William Jackson Harper Faces the Big Questions

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On NBC’s The Good Place, now its fifth and final season, Chidi faces the ultimate question of how to save the world. It’s one of many grand, philosophical questions the comedy tries to ambitiously and charmingly tackle – questions of humanity’s inherent goodness or badness, how to save the universe, whether the universe is worth saving at all.

For Chidi, played by William Jackson Harper, indecision has been his Achilles heel and the character flaw that plagues his life and relationships, ultimately landing him in the Bad Place despite his obsession with adhering to moral philosophy. And as the loopy, fast-winding series nears its end it’s up to Chidi to decide how to save the world. An indecisive, anxiety-ridden philosophy nerd is faced with the ultimate question of the universe. For William Jackson Harper, the actor portraying him, feelings of anxiety and indecision are relatable.

I met with Harper and a few other writers in Rockefeller Center and the big question – for me, at least – was which direction this conversation would turn. The Good Place is a witty comedy that does its best when commenting playfully on the most non-playful of things, and Chidi is its structural center, the fulcrum on which the silly teeters with the profound. While I wanted to talk about the actor getting swole during his role – fans undoubtedly recall his sudden shirtless scene and early Easter egg comments about him being surprisingly fit— and the hilarious thirst tweets that followed him thereafter, his career also has its thoughtful, sober side.

Harper is a playwright whose Travisville portrayed a little-known history of his hometown, Dallas, during the Civil Rights era. In it, Harper showed Dallas as the major city whose silence during the Civil Rights movement was intentional: white business elites in Dallas wanted the city poised as a stable city in the south that could remain profitable despite the chaos happening elsewhere in the country. Harper has a thoughtful-yet-chill vibe (he insisted repeatedly on closing our room door himself to shield our conversations from the noise and distractions of Rockefeller, and spoke of how he enjoys living in Brooklyn over LA because no one in New York cares that he is on TV). It lends itself to the frivolous and the profound and so we covered both, but with more emphasis on the latter sprung from one question. When Harper was asked what trait he shared most with Chidi, his answer was instant: indecisiveness.

Harper spoke of his own experience with the anxiety that comes from having options and not knowing which to choose, and the added weight that can turn decision-making into a debilitating exercise. When slipping into his character, that decision-based anxiety was both the most familiar aspect of his portrayal, but also the most stable. Playing a character who has been “reset” to his factory settings season after season (or over 800 times, within the show’s story) makes for a unique absence of character growth. Little of Harper’s portrayals could be based on Chidi’s character development, as Chidi had not developed at all but needed to remain consistent until the series nears its conclusion. In that way, playing the character is relatively easy compared to other, longer character arcs that build and evolve. It isn’t until now, five seasons in, that Chidi knows everything, bears the weight of that knowledge, and is changed.

Facing the paradox of choice is the culmination of Chidi’s character arc, and as we discussed Harper’s career outside of The Good Place it’s easy to see how the same could be true for this stage of his acting career. This year saw Harper in Midsommar; Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan; a new film, Dark Waters, playing opposite Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway that premiered in theaters just this month. Add to that Amazon’s upcoming Underground Railroad, based on the bestselling Colson Whitehead novel, and you have a kaleidoscope of genres that make Harper’s career an open field without a set path. It’s an enviable position for a breakthrough actor but perhaps not without its anxiety: with an influx of choices, which are the right ones?

The multitude of options can make for both a million right and wrong answers – if one is to believe that right and wrong ones exist at all – and Harper’s career is set to face the same challenge. With the options ahead, which direction is the path to take? It’s a happy problem for an actor’s career to say the least, but a challenge, nonetheless. If future behavior is best predicted by past choices, it appears the actor will find a path with the most thorns. As we talked about his knowledge of The Good Place prior to signing on (he only learned about the resets shortly before filming them), it was clear that in the beginning he saw the script as a fun project whose story would run out after a single season. Many fans – me included – could be forgiven for the same thought when the series began. It was discussions over Slave Play though, and the messy nature of art’s conversation with its audience, where the wheels in his head seemed to visibly churn. (When asked about Slave Play, the new Broadway play by queer Black playwright Jeremy O. Harris, he noted that he does not believe his opinion matters; that he is most interested in the opinion of Black women on how the subject was addressed.)

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So what’s next? The obvious answer is that we’ll find Harper continuing to chase the messy questions. Chidi discovered his own truth in facing the question of the universe, that there is no answer, and for William Jackson Harper’s career the same might be true. Whatever he chooses though, it would seem his career has prepared him for it by insulating him from being typecast, allowing him to keep chasing the mess. Facing the big questions, though never quite having the answers, is the purpose he finds in art. The question of his gym routine remains unanswered though, because there’s never enough time to talk intelligently on unintelligent things.

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  • Jordan Calhoun is a writer in New York City. He holds a B.A. in Sociology and Criminal Justice, B.S. in Psychology with a minor in Japanese, and an M.P.A. in Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy. He might solve a mystery, or rewrite history. Find him on Instagram and Twitter @JordanMCalhoun

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