William Jackson Harper: ‘The Good Place’ celebrates selflessness

William Jackson Harper arrives for the Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 6. File Photo by Mike Nelson/EPA-EFE

Jan. 24 (UPI) — William Jackson Harper, who plays Chidi Anagonye in “The Good Place,” describes the NBC sitcom as “a salve for a disillusioned and frightened public.”

“I think that there’s been probably a serious emphasis in the last few years on winning, on getting what you want, no matter what the cost,” Harper said, adding that the show highlights a need to celebrate selflessness.

“The Good Place” follows four humans played by Harper, Kristen Bell (Eleanor), Jameela Jamil (Tahani), Manny Jacinto (Jason), a demon (Ted Danson) and a kind of Siri come-to-life named Janet (D’Arcy Carden) in the afterlife as they try to become better people in the hopes they’ll make it into The Good Place.

Harper’s Chidi, an indecisive professor of morality and human ethics, gives the other characters ethics lessons along the way.

“It’s really heartening to see a group of people and other beings going out of their way to take care of each other,” Harper said. “Because, essentially, the six of us are all we have.”

Before landing his role in “The Good Place,” Harper contemplated quitting acting altogether. In his mid-30s, after 14 years in New York City theater, the struggle of trying to make it was getting to him.

“I really want something resembling stability at some point,” Harper said.

The actor, who recently wrote his first play, was nominated for a Critics’ Choice Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for his role as Chidi.

Harper said if he could assume any other role in the show he would be most excited to play Jason, the “pre-successful” DJ from Florida with a devotion to the Jacksonville Jaguars, played by Jacinto.

“Manny in particular sort of has my number when it comes to cracking me up on set.” Harper said. “I would love to … give him a taste of his own medicine.”


Harper made his debut as a playwright at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in October with his play “Travisville,” which was set during the Civil Rights Movement in his hometown of Dallas. He had watched the “Eyes on the Prize” PBS documentary with his mother as a child and asked her about her experience during that time.

“I just remember asking if she remembered anything from that time and what was it like because I was little and I couldn’t imagine a time where people would behave that way to each other,” Harper said.

As his mother remembered it, Dallas had less involvement in the movement as compared to other Southern cities like Selma or Birmingham, Ala. Harper focused the play around the disputes between community leaders in the church and City Hall as they related to the city’s plan to build a new shopping center in a black neighborhood. His aim was to show audiences the reality of life in that era.

“When I started, it was more about sort of trying to remove the sepia-toned sort of rose-colored glasses vision that we have of the Civil Rights Movement where, you know, everything’s fixed by the early ’70s,” Harper said.

“I wanted to tell a story that more clearly reflected the world that we live in now, rather than the one that I think we all wished we lived in.”

Harper next stars in the horror film “Midsommar” from writer and director Ari Aster of “Hereditary.” He will also be featured in two episodes of “Jack Ryan” opposite “The Office” alum John Krasinski and is about to start filming a legal drama alongside Anne Hathaway.

The season finale of “The Good Place” airs Thursday at 9:30 ET on NBC.


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