the vulture transcript

The Tortured Soul of William Jackson Harper

Life on earth is just as anxiety-ridden for the charmingly neurotic Good Place star.

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Getty Images

On a recent afternoon at Dumpling Galaxy, a Flushing eatery specializing in more than 100 kinds of dumplings, William Jackson Harper has no trouble making decisions. Unlike his character Chidi from The Good Place, he shoots fast from the hip, making some truly inspired choices — dried octopus and chive, pan-fried dumplings stuffed with dill and pork, and an order of “signature” lamb with cilantro.

“Whoa! Wow! What! Okay,” he says, launching into a very familiar Chidi-level freak-out as he tastes the particularly divine combination of pork and dill. “Fuck, man, I’ve been bullshitting with some bullshit dumplings. All right, I’m not fucking around. Come out here. Bring my lady. We’re gonna eat these dumplings.”

Harper arrives early to our lunch date with a copy of Hanya Yanagihara’s famously masochistic novel A Little Life in tow; he’s only a couple hundred pages in — the honeymoon period — terrified of what was to come. At 38, he has that well-tortured soul of someone who’s spent his adult life trying to make it as an artist in New York. For most of his career, Harper has preferred the ironic, intellectual thrum of the NYC theater scene over more commercial work. So that’s what he did for a while — workshops and readings with playwrights like Lynn Nottage and Branden Jacob-Jenkins. It wasn’t until his mid-30s that he finally felt that enough was enough: He had done enough survival jobs and lived with enough roommates to know that maybe he needed to think about his future and financial stability. Maybe he’d quit acting. That’s, of course, when he got The Good Place job.

“If I had gotten this job, say, ten years ago, I don’t know that I would have been able to handle it,” Harper says. “It would have just seemed too big and too scary. The fact that a job like this [came] along in my mid-30s, and being the biggest and the first of its kind, I appreciate it a lot. It’s not a given that this is the sort of thing that happens.”

Over the course of many, many dumplings, Harper talked about his artistic practice, his religious upbringing, and why the much-celebrated moment of taking his shirt off provoked a full-on panic.

You’ve spoken about your Good Place audition before, but I’d like to hear you talk about your mind-set going into it.
Honestly, I told myself it was going to be my last pilot season. I was getting older and wanting some kind of stability. I was in a place of, I may not be doing this again, for a while, so I’m just enjoying it. It’s kind of fun to just be in the room and just have a good time. So I was probably a bit looser and more relaxed than I would have been.

Because you felt like you had nothing to lose.
I had nothing to lose. I had already made my peace with it. Every actor has to have that moment where you’re just like, Am I gonna keep doing this or not? And every time I’ve had that conversation with myself previous to this, I was like, I can’t. I can’t give it up. I can’t stop. The thought of not being an actor anymore felt like I was really losing something. Before this pilot season, I had had that conversation with myself and it didn’t feel like a loss. It felt like relief, to not be worried about always trying to find the next job, and when am I gonna get the thing that’s gonna be the thing that I can hang my hat on for my career.

Why was it different this time?
The bitterness had started to creep in, and when I thought about not being an actor anymore, I just felt free. I felt everything settle. I felt happier. It was nice to be like, Okay, I think I can actually leave this behind and be okay with my life. I can find something else to do. I had no idea what it was gonna be, but I was open to the possibility of doing something else and trying to improve other aspects of my life.

What was it like to get the job, then?
Obviously once you get close like that, you’re like, Well, fuck, now I really, really, really want it, and it was taking a few days. I went to the Rain Room with a friend of mine in L.A. to keep my mind off of stuff so I wasn’t picking up the phone every couple of minutes. And she said, “Hey, you know what really holds up? Cheers. You should watch the pilot episode of Cheers …” So we come back, and I watched it. I was in the middle of the second episode and I got the call.

I feel like everyone should have the equivalent of that happen in their life, at least once. It’s a really nice feeling, to really, really want something and for it to happen. It’s so rare, you know? So I just felt numb, a little crazy, then nervous, because I was like, Well, now I gotta do the job! And keep this job, and not make anyone angry. But I felt like I was ready for that moment.

How would you describe your artistic philosophy?
If I had to boil it down, I just want everything to be completely unexpected. I want the element of surprise. Sentimentality … makes me uncomfortable. I’m the dude that hates love songs.

That’s a lot of pop songs.
Yeah, I know. I grew up hating them. I was like, Man, there’s something wrong with me. I’ve got a dark, cold heart. I really just don’t want anyone to be professing their feelings. It’s like, No, man. Button it up. Keep that shit on lock.

