William Jackson Harper is on track to have a very good 2019. The Good Place favorite landed a roll in Ari Aster‘s buzzy Hereditary followup Midsommar, he’ll be popping up in Season 2 of Amazon’s Jack Ryan series, and he’s set to star alongside Anne Hathaway and Mark Ruffalo in the next film from Carol and Far from Heaven filmmaker Todd Haynes. Oh, and speaking of The Good Place, the extraordinary NBC comedy finally got a long-deserved Emmy nomination for Best Comedy Series.
With Midsommar now in theaters, stirring up conversation, interpretation, and probably more than a few fights between couples who should have broken up already, I recently sat down for a chat with Harper to talk about making the film and his exciting year. We discussed working with Aster on his sophomore directorial effort and how the filmmaker was different from what he expected, what was most attractive to him about the script, and how he reacts the film’s intense and interpretive ending. He also talked about what it feels like to say goodbye to a series like The Good Place when you know it’s ending for the right reasons, what types of roles he’s getting offered after playing Chidi, and what’s coming up next.
What was most attractive to you about this movie when you read the script?
HARPER: Well, I think that it sort of comes away from playing the idea of something that’s unnerving and just letting something be unnerving just because of what it is and the circumstances. And I think the fact that everything, every action is taken in this movie, it comes from a person deciding that this is the right thing to do. Which I think that it’s a lot harder to dissuade people that are that firm in their beliefs that what they’re doing is what absolutely has to be done when there’s no sort of like emotional component about how this is wrong or how this is hurting anyone. It’s like that’s not what’s guiding anything. What is, guiding people is the belief that this is a necessary sequence of events in order for the world to continue in the way that it should continue. And so that’s really terrifying me.
Just your timeline perspective a little bit, because I know that this happened so soon after Hereditary. When you signed on, were you aware of the impact Hereditary was making?
HARPER: Yeah, yeah. I saw Hereditary. I can’t quite remember the exact sequence of events. I feel like I saw Hereditary — No, I got the audition for this. I read the script. I thought it was for that it was great. And I happened to be going and see Hereditary with a friend of mine a day or so after. And I thought the script was amazing, but then seeing Hereditary, I just had to be a part of it. I really wanted to. I think the fact that I wanted it so badly, I was like, well, I’m not getting it, obviously. This guy makes really cool movies, and I would love to do it, but because I want it so badly, it’s like there’s no way this is going my way.
For sure. Were you, having seen Hereditary, surprised in any way by how Ari directs? Did it live up to your expectation of a filmmaker who crafts such precise shots? What did you think going in, and then what was the vibe like on set?
HARPER: Well, I thought going in, I guess I had this idea that he was going to be a very serious guy on set all the time. And he’s honestly pretty loose in a lot of ways. I mean, he is very meticulous about the shots, and there’s times where we just need to be where we need to be and he needs to craft this image the way it needs to be crafted. But then also, when it was time for us to … When the scene is really carried by the actors, and that’s the most important thing not necessarily visual itself, he trusts us and sort of just lets us try things and do things.
And I think that it’s one of those things where we just feel like we want to get in the playpen, and I think he wants to do the same thing when we get to those moments. I guess I was expecting something a little bit more serious and prescriptive in a lot of ways. And honestly, I think when it came to the scenes that we really got to sink our teeth into something, he was very collaborative.
He does work in a lot of really crazy wide shots in this film, which I imagine cannot have been easy to achieve. Can you talk about a little bit about accomplishing that on set? How many takes does something like that require?
HARPER: It would take all day. I mean, he wants to get it right. Yeah. I mean… yeah, those days got long. We’d just be sitting in a field with big crazy looking spiders and tons of wasps just chasing us around. And it was, yeah, it was taxing. You know? I mean those crazy wide shots were really taxing. But having seen the movie, it’s, worth it. It’s good. You need those. It also very clearly delineates the demarcation between our American paradigm and the paradigm of the horror bit. And you kind of need that bird’s eye view to kind of really take that in I think.
When you watch films like this, are you the type of viewer to obsess and look for all the details and try to really parse through the mythology on that level? Did you do that with your script?
HARPER: I did. I mean, I think, thankfully, the thing with Josh is that he’s curious about this society that he’s going into. And so, in a lot of ways, not knowing is kind of the best way to go in as an actor with, especially with that, with that specific track. I’m not an expert on the Hårga. I know nothing about them. I’m trying to understand the Hårga.
