William Jackson Harper tells Hypable his reactions to the latest twists on The Good Place, and reflects on his time on this life-changing comedy.
Harper, who plays anxious ethics professor turned moral hero Chidi Anagonye, is tight lipped when it comes to The Good Place series finale. “It’s better that way,” he promised us in a recent interview.
But the actor is happy to discuss the wider impact of the series on both viewers and his own life, which have been significant. Equal parts candy-colored romp and probing interrogation of human morality, the ultimate end of The Good Place is probably less important than the lessons and laughs we’ve had along the way, as the show opened conversations and reflections far beyond an ordinary comedy.
Plus — those twists. Can’t forget those twists!
William Jackson Harper relives the end of ‘The Good Place’
As The Good Place often does, we’re given another big revelation in the penultimate episode: After all the work they’ve done, the group finds out that heaven definitely has some issues. What was your reaction to that twist?
Harper: Honestly, I was really interested in that. I thought it was a really cool idea to just, rather than just going down the path of a traditional happy ending, everything is fine, to do something just a little bit more complicated that opens up way more story possibilities. I think it’s great, I was really, really excited about it.
In another quirk, the end of “Patty” also feels like it could definitely be the end of the story of The Good Place. What did you think when you read that conclusion?
Honestly, I just trusted the big brains in the room, you know? I didn’t really want to speculate too much about what was coming up next, just because I feel like there’s some really interesting, complex ideas that we unpack a little bit going forward over these last two episodes. I was along for the ride.
And it was definitely unexpected, some of the turns that we take in the finale, but I felt like this is something that we haven’t seen. We’re veering away from has sort of storybook ending, you know? There’s this idea, and [showrunner] Mike Schur was talking about this with us [about how] so many stories in like, say, rom-coms, or even in traditional storytelling, you have these two people, they have their trials and tribulations and then the end of the story is everyone getting married and then driving off into the sunset. But that’s not necessarily the end of the story, you know? There’s a whole lot of story after that, and you could also argue that that’s the beginning of things. So that’s sort of the inspiration, I think, for how we’re finishing out our story. Where we usually drop the curtain and fade to black is not actually the end of anything.
There are a few clues in “Patty” that suggest what might be coming up — the final door, and Chidi’s discussion of time specifically. Are there any hints you can give about the finale?
Oh, I’m not going give that to you! Yeah, I’m 100% withholding all of that. I think it’s really important to just go in completely open to the finale. I don’t want to tease anything about what it’s going to be, just because it’s just better that way. You’ll have your reaction. Everyone will have their own reaction to what we do, and I’m looking forward to seeing what those are!
Chidi’s relationship with Eleanor has been one of the most constantly evolving and interesting elements of The Good Place. Do you think you’ve learned anything from that opposites-attract connection?
I feel like, in a way, there’s opposites that can drive you nuts, and then there’s opposites that fill in your deficits. I think in the end, because of the hundreds of years these two characters have spent together, and the constant reboots, and the sort of vulnerability they have around each other — about needing help, and being lost, and protecting each other — because they’ve had so much time, they’ve been able to fill in for each other the things that they’re lacking. And I think that’s strictly a product of time.
I think a lot of times in life, you just meet someone that pushes all your buttons and you’re just not going to run into them again. But for instance in high school or elementary school, there were kids that I, when I first met them, I hated them! And then over time, me and this kid would become friends, because we’re just sort of forced into contact a lot, and then you just start to see other things about this person that are more complicated and more interesting. It starts out with the times you just agree to not drive each other nuts, and then eventually you come together in some way. It’s happened for me a couple of times over the course of my life.
I feel like that’s one of the things that Eleanor and Chidi have found, you know? They drive each other nuts, and in some of the reboots, you know, that’s probably all they did. But over time, more times than not, they came to a place where they were the only people that could trust, even if they were opposites, and sometimes that just forges this really interesting relationship. It’s something that I feel like I’ve seen mirrored in my life a few times over.
I think that actually resonates really well with the theme of this episode. On another note, what was it like to work with Lisa Kudrow?
It was great! It was nuts! I think all of us were completely starstruck when she showed up on set. We heard that she was going to be playing Patty, and we were like, “NO. WHAT?” We were just completely beside ourselves that we would actually get to be in the room with her.
