This article appears in FLOOD 10. You can purchase the magazine here.
BACKSTORY: From bashful youngster to Broadway actor, Harper finds the rewards of his creative risks always upstage his uncertainties
FROM: Born and raised in Texas; now tending to New York neuroses
YOU MIGHT KNOW HIM FROM: NBC’s brilliant The Good Place, playing the equally brilliant Professor Chidi Anagonye, the Afterlife’s preferred punching bag
NOW: Making his horror debut as yet another academic in over his head in A24’s Midsommar this July
While it’s true that most of us have never had our grasp on the meaning of life shaken by staring into the space-time continuum in an interdimensional conference room…well, damn it, we’ve all felt that way.
As Chidi, the philosophy professor whose deep-seated apprehensions literally define his soul on The Good Place, William Jackson Harper has crafted a unique, carefully observed comedic persona that serves as a deeply resonant (and relatable) totem of modern uneasiness. For Harper, it didn’t take much imagination to manifest this character; you might say he’s been preparing for it his whole life.
“I was a nervous, nervous, kid,” Harper recalls. “Some of it was just personality, but growing up religious, it was a lot of fire and brimstone, and a lot of fear wrapped up in what I was supposed to do. For a lot of people, religion is something that brings you comfort, and for me, it just freaked me out. Like, ‘Anything I’m doing will send me to hell.’” (Or The Bad Place, if you prefer.)
“I needed a way to let out some of the things I was too nervous to talk to anyone about. I’d much rather just have a freak-out onstage and be like, ‘Oh yeah, I was totally just acting. That’s all that was.’”
Harper credits his mother with pushing him to face his fears—or, at least, to act like it. “My mom’s responsible for making me do theater,” he laughs. “I was a wreck! This nervous, shy kid who had trouble connecting with people. So my mom made me take theater classes in middle school. I didn’t want to, initially; but then I got involved in doing improv…it became, honestly, the only thing I was actually kind of good at.”
As he grew into a man and an artist, the tools Harper learned provided catharsis with the creative. “It’s a great way to hide in plain sight, y’know? For me, it’s a lot of fun to explore all these aspects of my personality that I don’t feel comfortable exposing in real life. I needed a way to let out some of the things I was too nervous to talk to anyone about. I’d much rather just have a freak-out onstage and be like, ‘Oh yeah, I was totally just acting. That’s all that was.’”
Flash forward to New York, where his years of harnessing theater to confront anxiety went on to include acting opposite Bryan Cranston in All the Way on Broadway, and led to his 2018 debut as a playwright with the ’60s-era civil rights drama Travisville. Harper describes being behind the words as “way more nerve-wracking. But it’s cool to be a generating artist as opposed to strictly interpretive. Being heard and understood…it was exhilarating.”
After successfully being sent to hell and tackling new freak-outs onstage and backstage, Harper is appearing in Midsommar, Ari Aster’s intense follow-up to one of last summer’s most hyped horror flicks, Hereditary. The character he plays “is very interested in European midsommar traditions, and is looking to do his thesis on it. I’m just obsessed with these ideas of death and rebirth and how that ties into a larger context,” he reveals.
Those who saw Toni Collette’s stunning supernatural meltdown in Hereditary know Aster is just as interested in actors as he is in apparitions. “He’s very into pushing you to go to uncomfortable places,” Harper says. “It’s cool to know that you have someone with good taste at the helm. If you swing too big, he’ll definitely pull you back, but you can still go to the place where you feel free and open up. He has such a good eye—you know he’s not gonna let you make a fool of yourself.”
One less thing to worry about, then, even for a lifelong worrier; and for Harper, one of many more things to look forward to. FL