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NPR Arts & Life

William Jackson Harper: Getting To The Good Place

William Jackson Harper appears on Ask Me Another at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York.
William Jackson Harper appears on Ask Me Another at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York.

Before appearing on the hit comedy The Good Place, William Jackson Harper was nearly ready to give up on acting. "I was in the basement of my feelings," he told host Ophira Eisenberg. "I was, you know, living with a whole bunch of dudes. And I was thirty-five. And I was like, 'I think I've been fair to this profession. I think it's time to move along.'" He went to Los Angeles for one last pilot season and was cast as the indecisive ethics professor Chidi Anagonye on NBC's afterlife sitcom.

As fun as performing on The Good Placeis, Chidi—and Harper—are increasingly put through the wringer on the show with a surprising number of plot twists. Eisenberg asked if he is ever nervous to see what the writers have in store. "After the blood cannon? Yeah," Harper admitted. He told Eisenberg that in an episode inspired by a thought experiment called the Trolley Problem, "they shot me in the face and mouth with a blood cannon, all like, Karo syrup and food coloring and pieces of foam." The next week? "Yeah, that was the acupuncture week."

Because he plays the philosopher on a show about ethics, Harper has naturally become a moral authority on Twitter. His fans often approach him with their own ethical dilemmas. "Sometimes it'll be just be like, a shot of their textbook, and just asking me for help," he explained. "I'm woefully unqualified to answer any question you may have."

Kwame Anthony Appiah, the weekly <em>Ethicist</em> columnist for <em>The</em> <em>New York Times Magazine </em>plays a game with William Jackson Harper on Ask Me Another.
Mike Katzif / NPR
Kwame Anthony Appiah, the weekly <em>Ethicist</em> columnist for <em>The</em> <em>New York Times Magazine </em>plays a game with William Jackson Harper on Ask Me Another.

Despite his professed lack of expertise, we quizzed him on everyday ethics with the help of an actual philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah. Appiah teaches philosophy at New York University and writes the weekly Ethicist column for The New York Times Magazine, where he "does something that most ethicists don't do, which is actually answer people's questions about how to live their lives." The two join forces to give a definitive verdict on regifting and other relatable issues.

Heard On William Jackson Harper: Getting To The Good Place


HIGHLIGHTS

On what he was doing when he found out he'd been cast on The Good Place

I was in the basement of my emotions, watching the pilot episode of Cheers.


On being pitched by The Good Place writers to do a joke with "you and needles"

You're just never ready for that question.

On his role as Danny Rebus in the children's show The Electric Company
It was so much fun. [...] you feel like you are doing some tangible good [...] as much tangible good that I think that an actor can do.

Appiah on the Ethicist column
I wasn't sure when I agreed to do it that I was going to be able to help anybody. And mostly, I probably don't. But at least I give my readers something to read on a Sunday morning.

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