William Jackson Harper Interview: ‘The Good Place’
William Jackson Harper explored some new territory this season on “The Good Place” with his character, Chidi. The perpetually anxious professor found himself becoming more of a romantic as he courted both Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). Harper also confronted his nerves over taking his shirt off in the episode “Jeremy Bearimy,” where he proved that Eleanor was right to call Chidi “surprisingly jacked.” Harper admits, in discussing the episode, that he was “super nervous,” but the process of “actually facing that fear was really therapeutic for me.” Watch our exclusive video interview above.
Season 3 of “The Good Place” saw Chidi going through the process of meeting Eleanor and the rest of the gang all over again and eventually making it back into the afterlife. “There’s this familiarity that we’ve developed over the first two seasons,” Harper says, of re-meeting everyone at the beginning of Season 3, “and the hardest part is we’ve gotten comfortable with each other. We had to get rid of that.” While Harper has a background in theater, which he says made him feel comfortable with starting all over again, he notes it was a “weird tightrope to walk” to act like these characters didn’t have an epic history together.
After Michael (Ted Danson) eventually reveals to Eleanor that she and Chidi were in love in the afterlife, their feelings are reignited. They may seem like an unlikely pair, between Chidi’s analytical nervousness and Eleanor’s rebellious nature, but Harper suggests they help complete each other in that way. “I think each of them is missing something that the other has,” the actor says. “There’s a rigidity that Chidi has that Eleanor does not and there’s a freedom and resourcefulness and scrappiness that she has that Chidi is too bogged down to even begin to try to discover.”
Harper says some of those more romantic scenes were easier to play, which is the opposite of his feelings on playing Chidi’s shirtless breakdown in “Jeremy Bearimy.” “I was just trying not to get my feelings hurt online too hard,” Harper says, of bracing for backlash. “The fact that not only did people not think negatively about that but some people reacted very positively, I was blindsided by it.” Harper was proud of himself for facing his fears, ultimately. Chidi himself faced a big fear by the end of Season 3, electing to have his memory erased, including his sweetest memories of Eleanor, for the greater good of their experiment. “Being present is the hardest thing for him to do,” Harper says, discussing Chidi’s sacrifice. “This is the first time we really get to see that. I think that’s a huge evolution.”
The positive buzz for Harper this season resulted in a Critics’ Choice Award nomination earlier this year. He hadn’t received any kind of awards attention before this, so getting this kind of recognition from the Broadcast Television Journalists Association made him feel pretty special. “I wasn’t expecting it,” he says. “Just doing this show and getting to play this part is enough reward in itself. It’s like, that other stuff is great but you’re not even thinking about it. You get to be a part of a comedy that’s affecting people. So I wasn’t looking for it, wasn’t expecting it.” Harper’s nomination was just one of many examples of “The Good Place” steadily increasing its awards haul over three seasons. While he admits the awards attention isn’t something the cast and crew think about every day, it’s still “really nice and we’re really appreciative of all the kudos we’ve gotten and critical acclaim.”
As “The Good Place” fans patiently wait for Season 4, Harper cannot say much but offers this teaser for what fans can expect: “The rest of the crew have their memories intact and they are still that crew and Chidi, as far as he knows, is not. So that will make for some really interesting dynamics.” He adds that Season 4 “has a lot of heart and a lot of really beautiful moments” of which he is quite proud.