Exclusive Interview with The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper

unspecified-1To get into The Good Place, you need to make good decisions and have sounds morals. Unfortunately, Eleanor Shellstrop didn’t and doesn’t. But, she does have a soulmate that taught ethics in a past life: Chidi Anagonye (not Ariana Grande). Played by William Jackson Harper, Chidi is trying to help Eleanor earn her spot, but it comes with a good stomachache.

A year ago, if you had told Harper that he’d end up starring in a new NBC sitcom opposite Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, he would’ve laughed and said, “Okay, that’s a really cute idea, but I think it’s time to hang it up.” At that point, he was starting to believe it was time for him to transition out of acting to find a more stable job. For him, booking a television show “seemed impossible.”

Now, his biggest challenge with this role is just keeping himself clean-shaven. “I usually choose to look like a scruffy puppy for most of my life,” Harper jokes. Luckily, the cast has finished shooting season one, so he gets a break from worrying about it and is back to normal life in New York.

We got William on the phone to discuss his character, what he loves about the show and whether or not he’d make it into The Good Place.

The Good Place is so different from any other show we’ve seen, just in terms of the concept. But it’s also different in its diversity; we’ve got you playing Chidi, and we’ve got Jianyu and Tahani…, and that’s just so far. What are your thoughts on how The Good Place is handling diversity in Hollywood?

I think The Good Place is handling it very well. Besides the regulars, which is a rather diverse group, especially by Hollywood standards, even our recurring characters, and our guest stars are largely – well, not largely – but a significant amount of people of color playing those parts. And so I think, yeah! I think The Good Place is handling it very well. Honestly, the diversity on that screen is what my life looks like living in New York, and with my community of friends and people who I work with. And so, it’s so funny when people note that to me, because it’s just sort of what my life looks like. 

When I see shows that are all white, or all black, or all anything, THAT is atypical. That actually gives me pause. Not to say that those things don’t exist, because they actually do. I see these shows where there’s cast of people that are all white, and it’s like of course! All these people would be together, and they probably wouldn’t have a whole lot of other people with them that aren’t like them. But then to not see the sort of diversity that I’m used to is sort of strange. Which says maybe my experience is atypical, and I’m willing to admit that. But I think The Good Place is doing a magnificent job of addressing it, and it’s a great start to have this many people of color on a show like this.

Absolutely. You mentioned that you have some guest stars, can you tease anyone that’s coming on without giving anything away?

(laughs). I cannot! I do not want to get roasted by the network, later on, like “WHY did you give that up?” I will give nothing away.

(laughs). It was worth a shot! So, with The Good Place, there’s this very complex points system to get in. Did you and the cast and crew have any say in what was worth points?

I think that’s actually mostly Mike Schur and the writers. And Drew Goddard, I think he was in on it too. I believe they sat down and came up with a bunch of names and a huge points system for all these things. The cast had nothing to do with that. We honestly saw a lot of that stuff when everyone else saw it. And we laughed just as much as everyone else did, I hope…It’s definitely a pause your DVR and read the screen [moment] because it’s really going to give you some life. It’s pretty awesome.

Do think, based on that points system, you would make it into the Good Place?

(laughs). Oh hell no! Not even close. Absolutely not.

Well, at least you’re honest with yourself.

(laughs). Yeah, I’m a little too caught in my own head to actually do anything that would warrant me getting there.

But Chidi only focused on one thing his whole life, and he got there!

Yeah! Maybe, I don’t know; I think maybe he did some other stuff too. You’re right; he is caught in his own head but, I don’t know.

In the show, you play Kristen Bell’s soul mate. But she’s not technically his soul mate, because of the glitch and everything. Do you personally believe they are soul mates in some way, and this worked out for a reason?

You know, here’s what I’m thinking. I don’t necessarily believe in just a straight up cosmic connection, so much as I believe that there are people who you feel a connection to…it’s probably physiological in some way. But, rather than it just being an effortless connection that requires no work, you meet that person that you really want to put the work in for. So, I think that’s sort of my definition of a soul mate.

Outside of Chidi, who would you say you relate to most on the show?

Oh man. I probably have to say Michael, Ted Danson’s character at this point. Just because he’s sort of oblivious to a lot of things, and he’s generally really happy (laughs). And I think I probably give off that vibe sometimes, if I’m not brooding over something. I generally seem like “Oh everything’s fine” and just kind of zipping through life, missing a bunch of stuff.

As long as you’re not going around kicking dogs into the sun, I think we’re okay.

No, no. Which is, my favorite moment of that episode. Oh my gosh. It’s so funny. I was watching with a lot of friends, and it was…(laughs). The entire crowd was divided evenly between men and women, and all the men were dying of laughter. The women were all laughing too, but there’s something about dudes who are seeing something really brutal and stupid happen. (laughs). Dudes react in a way that’s so juvenile, and it was just fascinating to watch.

