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William Jackson Harper Never Thought He'd Get to Play Chidi in ‘The Good Place’

Harper says Hollywood still doesn’t cast dark-skinned actors like himself in leading romantic roles.

by Noel Ransome
Jan 17 2019, 6:12pm

Left image courtesy of William Jackson Harper, (right) via NBC.  

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

William Jackson Harper can’t help but admit his neuroticism. “Even as I’m talking to you on the phone, my armpits are getting damp,” he says as I gag on a mug. “That’s the stuff I’m thinking about more often.” It’s here where I feel one with Harper, even as the joke lingers. Both of us want to run away from the interview for safer comforts, and it’s largely what makes Chidi Anagonye a household name on The Good Place—a nervousness you can touch.

Throughout the three seasons of the philosophical comedy, its managed to achieve the inconceivable. Showrunner Michael Schur (The Office and Parks and Recreation) has translated the absurdity of the afterlife into a surprisingly high-brow mishmash of morality debates and jokes. The show began with extremely lovable people trying to become good enough to make it to some absurdist idea of heaven and turned into discussions around what drives integrity.

In the case of Chidi, the highly indecisive philosophy professor was just one of many at the center of this; whose rigid views added basic explanations for complex concepts. What’s really funny though is the William Jackson Harper who really isn’t all that different from our man Chidi.

It turns out the Broadway star of over a decade had no intentions of continuing acting before landing on The Good Place. He admits to dealing with his freak outs in perhaps not so healthy ways. And speaking over the telephone only weeks after his first late-night interview, and first Critics Choice nomination, we spoke about it all, including the afterlife, philosophy, and all the things that will make him far more neurotic by the time our conversation is over.

VICE: You’re doing a lot of firsts: first late night appearance, award show, being humbled my Taylor Swift. How are you handling all this?
William Jackson Harper: Man, It's one day at a time for me. It's like, if I think about it too much I'll freak out so I'm just trying to chill and take it in. It's very atypical.

That’s the kind of stuff that will make a person neurotic. And what do ya know, you’ve been playing one for three years. How do you compare to Chidi?
Well, I’m pretty neurotic and indecisive to start. But I think that Chidi actually talks about it, whereas I don’t as much. I just sort of go into a weird catatonic state and disappear when I’m feeling particularly freaked out. We just have very different ways of dealing with it. He also has the benefit of being super extroverted and I’m a little bit more introverted on that front.

So what has The Good Place done for you? Because unless I’m wrong, you considered being done with acting before this role.
Like you said, I was definitely considering a transition out of acting before this show came along. I had no idea what I was going to do. But I knew that I needed something resembling, I don’t know, stability? [laughs]. This show was honestly a lifeline. It was exactly what I needed at the exact right moment. It’s also kind of nice to know where your next month’s rent is going to come from. As an artist, that’s never a given and it helps to not be panicked all the time. I think a lot of struggling actors live in a state of constant worry and anxiety about how they’re going to make it over the next several months or weeks. It’s just nice to have stability for once in my career.

So it came down to the demands of the profession?
Pretty much. I mean I love acting and creating. But I was 36 years old and it was becoming a week to week, pay check to pay check thing. The baseline thought was, will I make it to the next month? That’s a question that ran through my mind every day of my life like a recurring theme. I needed something to change because it was too long of a life to live in that sort of constant anxiety-ridden, anxious space.

And you didn’t think you’d even get the role. What were you thinking at the time?
The same sort of things that any actor thinks about when they believe they can’t get the part. Maybe you’re not good looking enough. I know plenty of dudes on TV that are just way better looking, way funnier, and way more talented [laughs]. It just never seemed like it was the kind of job that I would ever have access to. It’s one of those things I kept telling myself over the years even when I wanted it. Every actor is used to hearing no and you come to expect it. So when you finally don’t hear no, that become the anomaly [laughs]. You know, there’s a million people auditioning for these roles and all of them are good at their jobs. They’re professionals, they’re smart, talented, and it’s a rolling of the dice to see if you could be the one to hit the lottery. At that point, it becomes a matter of luck because everyone in your bracket has just as much skill and that makes them just as deserving.

But you also mentioned that you never thought you’d land the role because your character was set to have a relationship with Eleanor (Kristen Bell).
I came down to that conclusion based on what I had seen in Hollywood before. With the guys that look like me, dark-skinned, and who also sit on the left center of the looks department, they aren’t exactly penned as romantic leads worthy of landing on a network TV show. Even today, I still haven’t seen someone like me in a role like this. And I couldn’t at the time understand why I would be any more special. That definitely factored into my beliefs. Obviously, when it comes to the creators of The Good Place, I don’t think it’s a thing that sits at the front and center of their minds. That... well we need to make sure that this guy is light-skinned, or a typical Hollywood type. That’s not how they think. But it’s how I thought because well, I hadn’t seen it so why would I ever get the chance over someone that could.

The thing I love about our show, and what I love about the rendering of interracial relationships, is that it’s not what’s at the heart of this show or our relationship. Race is secondary to the fact that we’re dealing with issues of life, death, eternity, and morality. It’s really important to just see that and not have it be like, hey look... we’re doing something interesting by having diversity at the heart of this show. I’ve instead found a reward in something that looks to normalize it. I think it’s important to do that.

