On a recent afternoon, under Rockefeller Plaza’s food court, a small group of journalists gathered to talk shop with William Jackson Harper, the handsome man who carved a place in television history playing the character, Chidi, in NBC’s hit comedy, “The Good Place,” created by Mike Schur.
The table is filled with plates of avocado toast and soft, perfectly fried calamari. On an empty plate, a menu for lunch with an attentive waiter poised, waiting to take our orders.
Unless you’ve completely gone off the grid, you must know about “The Good Place,” which has racked up several Emmy and Golden Globe nominations along with a Peabody. Not bad for a series that’s only been on the air for four seasons. Yet, despite this success and dedicated fan base, creator Schur made the bold choice to wrap up the series on his terms with season 4.
Harper arrived five minutes early, which means he was on time. “Are all these mines,” he says, referring to the full plate of fried calamari. “I can’t eat all of this, I mean I could, but then I would be like, wow, I ate all this.”
Jackson is just 38. Before the hit television show, he spent most of his life living in New York, trying to make a career happen in the theater. He paid his dues being a broke actor and learned a lot from participating in readings and workshops with playwrights like Lynn Nottage.
Although the theater was culturally enriching, the challenge of making ends meet in one of the most expensive cities in the world helped him make another decision. For a moment, he even thought about quitting acting, but then he got a well-paying job on “The Good Place” and everything started looking up.
“I got the job at the right time,” Harper shares. “I was older and could handle all that came with the job. I appreciate it a lot. It’s not a given that this is the sort of thing that happens.”
Here is what William Jackson Harper had to share about the iconic show, “The Good Place.”
L.A. Sentinel: Looking back, four years, now that the show is over what did you hope when you did the pilot?
William Jackson Harper: Wow, well, I had told myself this was my last pilot season, so I just had fun. I let go. I had already made my peace with it.
LAS: And then…?
WJH: I was happy I got it. I had the money. My future changed.
LAS: You don’t seem like your character at all. Are there any similarities?
WJH: There are many. I’m anxious, but the major difference between me and Chidi is that he talks about it a lot.
LAS: While in New York, have you seen ‘Slave Play’ [on Broadway] written by Jeremy O. Harris?
WJH: I did. I did. What did you think as a Black woman about the play? I’m really curious.
WJH: Yes. I feel as a Black man I don’t understand everything in the play.
LAS: While waiting to go inside, a well-dressed, young African American man chided me for watching race porn, and I was flat out confused and then I saw the play, and, gulp, I was not sure what I was looking at.
WJH: Race porn? Well, the play is getting people to talk. I mean, look, here we are to talk about the last season of ‘The Good Place,’ but instead, we are discussing race and ‘Slave Play.’
LAS: Great point. Final question, are you unhappy that ‘The Good Place’ is over?
WJH: Of course, and I will miss the sturdy paycheck.
William Jackson Harper stars alongside Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins and Bill Pullman in Todd Haynes’ “Dark Waters.” It will be released theatrically on Nov. 22.
On television, Harper will appear with John Krasinski in the second season of Amazon’s “Jack Ryan,” premiering in November. He is currently in production on Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad” for Amazon.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.