hances are very high when you hear the name William Jackson Harper it doesn’t immediately ring a bell. That will change very soon though once folks catch him regularly on NBC’s new comedy The Good Place. Born in Dallas, now residing in Flatbush,Brooklyn (he’s high key my neighbor) Harper boasts an extensive background in theater securing a role in “All The Way” and some notable Off-Broadway appearances such as “Modern Terrorism, “Placebo and “Romeo & Juliet” just to name a few.
Harper is no stranger to the small screen making guest appearances on “30 Rock,” “The Blacklist,” “Law & Order,” “Law & Order: CI,” Hulu’s “Deadbeat,” “High Maintenance,” “Unforgettable” and the children’s series “The Electric Company.”
All small fries compared to what he considers his crowning achievement in his acting career, starring along side Kristen Bell and acting legend Ted Danson in The Good Place.
The Good Place tells the story of Eleanor (Kristen Bell) who by some miscalculation ends up in the “The Good Place” instead of “The Bad Place”. Harper stars as Chidi, Eleanor’s kind, super nice and extremely nerdy soul mate who is tasked with helping Eleanor navigate her new surroundings. On top of that he has to help Eleanor become a much better person so she won’t get booted from The Good Place.
Team SFPL’s own Bernard “Beanz” Smalls got a chance to attend a breakfast meet and greet with Harper.
The star spoke on his role, the casting process, which presidential candidates would make it into The Good Place, more people of color landing television roles, soulmates and more.
Get familiar with the rising star William Jackson Harper in the in the full interview below:
Tell us about the role.
I didn’t realize how significant the role was. When we auditioned we didn’t have the script. They had some dummy sides they sent to us and we did that. They called us in for a meeting and they go “The character that you read for is not actually the character you’re playing. The character you’re playing is this and here’s the premise of the whole show.” We had to keep everything a secret for a long time. That’s when I found out “Oh I’m going to be Kristen Bell’s soul mate.” So I have to act with her and act like I’m not nervous or afraid to be opposite this huge star.
So you actually had some real life stomach pains?
Yes, once the initial shock and excitement subsided it was just like now I have to do that job.
How is it working on a TV show different from what you’ve done coming from an extensive theater background?
It’s completely different. I have in the last couple of years, started to do more on camera stuff but theater is very much an actor’s medium. You get up there and for the next hour and a half, two hours you are very much in control of that experience. When you’re working on TV there’s a lot of different people doing a lot of different things in order for this to remotely work at all. You do like these little bite size sort of snippets and then you do it again, and again, and again, and so the technique is different.
How do you feel about the choice to cast more people of color?
I’m super excited about it. There’s a significant amount of people of color on this show and I think that’s incredibly important.
Have you ever done anything that touched on the after-life?
No nothing like this. I think this is a really cool concept. I think it’s so atypical it’s like there’s something worth watching and worth getting excited about as an actor. It’s not a rehash or retread of anything so that’s pretty cool. In that way it almost feels like, I do a lot of new plays and usually when you’re doing new plays they’re pretty much trying to do something new every time. Every play that I get is pretty different and this feels like that, it’s a very different thing.
Has this made you think more about the after-life or impacted you in any way?
It’s actually made me think about ethics and moral philosophy. The dilemmas and conundrums that come up when you’re trying to figure out what is the absolute right thing to do. It seems so simple but once you actually do something thinking and reading there’s a lot more to it than I thought. There’s this article that Mike Schur sent to us and it took me a while to get through because it was so dense. Morality itself is a lot more nuanced than I think I thought about for a long time.
What was it like working with Ted Danson? Was that surreal for you?
Yes, absolutely I grew up watching him. He’s like the sweetest man ever. He is the nicest guy. He’s awesome. He’s a super nice guy, super sweet, and a really giving scene partner. He’s the best and everybody loves him with good reason.
How was the casting process?
It was pretty swift. Actually I was kind of trying to make the transition out of acting because I’m getting a little bit older. You know black don’t crack but my heart really couldn’t take the pain anymore. I was thinking about it and started dipping my toes into other things and started figuring out how to live like a grown up. Not making it the center of my life and have it become a thing I do when I want to do it and have a real job. So I was like I’ll go out to L.A. for pilot season, you know just one more. I actually auditioned for this here [in New York] and then I went out to L.A. and got a call that they wanted to see me out there. I go in test, Kristen’s there I didn’t know she was going to be there. Then I just went home and waited. I actually did the test on my birthday, which is February 8. A few days later I went to this exhibit and a friend of mine just said “you know what you have to do you have to watch the pilot episode of Cheers because it’s really good and it still holds up,” and that’s what I did and I got the call that I was going to be on the show with Ted Danson.
Do you believe in the after-life?
Yes, I do but I haven’t really done a whole lot of thinking about it in a while. I used to think about it a lot when I was little and now that I’m older a lot of my other beliefs have shifted and now so I just hold on to that one because I really just don’t want it to be just sleep when it’s all said and done.
Are there any special guest stars?
There are some surprises coming up. There’s some cool stuff coming up. I’ll leave it there.
On the show getting into The Good Place was broken down by the numbers. If it were really like that I know a lot of people wouldn’t be able to get in, myself included. They made an interesting thing point about out of all the presidents only one managed to get in. I’m not sure if you’ve been keeping up with the current political climate but out of the current candidates for President who do you think would make it into the good place?
