William Jackson Harper is certainly no stranger to complex relationship stories, whether they are set in elevated worlds (afterlife comedy The Good Place) or our own world (We Broke Up, Love Life). But his latest project, Peacock's The Resort from creator Andy Siara, takes complex to a new level.
The show follows Harper's Noah and Cristin Milioti's Emma, a married couple "celebrating" their 10-year wedding anniversary on vacation when they get caught up in trying to uncover the truth about two college-aged kids who went missing from the same location 15 years earlier. The show doesn't just mix rom-com and mystery elements, though; if you know Siara from Palm Springs, you know to expect even more genre-bending as the story unfolds.
The key to playing any stage of a romantic relationship, no matter the setting, Harper knows, is keeping it grounded.
When we meet Emma and Noah on their anniversary trip, it is very clear that she is unhappy, but he seems more content, despite having experienced hardships in their shared past and not being oblivious to his wife's own unhappiness. This is because, according to Harper, "he's in a place where he's reached his allotment of happiness. He's gotten what he's supposed to get out of his life, and even if he's not necessarily 100-percent satisfied with where it is, and where his relationship is and all that stuff, it's OK; it could be a hell of a lot worse."
Harper admits that Noah is "pushing some things down" but "he is comfortable in this relationship, as well, even if he's not necessarily happy, and I feel like that's a place that a lot of relationships wind up in, especially over the course of a decade or longer."
Yet, things begin to shift when Emma confides in her husband that she found the long-lost flip phone of Sam (Skyler Gisondo), who disappeared the day before a hurricane tore apart the resort that decade and a half earlier. Noah's initial response is simple in words ("Oh"), but telling in inflection — a mix of surprise and delight.
"I think it's seeing the spark in Emma's eyes again," Harper says of Noah's reaction and subsequent willingness to follow her investigation. "They've been through some things together, they've grown together and grown apart in certain ways, and I think that Noah was very conscious of the light going out, so to speak. And so, when he sees her being very excited and front-footed about something and really sharing with him everything that she has — sharing what's going on in her brain — I feel like they haven't been in that place in a while, so I feel like he just want to he wants to keep that going."
"I feel like Emma, in that moment, feels the way she felt early in the relationship, and he misses that and wants to hold onto that for as long as he can, even if it means courting danger and is something he has no business getting involved in," he continues.
Here, Harper talks to Metacritic about filming The Resort on location in Puerto Rico, the tonal shifts that come with blending a relationship drama with a mystery that features some potential conspiracy and metaphysical elements, and creating a "lived in" relationship with Milioti.
The glamour of filming on location is often deceptive, especially for a project like The Resort, which starts out at a beautiful place but is more focused on exploring the wilderness and a hurricane-hit hotel. How much were you actually using real locations, versus sets built on a soundstage, and how did that affect your experience on the show?
We were mostly at a real resort, on location in some way. We did very little soundstage work; I want to say [there] we maybe did three days. And the resort that they used for both timelines was a resort that was damaged in Hurricane Maria. They took it over and spruced it up for certain parts of the timeline and then destroyed it for other parts of the timeline. But actually, that design really helped us stay in character because you go into an entire world; you're not getting a corner of a wall and behind you is a bunch of flats and stuff like that. We were really in a place that was decrepit and dilapidated, and there's real stuff on the floor, and it does smell weird, and that stuff locks you in.
We spent a lot of time in the jungle, running around, being hot. I feel like we spent equal parts just dodging mosquitos and running down muddy hills. We spent most of the time roughing it. It felt like when I read it, I was like, "Oh OK well I guess we'll be spending a decent amount of time in these really comfortable places," and when we got down there we were decidedly not comfortable most of the time.
How much of the main draw of this project was the ability to explore this relationship versus the chance to play a citizen detective and embark on an adventure?
The main draw was the fact that, tonally, I could not tell exactly what this was. The tone shifts, and it's done very subtly, but sometimes it's a slapstick comedy, sometimes it's a mystery, sometimes it's a relationship drama, sometimes a black comedy. It goes back to comedy in a certain way, but I didn't really know how this was meant to be played. And I think that was an interesting challenge. Sitting down and talking with Andy about it, I realized that it's really more about just being open and available and trying things and there's room for all of it.
The fact that you have this couple that is in their late 30s, early 40s, and they're friends but the passion has gone away, that felt relatable to me. But I wasn't really looking for keeping the relationship stuff alive in terms of the kinds of projects that I choose. It was more that this guy felt very different from other characters I've played and in a lot of ways feels a bit closer to who I am as a person. He plays it close to the vest for the most part, and that was interesting.
If he's not saying much at times, did you want him to be equally close to the vest with expressions and mannerisms, or was there freedom to have him emote more, even if Emma wasn't paying attention to him?
I didn't really think about it consciously too much. There's moments where he's a little bit more poker faced and then there's moments where the camera will catch him and he's like, "What the hell is going on?" I tried a bunch of different things; we did the scenes so many different ways. I just do what I do and they put it together. It feels a little bit more human to be because sometimes you really just don't know what to say, you don't really have a reaction. I find myself confused by life often and then I'm just standing there, mouth agape, then just shuffling off and going to sit down and think about what I just saw.
There are some parallels between Emma and Noah's early days in their relationship, as we see in flashback, to Sam and Violet's, but Sam and Violet's journey plays out in much more detail on screen. Were there additional flashbacks to earlier years that you and Cristin shot that didn't make the cut? How did you fill in their backstory for yourselves?
We definitely talked about it. Cristin and I were just hanging out and we talked about, "What was their relationship like, before all of this happened and before we see them?" On the page it's pretty clear what's happening, but we're just a couple of chuckleheads; we're on set goofing off, having a great time together, and it feels like that energy of us just really liking each other and having a great time infused itself in the text. [They're] people who weren't necessary so connected or weren't seeing eye to eye [but] they don't hate each other, it's more complicated than that. As Cristin and Will, we like each other quite a bit, and so, that's an undercurrent of the tension that they have that I think makes it feel a little bit more lived in. You see why these people are together, but you also wonder why they're together.
And you do see them earlier. There's a couple of times where we pop back in time with them. But we don't really spend a lot of time with them in that place; we really deal with where they are right now.
Is there a moment you consider a turning point in motivation for Noah? He follows his wife's investigation because he loves her at first, but how personally invested does he end up getting?
I definitely have a pinpoint moment for myself, but I don't want to blow that for for the viewers. He definitely does have a turn, but I think he's a much more cautious person. He's laid back and Emma's a lot more reckless than he is and willing to take certain risks. So, even though he's deeply invested, there's a limit — there's a line he won't cross — and Emma doesn't have that line, which is an interesting conflict between the two of them.
How important was it to you to see Emma and Noah come through this experience together and get a happy ending, as reductive and cheesy as that might sound?
I don't necessarily need a happy ending. So many of the questions in the story get answered, and I think that when it comes to Noah, there's a lot of ambiguity in the relationship from beginning to the end. I don't want to blow anything, but that feels a little bit more real to me than just, "This is the definitive end." Life is going to go on, and I'm drawn to that; something about that feels right for the story. I think sometimes it's good to see the moment where things change, but I feel like, in this one, they're in the place that they're in, and they're still sorting things out, and there's still something about that which is really satisfying to me.
The Resort is
Get to know William Jackson Harper:
Perhaps best known for his role of Chidi Anagonye on The Good Place (Metascore: 82), Harper also recently received acclaim for his performances in Barry Jenkins' The Underground Railroad (92), the independent film We Broke Up (53), and Love Life Season 2, which has a season Metascore of 78. He also voices characters on Inside Job (67) and American Dad! (43).