The fall season is the signature time to find your new favorite TV show. With the weather cooling, darkness coming earlier, there is nothing that relaxes you more than curling up at home and finding a new primetime show to fall in love with, insert “The Good Place.”
“The Good Place” stars Kristen Bell who plays Eleanor Shellstrop. After a tragic and bizarre truck-involved accident at a grocery store, Eleanor dies and finds herself in “the good place” (think: heaven), where she is greeted by Micheal (played by Ted Danson) who shows her the ins and outs of the afterlife. Shortly after Eleanor meets her soulmate Chidi (played by William Jackson Harper), and discovers that there was a mix-up and she’s not supposed to be in the “good place” at all. From there we watch Eleanor and Chidi to clean Eleanor’s image up before he secret is exposed and she’s shipped off to the bad place. Blame Ebro had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with one of the show’s stars, actor William Jackson Harper who plays “Chidi” on the show. We discussed everything from his character on the breakout hit to diversity in Hollywood. “The Good Place” airs Thursdays at 8:30/7:30 C on NBC. Check out our interview below.
Blame Ebro: How is it working with Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, who is a sitcom legend?
William Jackson Harper: Working with both of them is great. I think it is a testament to the kind of people they are, that they work as often as they do. It was actually great to be in the room with these stars that are genuinely really sweet people. Both of them are just awesome. Ted Danson, yeah you’re right, he’s a legend. He’s a national treasure as far as I’m concerned! So for him to be as down to Earth and cool and kind and generous as an actor is pretty remarkable. And Kristen, honestly I… [laughs] Honestly, I spent the first couple of episodes just being intimidated. Because here I am in front of this huge star, she’s incredibly smart, incredibly talented, and this is sort of my biggest role to date. So I just couldn’t believe that I was there! So I was just trying not to fanboy out too hard and play the scene. But like I said, she’s incredibly kind, incredibly generous, and she’s one of those incredibly high-functioning people that has a million different things going on at all times and does all of them well. It’s something that I can’t do. [laughs] So for her to carry on what she does and show up all the time and rock the way she does, that’s a helluva feat.
Blame Ebro: Before we get more into your character and “The Good Place,” let’s talk about when you got the call that you were cast. What was going through your mind from the audition process up until your agent called and said you were cast as Chidi?
William Jackson Harper: I’ve done a lot of theater in the past. Most of my career until this point has been theater stuff and I loved doing it, I just couldn’t make a living wage doing it. Here I am, mid-30s, I have three roommates and struggling, and I thought it might be time to hang it up and see what else I can do with my life. So I actually started the process of trying to find a day job, something that I could tolerate. I had no idea what it was going to be because I had only been an actor for the last 15 years. I had day jobs, but they didn’t get in the way or demand much. I took a year away from theater at the time I was cast for “The Good Place,” [I was] just focus on trying to get some TV and film work and see if it would be a possibility to land some jobs in that arena. I initially audition [for “The Good Place”] here, [New York City] it went the way you expected it to go, if I didn’t hear back, it sucks, but it’s ok. Then I decided that I would go to L.A. for one more pilot season just for fun, just to give it one more shot. After I got to L.A., I received the call to meet with the producers. So I went in, met with the everybody, and we got along very well. By the time I got back home, they had said they wanted to test me, and I was like, “Ok, cool. That’s great!” So I go, I walk into the test there’s Kristen, that’s the first time I met her, I had no idea she was going to be in the room. For an unknown actor, nothing throws you off your game than walking into a room with a celebrity that you’re going to read with just standing right there. We read, the energy felt good, the chemistry felt good, and I went home, waited around for a week. By this time I have a greater investment in getting the role, but I’m still like “if it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.” I was actually watching the pilot episode of “Cheers,” a friend of mine told me I should really rewatch it because it held up very well as far as shows from the 80s go. It does! As I was watching Ted [Danson], my agent called me and said: “Hey man, you got the job.” I’m watching Ted Danson, and I’m getting a call right now that I’m going to be working with Ted Danson. So I immediately break into a sweat and kinda collapse on the floor. Then my phone starts blowing up with other agents at the agency, then my girlfriend comes through the door, and I told her, it was a big celebratory moment.
Blame Ebro: Let’s get into your character, Chidi. We see Chidi trying to help Eleanor [Kristen Bell] right her wrongs and learn about good karma. Chidi is nice, very intelligent, somewhat outgoing. But, on the flipside we see Ted Danson’s character [Micheal] trying to push Chidi into more activities like mapping and other activities besides writing. Chidi is a bit nerdy, do you relate to your character at all?
William Jackson Harper: I’m all Chidi. [laughs] I don’t have to go too far to get that character. I’m a pretty nerdy dude. I saw something on Twitter that I thought was really hilarious. This dude said “Chidi is Raj from ‘What’s Happening!!'” People had called me that before, I used to get upset about it, but then I thought I’m too old to get mad at the fact that I’m a nerd. I made that choice. So, just live with it. I am pretty nerdy, pretty obsessive. I write, I don’t like deadlines, and I tend to get sort of caught in my head when I’m trying to figure things out. Yeah, that is me. A lot of that is me. I probably wear my nerdiness less on my sleeve, but that’s me.