No, none of them. Absolutely not. None of us would either.
Not even Barack?
I have great respect for him but no, absolutely not. None of us, none of them. No politicians ever. You have to make too many big decisions that could affect too many people negatively once you’re a politician. I don’t think they would get it.
Is there a particular episode that you’re looking forward to audiences seeing or that you enjoyed a lot?
I haven’t seen what everyone’s about to see I just want people to see the first one and get that context under their belt because it’s such a weird thing.
Did you guys get to sit in the writer’s room and improvise on your character or is it really scripted?
It’s pretty scripted. They’ll be rewrites on the fly like as it goes with any sitcom or any TV show I imagine. People need to see the actor’s actually say the words before they know if it works but we didn’t do a whole lot of improvising. It’s hard to improve what the writers already bring to the table. There would be times where I would try to help but I wasn’t really helping so we stuck pretty closely to the script because it was the best version of everything.
What can audiences expect?
Literally anything can happen. Expect that you have no idea what’s next. Even as we were reading the scripts as they were rolling out we were just sort of like ‘what is happening now.’ So you have no idea where it’s headed or what you’re going to see from week to week.
What TV shows that are out right now are you a fan of?
I love Atlanta. It is so good. I’m a big fan of Game of Thrones. I caught on late and I started when the fifth season was starting to air. There was an episode I watched alone [The Red Wedding] and I had to reach out to people afterwards and text them I can’t believe you would let this happen to me. Stranger Things, I feel like they made that for me personally.
What’s your dream role?
I feel like I’m kind of getting to do it right now, a little bit because getting to be a black nerd on TV is kind of cool and I’ve always been pretty nerdy so it’s nice getting to do that. I love the idea of different aspects of the black experience being shown not that this is necessarily about the black experience but there are tons of guys like me. There’s something about not having to be cool because I’ve never been cool.
You’re already cool because you’re not like everyone else.
You know they say that and then people will make you very aware that you are the nerd.
Now that you’re on a network show, what is your message for aspiring actors?
Well I think some things I have done that I wish I hadn’t done is I wish I hadn’t tied my self-worth to whether or not I was working. That caused some problems and sort of made me a little myopic. I think in order to be a good actor you need to have life experience you need to live your life, and I think in a lot of respects I wasn’t because I was just chasing jobs. So just make sure that you’re living your life, maintaining your relationships, and being willing to sort of do the thing that will make the best story. Say yes to new experiences more than anything. On top of that I think maybe while you’re in the early stages of any career do anything you can, say yes as often as you can. Don’t sacrifice having your rent paid; but do as many jobs as you possibly can and grow your network of people. Don’t depend on a shortcut. I feel like now because I worked for so long I was ready for the opportunity when it came. No matter what happens I did the best job that I could.
Now that you have the job if you had to express your joy with a song which song would it be?
The one that comes to mind is “Jumpman” and that’s because that’s what I did as soon as I heard I got the job.
The show has an interesting and hilarious take on soul mates especially with the pairings. Do you believe in soul mates? Do you have a soul mate now?
Yes, I have a soul mate. You know I want to believe in that kind of magic. I kind of feel like you meet the person that you’re willing to put in the work for. Right now in my life I’ve found someone who I’m willing to put in the work for. More than anything it’s less about that cosmic thing and it all matches and it’s just easy. Yes there’s an aspect of that but then there’s this thing where this is great and I want to keep this at all costs, so do the work.
How much are you still involved with your band?
US Open. We haven’t gotten to play together in a while.
As an actor of color what do you honestly think about where Hollywood is right now as far as diversity inclusion?
I think there’s a long way to go but at least there are conversations being had. There are certain ways in which conversations are being held that make me uncomfortable. Like sometimes people will say they’re going diverse with this role so they’re going to pick a brown person. Let’s not make this a catchall for people of color. Let’s actually think about ways in which people of color can be represented in a way that actually makes sense. Which means getting more people of color in the writers room and getting women in the writers room. We have to represent our society a little more truthfully and it’s not all similarly abled white people all the time. The world is a very big place with a lot of different people. I like that there are conversations being had and people are starting to think about it but there’s a lot of work to be done.
What white superhero character on TV or film do you feel should be black?
I read somewhere that Iron Man is going to be taken over by a black woman and I would love to see that. That would be so so cool. I love Robert Downey Jr. I think he’s great but when I saw that I was like that’s awesome!
What other actors have you noticed are very vocal about representing minorities?
The actress from Fresh off the Boat, she’s going off right now. It’s funny because I feel like I’m in this bubble of actors who all share that belief. I feel like everyone that I associate with is hyperaware of the fact that there’s a huge disparity in representation. To me it feels like it’s the normal conversation that everyone’s having which I know is not the case for a lot of people. They have to actively think about putting people of color in front of the camera, or in the writer’s room; but for me and a lot of my colleagues that’s how we think things should be.
Do you enjoy writing?
I do. I’m actually working on a play right now that I wrote. We’ve got this killer group of actors.
What’s your message to audiences on why they should watch the show?
My message is this show is unlike anything you’ve ever seen on TV before.
You can catch William Jackson Harper trying his best to keep Eleanor out of purgatory in The Good Place on Thursdays on NBC 8:30 – 9 p.m. ET.
PHOTOS: NBC UNIVERSAL