‘The Good Place’: William Jackson Harper on How Chidi Has Made Him Less Neurotic in Real Life (Exclusive)

William Jackson Harper identifies with Chidi maybe a little too closely.

The Good Place star plays the endearingly neurotic, notoriously indecisive and incredibly kind-hearted, hyper-intelligent Chidi Anagonye, a deceased professor of moral philosophy, on NBC’s Golden Globe-nominated comedy. What began as a character so paralyzed by the black and the white and so reliant on philosophy books to tell him the right versus the wrong has evolved into someone more capable of seeing the gray — and most importantly, be OK with it. Well, as OK as he tries to be. 

“One evolution that I’ve noticed over the years doing this show playing this character is, there has been a slight melting away of this rigidity that he has around morality. And it’s becoming more relative,” Harper told ET. “I think that we live in a compromised world and the character, Chidi, is starting to understand that, rather than looking for a book to tell him exactly what to do. He has to figure that out for himself and I think he’s making steps towards doing that.”

“That’s sort of the point; you’re trying to move out of paralysis,” he added. “That’s more interesting to watch and it’s a more human thing to do rather than to just sit there and stay indecisive — it’s to disrupt.”

Ahead of Thursday’s return, Harper jumped on the phone with ET to chat about his “surreal” experience at the Golden Globes, Chidi’s gradual three-season evolution, Chidi and Eleanor’s new relationship status and keeping busy with non-Good Place stuff (he just booked an Anne Hathaway-Tim Robbins film!).

ET: It looked like you had a great time at the Golden Globes!

William Jackson Harper: It was fun. It’s so weird just sort of being in that room because it’s like … If you’re in the business long enough, you just sort of assume that you won’t ever be in an event like that. So, being there was just completely surreal and weird and fun.

Did you have a pinch-me moment?

The whole thing was a pinch-me moment. I feel like I was almost in sort of like a catatonic state just floating through life, like somebody else is doing all this stuff, and I was just floating above the whole thing. You know how sometimes when something’s so unbelievable, you have no reaction to it whatsoever? I feel like I was next to all these huge celebrities and I didn’t freak out, nothing happened. My face went blank. I feel like that’s what the whole experience was, just me slack-jawed.

Who was the one person you met at the Globes that you were like, This is pretty awesome. I can’t believe I’m speaking to this person.

Spike Lee. I unfairly accosted him while he was leaving. He made eye contact and he had his mouth full and I just vomited all sorts of praise at him and just bolted back to my girlfriend. That was sort of like, “Oh man, I didn’t do that right at all.” But that was cool. I respect his work so much.

William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto at the Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 6.

Getty Images

Let’s talk The Good Place. The last episode, “Janet(s),” I think, was one of the best episodes of television in the last year.

I agree 100 percent.

Did you consider that episode to be a culmination of the past two and a half years on the show? 

That is probably one of my favorite episodes of anything to watch ever, and I think D’Arcy Carden is the genius, obviously. I just love the fact that our show is willing to take so many risks. And our writers’ room is not afraid to get really, really, really weird. I feel like our fans expected hell. And our fans are all really smart. I sort of eavesdrop on Twitter conversations about dramatic things that they’re catching that don’t make sense or that would track and that doesn’t track and I feel like this episode, in particular, was a combination of all the weird little things that are possible in this world. Our writers tend to operate from this place of “Why not? Why can’t we do this?.” We make up these rules and we can do what we want with this world that we created and they don’t limit themselves, and that, thankfully, allows us to have a lot of fun too.

Did D’Arcy Carden ask about your process to get into the portrayal of Chidi? And, what was your take on how she played your character?

My character is the straight man in the show in a lot of ways, and that presents a unique challenge because there are fewer idiosyncratic things that manifest themselves physically with me, or vocally with me. It’s a harder line to walk and she did it great. A lot of those mannerisms are just what I feel in my chest and my stomach amped up. And so, she did that. I thought she did it, like, incredibly well. At times, I was like, “Well damn, I should just do it the way D’Arcy did it in that episode. That was great! I believe that more than I believe me sometimes.”

Now that you’ve been with this character for three seasons now, what are your thoughts on how Chidi has evolved from the beginning of the show till now?

After the reveal of the afterlife to our newly alive selves in the “Jeremy Bearimy” episode [earlier this season], I feel like that was it. That marked a real shift for Chidi. In the beginning, Chidi was sort of a manifestation of a collective anxiety that we all have [over] this glut of information that is accessible at all times. I think Chidi’s the character who really speaks to that. And ever since the “Jeremy Bearimy” episode, it’s sort of like, Whoa! What does it matter? Even if you have all the information, what can you actually do if you literally know everything that there is to know? That kicked into a new place of him having to relax and let it be what it is, just deal with the thing that’s in front of you. It makes Chidi a little bit more present and it’s fun to play that shift. 

