William Jackson Harper on 'The Good Place' Finale and Timeliness of 'Underground Railroad' (Exclusive)

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William Jackson Harper
Maarten de Boer/NBCUniversal/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

If there ever was a perfect time for William Jackson Harper to earn his first career Emmy nomination, this is it. After starring on four seasons on NBC's acclaimed comedy, The Good Place, Harper's endearingly neurotic portrayal of Chidi Anagonye, a deceased ethics and moral philosophy professor incapable of making big decisions, landed on the shortlist of this year's best supporting comedy performances. A month after the Emmy nominations were announced, the actor still can't quite wrap his head around it. 

"It's weird to get any recognition at all," Harper, 40, tells ET during a recent phone interview. "Just thinking what that recognition means going forward is something that I hadn't really wrapped my mind around at all." 

And there's a lot to celebrate for Harper, who said goodbye to The Good Place in January, wrapping up a storied four-season run with a heartbreaking and bittersweet series finale. The episode, "Whenever You're Ready," saw Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Michael (Ted Danson), Chidi, Janet (D'Arcy Carden), Jason (Manny Jacinto) and Tahani (Jameela Jamil) go their separate ways. 

Ahead of the Emmys, ET hopped on the phone with Harper to celebrate his first Emmy nomination, the one Good Place quote that's ingrained in his brain amid social unrest across the country, the poignant series finale and why his transition to Barry Jenkins' Amazon series, Underground Railroad, was "whiplash."

ET: How is quarantine life? What's been the new normal for you?

Wiliam Jackson Harper: The new normal is a lot of watching shows and movies, trying to learn the piano and I've honestly been processing quite a bit because that's important to me. But other than that, just bopping around the house, trying not to eat all the snacks whenever I feel the slightest craving so my pants still fit once this is all over. I think it's basically the same quarantine life of pretty much everybody.

First of all, congratulations on your Emmy nomination. This is your first career nomination, which must have been a surreal, satisfying feeling. Have you wrapped your mind around the fact that you will now be described as an Emmy nominee from now on in your career?

No, not really. It's weird to get any recognition at all. So, just thinking what that recognition means going forward is something that I hadn't really wrapped my mind around at all. At this point, I'm just enjoying the ride as much as I can from inside the house. And yeah, it's weird. To be honest, it's like a lot of it just hasn't really hit me. I'm just going through life because every day still feels very much the same, you know?

This has been the perfect encapsulation of your journey with The Good Place. How has the ride been thus far? Obviously the journey has ended, but it must be nice to have the work and the show be recognized in a pretty magnificent way for the last run.

Yeah, it has. Recognition is great, but it's also not really the point. What we've always wanted to do was make something funny and entertaining that affects people. And it's really great that this is happening at the end because -- not that I think anyone would get a big head or anything -- Ted's been Emmy-nominated a million times, and he's as sweet and humble as anybody. But I do like that we're not going back with any external validation or expectations. We did our work and we hope you like it, and thank you for this recognition. And that's the end of it.

The Good Place
Colleen Hayes/NBC

Tracking Chidi's trajectory from the very beginning of the show to the series finale, he had quite an interesting arc. Looking back on your time with this character, what are your feelings about Chidi's journey over these four seasons?

I think his journey is one I think a few people that I know would hope to go on in some fashion. For me, I would love to be a more decisive, more assertive person, and I would love to have some kind of clarity just magically appear in my life -- all in the span of a couple of hours or seconds, preferably. But I know that as I get older, certain things become clearer and then other things become more vague and more ambiguous for me. I really respect and admire people that have taken the time to really examine why they feel a certain way about things. There are more things that I remained very much ambivalent about and I don't think I'm alone. I think that there's a lot of people that still have that thing where they feel like, "I'm an adult. I should know what I think, I should have the answer." I am an adult and I don't feel that way. I would hope that people find comfort in seeing an adult living in that sort of weird gray area pretty much all the time, and seeing someone who's smart doing that can be comforting.

How has living in Chidi's shoes colored your own approach or perspective on certain things, whether it be your outlook on life or something else?

There's no way you can work on a show that throws around all these concepts of morality and not have it completely infiltrate your everyday thought process. We spent four months out of every year wrestling with big, big questions pertaining specifically to morality and there's this quote that actually stuck out with me from early on. Somewhere in the middle of the first season, there was a line Chidi said something to the effect of "Principles aren't principles when you pick and choose when to apply them." And that's something I find myself revisiting and thinking about often, especially given the climate we're in right now. Over the last couple years, I've had a couple of moments where I'm like, "Well, if I do this thing that is sort of against my principles, but it's not that big a deal, where's the harm?" Playing Chidi, being on the show and being around all these really good people, it just meant that I couldn't in good conscience actually go forward with certain things. But I wanted to.

Honestly, the other part of that is I feel good about the decisions that I made that were very much based in my principles rather than just going for the thing, because it's a thing you're supposed to do or that you should do. My principles say that this is the choice that I should make and making decisions with that leading your process, for me it led me to decisions that I can live with no matter what the consequences are and no matter what the outcome is. Whereas, if I'm making it based on something else, based on someone else's ideas or someone else's thoughts about what I should be doing with my life, I would have regret. I think sticking to my principles has led me to feeling less regret about decisions that I've made.

Have you felt compelled to apply that same kind of thinking to your career and to future projects?

I don't know. There's always time for a relapse. (Laughs.) The goal is to always make decisions coming from a very strong sense of moral truth, but who knows. Life is long if we're lucky, so that could change. Maybe the further I am from Chidi, the less that inner voice is really talking to me. But as it is right now, that's what I want to do. I want to get to a point where I'm making decisions very much in my principles and my morals and what I am at the core, other than just doing things because they're convenient or easy or lucrative or at the advice of someone else. In certain ways it's gotten me to trust my gut and that's something, career-wise, that I'm trying to do. 