If you can find a way to exhibit a feeling or exhibit a desire without professing it, that’s a much more interesting choice to me. I’m all about trying to find the weirdest, most surprising thing that we can find. It’s a lot harder to do that in TV because you have a little less time to get weird. All these jokes were vetted by a room full of really brilliant people. What’s that unexpected thing that takes something from being just great? But also, how do you have the drop on an audience?

I mean, I do think of The Good Place as a somewhat sentimental show. It has a certain gooeyness at the center. I like that. It’s also part of what a network sitcom is, but I’m curious how you feel about that.
Yeah, I don’t feel that it’s sentimental because anytime we have that moment where a heart cracks open, it’s laced with a bunch of jokes and weirdness. It’s not like, “Look at me. I’m going to tell you a thing in your ear, and I’m going to shed one tear when I say it.” It’s a lot of people having feelings and trying not to display the fact that they’re having feelings. That’s why the show works, because it’s a joke-forward sort of show. When we do have those moments where anyone is being sentimental or saying something very heartfelt, it happens in such a way that it feels somewhat infrequent. It stands out in stark relief. It does sort of affect you.

If we went to that well too much, it would be corny, but I don’t think we go to that well that often. A lot of the writing very much fits within the things that I like.

Have there been moments of surprise or unexpected delights during performance for you?
Manny gets me all the time when we’re working because there’s something about his character and the gonzo weird stuff that he does that particularly tickles me. We go into the scene and you look over, and Manny is in the corner doing something just bizarre that works, and maybe it’ll make it into the show, maybe it won’t. I’m the easiest mark. I’m the first to break when Manny does something weird.

The first thing that comes to mind is when Eleanor is making the speech after the Brainy Bunch is breaking up. She says like, “I know you guys all have lives to go back to. Well, maybe not me and Jason. We’re straight trash.” Each time when we got to that part of the speech, they were saying, “Manny, just do something.” He would just be like, “Brap, brap, brap,” to me, or just weird stuff with this placid look on his face. It’s so bizarre, but he gets me. He gets me a lot. There have been times also when he’s tried so hard to get me that he’s gotten himself. He’s done some stuff and I wouldn’t break, and then he starts breaking. I’m like, “You see? You see?”

Has it been a challenge to play the straight man?
Yeah. It’s hard for me. Mainly because you’ve got to stay in your lane. My job is to mostly set up some really good jokes and hand the ball off. There’s a way in which that takes pressure off of me, but then it’s also like you don’t want to disappear; you don’t want to be bland; you don’t want to not give your scene partners something to work with. It’s trying to ride a line of being alive, being alert, having an idea of comedic timing, an idea of, If I set it up like this, this will allow them to render it in a way that gets a laugh. It can be tough, but it’s also a lot of fun, too. At certain times I just get to be human. And subtle in a way that if you’re not the straight man you don’t get to do.

There is a degree of taking in people’s energy and being what I need to be at the time. Also, possibly, often, just disappearing for a while if my anxiety is starting to get the best of me, [and] I’m starting to feel a little weird like, I can’t believe that I’m here. They’re all going to find out soon enough that I’m not supposed to be here. They meant to hire another guy. It’s silencing all that stuff. That went unexpectedly dark.

I’m ready to go there. Do you think you’re a neurotic person?
Yes. Absolutely. One hundred percent. Neurotic, anxious. The major difference between me and Chidi is that he talks about it a lot. When I’m feeling neurotic and anxious, I just completely disappear. I don’t want anyone to be dealing with that or see it. I remember I was on a date some years ago. We met at a party and we had a great time, and then we went on the date and I was really nervous. Eventually, after a couple of drinks, I started to relax. Then she said to me, “Oh, there you are. I was wondering when that guy was going to show up.” Of course, that weirded me out again immediately. I was right back to where I was. It was like, Fuck, I thought I was covering. Hearing that I was like, Oh, so people do notice when I’m freaking out and I’m a little bit nervous and I’m not easy and I’m not free. I don’t want to make people deal with that, so I tend to disappear.

My understanding is that you grew up very religious. How did that impact you?
Yeah, I did. It was Church of God in Christ, which was a very conservative Pentecostal group. I grew up there. I also went to a nondenominational Evangelical Christian school for a lot of my youth. I think about it in retrospect and I’m like, “That was kind of fucked up.” Honestly, one of the greatest sources of anxiety and fear in my life was my religion. I was afraid at all times I was doing something that was going to get me sent straight to Hell. I was just scared all day, every day of my youth.