Especially because it was Ted Danson doing it, of all people.

Yeah! (laughs). Seeing Ted Danson kick a dog into the sun…and how long they held on that shot too! Just watching it go end over end into the sky is great.

It was the perfect example of the comedic value of the show, which will hopefully continue!

You know, you can really expect anything to happen. Anything can happen in this show, and that’s why I love it so much. There’re no limits.

I want to discuss your first meeting with Kristen Bell, how did that go down?

I actually first met her when I was testing for the part. I didn’t know that she was going to be in there. Basically, the way these screen tests work is you sign a contract, and you go in, and there’s any number of ways this can go. Usually, there might be someone who is already cast reading with you, or you might simply be on camera with the creators, and that’s it. But I had no idea that she was going to be in there, and so I walk in and see this (laughs) adorable, awesome movie star standing there. I wasn’t ready. 

I was like, no one told me that I was going to be reading with Kristen Bell today! So we met there, and we read, we had a good time, and it was fine. Honestly, it was like, I was in the zone, I was trying to get a job. So it was, for me, primarily just trying to concentrate and not get too intimidated because she’s such an incredible, incredibly talented person.

If there’s one thing that would put me out of my zone at that point, it would be suddenly seeing Kristen Bell. I would probably have a meltdown (laughs).

Oh yeah. That’s the thing, a lot of that test was me fighting the meltdown. Honestly, even the first couple episodes are me just kind of fighting the meltdown all the time. I got to stand toe to toe with this incredibly talented, funny person. And it’s like “okay, just breathe, don’t freak out, and just be in the scene.” By the end, I think I finally calmed down, but it definitely took a minute.

You’re absolutely right, you’re standing toe to toe with her, and that’s what’s been said in most reviews – your chemistry is great. Does that just happen naturally, or do you guys work on the scenes beforehand?

Yeah, we practice the scenes. We get them on the day; basically, we know what we’re shooting the night before, but we don’t really rehearse it until right before we shoot them. The scenes are snippets; they’re short. It’s not like a play where you have an hour and a half of dialogue in your head at all times. It’s a couple of pages at most, here and there. But there’s so much repetition, you do it so many times, that by the time the scene is done, you’ve developed a rapport. And Kristen is so kind and so generous and so sweet. She’s really as awesome as everyone thinks she is. It was really easy to work with her.

Is there any kind of improvisation that happens? I know with sitcoms it’s a bit different, but do you guys make each other laugh with ad-libbing?

There’s definitely been times where we’ve made each other laugh. There’s not a ton of improvisation because our writer’s room is just incredible. So most of the time, we’re not going to improve what they wrote you know? They’ll be on set, and they’ll have us do alternative takes on lines, but in general, we’re not going to make it better. 

We tend to shoot pretty close to the script, because it just works best. There’s been times where we’ve tried, some of us, to improvise and it doesn’t work as well as what they wrote (laughs). Because also, the world is such a meticulous and intricate world that it’s just sort of best to try and deepen what they’ve already written.

I’ve read that your ideal Good Place involves video games, tacos, and your lady. Is that what you do when you’re not working?

I chill out and play a lot of video games.

What are you playing?

Well, right now I’m deep in Madden ’17. I’m playing in franchise mode and losing many hours to it and trying to behave like a grown-up but not succeeding (laughs). I just bought the new NBA game. I also, I just bought my PS4 because I’m a nerd, and I got Infamous. So I’m getting ready to dive into that. But I’ve been so obsessed with Madden and building my team and that stuff; I haven’t really cracked anything else open that much.

Who’s your team on Madden?

Well, my favorite football team in life is the Dallas Cowboys, because that’s where I’m from. But the team that I’m playing with now on Madden is the Buffalo Bills. They’re an exciting line-up, with interesting weapons, and a lot of opportunity for growth in franchise mode. (laughs). So I’m trying to go that route. I try not to pick teams with huge stars and incredibly gifted players. I don’t want the game to be easy; I want a little bit more of a challenge. That’s why I pick teams with decent players, good players that are maybe just a little underrated, and see if I can’t build them up. It’s such a weird little obsession I have.

You are a self-described nerd, and sometimes a self-described “blerd,” what’s the nerdiest thing about you? What do you nerd out about most?

Oh man. Honestly the video game thing, for a guy my age, I feel like I nerd out pretty hard. I have a buddy in L.A. whenever I go out; I stay with him. We got pretty deep into some old school role-playing games from the PS1 and PS2. (laughs). We’ll get some beer, and we’ll just spend the day getting through this game. We’ll get the player’s guides to make sure we get all the characters and make sure we get all the story and try to get the best ending.

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