William Jackson Harper is in a great place right now – literally. The 36-year-old actor is a key player in NBC’s new heavenly comedy, which stars Kristen Bell and sitcom vet Ted Danson.
The Good Place has a simple premise. Eleanor, played by Bell, dies and, despite her unsavory character ends up in heaven. Harper’s character Chidi is her “soul mate” – the person who tries to help her navigate her way in an afterlife where she clearly doesn’t belong.
During the promotion of the show Harper confessed that, as a five-year-old, his idea of heaven was a simple one.
“When I was a kid, they made us write these essays about what heaven would be like,” he says. “I went to this Christian school in Texas and the thing that I wrote was no bees. No bees. No mud. No infirmities.”
Now Harper, whose credits include a role in the 2010 film All Good Things and this year’s Sundance breakout How to Tell You’re a Douchebag–tells EBONY.com what his idea of heaven is today, and gives us the lowdown about his new show.
EBONY.com: Tell us a bit about your character Chidi. He seems like a bit of a goody two shoes.
William Jackson Harper: He’s myopic in his interests. Everyone in The Good Place is kind of a goody two shoes in their way.
EBONY.com: What about his relationship with Kristen Bell’s character? How does that develop?
Harper: We’re soul mates. Once you get to the Good Place you get your soul mate, whoever you’ve been searching for your entire life – as in love or just connection. They can be whatever you want. We’re soul mates and we’re paired up immediately. But, as it turns out she’s not really supposed to be there, so [she’s] not my soul mate and I’m not hers, technically.
EBONY.com: What does this sitcom bring to TV that’s different?
Harper: It’s an incredibly smart show. Our writers’ room is jam packed with the most forward thinking and surprising minds. I feel like this show has the potential to catch up with audiences. I feel like a lot of audiences are on board for a much more interesting ride than typically a lot of television shows dole out.
EBONY.com: Looking at your past projects, you seem to mix theater and film and TV. Which medium do you prefer?
Harper: As of right now I love doing TV and film, because it’s still relatively new. I’ve been doing theater for a long time so that’s something I understand. I’m such a babe in the woods when it comes to TV and film. I’m still learning. It’s exciting.
I have a project that I’m going back to in New York, actually a play that I wrote that I did a workshop of. It’s called “The Man from Madisonville.” So I’m going to be doing that.
Honestly I hope to be able to do as much theater as I can when I’m not working on this or working on other projects because it’s so much fun. It’s a completely different animal. There’s so much control of the audience’s experience when you’re on stage doing a play, whereas when working on camera there’s a lot of people that have to do a lot of things exactly right for anything that I do to matter at all.
EBONY.com: It’s interesting that you say you’re a “babe in the woods” when it comes to TV because you’re working with Ted Danson, who is a veteran in this genre. So what was it like working with him and Kristen Bell? Did you learn anything from them?
Harper: I learned a ton from them. I work with Kristin Bell a lot. Most of the scenes I have in the pilot are with her.
They’re so alive and smart and they have such an innate understanding of comedy and the medium. They really understand the medium in a way that I don’t, so I’m literally watching them all the time on set and trying to just take lessons. Take lessons and use some of their skills and apply them. I’m still figuring that out.
EBONY.com: But is it fun?
Harper: It’s a lot of fun. Once you learn how to free up in front of the camera it’s like nothing else. I feel like I’m finally starting to free up and that’s when it gets good.
EBONY.com: What’s your idea of heaven now, as an adult?
Harper: It’s basically hanging out with my lady, playing video games and eating lots of tacos. Hanging out with my lady could literally be anything. It can be us taking trips or sitting at home binge watching a show. Video games are video games and tacos can take place at any point in one of those aforementioned two. Every taco is an adventure.
EBONY.com: Are you prepared for the sort of new kind of fame you’re going to have with such a high profile role?
Harper: I’m totally unprepared. I have no idea what any of this means right now. Honestly the only thing I’m invested in is doing the best work I can every single day. The other stuff I feel that’s a bridge I’ll cross when I come to it. Right now I’m just having fun trying to do good work.
The Good Place premieres on NBC on September 19, 10pm/9pm Central.