The comedy gods have been smiling down on Ted Danson and Kristen Bell for some time, but it’s time to also cast a little heavenly light upon another star of The Good Place: William Jackson Harper. The 37-year-old actor shines as the voice of reason — and worry — on NBC’s afterlife comedy as well-intentioned ethics professor Chidi Anagonye. As you’ll see in this Q&A, Harper, a theater vet who previously starred in PBS’ reboot of The Electric Company, didn’t have to search far and wide to find inspiration for his character’s gastrointestinal distress and indecisiveness.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you build this character? Did you start with the glasses and stomach aches, and go from there?
WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: Those are actually my glasses — I mean, they give me a pair on set to wear so I don’t have to risk breaking my own…. A lot of that dude is me: being wildly indecisive, and trying to be a nice guy, and sometimes just messing that up. My girlfriend says to me all the time, “The stomach is the seat of anxiety,” so if you’re having a really hard time or are really anxious, a lot of people, including myself, get stomach aches. I try to use that as the spine.
Indecisiveness ultimately cost Chidi everything, including his life. What is the tiniest decision that you agonized over recently? Where and at what time to go to lunch two days ago. We spent a good hour and a half deciding whether we should go and eat food, or if we should stay and not. To talk about whether to eat food, which is just a human thing, is ridiculous. After an hour and a half of deliberation, we were like “Oh, well I guess now it’s time to eat, so maybe we should just do that.”
I’m actually trying to be a little bit more decisive because I live with that other thing so much and I’m like, “You know what? I really don’t want to think about this too much, let me just make a choice and move on.” Just because there’s not enough time in the day. Working on this character has actually made me a bit more decisive. Having conversation after conversation, it’s awful to subject people to that. So now I’m trying to go to the other extreme of “I don’t care, just do this, it’s fine.” Make quick decisions so I’m distancing myself from that old habit as far as I can. It’s employment as therapy.
I’m guessing that playing a moral philosopher is maybe not something you should enter into lightly. Who or what were the inspirations for you? Did you go down some philosophical wormholes, studying Plato, Artistole, T.M. Scanlon, and Kant?
Actually, once they told me that I was playing this professor of moral philosophy, I honestly wound up on Wikipedia, looking things up. The thing is, I took a couple of philosophy courses in college and it’s so in-depth and it’s complicated and there’s so many switchbacks of there’s this, but then also this might be true, and this might be true, but then if this is this, then this this — there’s like these endless questions once you start going down it, at least to me, I can’t tell which way is up. And so I go for the Cliffs Notes ideas of the things that we’re discovering in each script just so I can play the scene. We were trying to craft a joke last season, and they said, “I think philosophically we’re saying the wrong thing here. Here, everybody read this article and weigh in.” And I got through the entire thing and I was stumped. I was like, “You know, whatever you feel is right here I’m on board with. I don’t think any of you need to hear what I have to say about this.”
You’ve said you were close to quitting acting when this role came along. What kind of career would have pursued if you had?
I did a play — Placebo at Playwrights Horizon — and I said that this was going to be my last play. It was winter 2015, I had actually decided that I was going to come to L.A. for pilot season that year, and I had decided not to because this play came up in New York which is the kind of play that I always wanted to do at the kind of theater that I always wanted to do it at and the part that I always wanted. I was like, “Okay, if this going to be my last play, this is a good play to go out on. I think if I skip this one, I’ll be kicking myself.” And it was a great experience, and I loved every minute of it, but I went into it knowing that this was going to be my last play for awhile. I just couldn’t make ends meet. An off-Broadway actor, if they take home between $300 and $400 a week, that’s pretty good. And living in New York, that’s impossible. And I’d been doing that for years, and I was like, “There’s no way I can sustain myself for the rest of my life.” I wound up coming out here for pilot season in 2016. I guess I got to a point where I was starting to entertain the notion of teaching but honestly I had no idea what I was going to do. I knew I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing. It’s funny, because I had made my peace with not being an actor, and I was comfortable with it; it was starting to cost me, I was starting to be a nasty guy. I was just angry all the time and full of anxiety and it was really affecting my relationships. I was feeling better and I think that maybe that helped, the fact that I was so relaxed going into the audition and happy to be there and happy to be in the room because I’m just having a good time. It’s like, “Look, I’m on my way out anyway, let’s just have fun.” And I like to think that that helped.
We imagine that the cast is having deep, philosophical conversations at lunch and in between takes on the set. What’s the deepest chat you’ve had?
Trying to sculpt this one moment where we still get the joke but get across the philosophical concept was probably the deepest one that we had. Generally, a lot of the conversations turn to self-help and self-care and our personal flaws. [Laughs.] We actually have spent a lot of time getting to know each other and each other’s habits and things that we do that are unhealthy and things that we do that we are working on. For such a fun group of people — I love this cast — we’re all really open about what our habits are, and things that we need to improve. So we spend a lot of time unpacking that stuff. Or maybe I’m unpacking that on everybody else and they’re just sort of being unloaded on. [Laughs.]
What have you learned from acting with Ted Danson and Kristen Bell?
Kristen is so incredibly present and alive while being technically proficient. She knows how cameras work, what angle we’re getting when. She knows how to play certain things. I’m still learning from her because I come from theater…. Ted describes how a joke works and what makes certain things funny; he spreads out his hand, he points to different places on the palm and says, “That’s not funny, that’s not funny, but this is funny.” He seems so loose, so relaxed, but he’s trying to figure out exactly what thing is funny. If you land near it, it just doesn’t have the same impact. So I’ve started to ask myself that question as I’m working on a scene, spreading out my hand: “Is it funny? Is it funny? Is it funny?”
The good news is that Ted has helped your figure out how to get the best joke. The bad news is that people think you talk to your hand.
Yeah, that is a downside. When I do talk to my hand, people just think it’s a problem that I have, rather than a great piece of knowledge from one of the greatest comedic actors of our generation.
It’s a lot of fun to watch your reactions to pretty much anything Eleanor says. What are your tips to playing flummoxed and vexed?
Well, the first one is to just to listen. I mean, the things that are coming out of Eleanor’s mouth are just ridiculous, pretty much all of the time. Just actually listen to it and don’t take it for granted that this is just the reality and you’re used to people saying these crazy things — then it just makes your face do stuff, your body do stuff: “That can’t be right.” Just allowing yourself to be really caught off-guard and allowing that discomfort or confusion to manifest physically in whatever way and without filtering it. Sometimes what happens is completely non-usable, and other times it’s kind of cool and it works.
The most organic reaction to someone saying something ridiculous is just the fact that you can’t believe that you just heard it and then your mouth opens and just pausing because you’re like, how can I? I literally have no way of responding to what you just said. Sometimes the silence is the thing. And just allowing that confusion to do what it’s going to do, a furrowed brow. I never plan it out, it’s just like whatever happens, happens, and the director will give you something like, “Look, that thing that you just did with your face looks weird, don’t do that.”
NEXT: Harper breaks down the big twist and teases season 2