William Jackson Harper opens up about his big break — and what’s next
If you aren’t familiar with William Jackson Harper yet, get ready to start seeing his name everywhere. He currently stars as Chidi Anagonye, the adorably indecisive ethics professor on NBC’s The Good Place. But soon, he’ll also be appearing in the legal thriller Dark Waters and the hugely anticipated series The Underground Railroad, among other high-profile projects.
As The Good Place nears the end of its final season, we caught up with William about what’s in his version of the good place and the bad place, why he was “absolutely riveted” by the Dark Waters script, and which of his castmates made Ted Danson cry.
Katie Couric: It’s so bittersweet that ‘The Good Place’ is ending — we’re sad to see it go, but excited to see what happens. Are we going to be satisfied with the ending?
William Jackson Harper: I hope people will be satisfied. The thing that I like about where we go with the show is that there are any number of reactions to the ending that are totally appropriate. I don’t want to tell people that they’ll be satisfied… but I do think that any reaction that viewers have, will be the right reaction.
The show is so funny. Has there been a time on set that you just couldn’t stop laughing?
Anytime Manny Jacinto and I are in a scene, he breaks me. He’s just so weird and he makes such strange choices. And that’s right up my alley. He has a line this season, and I can’t reveal exactly what he says because the episode hasn’t aired, but it’s his only line in the scene. Every time he said it, everyone broke. It kept happening and kept happening and kept happening — and then we finally made it through the scene, and Marc Evan Jackson, who plays Shawn, just stops. And everyone is like, “What’s going on?” And he’s like, “I can’t keep going, because Ted is crying.” Ted was trying so hard not to laugh, that he started crying in the middle of the scene.
In your role as Chidi on the show, you’ve been dedicated to teaching your fellow characters about moral philosophy. I imagine after doing all of these episodes about ethics, there’s got to be one school of thought that resonates most with you. What is it and why?
Right now, I’m trying to make my way through T.M. Scanlon’s book on contractualism called What We Owe to Each Other. So that’s sort of where my brain is at the moment. Also I’m calling it contractualism — that might not even be right. I don’t think I’m smart enough to understand philosophy most of the time. But I’m trying to wrap my mind around this book. T.M. Scanlon is a super super smart person. He writes in a very erudite way. So I’m trying to hunker down and see if I can retain any of it.
So… what’s in your version of ‘The Good Place,’ and what’s in ‘The Bad Place’?
The “Bad Place” is pretty easy. It’s anywhere with too many dudes, too much cologne, too many Jägerbombs, and too many loud laughs. A room full of alpha guys who are certain they’re the most interesting people that have ever walked the face of the earth. That’s the “Bad Place” for me.
My “Good Place” is actually just chillin’ at home with my girlfriend [actress Ali Ahn]. That’s when I feel relaxed, and happy. That’s really all I need. Whenever I’ve been working a lot, all I want to do is sit on the couch with my girlfriend and watch shows and eat junk food.
That’s very sweet. On another note, we’d love to hear more about your path to ‘The Good Place.’ You’ve said that the show was your big break — and that if you hadn’t landed it, you would have quit acting. What inspired you to stick with acting? And if you had quit, what would you be doing now?
Acting is the one thing that makes me feel special. It’s like a purpose, or a calling, which I hate to say, because it sounds corny. But I’m hopelessly addicted to it. So that’s what sustained me — those moments in a scene when you’re not thinking about it at all, and the lines just come and you’re swept up into this emotion that completely surprises you. It’s really fulfilling for me because in my regular life, I’m somewhat of a reserved person.
Being on The Good Place finally gave me something resembling stability for once. And that’s something that I wanted as I got older. There’s something romantic about being a struggling artist in your 20s, but by my mid 30s, I was over the stress of having to be worried when a job ended.
I don’t know that I’d have ever stopped acting entirely; I would have just stopped doing it as my “job.” I have no idea what I’m qualified for, other than this, but I got to the point where the thought of not having to keep chasing down jobs didn’t feel like it would be a loss. I didn’t feel like I would be mourning anything — it felt like a release. When I made that decision, I was relieved to have that responsibility off my shoulders. But I hadn’t thought too far down the line about what else I would do professionally, and then The Good Place came along…
You’ll also soon be appearing in ‘Dark Waters,’ which comes out at the end of November. Tell me about that film… I’m getting an Erin Brockovich vibe, but maybe a bit more sinister?
I think there’s room for that assessment! It may be a bit more sinister, but I think it’s also a bit grittier. For me, it’s really about what it takes to effect change — and what it takes to actually get some sort of environmental justice. The thing that’s so great about this film — apart from how sexy Mark Ruffalo is — is that it shows what dirty, hard, tedious work it takes to do the right thing.
The film asks: What will it take to make real change, and what will that cost? When I first got the script, I started reading it at 2 a.m., thinking that I would go to sleep and finish it when I woke up. I ended up staying up for hours reading it, and then thinking about it. I ended up going to sleep at 5:30 a.m., absolutely riveted.
You’re also appearing in the limited series ‘The Underground Railroad,’ and you’ll be in season two of ‘Jack Ryan.’ So you can do comedy, horror, drama, action… were you worried after ‘The Good Place’ about being type-cast as an intellectual? And how does it feel that the show seems to have opened all of these doors to different genres for you?
I really didn’t think about type-casting during The Good Place, because we take it one season at a time. I was just so grateful for that opportunity that I wasn’t thinking about the ways in which it could possibly backfire. I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I just thought, “This is a really great thing that’s happening in my life, and I just want to be in this place of gratitude for as long as I can.” And I’ve stayed there.
The truth is, I just love being an actor, and I think the show has definitely opened up doors for me. I think it is my duty to take the material I’m given and be as truthful with it as I can. As an actor, holding onto that will lead you away from anything you could do that might lead to being type-cast. Hopefully more diverse projects keep showing up for me. I just want to work — I like the challenge of doing things that are tough. I want the room to fail, and to try again.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared on Medium.com