Interview Television

William Jackson Harper is Taking ‘The Good Place’ With Him

At some point within the Jeremy Bearimy, I eventually lost count of how many people I told about The Good Place after the first season aired. I caught it over the hiatus before season two and couldn’t stop telling people about it. That season one twist and (subsequent) cliffhanger were my bread and butter. Just three years later, one of the best shows on TV is coming to a speedy end (reveling in brevity like Deirdre and Margaret but with fewer years and far more episodes). 

The Good Place - Season 4
THE GOOD PLACE — Season: 4 — Pictured: (l-r) Manny Jacinto as Jason, Ted Danson as Michael, Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop, William Jackson Harper as Chidi, D’Arcy Carden as Janet, Jameela Jamil as Tahani — (Photo by: Andrew Eccles/NBC)

Beyond the way it wittily mixed toilet humor and Ph.D.-grade philosophy with ease and equal measure, The Good Place had a cast of characters nearly anyone could relate to — even if you didn’t want to admit it. Selfish Eleanor, impulsive and dim-witted but earnest Jason, vaunter Tahani (I Thesaurus’d that word and felt it fit her character perfectly: annoyingly overdramatic), and the smart but constantly faltering Chidi made up our “Team Cockroach.” For me, Chidi (paired with a healthy splash of Janet) represented a big part of myself. It’s still a rare kind of character on TV — insecure, indecisive, heavily anxious, over-thinking, but still kind and nerdy and well-liked and not made fun of for those traits. And all while being Black. Anxiety in Black characters is still far from represented in film and TV. (But Chidi and Randall Pearson from This is Us have been a perfect Thursday night duo for the Black and Anxious in the past few years.) As an anxious, indecisive, Enneagram Nine, Hufflepuff, this show found its way to one of the perfect grooves in my heart where I felt really seen.

William Jackson Harper says the same is true for him. The Nerds of Color got to speak with the actor behind Chidi, who instills him with such warmth and solidness, even in his constant wavering. Harper shared his own tendencies towards anxiety, but also how he and Chidi express them differently, the shift to the Amazon Video adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, and whether or not he’d do a romantic comedy. (If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’ve been campaigning for this real hard.) Check out our conversation below.    

The Good Place - Season 4
THE GOOD PLACE — “A Chip Driver Mystery” Episode 406 — Pictured: (l-r) Manny Jacinto as Jason, Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop, Jameela Jamil as Tahani Al-Jamil, William Jackson Harper as Chidi Anagonye, Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Simone Garnett — (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

Chidi, in these last few episodes, has gone through a lot of personality adjustments as he deals with varying levels of information/knowledge about his experiences from the past four seasons. How has that been to play?

It was a lot of fun. Playing one character for four years is the longest I’ve gone with a single character, so each shift was a lot of fun. And it was also a challenge. Because you get into a groove and there’s a certain way in which the writers’ room has written towards our strengths and our particular renderings of these characters. So mixing it up was awesome and also maddening at times.

Especially when you have to do it on roller skates, right?

I don’t know who told them I was good on anything that was unstable. I can’t skateboard, and on rollerskates, I feel like a duck on a bike.

What can you tell me about Chidi’s overall journey this final season? 

The journey that Chidi is on is really — Everyone’s on the same journey at this point. We are in the business of rewriting existence for all of humanity. That is the point. For once, I feel like we’re on the same page in a way that we necessarily haven’t been quite in the season’s previous. Not to say that we never were, but now everyone is on the mission together and we know exactly what’s at stake. That’s actually a lot of fun. 

So many people relate to Chidi, how do you think this character growth speaks to those who connect with him on that intense anxious level?

I’ve never been diagnosed with any kind of anxiety disorder, but I am an anxious person. And it is something that I deal with and something that I thought everyone dealt with it but everyone was just a little bit better at it than me. There’s something about seeing Chidi’s indecision and seeing how paralyzed he can become with the simplest things, which makes me feel very seen and understood. Honestly, hearing that other people relate to Chidi in that way is really sort of therapeutic for me to know that I’m not the only one who can’t decide how I am going to feel that day. Like when I make plans in the future, I’m not sure if I’m going to make them because I don’t know if I’m going to be in the right headspace to deal with people that day. And I feel like Chidi is that kind of guy. And to know that other people look at him that way too, it’s like ‘wow, that’s comforting.’

The Good Place - Season 4
THE GOOD PLACE — “A Chip Driver Mystery” Episode 406 — Pictured: (l-r) Manny Jacinto as Jason, William Jackson Harper as Chidi Anagonye — (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

How do you tap into that anxiety as an actor? What did you do to prepare for Chidi?

Chidi is sort of the externalization of my inner monologue. And so in a lot of ways, it’s really not that hard to go in and get to those more neurotic aspects. And I think that he’s more enthusiastic and he’s more verbal than I am. He will walk people through what’s locking him up and paralyzing him, more than I will. Because when I get particularly paralyzed or anxious, I actually get very quiet and go away. It’s not a lot to go and get that guy, but we do manifest our feelings in very, very different ways.

With the show ending, what do you think you’ve taken away most from this role?

The cash! But beyond that, it’s working with this group of people. They’ve all taught me something about what it is to be kind and that it’s not necessarily naive to want to do something just because it’s the right thing to do. It’s nice to work with people and be around people that are optimistic and lead with optimism and also lead with their hearts. It’s been really, really wonderful. And that’s something I’ll carry forward and hopefully, on the next thing that I work on, I can be that person too. Because I don’t want to be the guy that’s bringing in the cynicism and the darkness and pessimism all the time. I wanna [be that optimism] for other people going forward. 

Is there anything about these final few episodes that you can talk about?

Nope. I could try to talk about it, but I’d just wind up talking in circles and you won’t be able to use any of it. 

I know you’re currently working on Underground Railroad (an adaptation of the novel by Colson Whitehead heading to Amazon), is there anything about that you can share?

I can’t say anything about the story itself, though the book is out there and I would urge anyone who hasn’t read it to read it. It’s a complete 180 from Chidi. I love being challenged by material like this. It’s a limited series, it’s something where — on The Good Place, people write towards our strengths and towards our cadence. This is a very specific vernacular and it’s a very specific world and so it calls upon me to really put in some honest work as an actor. I’m really hoping that I’m up to the challenge. And that I’m doing my bit to make this beautiful script sing as well as it should and as well as it deserves.

The Good Place - Season 4
THE GOOD PLACE — “The Answer” Episode 409 — Pictured: (l-r) Kristen Bell as Eleanor, William Jackson Harper as Chidi — (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

What is your dream role you would like to play? I personally have been advocating for you to be in a romcom, or some sort of romantic movie, because you play romance so well on The Good Place. Is there a role or type of role you wish you could do?

You know, honestly, it’s so funny, I’m not a big fan of romcoms, I’m not hugely sentimental and sometimes it makes me very uncomfortable. I know it sounds weird, I know it might be sacrilege… But I’m open to it, especially if it’s weird or left of center, I’m into it. But honestly, I just want any chance that I get to explore a very new character, that’s what I want to do. I’ve been working on new plays in New York for most of my career, and so playing anything that’s been done before has never been something I’m interested in. I’m not interested in putting my twist on something that everyone’s seen. I want to make something brand new. See how it dialogues with the work that is out there already. At this point, I’m very open. I just want to try new, challenging stuff. 

The Good Place airs Thursdays at 8:30pm until the 90-minute finale January 30. 

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