Emmy First-Timers Club: William Jackson Harper Wants to Challenge the Idea of Masculinity on TV

As part of E! News' weeklong celebration of the Emmy First-Timers Club, The Good Place's William Jackson Harper answered some burning questions.

By Billy Nilles Sep 19, 2020 1:30 PMTags
Watch: William Jackson Harper Talks "The Good Place" - Emmy Confidential

You never forget your first. For a lucky handful of TV personalities, that time is now. Get to know the names behind the nominations with Emmy First-Timers Club, E! News' weeklong celebration of newcomers with nods in some of the biggest categories!

For William Jackson Harper, the work was never about the reward.

The actor said goodbye to The Good Place back in January once NBC's philosophically-minded comedy came to an end after four seasons, but the TV Academy wasn't ready to send him off quite yet. Not before they could bestow upon him his first Emmy nomination for his work as indecisive academic Chidi Anagonye. (His nod in the Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series category is one of seven the show received at the 2020 Primetime Emmys for its big sendoff.)

And though fans of the show might argue the recognition was a tad overdue, Harper told E! News that it couldn't have come at a better time.

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"It feels great. It feels nuts. I mean, I just wasn't expecting it at all," he said of his nomination. "It feels like a great way to finish out the series. Awards were never really a big deal for our cast and crew. We just wanted to make something that affected people and that people got a good laugh at and people found interesting. Having this happen at the end of the show is nice because I feel like, at least for me, it kind of helped keep things honest."

While we await the results of Harper's category, which will be revealed when TV's biggest night gets virtually underway live on Sunday, Sept. 20, get to know the actor a bit better with his responses to our Emmy First-Timers Club questionnaire!

Melissa Herwitt/E! Illustration

Whose performances inspired you to become an actor?

It's hard to say. But I've always loved watching plays. So I think the first performance I saw that stuck with me was Billy Eugene Jones as Macduff in the play Macbeth at the Dallas Shakespeare Festival. It was the first time I had seen Shakespeare and stayed awake. Billy was great. I realized then that theater can be moving and exciting, rather than stiff. As far as movies and television, I never really thought that was in the cards for me, so I just enjoyed it.

What was the last non-acting job you held?

I was a file clerk for the corporate offices of a fitness corporation. My buddy Paco, who I was doing a play with at the time, hooked me up. We'd sit in a small space and file for hours. 

What TV show other than your own have you never missed an episode of?

I've watched a lot of things in their entirety, but the most recent appointment viewing for me was Watchmen. It was easily a top-five show for me.

Why We Really Forking Miss The Good Place

The TV show based on my life would be called:

My Bad.

When was the first time, if ever, you remember seeing yourself represented on TV?

Kadeem Hardison as Dwayne Wayne in A Different World. He was a funny Black quasi-nerd. I actually thought he was cool though! It was news to me that some people thought of him as "nerdy" for a while.

What do you want to see more of on TV?

That's a big question. First and foremost, I want to see more meaningful and considered diversity, and that feels like something that is improving.  Secondly, I have been thinking about our ideas of masculinity, and how damaging those ideas have been to our society. So I would like to see that broken down and interrogated more.

Todd Williamson/JanuaryImages/Shutterstock

What was the first thought that passed through your mind when you learned you were nominated?

"This happens to other people."

How did you celebrate your nomination?

We had a socially distant dinner with D'Arcy [Carden] and [her husband] Jason in their backyard. It was so cool to be nominated at the same time, and our paths to The Good Place had so many parallels. I think we were in a similar head space that day and needed to debrief.

Where will you put your Emmy if you win?

Somewhere I can look at it sometimes, but not on display. I hate that kind of flex.

To find out if Harper wins big, be sure to tune in when the 2020 Primetime Emmys go live on Sunday, Sept. 20 on ABC.

For more from the Emmy First-Timers Club, check out responses from Nicole Byer, Rain Valdez, Mamoudou Athie, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Jovan Adepo—and be sure to check back with E! News on Emmy Sunday!

Visit E!'s 2021 Emmy Awards page for a recap of TV's biggest night.