William Jackson Harper is no stranger to the New York theater scene. A ubiquitous presence in some of the best shows of recent seasons (which, of course, is no accident), this is his first show here with us at Labyrinth. We spoke to him recently about A Family For All Occasions and what he’s looking forward to about the production. Check it out!
Where did you grow up? What got you into acting?
I grew up in and around Dallas. My mom made me take some theater classes in middle school. I was rather shy when I was younger, and she was trying to help me get over it. And I resented the hell out of her for it at first, because I was certain it was going to be social suicide, but you can’t kill something that’s already dead, and I thank my mama for knowing that. But I really grew to love it when I realized that I could totally be a smart-ass clown for a grade every now and again, and that it didn’t have to be pumpkin pants and musicals all the time. Not that I dislike musicals.
I was looking over your bio, and it seems like you’ve pretty much worked with every theater in NYC! But this is your first play with us at Labyrinth — could you talk a little bit about your career thus far?
That’s a big question. My career. Lots of ups. Lots of Downs. And some unemployment in between. I moved here hoping to make my living solely as an actor. I remember I told someone, on one of the many showcases I did when I first arrived here, that my single goal was to make a living as a New York actor, and they simply replied “3 years”. And I remember thinking at the time, “There’s no way I’m going to be here three years! This city is tough!” But Lo and Behold, it took almost exactly three years before I got my first contract gig in New York. And, as it goes, I’m working away, getting jobs here and there, paying rent and eating pizza, and before I know it, 5 1/2 years have passed. Which isn’t terribly long, I know. But I’ve done no other jobs outside of act in that entire time, and I’m really thankful for that.
As I get older my priorities are changing, as are the things I want. But one thing I can hold on to is that I did the thing I came to New York to do.
This is a very unique play. What is it about Bob’s writing, and this play in particular, that speaks to you as an artist?
I can recall very few times in my short-ish career that I’ve been completely flummoxed by a play, but this is one of them. And there is something somewhat liberating in having some textual opaqueness and minimalism. I feel more like I’m actually contributing to the world of the play in a far more tangible way, rather than being a mouthpiece for the writer’s agenda and little else.
Your character, Oz, is the only person who’s not a member of the family (for all occasions), and his presence sets the events of the play in motion. Do you approach a role like that differently? Is it strange playing the outsider? Or does it not matter at all?
My approach to Oz is different. But it has less to do with being a catalyst, and more to do with the character being someone very unfamiliar. As far as playing the catalyst? I guess that depends on the part. For instance, there are times when the catalyst is fully aware of how what they want will shake the foundation of everyone around them. And there are times when the catalyst is blissfully unaware of what their presence actually means. I think that’s one of those things you have to let the play tell you.
As far as playing the outsider? I understand that all to well. Honestly, I feel more at home playing the outsider. And I don’t think I’m alone on that one….wait…so that means…wait…nevermind.
What are you looking forward to about the rehearsal process and production? What are the challenges and opportunities you see ahead of you?
I’m looking forward to working with this killer group of people. All folks I highly respect, and am totally intimidated by. I look forward to expanding as an artist, and having to find new ways of thinking, and new ways of approaching the work. I know it sounds cliche, but it’s just the truth. This is the kind of challenge I live for at this point.