It's always difficult to wrap up a high-concept show like The Good Place perfectly, but the final episode felt that way. Did you feel the same way and were you content with how it all ended for the characters?

I am. [Creator] Mike Schur actually explained to us this concept of the happy ending that we have in Western cinema or in American cinema. Take a rom-com, for instance: The story ends when the couple winds up together and they ride off into the sunset. Maybe they're married, maybe they decide they want to be together forever and that's the end of it. But the actual end of the story is way, way down the line. There's a whole other story that begins where that story ends. If everything goes to plan, you're together with somebody until one of y'all dies and that's as good as it gets. So there's something about the way that we end our show that feels very grown-up, and it's a way of looking at the ends of things as real ends rather than stopping at the place we all feel comfortable. Instead of looking at the deeper thing, which is that we're here for a short time and there's a whole lot of stories that's after "The End" goes across the screen. I liked that our show, being a sitcom, being wacky, lighthearted and optimistic as it is, deals with that concept, and handles it really beautifully and delicately.

The Good Place
Colleen Hayes/NBC

The scenes between Eleanor and Chidi where they're having real, truthful conversations about moving on -- Chidi is ready to go and Eleanor doesn't want him to go -- felt honest and powerful. Do you have a favorite moment from the final episode?

As a viewer, I really loved the scene after we've decided to part ways and Chidi's decided to leave, and it's just the silent scene of us hanging out -- Chidi, Eleanor, Michael and Janet. We're having wine, we're laughing and we're having a good time. For some reason, that was really effective. Not hearing people talk about what's going on, but just seeing people enjoying each other's company and what's being said is not important. It's really just seeing that these people have grown together.

But to actually shoot, we shot a lot of the last episode in Paris. The scene on the bridge where Chidi tells Eleanor that he's ready to go and that he was just sticking around because he didn't want to leave her, that was one of my favorite moments to shoot because it was the last scene we shot of the series. We knew that this was it; this is the end. And me and Kristen are doing the scene and I see Mike Schur walking towards us as we're doing the scene and I'm just thinking, "Oh, wow. This is it. This is the end of this," but not wanting to actually end the scene. Kristen didn't see him coming and eventually he got to us and he's like, "OK, guys, that's a wrap on the series for everybody."

That's a really poignant thing because I'm standing there on this bridge in Paris as an employed actor with two people who changed my life, and here we are all these years later. It was a moment that hit me like a ton of bricks -- ending this long journey with Kristen, who I have so much respect for, who makes it look easy all the time and was just an incredible talent and also just an intensely smart, funny person who kind of likes me. The fact that I had so much respect for this person and we're on a bridge in Paris acting together, it was surreal. Saying goodbye to that, and then saying goodbye to her in that moment, it was a huge moment for me.

Next up for you is Barry Jenkins' Underground Railroad. Were you able to finish filming before everything shut down?

Most of it was done before we shut everything down, but there was still a little bit left. I'm not sure how much exactly, but we were very close to the end of principal photography for that. I basically went straight from The Good Place to shoot that, so it was whiplash. I was like, "Oh boy, I've got to go from this very light, optimistic show to something that is very grounded and very dark and very real." And it was strange. It took me a second to get my bearings, but hopefully I did. 

The series feels even more relevant now. How do you hope it resonates with viewers when it comes out?

I don't know. That's one of those hard things for me to predict. I will say that stories dealing with slavery and injustice of this type are always hard watches for me. They're always tough to deal with because I get invested, I get deeply, deeply invested and I get really, really, really angry. I know anytime I see a story like this, I'm not able to look at it as a [TV show]. It's very personal. It makes me mad. I would hope that people have that same reaction. I think it's good to see injustice like this and to get angry and to have a real opinion.

The other thing that I would hope is, I would hope people would look into themselves and see who they would be in these scenarios because not everyone would be the protagonist, not everyone would be the person that's fighting against this injustice. Some of us would be the people that would be indifferent to it. I think most people would probably wind up being somebody indifferent to it and some people would be actively participating in that very evil thing that we all hate. So it's my hope that people can watch this and really connect with the story and get angry. I would also hope that people would take that time to examine who they would be in that world. 

Bringing it back to The Good Place, your co-star, D'Arcy Carden, was also recognized with her first Emmy nomination, alongside return nominees Ted Danson and Maya Rudolph. 

Yeah, it's a huge honor. I would kick myself if I didn't say this right now. It's like, as happy as I am for all the nominations that The Good Place has gotten -- and not to say that this is the be all end all -- I've watched Kristen work for several years now and she's quite simply just great. She's great. She makes it look really easy and what she does is actually very difficult to pull off and she does it so, so, so well. If I'm honest, that [snub] stings a little bit just because this is the scene partner that I've had for most of the four years. She is every bit the wonderful scene partner that anyone would imagine, and also she has talked me off the ledge a few times and given me a lot of really good advice. I want more recognition for her in that regard just because it feels right to me because she's the glue that really holds it all together.

Since the Emmys won't be having its typical awards ceremony in September, what are your plans for the big night if you're at home?

I anticipate sweatpants! I don't know why everyone's treating it as if it'll be something different from a regular day. It's like, we're all in this weird moment together, let's all wear our sweatpants together. Come on, quit playing! Sweatpants Emmys 2020, that's what I'm going for.

The 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards will be broadcast live Sunday, Sept. 20 at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET on ABC.

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