But she’s really cool! She’s like this legend, and she’s an incredibly funny performer, just so quick and so smart. It was a learning experience, because you really just kind of wanted to keep up and and not be scared! She’s just so good that you’re just like, I just don’t want look bad next to Lisa Kudrow! I mean, not that it’s a competition, but this is Lisa Freaking Kudrow! So you just want to rise to her level as much as she can. But we all had fun, because she’s a real team player and really great to work with.
Chidi totally geeks out when he gets to meet Patty/Hypatia of Alexandria — is there someone you would love to meet in the Good Place?
That’s a 20-minute thought exercise! I’m trying to think, who’s dead but not trash? All throughout history, who would I like to meet?
You know, honestly, probably it wouldn’t be meeting — and I don’t mean for this to sound morbid at all. But I honestly would like to meet my dad. I mean, obviously I knew him, but he passed away when I was eight, and he was a youngish guy and he battled cancer for a lot of years. He found out in his mid-20’s that he had this disease, and he worked really hard to move me and my family into a house before he passed. My mom worked hard too, to get us into the house. It just seemed like my dad was staying alive long enough to hold up his end of the bargain, but I don’t want to diminish my mom’s work too.
I didn’t mean for it to get dark, but [my dad] was a really dope guy, so I would like to meet him now as an adult! He passed when he was 31 and I’m 39 now, and I would really like to see my dad as a guy who’s younger than me, and as a peer, you know? I think that would be pretty cool.
That’s a beautiful answer. I apologize in advance for another hard question, but do you have a personal moral take-away from the show?
Yeah. I feel like I’m more concerned about actively pursuing good in a way that I probably wasn’t thinking about. And there’s a couple of different reasons for that. One, before the show, I was very much a struggling actor trying to make ends meet, and sometimes there’s just not the bandwidth, at least for me… One of the cool things about this show and getting a living wage is there is more room for that. I think that maybe in a lot of ways, the stress of just trying to make it, could make me a little self-obsessed, a little self-absorbed. And now I feel like that’s something that I’ve been able to veer away from, just because so many things are are taken care of. I’m just not worried about the next month the same way.
And then also, just being around this particular cast, around these people that actively try to do good things just because they’ve been fortunate enough to be in a position to do something for someone, and electing to do that rather than to serve themselves. Being around that energy all the time, it’s infectious. You don’t hang out with this cast and his crew and come away bitter or selfish. It just doesn’t fit. It doesn’t work. It feels like you’ve just ignored — for me, it would feel like I would have just ignored the experience of being around these people for four years.
I think that also just dealing with these issues on the show involved thinking about what it means to be a good person. What does it look like to actually put good into the world? I feel like, in order to play those things with any kind of truth, you have to absorb some of that into yourself, and and I feel like there’s something about playing this character that has definitely impacted me going forward. So yeah, I’m very much concerned about what is what it is to be good, and I’m trying to challenge myself to to really interrogate that as often as I can and to actually act on those better impulses.
On a more superficial level, did you take any props with you from the show as a memento?
Well, no. I took home this pair of loafers because I wanted some grown-man shoes. I have a lot of sneakers! I was like, I should try to rock these grown-man shoes, see if I can make that fit into my aesthetic. Which my girlfriend promptly alerted me that it did not! I didn’t really take anything else, as much as I love the character of Chidi, he and I do not dress the same, or share any of the same taste when it comes to clothes or even stuff that we enjoy.
And after we’ve all said goodbye to Chidi, what can we look forward to seeing from you?
Well, I’m just trying to cobble together as many projects as I can. Right now, I’m really deeply involved in playing music. My band and I, we recorded a couple weeks ago and so we’re listening to some of the rough cuts right now and trying to put something together. That’s sort of the thing that I’ve been working on the last couple weeks. And it’s for fun, we don’t take ourselves too seriously, it’s a hobby and an art form that is really just for us, and we just kind of want to have the songs out there, more for us to enjoy and to play for our friends, stuff like that. So that’s that’s the main thing, and then [Amazon’s] The Underground Railroad, which I’m going to be finishing up here soon.
The Good Place series finale, “Whenever You’re Ready,” airs Thursday, Jan. 30th at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.