Kristen Bell and Ted Danson might be the marquee names of The Good Place, but for many viewers, the breakout star of the afterlife comedy is William Jackson Harper, who portrays anxious, indecisive philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye. Vulture caught up with Jackson, who’s also currently starring in Zoe Kazan’s off-Broadway play After the Blast, to ask him about what makes Chidi so relatable, the appeal of dystopian stories, and how it feels to act with hundreds of needles in your face.
A lot of people who’ve watched the show have told me that Chidi is their favorite character. What about him do you think people relate to?
Probably indecision. Most people I know in my life have a hard time making decisions or dread it, especially as we get older. I think that’s pretty relatable — it’s certainly the thing that I relate most to in that character.
Has seeing what indecisiveness has cost Chidi’s character motivated you to be more decisive?
I think I’m more apt to just go ahead and make a choice because I see how annoying it can be. But I’m still pretty dang indecisive. I’m trying to be more active. If something’s a toss-up, I’ll just pick one [option] and leave it at that. I won’t agonize over things as much. But I think that’s about it. Though Chidi is a lot more extroverted and loud than I am about how tortured he is. Most of the time, people don’t even know that I’m that neurotic and indecisive.
Even more so than last season, the show has been interacting directly with a lot of philosophical concepts like existentialism and the trolley problem, and Chidi is the one introducing all of them. As an actor, how do you prepare for talking fluidly about all these different philosophical texts? Do you get Cliffs Notes from the writers?
No, I just have to go look it up. I have to figure it out! I mean, that’s just part of an actor’s homework, you know. They did their job, they researched, they wrote it, and it’s my job to figure what I’m saying and make sure that I understand it. So I get the script and there are some concepts or ideas or some people floating around, and I have no idea who or what they are. I go straight to Google and go to town.
Chidi is the only philosopher character I can remember appearing on TV. Have you gotten any feedback from real-life philosophers about the character or your portrayal?
Not so much from philosophers — a lot more from academics. A lot of academics I’ve talked to relate strongly to that character. You know, it’s like pages upon pages upon pages and getting stuck in your own head and all that stuff. It’s something that a lot of my academic friends have said: “I know that guy. That guy is very relatable.” Or he reminds him of a professor [they had], something like that.
Kristen Bell and Ted Danson were the only cast members who knew the big twist of season one going in; you and the rest of the cast found out right before the finale was shot. Had you known in advance, do you think there are things you’d have done differently with the character?
I worry that I may have tried to make little nods towards the Good Place being something other than what it is. I think I would have probably tried to get cute with it a little bit. So the fact that none of us knew what was going on as characters, and then also none of us knew what was really going on as actors, was totally fine with me. It sort of made us Method actors against our will!
It’s a good thing they didn’t tell us, because TV is a completely different animal, and putting that together is very different from theater. For the subtlety of the build and everything, it’s best that we were in the dark.
Your background is primarily in theater, and you’ve said that being on a sitcom has been a learning curve for you. If you could go back and talk to yourself when you’d just starting filming the show, what advice would you give yourself?
Relax, breathe, don’t blink so much. Just a few little technical things. As real as TV feels for the person viewing it, for me as an actor, it’s a much more artificial-feeling thing to create because there’s just a million different people in the room with you, all doing something very important. And you’re not just in that room living the circumstances. There’s a lot of different things going on around you. Whereas on stage, you have a lot of rehearsal, and yes, there’s an audience there, but you’re in charge of that experience. You’re on that set, and you’re just in that world, and that’s all there is to it.
So if I gave myself some advice, it would just be like, relax, calm down. There’s a lot of people here that are here to make you look better than you are! Just calm down and do the scene.
What surprised you most about that process — about the sausage of how TV is made?
The thing that always boggles my mind is just how little you need to do in order for things to come off on screen as opposed to being on stage. But there’s also a way in which you can appear dead on screen. There’s a sweet spot in between being subtle and relaxed and being alive and just being sorta dead behind the eyes.
And that’s one of those things where it’s like … I watch Kristen. She’s one of those people that seems completely relaxed all the time and completely full, and everything she does fits perfectly in that medium. Just fits seamlessly. I’m trying to figure out how she does that. I think that’s the biggest difference. How do you be full and engaged and have your energy coming through, but still be relaxed?
