his life that shapes how he moves through the world. I lost my dad when I was really young. And there’s a thing Kenneth says about this one babysitter who tries to tell him that everything is going to be OK. He hates that. And I hate it, too. I’m like, “No! You don’t know that, the worst can happen.” Leaning into those feelings that I’ve had for a long time, that helped. Then there is the discomfort that I have just moving through the world, just going ahead and letting it be out there.
Well, I’m skeptical of artists who are comfortable.
I was just thinking about that on my run: People who feel certain and comfortable all the time, I’m like, Oh, man, what knowledge are you unencumbered by? Like, wow, it must be so nice to just not know and not care.
Is there a lesson in this play?
One is that you don’t know what people are carrying around. So be nice, be kind. And it shows that even if everything’s not OK, it might be OK. I know that sounds goofy. But as much as there’s a chance that things could all go to [expletive], there’s just as much of a chance it could work out.