BE: Not to give the plot to the show away, but I feel like Eleanor’s secret will eventually come out. How important do you think Chidi will be in keeping Eleanor in “The Good Place”?
WJH: You have to wait and see. The thing about the show is there is a reveal and a cliffhanger with every episode because it’s just one of those things it unfolds in a very serialized fashion. I really don’t want to give too much away. Because the journey is more fun the less, you know about what’s coming up. I will say it gets very interesting.
BE: Do we eventually find out how Chidi died?
WJH: You have to wait and see.
BE: Oh, no!
WJH: yeah! [Laughs]
BE: I thought I was going to get an exclusive! So not even a hint? We have to stay committed for 13 episodes?!
WJH: Yes! I’m trying to keep this job. You have to watch all of them! [laughs]
BE: Right now in Hollywood diversity is at the forefront of conversations. I think the last three years we have seen Primetime television become more diverse than in years past. I think what is unique about “The Good Place’s” cast is that not only is it diverse in ethnicity, but also religion. In the first episode -within the first five minutes there’s a discussion about who was right about “The Good Place.” and Micheal says “The Christians were right, so were the Muslims, so were the Buddhist” etc. So how important is the cast’s diversity to pushing Hollywood to hire more actors of different backgrounds?
WJH: I think it’s incredibly important. I think the world is much more multicultural than what we typically see on TV. I feel like a lot of people’s lives look very different from what they see on TV. It’s not to say that people don’t have circles of friends that are all the same race, ethnicity or religion, I totally get that too. But, for me and for a lot of my peer group our world doesn’t look like that. I’ve been in New York for 12 years, and my world is very verse. The people that I associate with are not all one thing at any given time. I really appreciate this show and TV in general for embracing that kind of inclusion. I think it’s important also to represent people, in not only representing different ethnicities on screen, that’s important too, but showing people playing roles that just happen to be roles, but occupied by someone who looks different or sounds different, or moves differently and not making it the main [part] of the script. I think it’s cool to have different ethnicities in these roles and there’s no mention of ethnicity. And I think that’s worth wild too. There’s a lot of conversations being had, and I appreciate that I think we still have ways to go. One thing I like about this show is I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cast like this on Primetime TV very often, if at all. I think that’s kinda dope.
BE: One of the things I enjoy most about this show is how colorful the language is without cursing. I find it entertaining to watch the different ways the language is being flipped, and it makes it the kind of show you can watch with your family. How hard is it to keep a straight face during filming?
WJH: It gets tough. We’ve had some moments where some of us have actually said the curse word because you’re trying to reprogram yourself a little bit. In general, the course language substitutions are so witty that I spend a lot of time in awe of the way it is written because it totally works the same way. Here’s the other thing, it’s the perfect way to explain this person who would use all of this language is all of a sudden not use this language. Eleanor would totally just curse everyone out because that’s how she rolls! We can’t honestly say those words on TV, so it’s a great diversion. If you can’t cover it completely, you might as well point to it. I think that’s a really great philosophy. I think they do it really well. I remember reading the script thinking that is very clever.
BE: What would the perfect place be for you?
WJH: Career-wise I’m living the dream. Being on this show is literally the thing I’ve been working towards my whole life. Not saying there won’t be new goals, at some point but honestly, this is the thing that I wanted to do and I couldn’t imagine being on a better show and being involved with a better group of people. As far as my good place in general, I don’t know. Basically somewhere in a beautiful setting playing video games, eating tacos, and hanging out with my lady. That would be it.
BE: I want to circle back around to the time where you almost quit. Right now there may be an entertainer on the brinks of giving up. What advice would you give them when they’re so close to the finish line but feel like they can’t make it?
WJH: There’re a couple of different things: You never know what’s on the other side of the door, that’s something my girlfriend said to me. If you knew what was on the other side of the door, what would you do differently? It was an interesting thought exercise for me. If I knew that I was going to be ok would I seriously be contemplating quitting right now? Or if I knew that I wasn’t going to be ok, would I be seriously contemplating quitting right now. More than anything, what it made me realize is if it stops making you happy and it becomes a burden really think about whether or not you want to continue. If it makes you happy, but you’re not getting the success you want out of it, then maybe think about riding it out. For me, I think the reason why I stayed with acting is that I was happier doing that more than anything else. The reason why I thought about quitting was that it stopped making me happy and it was time for me to reevaluate. If you really love it and you really want to do it, stay with it. If you need another way to not tie your self-worth or your entire being in this thing then do that, just stay with it. Don’t let it run your entire life. But if it stops making you actively happy, then what’s the point? If you don’t like it anymore then why are you doing it?
Make sure you watch “The Good Place” Thursday nights at 8:30/7:30 pm C. only on NBC and catch up on old episodes here.