The Good Place really gives equal time to its ensemble, and the whole cast is strong. If you could play any other one of the characters on the show, regardless of gender, who would you pick?
I want to name one of the ladies, because it would be fun to just play one of those characters, but I think I’d pick Jianyu — Jason. I might be biased just because I like Manny [Jacinto]’s interpretation so much. He gets to do a lot of really fun stuff, and he gets some really goofy lines. He cracks me up on the reg. I think it appeals because his character and my character are the most diametrically opposed from the rest of the cast. He’s literally the dumbest person in the afterlife, and my character’s a nerd. Reversing all of that looks like fun.
In the most recent episodes, they’ve done some pretty crazy stuff with Chidi’s character, including repeatedly splashing you with gore and covering your face in needles. What’s been the most challenging scene to shoot of the episodes that have aired so far?
Oh, man, the needles. I had to go to acupuncture and they put 50 real needles in my face, just to see if it would work, if I could still move and talk. And the thing is, they had to put them in really far, just to see if they would stay in case I did have to act with them. And after all that, the 50 needles still just didn’t look enough like torture. It didn’t look severe enough.
So they used a prosthetic that they put on my forehead and my chin and all that stuff, and that took several hours to apply. And then the needles went in my hands and my feet … It took several hours to get that all in. We have a real crackerjack makeup crew, and they were very, very, very efficient and diligent. To concentrate for that long, putting all these needles in some guy’s face, and not mess up, is pretty impressive.
That’s extremely intense for a 30-second gag!
Yeah! I know.
Do you get nervous now when you get delivered these scripts each week? Like, “Oh god, what are they going to do now? Am I gonna get covered in gore again?”
I gotta say, after the blood cannon and the needles back-to-back, I was like, “Okay, all right, look … wait.” I definitely got a little afraid, because it’s like, “Oh man, it seems like it’s just open season on Chidi!” But the gags are funny, and when the show gets wild, my character’s sort of, in a lot of respects, the straight man. And sometimes when really ridiculous things happen to the straight man, it’s just that much more shocking and surprising.
Tell me a bit about After the Blast, the play you’re currently starring in.
It’s about a couple in the not-too-distant future who are part of the remnants of humanity, and who have to retreat underground after several cataclysms. In their world, experience is simulated and fertility is regulated, and they have one more chance to have a baby. And that’s where the story takes off.
That’s a lot of dystopias for one actor. What about these kinds of shows and plays do you think is connecting with people?
I think the world is … fucking frightening right now! It’s a terrifying place.
I know that my anxiety is definitely taking a serious spike. It seems like every day I wake up and watch the news and get afraid of something different, or get incredibly angry about something. I think a lot of people feel that way. At least with The Good Place, I’d like to think we are some kind of escape from that. Because at least it’s fun, it’s hopeful, it’s funny. But After the Blast is definitely something that is trafficking a lot of our paranoia of the day. Sometimes people just need to see — or at least for me, I think that I need to see — what the result of what’s going on right now could be. Just to crystallize the fear, rather than have it be this large, generalized cloud of anxiety hanging somewhere in the future.
Is there anything else in the pipeline for you, coming up?
Nothing I can actually bring up right now. There’s some stuff that’s not 100 percent solidified, but as far as work, it’s a lot of just preparing to be with my family for the holidays. And I’m going on a trip with my lady. I think we’re gonna do Morocco.
Okay, so I’m not sure if you know this, but about half of your top Google searches are people asking whether or not you’re related to Samuel L. Jackson.
That’s … wow. I’ve guess I’ve seen it on Twitter, like, someone tweeted at me, “Dude, just tell me. Are you related to Samuel L. Jackson?” And I just … I’m not even gonna … I’m not dealing with this. That’s weird. But no, I’m not. I’m not at all related to Samuel L. Jackson. Actually, the Jackson in my middle name, that’s actually not my middle name. Long story short, I had to change my middle name in order to get my equity card years and years ago. There was already a William Harper, or a Bill Harper, or something like that, and I couldn’t use any variation of just those two names, so I had to insert a middle name. And my real middle name is 11 letters long, so I was like, “I can’t. William Fitzgerald Harper is just too long a name.” So I just took my mom’s maiden name and put that in the middle, which was nice, to be able to honor both of my parents.
So yeah, that’s the root of that. But I am not related to Samuel L. Jackson in any way whatsoever … that I know.