For Myha’la Herrold, booking the role of Harper Stern as a 2018 college graduate was the beginning in a long line of firsts. After nine months of auditioning, Herrold clinched her first television gig in HBO’s “Industry,” adapting her Carnegie Mellon training for the screen. At age 23, it was her first major job, first series regular role and first time leaving the U.S.
On the high-stakes British-American banking drama “Industry,” Herrold plays the confident and calculated Harper Stern. Hailing from Binghamton, New York, the Black female junior banker arrives at Pierpoint & Co., a prestigious and accurately toxic fictional investment bank in London, with a chip on her shoulder.
In Season 1, she and her fellow entry-level colleagues must survive Reduction In Force (RIF) Day and prove their value to the company or go home, which Harper has no intentions of doing. After lying about earning her degree and committing a heinous, costly error, Harper manages to wriggle out unscathed and solidify her place at Pierpoint.
“[Harper] was unlike any other Black woman that I had seen on a page, ever,” Herrold, now 26, said. “Whether or not you like it, this is an exciting thing that I get the privilege to be a part of, and what’s intimidating is whether or not people will respond to that.”
Excited as Herrold was to dig into the enigma that is Harper, she felt the weight of her role. A television newcomer and the lead of the series, Herrold was tasked with carrying “Industry” on her shoulders along with a cast of other 20-somethings. Much like her character, she doesn’t crack under pressure. In Herrold’s words, Harper “doubles down and kicks it into third gear.” What attracted Herrold to the script was an “opportunity to open up this conversation about representation.”
“I wanted to do it justice. The script was so good that I wanted to make my writers proud,” she continued. “I wanted to make myself proud. All of those things were weighing on me. Then, of course, I was the only American, young, Black woman. I was very much afraid that British people were going to be like, ‘She’s too loud.’”
However, as the second season of HBO’s “Industry” premieres on Monday, it is increasingly clear that Herrold is the perfect person for the job.
Rife with drugs, sex and competition, the workplace drama tackles whether Harper and her young colleagues can retain their humanity as they meander through a soul-altering institution. For the young Machiavellian go-getter, it means achieving success by any means necessary. Although Herrold admits that she and Harper are both ambitious people, what work looks like and means to each of them is different.
“Hard work, to me, is not necessarily lying in silos and double-crossing. I don’t do any of those things,” noted Herrold. “We strive for excellence. We’re not afraid to do what must be done. It’s just the circumstances that are different. If she wants to get a client on side, she might lie to this one and lie to that one, make a trade that’s backwards that ends up screwing the entire bank, whereas I might just approach the person and ask them.”
Upon reading the script, Herrold still felt seen by Harper’s arc in some regards. No matter how vile Harper can be on occasion, she felt honored and lucky to portray this character on-screen. Growing up biracial in a predominantly white community, Herrold recalled a familiar “otherness,” akin to how Harper feels on her personal and professional journey to and through Pierpoint.
“I’m mixed and I grew up in a predominantly white community. I’m queer, and I’m an actor. There’s a lot of boxes I check, and no box that I really fit in,” Herrold said. “I have felt pretty estranged from my otherness for most of my life. Seeing a Black woman who’s like, ‘I’m Black, and I do all these other things that some people would say, “That’s not very Black of you,”’ that made me feel very seen.”
The biggest chasm between Harper and Herrold is that socially, Harper does not see the value in social etiquette and maintaining good relationships. As described by Herrold, it’s Harper versus everybody. Harper does not possess an ounce of trust in anyone. Yet Herrold, whose astrological chart consists of an Aries sun, Scorpio moon and reluctant Aquarius rising, believes that people are inherently good.
“I’m not interested in burning any bridges, and Harper’s not afraid to do that. We’re sort of on two very stark ends of the spectrum. Mine might be a little more naive than hers is. In a lot of ways, I guess I’ve learned some things from her in that respect. But I think that’s the biggest difference is I trust that good will prevail. I’m a Gryffindor, and Harper’s very much a Slytherin,” she said, laughing.
But sometimes, burned bridges light the way. In Season 1, after a female client sexually assaults her, Harper reports the incident to a white female line manager named Daria, who gaslights her. (When Harper asks whether Daria would vouch for her on RIF Day, Daria tells her she’s not a “cultural fit” for the environment.) While her capricious and abusive managing director Eric, an Asian American man, is no saint, Harper is critically aware of her positioning in the company; she protects him on RIF Day and ultimately, boots Daria out of the company.
Therein lies Harper’s allure: She’s a quick-witted, complex, doggedly determined, young Black woman navigating a corporate space with no interest in being the bigger person — and she will never apologize for it. She knows that in an institution such as Pierpoint, camaraderie is a facade.
“Who’s the bigger person?” asked Herrold. “There’s not anybody looking out for me. I better be the bigger person for me.”
After depicting Harper in Season 1, Herrold received an abundance of appreciative messages from Black fans and viewers. She felt pleased and honored to convey those lived experiences.
“They appreciated that they saw a real human being with as many flaws as they did positive attributes,” she said. “That was really fulfilling to me, and I felt like I’d done a good job in the sense that I brought a real person to the screen, who was relatable, in some ways, and maybe the most relatable thing about her is that she’s not any sort of archetypal Black female character on-screen. Coming into Season 2, it’s going to be a fight, tooth and nail.”
While audiences may have rooted for her in Season 1, Herrold hints that Season 2 may test her fans’ love for her. She recalled fans tweeting that Harper did what needed to be done, but Herrold questions the notion: “Did she do what she needed to do? I don’t know. Was it very much a Harper thing? Absolutely.” The difference between Season 1 and 2, said Herrold, is that now Harper has more confidence in her savvy scheming.
“In Season 2, you learn not much, but a little bit more about her history, which can act as a justification for why she is so desperate to solidify her place in this bank, but really in London,” she said. “Her ultimate goal all along throughout the first season, and in Season 2, is not having to go back to whatever it was that she’s running away from. I was watching Season 2, as well, and I was like, ‘I don’t know how many people are going to root for her.’ Because there’s only so much a person can do until it catches up with you, and she’s not an exception to that rule.”
Herrold is excited to see how fans and foes may feel by the end of Season 2. Whether this is the beginning or the next chapter of Harper Stern’s villain era is unclear, but Herrold said that her character is “one of the savviest villains, for sure.”
“Maybe Harper’s obsession with her own self-gain is true enough in her mind that this is what must be done, that this is a good thing. This is the only way I’m going to get what I need,” she continued. “But the thing that’s weirdly charming about Harper is that she double-crosses everyone in the next play and ends up trying to get whoever she needs on side, even people that she double-crossed. Somehow, she still manages to get them to do what she needs them to do.”
In depicting Harper, Herrold wants to continue to create art that sparks conversation. One day, Herrold hopes to return to the stage, but it’ll have to be the right time, place and project, she said. From living alone in Wales for six months to film to starring in her first movie, A24’s horror flick “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” the California native’s journey is only getting started. Right now, she’s on life’s metaphorical trading floor, making deals with the devil and pushing her luck as Harper Stern.
“I completely understand how she got here. Whether I disagree or agree or I think it’s morally correct is besides the point because you know exactly why she’s done what she’s done. I’ve said this so many times and I will continue to say it: All I care about is if Black Twitter likes me,” said Herrold, laughing. “As long as I don’t get my shit revoked, I’ll be good.”
“Industry” Season 2 premieres Monday, Aug. 1.