How a Shirtless Scene and Playing Dead Changed The Good Place's William Jackson Harper

Harper opens up about how the last three seasons on the hit NBC comedy have impacted him

By Chris Harnick Jan 17, 2019 9:32 PMTags
The Good Place, William Jackson HarperNBC

Being dead has been good for William Jackson Harper. As one of the stars of The Good Place, Harper has seen his life change dramatically—in some ways.

"First off, a lot things are exactly the same. I still take the subway around the city all day, I live in the same place. Everything is very much the same in that regard. I think the thing that's different now is every now and again I get an ego boost from a fan of the show who just comes up and is like, ‘Hey, man. I really like the show and I really like your work on it,'" Harper told E! News. "Or I have these interviews, like I'm having with you right now. I'm just so used to working and no one really paying that much attention to the work that I'm doing that it's interesting, it's strange to sort of have people take notice."

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People noticed him enough to nominate Harper for a 2019 Critics Choice Award for playing Chidi Anagonye on The Good Place, a show about humans in the afterlife learning to be better people (better late than never), and the show was recently nominated for a Golden Globe. The critically acclaimed show also picked up an Emmy nomination in 2018. Harper doesn't let the acclaim and growing fandom get in the way of his job.

"I'm tuning it out. I can't take that to work with me. I feel like we're doing good, honest work. I think we're all really invested, we're all really nerdy about what we're saying with each other, narratively with the kind of story we're telling—we're all really invested in it and want it to be good," he said. "And so it's like that other stuff, it's very sweet and I think we're all honored and humbled by it but—I can speak for myself, I, really, am just happy that I get to do something so artistically fulfilling that people are responding to. I just want to maintain that."

One thing he doesn't tune out is the lessons taught in the show. "It sort of made me re-examine, like, where in my list of priorities being a good person was," he said. "Now…I always try to do the right thing by people, but I think now I'm making a much more conscious effort all the time, ‘cause it's like, ‘Oh, it doesn't really hurt to just put a little more good in the world.' It just doesn't hurt anything."


Now that the show is in its third season, it seems Harper has truly grown comfortable in Chidi's skin. The character is incredibly indecisive, and at times crippled by anxiety related to that. Yet thanks to exposure to Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Michael (Ted Danson), Janet (D'Arcy Carden), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto), Chidi has grown…a bit. And so has Harper.

"Yeah, 100 percent," Harper said about his ability to relate to Chidi's neurosis. "I'm straight trash at making decisions and I am a pretty anxious person. I think where Chidi and I defer a lot is, Chidi is very extroverted and Chidi likes to talk about his paralysis, I on the other hand just shut up and go away."

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But the show has given him some peace of mind. "I'll tell you what: I am not worried. I think as a performer and any artist will tell you, it's a very tenuous existence and I think that's been the biggest change, is just kind of knowing where next month is coming from. That's nice, not to have that brain space taken up being worried. It's allowed me to be open to new things," he said.

The Good Place also let him overcome childhood insecurities. In an earlier season three episode, Harper's character has a breakdown, stripping off his clothes and making a rather disgusting chili full of Peeps and M&Ms. What you saw on screen was what he ate, and while he said it was made "palatable," it didn't taste good, but it wasn't enough to make him vomit. "It was fine," he said. And he's seen fans making it…and eating it.

"Why would you guys do that? Why?! Why would you do that to yourself? I had no choice, but they're choosing to do that to themselves," he laughed.

As for going shirtless, which inspired many thirsty tweets from viewers, it was a big moment for Harper. He said he found the reaction to his shirtless scenes"great."


"Honestly, I grew up very self-conscious about being shirtless in public. I was one of those kids who would swim with whatever T-shirt was available…I was really nervous [to do the scene]. Not only did I avoid ridicule, but people actually responded positively. I don't know, I sort of laid to rest a very deep childhood demon, you know? That is what it was for me," he said.

The Good Place airs Thursdays, 9:30 p.m. on NBC.

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