There’s this book called Turmoil in the Toy Box. In this book there were all these toys that young, good Christian boys and girls shouldn’t play with and shows they shouldn’t watch. Anything that was sort of popular for kids was in this book: G.I. Joes, Barbie, Cabbage Patch Kids, Transformers, He-Man. They were demonized. I remember a bunch of kids from my school got ahold of it and were like, “See, you can’t play with that anymore. That’s evil.” My mom, thankfully, was just like, “You’re a kid. You’re not casting spells. You’re playing with toys and using your imagination. It’s not real. It’s make-believe. You’re not going to Hell for playing with He-Man.” I got so weirded out that I actually wound up throwing away a lot of my He-Man toys because I was freaked out that I was playing with something that was going to condemn me to Hell. That sort of rigidness scared the mess out of me. Then, it was also being one of the very few black kids.

How did that affect you?
Everything is fine until around seventh grade, and then all of a sudden it was like everyone is noticing each other’s differences and starting to poke at them a lot more. At this Christian school, the movie Malcolm X came out when I was in seventh grade. I remember my Bible teacher at the time telling us how Malcolm X was an evil man and that he advocated for the murder of white people, and also he was Muslim, so he was a bad guy. It’s this thing where I’m the only black dude in the class and I’m being taught this.

I remember that moment of like, I thought this guy was someone who fought for people like me and now all of a sudden I’m hearing from an adult that he’s a bad guy. That was strange. Fortunately, there were other black kids in the school that combated that narrative for me. Again, whenever I heard something crazy, my mom was always just like, “No, don’t pay attention to that.” I’d be a full-on head case if my mom didn’t straighten me out when something weird was said.

When did you start to have a break with religion?
Honestly, it was meeting gay kids as a teenager and having that confrontation with myself of like, Wait, I’m just not supposed to like this person? This person is fun to hang out with. This is a cool person, and I’m supposed to believe that they’re going to hell and what they are is something less and evil? It all started to fall apart. I was like, This doesn’t track. Then as I got older, it’s like you can use the Bible to basically justify anything. The more I started to become familiar with that, I was just like, Well, I need to take a little time away from this because it’s starting to really not make sense. The further I got away from it, the less anxiety I had about who I am, what I’m supposed to be doing, who I’m supposed to be. The more I pushed that away, the less I was fearful. I haven’t looked back since.

How would you describe Chidi’s place in the show?
Okay. If the universe was the Golden State Warriors starting lineup, healthy, Chidi would probably be a Draymond Green. If there’s a need for someone to score 30 points, you might get that, but if you need someone to score one point and get 12 assists and nine rebounds, I can do that. His place in this whole universe is to be the utility guy. Whereas I feel like definitely Ted [Danson] is Kevin Durant. D’arcy [Carden] is Steph Curry. Jameela [Jamil] is DeMarcus Cousins. Kristen [Bell] is Steve Kerr. She’s the coach. Manny [Jacinto] is definitely Klay Thompson.

I am professionally obligated to ask you about getting swole. Was that an intensive process?
The goal was honestly just to avoid ridicule. I was so afraid that I was going to be made fun of. And it’s just going to be me getting dumped on on the internet for the way I looked. I was terrified. I got made fun of for how I looked when I was younger. Like, honestly, right up through college, enemies and friends would make fun of the way I looked with my shirt off. I mean, I was a little overweight, and then I’ve also had other body issues that I feel really self-conscious about.

So when this episode came up, I was just like, No. Oh, God … Oh, grocery shopping. Oh, sprinkler. Oh, fuck. I was like, there’s no way I can hide. I also didn’t want to have the conversation of, “I’d feel really self-conscious taking my shirt off.” I don’t go to the beach. I don’t go swimming. I don’t do shit like that because I’m that nervous about it. I only do it when I absolutely have to.

So you didn’t try to convince them not to do it?
Nope. I was too scared to have the conversation. I didn’t want to reveal to them that I had a thing. I didn’t want anyone to know that I had a thing. So I just worked out really hard. Went on a diet. Like, I dieted for two weeks. I’ve been working out for two years now. I was hoping I’ll avoid ridicule. I’ll just look normal. No one will notice anything. And the joke will be funny, and that’ll be it. If no one says anything, I will have achieved my goal. I failed, which is fine. I don’t know, in my head, I look a little weird.

