Lunch with William Jackson Harper of ‘The Good Place’

Last week, The Nerds of Color was invited to join other journalists for a special intimate lunch with William Jackson Harper, one of the stars of the hit NBC comedy The Good Place. Now in its fourth and final season, Harper — who plays Chidi Anagonye, the ethical and moral center of Team Cockroach, aka The Soul Squad — took time out to reflect on the opportunity to be part of a special show and the differences between making television and film.

The Good Place entered the Fall 2019 season knowing it would be its last. And Harper was conflicted about going into the final season. “It’s like I’m of two minds,” he said. “A.) I don’t want to be out of a job. But B.) you know our show is not gonna jump the shark because we’re getting out.”

Because so many fans came to the show via streaming, he isn’t worried about the end of the show either. “Because of Netflix and Hulu and all that stuff, just because the show’s ending doesn’t mean it’s going away, that you’ll never see it again,” Harper reflected. “And so it really, at this point, I think it pays to go ahead and tell the story that you want to tell and get out. So it’ll be like this great little piece of art that exists, and that’s, that’s great.”

The thing about a high concept show like The Good Place, it was always going to be difficult to sustain all of the twists and turns that the show is known for. Even Harper was doubtful when he auditioned for the role. “When I first got the job and they’ve walked me through what was the actual premise of the show, I was like, ‘okay, cool; that sounds like fun,'” he remembered. “And I read the pilot episode, and I’m like, ‘this sounds great, but how long can we deal with foibles in heaven?’ You know, like, yeah, like how long can that, how long can you run that?”

Harper continued: “So I was thinking like, okay, well get a season out of this. It’ll be weird. And a lot of weird stuff will happen and there will be fans who will be like, ‘Oh, this is such a weird season of TV’ and now it’s done.”

That memorable first season of The Good Place — and its unpredictable cliffhanger of an ending — was exciting for Harper and his fellow cast-mates to experience. “But then when we got to the end of season one and then they told us what the twist was going to be, I was like, ‘oh, [the writers have] written [them]selves into a crazy corner that it’s going to be super fun to write their way out of it.”

Not only did they write their way out, the network has been fully behind the production ever since, giving the show prominent billing at events like Comic-Con. “When I first got the job I thought we’ll get a season where we get to do whatever we want,” said Harper. “And then NBC will be like, ‘you guys play too much, stop it’ and, and then like kick us off the air. But then, you know, they didn’t.”

Famously, most of the cast was kept in the dark about the season one ending twist. In the video above, you see showrunner Mike Schur read the final scene and see the genuine first reactions from the rest of the cast — Harper, alongside Jameela Jamil, D’Arcy Carden, Manny Jacinto. He was able to walk us through that whole thing.

“Mike told Ted [Danson] and Kristen [Bell] what was going on, but he didn’t tell us,” Harper recalled. “Because it was like he needed to sell [Ted and Kristen] on the show [so] they needed to know every time what was going on.” But what did it feel like to not know what was going on? “I think [Mike] even had the conversation with himself, like how ethical is it to keep these actors in the dark?”

Fortunately, being kept in the dark actually helped everyone’s performances. After getting nearer to filming the finale, the rest of the cast was finally clued in. “In the end I was okay with not knowing because it just allows for, you know,” recalls Harper. “There’s a chance that you could start to get cute with your choices and sort of like tip your hands a little too much. And so as an actor it’s a lot better that I didn’t know because Chidi didn’t know.”

Of course, throughout the last three seasons of The Good Place, all of the characters are set and reset dozens, if not hundreds of times. Fortunately for William Jackson Harper, this allowed him to understand his character and appreciate the writing of the show. “There’s like the core of the character of Chidi, which pretty much stays the same,” he said. “You just throw him in different situations… I think the other part of it is that I attribute this to the writing. It’s not too hard to go back and be Chidi after taking a year off… because the character’s so specifically written.”

Last summer, Harper stepped out of The Good Place and took a featured role in the buzzy horror movie, Midsommar. Though Josh was quite different from Chidi, Harper tried to pull on some of the similarities as well. “There’s aspects of that character of Josh which is actually closer to who I can be at times, which is a little bit more prickly,” he said. “I’m definitely not as sweet [as Chidi], you know?”

Not only is Josh less sweet than Chidi, his character in Midsommar had to react to much different situations. “You’ve got to be open to whatever happens,” Harper recalls. “It’s got to surprise you, so if there’s any moment where I’m like starting to play the idea of being in a scary situation, it’s corny, and then you undercut all of the surprise in the movie.”

“I think like for that role in particular, it was just sort of going in as open as I could,” he continued, “which is sort of a very different persona, just being a little bit more of a pricklier version of me and then allowing all the crazy to happen.”

Harper also noticed a very different type of feel on a movie set as opposed to how television is made. “They really take their time in film like really, really take their time,” he said. “On The Good Place, we move so fast.”

That said, Harper’s experience on The Good Place might not be typical for most in Hollywood. “I guess like I got spoiled on The Good Place because it’s actually a good TV show and it’s funny without being too corny and it has a little bite to it,” he said. “And it’s also a long narrative so there are aspects of it that feel sort of like a film. Like, if you watched a whole season, it’s like three and a half hours of chapters, you know, and it all makes one big thing.”

Being on such a great set, Harper talked about some of the best practices he would like to take from The Good Place and bring to his next film project. “There’s a tone set on The Good Place, which is just like strictly no assholes. Everybody show up on time, know your lines, and like just be as present and honest as you can all the time and bring your A-games all the time.”

He continued: “Everyone’s like super empowered and professional and really, really friendly. And so if there’s anything that I want to take to whatever set I go to, it’s that attitude.”

On television sets, it’s easier to build a rapport because the cast and crew spends so much time together, as opposed to moving on from film to film where every dynamic is different and you have to adjust yourself to different environments. Sometimes people on sets can be bottomless pits of need a lot of the time. So how does Harper stay true to who he is as an actor?

“I mean look, there’s a call sheet with a number next to your name and then that that sort of corresponds with the power that you have on set as an actor. And so if you’re number one, two, or three, people sort of look to you to set a tone,” he said. “If you’re #25, which I have been often, you’re nice and you do your job.”

Taking that attitude to future projects, Harper reflected on what it was like working on The Good Place the last four years. “It is my hope that the next time I have one of those things where I’m there every day, to just sort of be like, this is how we’re going to behave. This is how we’re going to be with each other when we’re at work,”  he said. “Because otherwise it’s just gonna suck to come to work. And on The Good Place, it never suck to go to work. Ever.”