A few years ago, William Jackson Harper had one of those taking-stock moments that so many fledgling actors experience.
The Garland native was in his mid-30s, living in New York with several roommates, finding small parts in theater and television productions to pay the bills, yet still awaiting a breakthrough that might never come.
“I needed some stability in my life. I needed to change things,” Harper said. “I had made the decision to phase out of acting somehow. I had no idea what I was going to do.”
Harper’s desperation led him to an audition that rejuvenated his life and career. He’s now a regular on the NBC sitcom “The Good Place,” which currently is shooting its third season.
“It came at exactly the right time,” Harper said by phone from Los Angeles, where he now resides. “Now that the show has a little more traction, maybe more opportunities will open up. It’s just been nice to have a job, and knowing where next month’s rent is coming from.”
Harper, 38, credits his mother for sparking his interest in acting. She forced him to take a drama class in middle school, claiming he was too shy.
“I did not want to do it. I thought theater was for sissies. But she forced me to,” he said. “It really brought me out of my shell. That sort of hooked me.”
While attending Lakeview Centennial High School in Garland, Harper joined the Junior Players acting troupe, and performed Shakespeare at Samuell-Grand Park for two summers.
He subsequently attended the now-defunct College of Santa Fe in New Mexico, where he decided to pursue acting professionally. Harper later returned to Dallas for a couple of years, working in a handful of local theater productions before heading to New York.
Harper accumulated a diverse resume of roles on film, TV, and stage during the next decade, including a recurring part on the revival of the iconic children’s show “The Electric Company.”
“For most actors, in the days when you’re struggling, there’s a low-grade worry pretty much all the time,” he said. “I was lucky enough to put together a lot of jobs, but you don’t make enough to sustain yourself for any length of time.”
That’s not the case these days, as Harper can also be seen in his first big-screen starring role in They Remain, a low-budget thriller that comes to video-on-demand platforms this week.
In the film, he portrays one of two research biologists — Rebecca Henderson plays the other — sequestered inside a remote tent at an unknown location in the near-future, assigned to study the remnants of an apparent tragedy at the site. A combination of isolation, boredom and hallucinations precipitates a downward spiral that threatens their sanity more than any outside threat.
“I’m into weird, oblique storytelling. This is different, as far as horror movies go. It’s in a world that’s not easily identifiable,” Harper said. “Doing a project with one other actor is a challenge and it’s intense, but it’s a lot of fun.”
Harper has completed production on two more independent films, Lost Holiday and The Man in the Woods, which should be released in the next year. And the upcoming season of “The Good Place” will begin airing in September.