Weird how?
I feel like my torso is just doughy and weird. But then seeing everyone’s reaction, I was like, Maybe something’s wrong up top. Maybe I’m looking at myself and seeing something different in the mirror than other people are seeing. I just need to calm down.

Where do you think this dissonance comes from, of not seeing yourself the way that perhaps others see you?
I don’t know where that started. I mean, obviously during puberty your body freaks out. And maybe I never really sort of grew up in that respect. Maybe that part of my brain just stayed 14 and awkward and feeling weird and a little bit scared all the time like that. I think that maybe something didn’t progress the way that it was supposed to. I can’t really pinpoint anything that was the moment that I remember, that it was like, Oh, okay. I don’t see myself the way the world sees me at all.

But the real positive thing from all of that, beyond actually getting complimented on how I looked physically, was just the fact that it was like, Wow, I’d worked toward something that felt like I couldn’t get there. And I actually got there. That sense of control was nice. Like, I worked out and I dieted. It yielded an unexpected result, but still a positive one. That was a nice feeling, because at least physically, I never really had that sort of feeling where I’m in control of this.

So what is your thing?

I suffered severely from body issues. I was made fun of constantly when I was little. I think it’s also a problem with gay guys: They’re really crazy about their bodies, and it makes you feel like you are only valued for your body in a way that fucks with your whole sense of self and self-esteem. I’m still trying to work through that. I toggle between You all are being silly right now subjecting me to this and then the other part that’s like, Wouldn’t it be so freeing?

Yeah. That’s the thing. I was not at home when that episode aired, and a friend of mine said, like, “Yo, bro. Twitter wants Chi to get naked.” And I was like, “They do?” But some of the responses were negative, people being like, “Death to the gym body. How dare you body-shame me.” I was like, Man, I wish it was just that douchebaggy and simple, but honestly, I’d grown up with serious body issues and it’s messed with me all my life. It’s cut into me living fully in certain ways. And I hate that.

So I was like, “Yeah, man. I do work out.” Because I really just don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to be bothered. I don’t want to walk around and be self-conscious. And I’m still self-conscious, man. I was in Budapest, and they’re famous for their baths. I was in hell. I hated being that disrobed in front of that many people and in public. I just want to go to baths and feel free, man. That’s all I want to do.

All I want is to feel free.
All I want is to feel free. There’s also this thing where people think that guys don’t mind having their shirt off, or, like, it’s not that big a deal. But I know so many dudes who, as soon as they’re like, “Hey, we’re going to play shirts-versus-skins basketball,” they’re like, “I am not doing that.” Or they see that script and they see they’ve got to take their shirt off. And they’re just like, “Fuck.” I know more dudes who have that reaction than dudes who don’t care.

How do you feel when you have to do industry parties?
I’m pretty much anxious anywhere at all times, but those things, I feel like I run out of conversation so fast, and I’m just stuck, and I’m starting to sweat in my suit. I just don’t know how to keep the ball in the air. All I can think about is the fact that I’ve just dropped the ball, and I can’t make a comment on the fact that I’ve dropped the ball because that’s going to obligate them to say, “No, you didn’t.” Then I just wind up saying too much and I start not making sense. Oh, man.

I just don’t know how to be a person, especially once we’re like walking down a red carpet or something. Fucking forget about it. I’m the multiheaded fucking Hydra. I just make no sense. I feel like this baby tooth in the front is the only thing that shows up. Everything just feels wrong, like, I’m not supposed to be here. Like, I’m starting to smell bad because I got that stress sweat.

Do you feel like a high-profile job like The Good Place also helps you do the creative work that might not be as visible? I assume the financial stability is nice.
Well, you know, the financial stability is a big thing. Now I can only do stuff if I’m creatively intrigued by it. If I’m not, I can leave it aside because I’m not worried about Well, if this turns into a thing, I want them to call me. It’s nice to have just enough of a cushion to be creative and not be worried all the time. I feel like everybody’s got to go through that here, where they’re just working, they’re hustling, and in the back of their head, it’s a little bit like, Fuck, how am I gonna make rent this month, and Can I take this job? Because I have to also make sure that I hit enough shifts at the other job that I’m working at.

It’s nice to not really be thinking about that. I didn’t realize how worried I was all the time until this job happened, and then I was like, Oh, I’m literally not scared for the first time in my adult life about next month. Which is a fucking luxury! That’s so fucking nice.

The Tortured Soul of William Jackson Harper