If you’re a regular reader of The A.V. Club, you probably know William Jackson Harper as cripplingly indecisive philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye on NBC’s The Good Place. And, to be honest, there were moments during our interview that we had to resist the urge to comment on how, for example, preferring villains with a strong moral code is such a Chidi thing to say.
But while Harper’s affection for what’s become his signature role is obvious, we mustn’t forget all his other work as an actor, which includes a growing number of horror movies. Harper co-starred as a scientist searching for a biological breakthrough in an isolated forest landscape in last year’s They Remain, and he plays a similar role as an anthropology grad student who pushes both his professional and personal boundaries in Ari Aster’s new sunlit folk-horror movie Midsommar, which hits theaters on July 3.
Harper was delightfully silly answering our 11 Questions, describing all the ways he likes to “get weird,” whether it’s making himself laugh thinking about Billy Bob Thornton, wearing a diaper on stage with Funkadelic, or spending way too many hours paying NBA 2K19.
1. What’s your favorite fast food menu item?
William Jackson Harper: Mexican pizza from Taco Bell.
The A.V. Club: That was a quick response. Why do you like them so much?
WJH: I grew up eating them. There’s something about that weird tortilla that they use, and the odd meat, you know? It’s like the perfect mix of things. I’ve loved them ever since I was a little kid.
2. If you could re-live an event or moment in your own life, what would it be?
WJH: Probably the moment when I got the call that I got the job on The Good Place. That was the best day, just the best. I feel like everyone should have that day where the thing that they’ve wanted for a long time actually happens, and it’s the only time in my life that I’ve had that feeling.
AVC: Did you feel pretty good about your audition, or were you unsure?
WJH: Honestly, I had no idea. Being an actor, you go in, you audition, and then you pretty much just try to forget that you were you ever in there. Because you’re not getting the job most of the time. And so I had no idea. I just knew that I wanted it. But I was also trying to not think about it too much. And it was really great to have a big thing that I really, really wanted actually come to fruition.
3. Who’s your favorite fictional villain?
WJH: Javert from Les Misérables, because he’s actually got a very serious [moral] code. He’s not just evil. There’s just an order to things, and we have to adhere to it. It’s not a personal vendetta. It’s not coming from a place of ill will. It’s more of “This is my job, and this is my place in society.” And that puts him at odds with someone that we [as an audience] really care about, and we feel that they’re right.
But I think that also, honestly, Javert is actually closer to who a lot of us would be in that situation, where it’s like, “The rules are the rules, and I have to adhere to the rules. I don’t care if you’ve broken the rules because you’re trying to feed your family. I have to take you to jail,” you know? And so it’s interesting, because he’s not a purely bad person. He just wound up on the wrong side of the issue.
4. What’s a line from film or television that you’ve incorporated into your personal vocabulary?
WJH: [Yells.] Beavers and ducks!
AVC: [Laughing.] What?
WJH: There’s a movie called Bandits, or something like that. [It is called Bandits, and it came out in 2001. —Ed.] It’s this movie with Billy Bob Thornton—they’re bank robbers, and it’s not all that good. But there’s this scene where Billy Bob Thornton wakes up from a dream, and he just screams, “Beavers and ducks!” I thought that was the funniest thing ever, so now it’s one of those things that’s always in a loop in my head. If you see me walking around with a weird, sort of vacant smile, that’s probably what I’m thinking about: Billy Bob Thornton waking up and saying, “Beavers and ducks!”
AVC: When do you bust that out?
WJH: Literally whenever I feel like it, for no reason whatsoever. The thing is, I don’t say it to people. I say it to myself when I’m walking around the house. There’s never been an occasion where I got to use it on people. That one’s just for me.
5. Who would play you in the movie of your life?
WJH: There’s this actor in New York, and he and I get mistaken for each other all the time.
AVC: Really? What’s his name?
WJH: Stephen Tyrone Williams. He could absolutely, absolutely play me in the movie of me. I think we also have a similar vibe. He’s a little bit more Southern than I am, but mostly it’s a similar vibe. For an older version of me, I’d go with Samuel L. Jackson. He sounds a lot like people in my family, with that really broad, strident sort of voice.
6. What’s a movie that you’ll always stop and watch if you’re flipping channels?
WJH: Rosemary’s Baby. If it ever happened to be on TV, I’d definitely stop and watch it.
AVC: Do you consider that one of your favorite films?
