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The second season of HBO Max’s Love Life introduced a major change, swapping out its hapless heroine Darby (Anna Kendrick) for Marcus Watkins, a “happily” married book editor played by Emmy-nominee William Jackson Harper. But the spirit of the show remained very much the same.
“It’s almost like each season is its own movie,” said Love Life creator and co-showrunner Sam Boyd over Zoom, joined by co-showrunners Bridget Bedard and Rachelle Williams-BenAry. “I personally think of season two as being like Evil Dead II, where the sequel is basically a remake, but better.”
While Boyd is quick to clarify that he is “very proud” of season one, he may be onto something. Season two of the HBO Max romantic comedy series has a 94% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while season one has 65%. And much of that credit goes to Harper, who plays Marcus as he goes through 10 different romantic chapters of his life, from the end of his marriage to a quickie threesome with unforeseen consequences and everything in between as he embarks on dating in NYC and figures himself out in the process.
Neurotic and grounded, bookish yet deceptively suave, Harper anchors the show and breathes new life into the revamped second season. Having made a name for himself on NBC’s The Good Place and captivated audiences in projects like Midsommar and The Underground Railroad, Harper became crucial to the entire endeavor of Love Life’s second season.
“Sam just kind of had a vision on the Will of it all,” said Bedard, “and was like, ‘we have to get him. We have to build it around him.’” Boyd agreed, citing the unusually high demands required of an actor tasked with leading a 10-episode series without any secondary stories to lighten the load. “I think most actors couldn’t be the lead of this show,” Boyd said. “I remember when his name came up and I was like, That’s the answer.”
After he was approached by Boyd, Harper binged the first season and found it to be surprisingly compelling, especially considering the fact he is, per his own words, “not a big romantic comedy consumer.” “I watched the first season and was like, This is a sneakily good show,” Harper told me over the phone. He recalled inviting Boyd over to his L.A. backyard for a round of mezcal-infused drinks (“They were very good,” Boyd remembers), and beginning the process of creating Marcus. Over the course of a few months, the pair came up with a document full of Marcus’s character traits which, Harper said, “changed pretty significantly” before they began shooting.
“[It was] an unusual situation where we were all building it together,” Boyd says, revealing that they cast Harper at the very beginning of the process, before a writers room, script, or even a general story arc had been assembled. “I think getting to collaborate with Will and having him in on the ground floor was really helpful.”
For Harper, though, becoming a romantic-comedy lead was not an automatic fit. “I’m not the most romantic person—like Will is not,” Harper clarified. “Any sort of displays of affection are always a little tough for me.” The show’s vulnerable, romantic scenes, he says, came with a fair bit of dread. “What’s the way to do it that’s not the way you expect to do it?” he had asked himself. “I’m just sort of emotionally a back-footed guy, so in those moments when Marcus is very emotionally front-footed that was always tough for me.”
But some of those scenes emerged as his favorites of the entire series. “I think there’s something special about the scene when Marcus and Mia first meet,” Harper says, referencing the meet-cute between his character and Jessica Williams’s Mia outside a bar during the pilot episode. “It was very early in the shooting—I think it was the first or second day—and we actually took quite a while to do it,” Harper said. “The cool thing about working with Sam and Bridget and Rachelle is that they aren’t just trying to get the scene and move along. They’re like, ‘Let’s play with it and let it breathe and do what it needs to do.’”