‘The Good Place': William Jackson Harper on That Big Twist and Season 2 Challenges
From executive producer Michael Schur, the NBC comedy series The Good Place is one of those rare unicorns that just keeps getting funnier and more brilliant, while still remaining fresh, original and totally weird. After a world-upending Season 1 finale that threw everything up in the air for Season 2, it’s already turned into quite an unexpected and surprising ride, only a handful of episodes in.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor William Jackson Harper (who plays the kind but indecisive Chidi) talked about when and how he found out about the Season 1 twists, what initially made him want to be a part of The Good Place, even though he really didn’t know just what show he was making, what feels most different about Season 2, why working with Ted Danson is the absolute best, and whether they ever break during takes.
Collider: First of all, I absolutely love this show! It’s my favorite comedy on TV, on any network, and I’m so glad it’s back for Season 2!
WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: Oh, thanks! Well, us, too!
Typically, I feel like it’s pretty easy to figure out where a story is headed, but this show really threw me. I did not see what happened at the end of last season coming, at all. At what point were you clued in on what was happening, and how did you react when you found out exactly what show you were a part of?
HARPER: They clued us in around Episode 10. It was a day that we all happened to be working, and they brought us into this room on the set and they were like, “Okay, so, we wanted to tell lay out the remainder of the season for you.” Kristen [Bell] actually took a little video of D’Arcy [Carden], Manny [Jacinto], Jameel [Jamil] and myself, and the reaction that we had when we got the news that the show was other than it seemed. I’ll be honest, either way, I thought it could be fun. There was a lot of room for the show to get weird, even with the original premise that was explained to us. And then, when we got that news and they broke the rest of the season down for us, I felt like the narrative took a big leap, from good to great.
Since you didn’t really know the show you were signing up for, what was the initial appeal for you?
HARPER: I wish I had as much agency in my career as people think that I do. I was drawn to the fact that it was an audition and it seemed really fun. The sides that they gave us were dummy sides. The character that I was auditioning for wasn’t even the real character, but they were good sides and it was enough to make me want to do good in the audition. They were funny and it wasn’t cliche. I didn’t have to sell jokes that I found unfunny. I had no idea what it was, but I thought it could be fun. As an actor, if you have a job for me, I will take it. I think that’s where a lot of us land.
Because Season 1 was so brilliant, I was worried that Season 2 wouldn’t have that same magic because I’d already know what was going on, but that’s so not the case. After seeing the first four episodes, I still have no idea what to expect next. What have you most enjoyed about Season 2, and what feels most different about it?
HARPER: What’s really fun is that we are now in a situation where the audience is ahead of the characters, but not necessarily ahead of the story. That’s a fun watch. It’s almost like a horror movie, where you know certain things are going to happen, but you don’t know 100% what’s going to happen. Part of that is wanting to shout at the screen, “No, don’t do that!” That’s part of the experience of it. I feel like we’ve done that without it being a horror film. The audience knows things that the characters don’t, but the story itself is doing its own thing. It’s a really interesting narrative place. It’s fun to feel like you’ve got your own theories about the story, but the characters don’t.
Before you started to get scripts for Season 2, were you nervous about whether the show could live up to what you pulled off with Season 1?
HARPER: Yeah, absolutely! I was like, “What else can you do?!” When you break the whole world apart, how do you keep that up for another season. What’s that next paradigm shift? What’s the thing that we can do that is going to be on par with that paradigm shift, but is not that? What do we do to keep the series exciting, in the same way? But as soon as those scripts started coming in, and really starting with the premiere, it was pretty special. I think it’s really, really good. It’s legitimately funny. We’re at a point where we can just jump right into the fun stuff. We don’t have to explain the rules anymore, and we don’t have to build the world and let people know what’s going on. We just jump right in, which is really smart.
At the beginning of this season, you guys were all reset, so you didn’t remember that you’re really in the Bad Place. What are the challenges of playing the same character, but without all of the character growth that he experienced in Season 1?
HARPER: You know, it’s funny, the spine stays the same. It’s a challenge when we have to pretend that we don’t know each other, after having been through everything. In the case of my character, one of the things that has lead him to where he is, is that sense of moral rigidity, which causes a lot of stuff for him. Because of that, it makes it easier to hit the reset button. It’s about adhering to that great moral code. It’s easier to hold onto that when you’re playing a character that’s as rigid as mine can be. Also, in life, these people didn’t grow. They didn’t change. I think that it’s leaning into that idea, as we do the second season.
Now that we know the truth about where these guys really are, we also get to learn more about Michael and you get to interact with him more. What’s it been like to develop a deeper dynamic with Ted Danson?
HARPER: Man, Ted is the damn best! It’s so much fun. We have a blast on set. We got to hang out a little bit, outside of work. I never would have thought that I’d be saying to someone in real life that I’ve hung out with Ted. I never thought I’d get to say that to anybody. He’s fun to work with because he’s such a generous scene partner. He’s a fun guy. He’s literally the sweetest man that anyone could ever meet. I’ve learned a lot from him. It’s just a real treat to get to work with him that closely.
Some of the funniest moments on this show come from your reactions to what Kristen Bell is doing and saying. What’s it been like to work with her? Are there ever times that you break, or are you able to hold it together?
HARPER: We’re usually able to hold it together because the scripts are so tightly constructed that you want to do a good job. The scripts are so well written that you really want to do it right. You don’t want to be the one who messed up because you were laughing. I want everyone to have a lot of options to find what works. I feel like we’ve broken more this season because the show has gotten weird. The show is in a weirder place, which means that things are stranger and crazier. Truth be told, I spent the first three or four episodes of Season 1, just trying to keep my cool. I was scared of Kristen and Ted. For Season 2, I was able to start not scared of them and just having a good time.
The Good Place airs on Thursday nights on NBC.