I actually have watched Hereditary a few times just to see what did I miss? Were there any things that tip what’s to come a little bit? And how many of those things did I miss? And I like it when people make things to be re-watched. And I feel like Midsommar is going to be one of those things that you take it in, and then you let all of the feelings wash over you. And then you go back and you’re just like, okay, so what are the things that I missed that would have like tipped where we’re headed with this thing? And yeah, what are the interesting little details that play later? Yeah, I totally do that. I love to do that.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how complicated the emotional journey of this film is and how it’s extremely dark, but I think kind of a fucked-up feel-good movie. I’m just curious, how do you respond to Midsommar’s ending emotionally?
HARPER: Well, it’s really unfortunate that Christian and Dani couldn’t see eye to eye because I feel like those two characters are really honestly trying to do right by each other in a lot of ways. I think that if Dani’s hadn’t been going through what she had been going through, that relationship probably would have ended. And he decides not to end it, but he’s obviously not 100% in the relationship either. And so there’s an aspect of that which is really unfortunate, and it hurts. But then I feel like … It’s odd, but I feel like by the end, the world that Dani comes from is going to be hard for her to live in given what happens, what sort of kicks off the movie. And so I think the fact that there is something resembling a family for her at the end is … It’s a weird sort of pyrrhic victory.
You know? Yeah, I do sort of feel like this… I think the thing that’s so hard about the movie is that, as disturbing as it is, there is this thing that sort of feels good at the end, but it shouldn’t also feel good. And that’s, I think as a person you probably have to judge that for yourself.
Of course, I also have to talk about The Good Place, which is one of my favorite shows and a show that makes me genuinely happy.
HARPER: Oh, thanks.
And sadly, or maybe not so sadly depending on your perspective, we just heard it is coming to an end. Now, obviously, that means you just lost a steady gig as an actor, which sucks…
HARPER: Yeah, it’s terrible!
But as one of the actors whose been with this show from the beginning, how does it feel saying goodbye but knowing that the creators chose this ending?
HARPER: I’m happy that this show gets to exist almost entirely as a piece of art and for people to interact with as a piece of art. I think that having the story continue beyond what the initial intention was, would sort of downgrade it to just sort of an advertising delivery device. And I got into this because I wanted to be a part of cool stories. And I’m sad, obviously. I mean, I love going to work with the people that I go to work with every day, but it’s like this is this the way it goes. And, yeah. It’s definitely bittersweet, but I’m happy that we’re ending on our own terms rather than just continuing in zombie mode until no one likes the show anymore.
How aware of Chidi’s journey and, I guess, the whole crazy journey of the show, have you been from moment to moment, from season to season? Did they ever give you a long arc or was it always like, “Guess what’s coming up this season?”
HARPER: Oh, it’s a lot of guess what’s coming up this year. When we first started the show, we didn’t even know what the end of the season was or even what the first season was. And we get a rough outline of what’s coming up in the season in the past three, for season two, three, and four. I have a vague idea, but how exactly it’s going to unfold I have no idea. So honestly, when we get the scripts we’re eagerly reading them like oh, what happens this week? What happens this week? I mean, we kind of go on the same ride, I think, that the audience does.
That’s fun. You also have some other exciting works coming up as well.
HARPER: Yeah. Well, I mean, I did a couple of episodes of Jack Ryan. I got to work with John Krasinski. He’s also part of the Mike Schur family and he’s a really, really cool guy. And it was fun. I mean, they kept a lot from me as far as what happens in the season.
Which I’m fine, you know, that’s fine. I think I’m a good guy. We’ll see. But yeah, it’s good to have that. And then I had this movie with Todd Haynes coming out later this year that I’m really, really excited about that. It’s about the lawyer that actually took on DuPont for polluting water in this West Virginia town. And I think it’s the kind of story that we need right now just to remind us of how vigilant we have to be as a public regarding corporations when regarding money and just keeping our ear to the ground and being aware of things.
HARPER: I think that it’s my hope that the film sort of awakens a kind of impulse for vigilance in that way. So, yeah, that’s great. And I think these last couple of years I’ve been fortunate enough to just do things that I really, really care about and that I really am just so, I feel so lucky and pleased to be a part of them. And it’s great. I mean, I just hope that I can continue to do more stuff after this.