Do you really think he’ll be able to live in the moment though? I feel like that’ll be a difficult task for someone like Chidi to achieve.

It’s totally tough and I don’t think he’s ever in the moment, absolutely not. But I think he’s a bit more able to go into it being active and more front-footed than being indecisive and back-footed.

One of the biggest decisions Chidi made was deciding, yeah, I want to be with Eleanor. Did that decision excite you?

You’d have to be a crazy person to not want to be with Kristen Bell, aka Eleanor. You have to be a nut! When everything is crashing down, it’s like, This person means a lot. She’s really resourceful, she’s really smart and it doesn’t hurt that she looks like a damn angel. I think that it’s sort of like, “Oh, all this is really clear.” That’s what that opened up. And also, I think it was about seeing her melt down and freak out and Chidi being like, “I need to help her, I need to help her right now.” That’s a shift. Even through all the indecisiveness, Chidi wants to do the right thing. He wants to be a good person, he wants to help people and this is the time where this person — it’s literally life or death for everybody and it’s like, I’ve got to save a life right now. 

The Good Place

D’Arcy Carden playing Chidi in ‘The Good Place’ episode, “Janet(s).”

NBC

In Thursday’s return, we see Chidi and Eleanor navigating what a relationship means to them and it just seems like there is so much comedy to be mined from that pairing. What does a Chidi-Eleanor relationship look like?

Eleanor being so quick-witted, she’s gonna be cracking on Chidi all the time. She has to and I think he has to take it. We are two very different people. I feel like there is a lot of comedy to beat aggressively. I feel like there’s gonna be — let me put this in a way that doesn’t give anything away… I feel like there’s an opportunity for more self-realization, especially on Chidi’s part through his relationship with Eleanor. I think she feels like she deserves the Bad Place, that she’s not that good a person. Chidi sees that she actually very much is. It’s her hardness and his softness. It’ll play out very interestingly.

In the last episode, Michael, Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason escape to The Good Place after they discover that The Bad Place has been rigging the points system so that no one has actually gotten to The Good Place in centuries. What can you preview in terms of what they may discover in these final three episodes as they embark on this mission?

What can I say without saying anything? (Pauses.) I think it goes back to dealing with the thing that’s in front of you and that’s the only option they have left. It’s like knowing that the points system is skewed and it’s tough for people to earn Good Place points, you have to put out one fire at a time instead of being completely locked into this whole thing of pleading your case. How do we put out this fire? How do we put out the next fire and then how do we put out the next fire? It’s sort of one foot in front of the other. That’s the evolution of all the characters, but in particular, Chidi.

Looking ahead to the finale, I noticed it’s titled “Pandemonium.” Without giving everything away, what are viewers in for in the season’s final episode?

It’s a really unexpected, really surprising episode. I want to leave it there just because it’s so special and dear to me, and I feel like it’s fun to watch if you have no expectations going in because it’s a real roller-coaster ride in these last few episodes.

You have a busy year coming up. What can we expect from you outside of The Good Place?

I did a couple of episodes of Jack Ryan. I have a couple of scenes with John Krasinski which is — that was great. He’s a really smart dude. I play a character named Xander. I’m not sure how much I can give up, but that was a lot of fun. I have a movie coming out in August called Midsommar, written and directed by Ari Aster and starring Florence PughJack Reynor,Will Poulter, Ellora Torchia, Vilhelm Blomgren and Archie Madekwe — an astounding Swedish cast. I really love Ari Aster’s work and it was a real challenge and a lot of fun to work on. It’s going to be incredibly strange and intense, and I’m really excited for people to see it.

Do you tend to gravitate toward things that are a little off-center?

Honestly, whatever job someone’s willing to give me, I’ll gladly take but if I had a choice it would always be to do work that is icing. I’m not necessarily into things that are strictly feel-good or strictly emotional or sentimental in any way. I sort of like to find the latest [thing] to surprise my audience and stay ahead of the audience in any work that I do. A lot of the things that I’ve been able to do in the last couple years all sort of lean into that aesthetic — and hopefully [it’s] something that has a ton of surprise and leaves the audience or keeps the audience off balance

Bringing it back to The Good Place, what aspects or traits of Chidi have you noticed are becoming one with you in real life?

The indecision is definitely me. The way that playing Chidi over the last couple years has really affected is that it’s made me more decisive. But the physical manifestation, that’s just how I am. This sort of dithering and stumbling and all that stuff, that’s me. However, I think Chidi is a very verbal guy and when I’m feeling particularly paralyzed by indecision, I basically just shut my mouth and go away and kind of wait for that to subside so no one has to deal with it. So there are a lot of things that are me. Chidi is what’s going on in my head, blown up. But in real life, I’m a lot more discreet with all of that dialogue in my head.

Hopefully, we’ll see him making more decisions! Baby steps.

Yeah, all he has to do!

The Good Place returns Thursday at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.

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