William Jackson Harper on Lessons from ‘The Good Place’ and Not Doing the Thing

"I really miss the snacks. We had good snacks."
William Jackson Harper
William Jackson Harper
Sela Shiloni

Six months after NBC’s “The Good Place” aired its finale, the Television Academy announced nominations for the 2020 Emmy Awards and, in the process, celebrated the series with six nods, including recognition for Outstanding Comedy Series, as well as a nomination — his first — for William Jackson Harper as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series.

By the time Harper was cast as Chidi Anagonye, the show’s anxious ethical expert and moral philosopher, the actor had been bouncing around Hollywood for nearly a decade, with guest appearances on “High Maintenance,” “Person of Interest,” as well a stint on “The Electric Company.” But with his casting on “The Good Place,” Harper was suddenly centerstage on a beloved new series from a cherished TV creator. It was enough to turn his life upside down. Theoretically.

See, Harper isn’t like Chidi. A far cry from his character’s overwhelming neuroticism, in a recent interview with IndieWire, the actor was refreshingly laid back; a guy excited about his Emmy nomination, grateful for his time spent on the show, but more than anything, appreciative of how much less worry his life has entailed since his big break.

“My life is pretty much the same in a lot of ways. It’s just nice to not be worried about next month all the time. That would be the most significant thing,” Harper said when asked how his life had changed since “The Good Place” began. “I didn’t realize how much worry I was carrying around all the time until I wasn’t worried about rent the next month.”

To hear Harper speak of the show suggests that everything fans might surmise of its creation, its cast, and its crew is accurate, and that his time spent on the series really did feel like existing in, if not the, then at least a good place.

“I really miss the snacks. We had good snacks,” he said, again exhibiting hugely relatable energy. “I miss just hanging out with the cast every day. We just had a great time. A lot of joking around, a lot of getting in trouble for joking around.”

THE GOOD PLACE -- "Don't Let the Good Life Pass You By" Episode 309 -- Pictured: (l-r) Marc Evan Jackson as Shawn, Tiya Sircar as Vicky, William Jackson Harper as Chidi, Jameela Jamil as Tahani, Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop -- (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC)
“The Good Place”Colleen Hayes/NBC

“And I just loved it. It was a very humane job in that the hours weren’t always crazy. You could have a life outside of it. We hung out outside of work. It was great,” he said. “This was my first time being on a show every single day. And I really miss that community.”

For Harper, the sense of community was something he’d never before found on television, given his guest stints, so to find that and then lose it serves as a very specific kind of loss.

“That’s the thing that I miss the most, just seeing them every day.”

Part of the reason he was so pleased to find a rapport with the cast of “The Good Place” is likely because of Harper’s extensive experience on the stage, where he’s co-starred alongside Cristin Milioti in “After The Blast” at Lincoln Center, as well as on Broadway in the Tony Award winning play “All The Way,” with Bryan Cranston.

“The thing about a play is that you’re going to work six days a week, and once the show’s in production, you’re doing eight shows a week,” he remarked. “And around all that time as a cast, you’re going out after the show, or you’re having a couple of beers and debriefing. You’re talking smack about the audience.”

William Jackson Harper, “The Good Place”NBC

And yet, for his next theater role, Harper will have none of those creature comforts. In early August, it was announced that he would star in Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Audible world premiere presentation of “Animals” by Stacy Osei-Kuffour (“Watchmen,” “PEN15”). It’s part of the first-ever complete theater season presented on Audible, an adjustment made in light of the ongoing global pandemic. When we spoke, rehearsals had only just begun.

“What’s going to be strange is when we start recording this thing, because we’re all over the country in different cities. We can’t just be there in real time and use our bodies, everything’s got to come out through our voices, which that’s a whole other skillset. I’ve done some audio books and some voiceover stuff here and there. And it’s tough for me,” he said.

“People that are really, really good at it, I don’t know how they manage to not sound like they’re just sitting in a room. They feel like they’re actually going through everything,” he said. “And so that’s something that I’ve got to work on. And that’s something that’s going to be a challenge for this one. Because the other thing about plays is that you’re just on that journey from beginning to end. You’re in a room with a bunch of other people, and you’re just going. You’re in charge of that experience for everybody. And that’s just not the way this is going to work.”

“So not being able to have shifts in body language tell the story, or a pause on stage is a very different thing from a pause in an audio play,” Harper said. “So that will be something to figure out. Because I want everything to sound intentional. And when you’re able to just watch bodies in space, every moment become something. When you’re just hearing the voices, you got to make all those little somethings, you got to translate them straight to your voice. And that’s different for me.”

THE GOOD PLACE -- "Everything is Great!" Episode 201 -- Pictured: (l-r) Kristen Bell as Eleanor, William Jackson Harper as Chidi, Ted Danson as Michael -- (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC)
Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Ted Danson, “The Good Place”Colleen Hayes/NBC

OK, so sometimes he can sound a little like Chidi.

But maybe that’s OK, too. It has to be difficult to star in a series that forces you to think, not only of your present, but of your future, and ultimately what lies beyond that. It’s only natural to constantly be pondering the philosophical implications of humanity and find yourself changed.

“There’s a line early in the series, I think it’s in Season 1, where Chidi said something to the effect of, ‘Principles aren’t principles if you pick and choose when you adhere to them.’ I’m paraphrasing. And that’s something that I’ve actually thought about in my real life, and actually had to apply a few times since the show’s ended,” Harper said. “Especially in the last year and some change, there’s been some moments where there’s been an opportunity or a choice to be made. And there’s a real benefit for me to just sacrifice my principles and do the thing. And I elected not to do the thing, which is so crazy.”

“I don’t want to go into what it was,” he said, “but it was one of those moments where I was like, I’m a nut. I’m an idiot.’ But that line kept playing in my head where I was like, ‘Man, there’s truth to that.’ And I completely agreed with it when I was saying it. And I thought ‘This is something that I hope to live up to.’ And push came to shove, I did. And I was proud of it, but I also felt like a crazy person.

“I felt like, ‘Am I just dumb?’

“In retrospect, I’m super happy that I didn’t do the thing. But it definitely tortured me for a second. Because I was like who are you to not do the thing? It was one of those, ‘You think you’re so special. Like jobs just happen.’ It’s like, ‘No, they don’t. Who am I to not do the thing?’ But in the end, I’m happy that I stuck by my guns on that one.”

“The Good Place” is now available to stream on Netflix, Peacock, and Hulu.

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