By now, perhaps you’ve heard the name William Jackson Harper.
For those of you who unfamiliar with him, allow me to offer this introduction: William Jackson Harper is best known as the actor who plays Chidi Anagonye—an indecisive, neurotic philosophy professor—on NBC’s The Good Place. After a decade of paying his dues on and off-Broadway, the 38-year-old is now all glowed-up; he recently received a Critics’ Choice Award nomination for ‘Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series and just months ago, had his big debut as a playwright with Travisville (a play based in Texas during the 1960's). And thanks to The Good Place, Harper has officially become a sex symbol—courtesy of his topless scene in season 3—a single moment from which we’re certain Harper amassed tons of ‘stans’—we mean fans.
But Harper isn’t fazed by his newfound celebrity at all. He’s still just a regular dude from Texas, who, on any given day, you might catch walking his dog on the streets of Brooklyn. Like his character Chidi, the actor often vacillates and even doubts himself from time to time, because, well, he’s human. For example: Harper didn’t think he would land the role of Chidi on The Good Place because he’s a dark-skinned black man, playing the love interest of Eleanor (played by Kristen Bell), who is a lily-white woman.
Aside from his acting chops, what makes Harper resonate are his vulnerability and willingness to speak openly about his doubts and fears. It’s refreshing. I had a chance to chat with the actor before Season 3 of The Good Place came to an end; here’s an excerpt of our conversation, edited for clarity.
The Root: Where is your personal good place?
William Jackson Harper: That’s a really big question. I’m a simple man. I guess when I’m just hanging out with my lady. Bingeing shows–watching something goofy that we’re both enjoying and eating a lot of tacos. I’m in good shape [laughs].
TR: Speaking of being in good shape, I feel like it would be remiss of me not to mention what everyone’s been talking about: The shirtless scene. I read in another interview that you were chubby as a child, and now people are stannning over your body. How do you deal with this?
WJH: Oh, I just don’t. There’s no way that I can engage with it and not come off like a douchebag. So I feel like it’s nice, and it’s great that people responded to positively. I’m super happy and overwhelmed. I think that’s the safest thing for me to do. Just leave it right there. It makes you feel nice and I try not to let it go to my head, right.
TR: Do you feel like you feel like you’re being objectified at all?
WJH: Sure. But I mean, if I’m honest, I’m totally OK with that. It’s not the norm for me. It’s an experience, so I’m totally down to just have that happen for a little while [laughs].
TR: I read that you thought that you wouldn’t get the role–you wouldn’t get to be Kristen Bell’s love interest. Specifically because you are a darker man. Can you speak to that, please?
WJH: Yeah I just feel like I hadn’t seen a lot of that. I see very little of it. It’s an interracial couple and I feel like that’s something that on network TV we don’t see it without it being, you know, something that is germane to the existence of the show, or the existence of the episode.
I just don’t know how a guy like me would land a role like that. I just hadn’t seen it on network TV. Granted, you know, the creators of the show weren’t thinking like that; it was really just a product of growing up in the U.S. [But] I didn’t feel like I had a real shot.
And the thing that I love about the show, beyond the fact that I get to play this role, it’s normalizing interracial relationships. The fact that I’m a dark-skinned black man and Kristen Bell is a fair-skinned white woman, and that we’re in a relationship is secondary to the fact that we’re just dealing with issues of life and death and eternity. And trying to save our mortal souls. That’s what’s important.
TR: Another thing I think is clearly being normalized is the name “Chidi.” It’s obviously an African name. He’s also a professor. Can you speak to the importance of that representation in media?
WJH: Chidi’s a nerdy guy and neurotic.
TR: And very much like you.
WJH: Very much like me. I feel like I’m not the only one like me that I know. And I feel like that’s something that I haven’t seen in a lot of. Especially when it comes to black men on network TV. There’s something hyper-masculine that’s put out there. It’s not to say that Chidi is not masculine but it’s just like another part of that masculinity is that neuroses. And I think [that] broadens the face of what people will be considered for roles—I’m hoping. I think it’s also the fact that he’s a youngish professor . . . It’s atypical to see, but it’s not something that I haven’t seen in my life.
TR: So you’ve had what you describe as almost an addiction to theater.
WJH: Oh, yeah.
TR: You’re still involved in terms of writing, but this is where you’ve really paid your dues. What’s your preference between theater and television?
WJH: I think that for me, theater has been a much more active engagement as an artist. You spent a lot of time rehearsing and trying to find the most surprising yet most memorable way to render a scene and render a line. It’s just a much more active pursuit. Whereas on working on the set there’s a lot of waiting around—you wait, and wait, and wait. You shoot for a minute or two, then you go and wait some more. That would require a different kind of concentration.
The other thing is there’s a subtlety that you get to have on camera. There’s ways in which being on camera can feel way more artificial, but when you know you’re doing that wide or medium shot and you just get to be with your scene partners and you don’t have to worry about you know turning out for the audience. Speaking at a volume that’s slightly louder than normal. You don’t have to think about these things, you just get to just exist. That’s pretty incredible too. I go back and forth. When I’m doing TV and film, I really miss doing theater and when I’m doing theater, I really miss TV and film.
TR: So this is that indecision we see in Chidi that lives with you.
WJH: Yeah, totally.
TR: Let’s talk about Travisville, and being able to show and flex this other muscle [as a playwright). And having success in it too, based on reviews.
WJH: All that goes to the director and the cast and the theater really, helping steer that process. I definitely had something I wanted to get off of my chest. Something I wanted to say.
TR: What is it that you wanted to get off your chest?
WJH: We have this vision of the Civil Rights Movement as something that happened and is over. Everything after—you know, the early ‘70s—was perfect. And you know, we grew and we’re finished. I hate that. It makes me so upset. I feel like the world that we live in now does not reflect that. We live in a much more complicated, unresolved world. I wanted to write something that dialogued with where we are, rather than where we wish we were.
You can catch William Jackson Harper on The Good Place, Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Previous seasons are available on Netflix and Hulu.