Well I’ve been writing about diversity in Hollywood for some time. And this is one of the few shows that continues to make it feel normalized. As far as your viewpoint, what do think Hollywood can learn from The Good Place ?
I think it’s great to embrace it. Let me say it like this, it’s worthwhile to not consider white as the default setting for everyone. And I think if you look at the world through the casting of The Good Place, there’s a lot of different people, but again, race is not necessarily the most salient thing about any character on the show. It’s a part of who they are and it should not be erased. It should be addressed in some way, sure, but most of us don’t just walk around talking about how, like in my case, what it’s like being black. We don’t just publicize that you know? [laughs] I’m more thinking about the fact that my name is Will, and I’m a neurotic nut, and even as I’m talking to you on the phone, my armpits are getting damp [laughs]. That’s the stuff I’m thinking about more often. I think it’s a matter of being open to the idea that the default doesn’t necessarily have to mean white.

It’s such a fun but consistently stimulating show to watch. The episode "Janet(s)" being one of my favorites. As things get crazier, what’s it like to take on a script that's both humorous, but challengingly philosophical?
There’s something undercoating all the humor right? There’s a thing that grounds it. Something that we’re actually trying to do which is improving as people and also save our mortal souls. I feel like honestly, the fact that there are all these moral philosophy and sci-fi fantasy elements helps give us some real stakes and circumstances when playing out some of these scenes. In a way, it almost makes it easier because it’s like, you know what you’re trying to do and you know what you’re trying to get when you head into a scene. It’s not just about trying to sell a joke. There’s a long narrative that’s actually carrying us through as an actor. And that’s a real blessing when you have something you’re actually invested in. It’s not just silly comedy that you can see coming a mile away. It’s wildly unexpected and a great way to stay ahead of the audience. When you invest into that sort of aspect, it just makes you want to do the best work you possibly can because you know you’ve been given a really great script and there’s absolutely no reason why it can’t work.

Were you invested into philosophy before the show?
No. Not at all [laughs]. I mastered some philosophy courses in college and they pretty much just vanished from my brain. But this show did sort of wake up some of those old ideas that I had buried somewhere. And maybe forced me to think about where I would come down on a lot of these topics and issues.

Like what exactly?
Actually, particularism and relativism. I feel like those two things are specifically me. I don’t believe there are universal laws for what’s right and wrong. It just depends on the situation. The show deals with that and it sort of picks those ideas apart in ways that re really interesting to have rendered. That’s all me. And that’s sort of how I think. The fact that someone has really done a deep dive in a way that I could never begin to do, is crazy interesting.

Given that you don’t apply particular rules to morality. Where do you stand as far as your views on what it means to be a bad person?
I think that... and this is a very, very small sort of definition, but honestly, if you’re enforcing your will on someone else purely for your own gain, I think that you’re not really flirting with anything good at that point. I said this before and I feel like there’s a lot more nuance there because obviously, if you’re a parent and you’re trying to keep your kid alive, you have to enforce your will and tell them exactly what to do to stay alive. What really makes me angriest, and what I feel is the most readily recognizable definition of evil is the exploitation of other people. I feel like that’s the catchall for any kind of bad behavior.

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Chidi going through an existential crisis. Image courtesy of NBC

As far as growth with your character. I love the dynamic between Chidi and Eleanor, and how that’s progressing. How has it been to see your character do these out of character things in season 3?
It’s great. Character growth is always fun. Especially this season for me in the “Jeremy Bearemy” episode where my character goes off the rails. For me, that sort of gonzo, crazy humor is my favorite thing to do. Sure, I love just about everything I do on this show, but I think that in particular, it’s the random stuff that kind of makes no sense that makes me exceedingly excited. Seeing Chidi root his responses to the world in how he can help is friends is a growth I absolutely love. It’s not just him growing into a more discerning person. It’s in all of his decisions and everything he’s doing that revolves around his friends. Making your life about other people sits as pretty noble, and it’s something that Chidi is starting to do more often as opposed to the rigidity of Chidi doing good as an answer to what’s defined as right, as opposed to doing right for the sake of it.

I've got to ask, what was with you teaching Ted Danson the floss dance ?
He wanted to know. And I've got to leave it there for right now [laughs].

Fair explanation. The Good Place obviously deals with versions of the afterlife. What’s your own belief system in those dimensions?
I’m open to the possibility. I feel like in quantum physics, the rules of our visible world don’t apply. I imagine that if we just go one level up from us, the rules of our physical world also don’t apply to whatever realm that is. Maybe that’s me not making any sense [laughs], but I do wonder about it. I’m open to the idea that I don’t think there’s a way we can quantify those realities with our brains.

If you don’t mind me asking: I know you had a religious background. What made you agnostic?
Honestly, college. College does a lot of people in on that front. I took a few religion courses and saw so many similarities across different religious traditions. It seemed like there was one common thread, like in the instance of explaining creation and how we got here. There are so many thematic similarities between different religions. Like, if we were talking about the beginning, that can either be like... so either something happened and everyone witnessed the same thing on earth, or people are borrowing from each other’s stories and using it to explain the world around them. I haven’t decided which one it is for me, so that’s what pushed me to agnosticism a little bit more. Because it was like, okay, both of these could be true, I just don’t have the answer, but I certainly have way more questions.

So what can you say about the last couple of episodes we’re about to see? Or at least what you’re excited for fans to see.
The next couple of episodes are really special to me, so I’m going to play it close to the vest on those. But as a unit, the humans along with Michael and Janet, we’ve all become so very important to each other. It’s evidenced through this season. We’ve all bonded and that bond will only continue to grow. I think I want to leave it there because I really want people to take in the last few with a blind eye. It’s going to be really special.

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