WJH: Oh yeah. I like supernatural stuff, and the inevitability of it is really, really frightening to me. It’s really true. There’s a part of me that likes to watch other people go through [horrific things] and be like, “Phew, they didn’t get me.” You know what I mean? There’s a little bit of schadenfreude when I watch that movie. So I like to watch that movie and work out that stuff every time I can.
AVC: You’re like, “Well, at least my worst fear didn’t happen to me!”
WJH: At least I didn’t have sex with the devil!
7. What possession can you not get rid of?
WJH: I actually have a teddy bear from my grandmother that she gave me. I’ve had it my entire life, and I still have it. I never could get rid of that. I also have a Pound Puppy that my dad bought me when I was, like, 6 that I still have to this day. I’ve cycled through pretty much every other possession I’ve had in my life at some point, but those two things stay.
AVC: Do they a special place of honor in your house? Like a certain shelf or something?
WJH: Not really. I’m 39, so I can’t, like, put them on the bed or put them out where people can see them. I’ve got to be a grownup.
AVC: Yeah, I suppose that’s a bit much.
WJH: They’re always tucked away somewhere. I mean, it’s a bit creepy when you walk into a grown man’s apartment and he’s got stuffed animals. It’s not a comforting visual.
AVC: “It’s from my grandma!”
WJH: That’s even worse!
8. What specific skill would you bring to a post-apocalyptic society?
WJH: Honestly, I wouldn’t make it through the apocalypse. I think I’d go first. But if I did make it—not to toot my own horn or anything—oh well, I’m going to do it—I can go long distances walking or running without needing a break. I’m almost like a camel. So I imagine, if they needed someone to just walk in one direction for a while and then come back at the end of the day, I could probably do that a few times in a row before I dropped dead. It’s just a thing. I love really challenging hikes and stuff like that, so in that way I’m somewhat physically adept, somewhat useful. But other than that, I got nothing.
AVC: My answer to this question is just, “I would die.”
WJH: Yeah. Yeah! You know what? Maybe that’s what I would do. I would give in so everyone would have one less mouth to feed. That’s probably better. I think that’s the skill I would bring. I would be like, “Look, guys, we need to be stewards of our resources here. I’ll take myself out. You figure it out. Best of luck.”
9. Who is the most underrated person in your industry right now?
WJH: I’ve got to say, just because I’ve been watching so much [Barry], that Stephen Root is probably the most underrated. I think that dude is one of the most amazing character actors, or actors period, ever. I think he’s incredible. He’s one of those guys that shows up in everything, and he’s always phenomenal. I can’t wait to see what he does next, anytime he’s in anything. I think he has a moderate amount of respect in the industry, but for my tastes, for what I like, he surpasses just about everybody.
10. If you could be in any band, past or present, which one would it be?
WJH: I would be in Funkadelic at the very, very beginning.
AVC: What would you play, or do?
WJH: I probably wouldn’t play anything. I’d just wear a diaper and blow bubbles and scream a little bit. Let’s just get weird, you know? I would get weird with Funkadelic. That would be really fun.
11. What would you do during The Purge?
WJH: Oh, I’m soft. I would get in the bunker and watch. I would like to say I’d get out there and work out some demons or whatever, but no. I would stick my head outside and that would be a wrap. I would be a dead man. So yeah, I’d hole up in a bunker. I don’t need to hurt anybody or steal anything.
AVC: That answer’s in the same spirit as your post-apocalyptic one, actually.
WJH: Yeah, I’m no good to anyone when you need to survive.
Bonus 12th question from Maya Erskine: What vice wouldn’t you want to give up?
AVC: I’m assuming you still have a vice or two.
WJH: Oh yeah. I got a few. Hello, Maya Erskine, by the way! I think she’s so painfully funny. She’s just amazing.
Um, a vice—probably video games. I don’t know if that counts as a vice, but it definitely feels like one when my girlfriend’s in the room. But I don’t think I ever want to give that one up.
AVC: So what are you playing right now?
WJH: I play a lot of sports simulations, so I’m playing NBA 2K19 and FIFA 19. I love all sports games. But yeah, I just get real weird and play way too long with my girlfriend sitting right beside me and [I imagine she’s] thinking, “I cannot believe I’m dating this small child who still likes these games.” I think I’m annoying her. But yeah, I don’t think I’d ever stop doing that.
AVC: What question would you like to ask the next person who does this interview, not knowing who it is?
WJH: Um, okay. All right. Hmm. What... what would you do for a Klondike Bar?
AVC: [Laughs.] We do this with a lot of comedians, so I think that one’s going to get a good response.