William Jackson Harper’s role of Chidi ultimately formed the backbone of all that is good in The Good Place, and perhaps in our real world, too. Through multiple left-field twists, Harper brought lovable humor, humanity and an inspiring moral compass to his tightly-wound ethics professor character, earning an Emmy nomination in the show’s fourth and final season, which ended in January. Here, in a phone conversation with Deadline, he discusses wanting to play a villain next, the joys of playing opposite Kristen Bell, and how Barry Jenkins helped him overcome impostor syndrome.
DEADLINE: I keep thinking about how much I wish this show was still on at this current time in our lives. We need more discussion about morals and ethics. The Good Place was ultimately about the possibility of change when goodness is applied.
WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: Yes. I feel like if there’s any moment where people should be watching something and really engaging in some sort of self-reflection about what they’re doing in the world it would be now.
DEADLINE: When you first read for the role at audition, there was no information really about where the premise was going. What’s it been like to see Chidi unfold and seeing the depth of what the show was saying? Have you been bowled over by all those twists and turns and revelations along the way?
HARPER: Oh yes. Obviously, as you said, when I got the audition and I didn’t know what the show was, I had dummy scripts with dummy audition material. I thought I was auditioning for a lawyer working for the Innocence Project… In the middle of the first season the creators brought us all in and said, “Okay, you’re actually not in the good place, you’re in the bad place.” It was like, “Hey, I’m completely in the dark about everything, it’s consistent with the character, so it’s fine.” But I was relieved when I found out that the world that we were in was not what it seemed. Just because I wondered how long we could do this particular thing, people being in a paradise, just getting a little wacky sometimes. I just wondered how far we can run that. And once he [creator, Michael Schur] explained to us that we were actually in the bad place, and it was going to take a bunch of weird twists and turns going forward, then I was all in, I was just like, this is great. And then they wrote some beautiful, brilliant, hilarious scripts.
DEADLINE: In the finale episode of the final season, your monologue about death was so poignant. Tell me about shooting that scene with Kristen?
HARPER: Well, Kristen is an amazing actress and so available and so sharp and so quick and so present in every moment. That I feel in particular, that moment, I think I had a lot of the words in that thing, but I think that the real impact came from Kristen’s reaction. That’s what I think. I think that’s where the audience is. They’re with her and they’re hearing these things and she’s reacting in a way. I think that she was just hitting something so truthful that it really landed it. Her work that entire last episode was just always so raw and truthful and real and beautiful. And it’s just hats off to her, because I feel that’s the thing that actually gives you the impact, is having a scene partner that really stayed with you. There are actors that just kind of wait and say their lines. And then there are actors that are with you the whole way. I think that’s where the poignancy came from.
DEADLINE: You guys have this great chemistry. When did you first realize it clicked and it was going to work?
HARPER: Well, she’s an incredibly warm, open person, she’s got a lot of bite, very quick witted, and you’d better be on it and ready to suffer because you will get your feelings hurt. She’s very quick and you’ve got a lot of very fast, very good jokes. Her personality is very open and it’s really easy to just find yourself just enjoying her person, her presence, her being there. And honestly, I took me a while to just get over the fact that I was going to be working opposite Kristen Bell so much. [It was] Oh wow, she’s really good. I’ve got to figure out how to not be scared of this person who I’m kind of awe of. And so that took some doing, but again, she’s such a warm, wonderful person and such an honest actress that it just happens around her. There’s no tiptoeing that you have to do in order to make sure that you are connecting in the scene. She just wants to do the work. The whole cast is great to work with, but most of my stuff was with Kristen and working with her is a dream, she’s amazing.
DEADLINE: Did playing him change you at all? I can’t imagine it didn’t rub off on you a little bit?
HARPER: A little bit. I’m still anxious. I was already anxious going in. I was a dude in his mid-30s and was considering quitting acting. So, I was already in a weird place when I got the job. But I feel there’s one thing that I hold on to that keeps coming up. There’s a line in the first season that Chidi has and I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like that effective principles aren’t principles you can pick and choose when you apply them. And that’s something that has helped me make decisions in these past few years that I don’t regret. I made a choice based on who I am at the core. And that’s kept me from going back and rethinking things.
DEADLINE: As you said, if you hadn’t got this role, you might have quit acting. What else might you have done?
HARPER: I don’t know, man. I had no idea, I flirted with several ideas. I thought, I felt like I finally put together enough credits and had enough experience as a professional to possibly teach at some level. But that was never really an option. I was just like, I’m a relatively smart guy, I can figure something out. There are plenty of people that majored in theater and then figured out something else with their life and are totally functioning human beings. So why can’t I do it too? So, I figured it would be time to go back to the drawing board, figure it out.
HARPER: Yes. Working with Barry Jenkins is a dream. That dude is too much. The cool thing about this whole job and the age that I am at the stage that I’m in is it’s really interesting to find ways to not be intimidated by people you’re in awe of. And that’s something that I keep having to deal with. And so, there’s that, and I’m doing this Audible play with Williamstown Theater Festival, which we actually just finished principal recording on, Animals [by Stacy Osei-Kuffour, directed by Whitney White]. It’s a very interesting play about new couples and old friends and race at a dinner party, basically. It’s really something. It ate my lunch in the best possible ways and sometimes in the worst possible way, but it’s the challenge of doing dialogue-driven material in this age of a quarantine. It’s tough when you can’t be in the room. But I’m super excited about it.
DEADLINE: You talk about how life keeps throwing this experience at you, where you have to overcome this a level of intimidation, when you’re in awe of someone. How was the experience of working with Barry on The Underground Railroad? Was there a particular moment where you thought, I can’t believe I’m doing this job?
HARPER: There was one scene where Barry came up and said, “Good job, man, good job. You killed that, man.” I was like, “I did? I did? Didn’t you see how afraid I was?” There were definitely several times where the direction was, “Just relax man, just relax.” And I’m like, “I’m trying! You don’t know you.” And so, whenever I would nail something and he would be really pleased with it, that was okay. It was like, this guy knows what good work looks like. And if he thinks it’s good work, I feel comfortable and confident enough to say that it’s probably pretty decent work. So, just being able to eventually relax enough to do the work that I feel that I’m capable of doing, that I’m hopefully capable of doing. But that was one of those salient moments where it was just able get over my awe, and just settle in and be there with my scene partner, rather than trying to be preoccupied with the imposter syndrome that I think I deal with, and I think a lot of people deal with, every time they get a job.
DEADLINE: I love when people are honest about their imposter syndrome. I totally relate.
HARPER: Yes. We always walk around like, well, this is the one where they find out, where I get disinvited from all the things ever again. So, to have someone whose work I admire so much, who liked my work on just a couple of different occasions, is really nice. And I think the thing that I learned was I’ve got to relax and trust that I can do the work. I just need to get out of my own way.
DEADLINE: What do you want to do next?
HARPER: I just want to move as far away from Chidi as I can in the next project, but beyond that, I really just enjoy creating, and I really want something that I can bring something to. And it’s really interesting. When I was doing theater, I played my fair share of villains, so that’s something that I would be interested in. Playing someone that’s a little less sympathetic, someone that doesn’t necessarily have the audience on their side, and doesn’t necessarily have something righteous that everyone can identify with. It’s playing something or someone that is tapping into something dark. That’s something that I’m really interested in. Because it’s something that I haven’t done in a little while, but something that I did a fair amount of when I was primarily doing theater, and it’s fun.