How Actor William Jackson Harper Stays in Shape For His Shirtless Scenes

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As an actor, William Jackson Harper is a master of his craft. The 41-year-old from Dallas, TX, earned his stripes in a variety of smaller roles including “30 Rock” and Law & Order before shooting to worldwide fame as Chidi in “The Good Place,” a gig that earned him a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for his work.

With Harper now taking the lead in Season 2 of HBO Max’s “Love Life” (premiering Oct. 28), M&F talked with the man himself to find out whether he’s a romantic guy at heart and how he prepares for those nerve-wracking scenes that require him to get a little more intimate.

In “Love Life” season 2, the focus shifts from Anna Kendrick’s character Derby Carter, over to William Jackson Harper’s portrayal of Marcus Watkins, a broken man that finds himself suddenly thrust back into the dating scene. So, is the actor a romantic soul off-screen? “No, not at all,” laughs Harper. “And my girlfriend will vouch for that. I don’t think in terms of romance, so much as I just try to make my partner happy when I can. I did pull off this one really great surprise birthday party for her. I’m proud of that and she was very touched by it.”

Harper is a respected thespian with plenty of stage experience, and he is also aware that acting is as much physical as it is emotional. Never was his more evident than when a shirtless scene in “The Good Place” set pulses racing and went viral on the net. Now, with scripts requiring him to bare more flesh in “Love Life,” Harper lets us in on the process.

 

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail

“I have to try and stay in shape throughout the year,” he shares. “And yes, I am panicked as soon as I read those scripts. I’m a lot more strict with myself when shooting, in a way that could be described as punitive [laughs]. But I do try to stay at a certain baseline throughout the year so that it’s no so intense.”

Harper says that his nutritional habits are basic, and that his go-to methods for leaning up are the tried and tested principles of increasing protein intake while reducing carbs. “I taper off how much I eat, during the course of the day, so that by the end of the day I’m not shoveling a bunch of food in my mouth,” he says. “I generally try to stay away from simple carbs, but because I do work out, you need [some carbs in your system] to use, in order to get through the workout, build a little muscle, and maybe just have the energy to actually get your body to do things. So, I go lower carb, but I just don’t go in the ‘basement’ where I’m strict about eating zero bread or zero gains.”

William Jackson Harper gets serious

Several weeks out from a scene that requires Harper to take his shirt off, the actor begins to tighten the control on what he is consuming. “I really do ramp up the protein intake,” he says. “I try to keep [meals] to lean proteins and vegetables, for the time that I’m shooting, and usually for a solid month to a month-and-a-half, upwards to 2 months before, because I also know that once I am shooting, the diet stuff gets a lot harder to maintain. And also, the workouts get a little harder to maintain.”

Harper says that it’s all about balance. He loves to work out and throws cardio into the mix in order to help him stay on track with his fitness goals. He also tracks his macros by using Snap Kitchen to make sure that he is getting the right amount of nutrients. The readymade menus are also convenient for Harper when shooting long hours, taking the hassle out of designing and preparing healthy meals. As for the gym, the actor makes five to six visits per week. “I usually do cardio two to three times per week, where I’ll run somewhere between 3 and 5 miles,” he says. “I weight train three to four times per week.” Harper splits his workout days, focusing on different body parts. He also likes to use his own bodyweight as part of his overall fitness regimen, so situps and pushups are staples.

Harper uses physical form as art

Just as Harper studied the craft of conveying emotion to be an effective actor, he’s also aware that the physical form that he takes up on-screen is essential to his portrayal of each role that he takes on. When he’s pushing himself to find a particular aesthetic, Harper calls on his long-time personal trainer, Anwar Carrol. Harper isn’t looking to be the next Incredible Hulk, but many fans have been calling for him to play Superman. “I just follow [Anwar’s] advice,” says Harper. “He really pushes me. He’s great and I love working with him.”

The actor is appreciative that his job requires him to stay in shape, because he enjoys the benefits of feeling healthy and energized. As for his more intimate scenes, Harper is aware that putting on an authentic performance means stepping out of his comfort zone. “Yeah, it’s embarrassing and challenging,” he laughs. “I hate taking my shirt off! I hate it, ha! But, you know, there is a certain pride that you get out of facing the stuff that you are afraid of.”





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