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When last we saw Chidi Anagonye in the Season 3 finale of The Good Place, he broke our collective hearts by sacrificing his Zen-like epiphany to love Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) into eternity by volunteering to have his mind-wiped to potentially save all of humanity.
It was the kind of philosophical superhero move that Chidi was literally made for, but that still didn’t make it any easier to swallow our tears, hoping that he and Eleanor would somehow find their way back to one another, and make those Bad Place a-holes burn in the process.
As The Good Place returns tonight for one final season to wrap up the divine and diabolical complications of the afterlife, actor William Jackson Harper sat down with SYFY WIRE to wax philosophical about the impact the show has had on him, and why the series has become so many viewer’s good place.
After four seasons playing Chidi, and playing out the philosophical explorations that creator Mike Schur has presented in the show, do you think the show has changed you profoundly?
William Jackson Harper: I think more than anything it's about the people that make the world that you're living in. And working with this cast, and with Mike Schur, and this group of writers, and this crew, I couldn't have asked for a better experience. Everyone felt empowered to do their best work. Everyone is an exceedingly kind individual. I guess there's this idea that sometimes you have to tolerate bad behavior in order to create something that is effective. I think, I feel, I hope, that we've created something effective and there's just no bad behavior in that degree, or to that extent. It's been magical to see what's possible when people are just making the choice to be good to each other and put good into the world as much as they can.
One of the things about Mike's work that keeps me coming back, is that there's an inherent kindness to it. Do you think that permeates from the page, or is it more about the alchemy of what he puts together with the cast and crew?
I think that we see the world very clearly, and it's very meticulously constructed. And so, it's very clear what's right. You know? So yeah, it's partly Mike. It's partly knowing that this super smart, super kind dude, who still has snark and bite like everyone else, but it's coming from a very good place, in a place where he's always asking himself questions. Why he's doing what he's doing, really interrogating himself in a way that I've rarely seen. It just makes it very easy to stay in the lane that is designated for you. Also, I think at the heart of the show, it's about trying. Letting that be your guiding principle, your guiding intention, your guiding verb or whatever, it leads you to where you need to be.
You had three seasons of finally getting Chidi to overcome his own mental speed bumps, but then he sacrifices all of that in the Season 3 finale. Are you bringing Chidi back to a version that we've seen before, or is he someone different this year?
Well, the circumstances dictate the reactions. I don't want to give anything away about where we're headed, but essentially it is a reset. But the circumstances are different from Season 1. And so, while it is sort of an internal reset for Chidi, I think the world is not the same that he's entering. It makes for some really interesting scenes; some really interesting colors come out. I definitely, as an actor, had some questions and some breakdowns, because I was like, "I'm not a hundred percent sure where I'm supposed to be right now. What do I know, and what don't I know?"
How much have you been elementally changed and how do you play that?
Right. Trying to navigate that has been difficult at times. It is the reset that we saw at the end of Season 3. It is exactly that. And I guess I can't wait for people to see this season coming up, because it's a really fun thing that there's a way in which the audience is ahead of the characters, but not ahead of the story. I think that makes for some really fun viewing, when the audience doesn't know where the story is headed, but definitely can tell the characters about themselves. It'll be a really interesting lens through which to view the show.
How did you want to prepare for this year? Did you ask Mike how it all ends or were you afraid that would influence your performance too much?
Well, this year we definitely went in and got the download.
I would've done that too.
There's a lot now, and I feel a little bit more confident in my restraint of not making too many nods, or winking towards things that are coming that won't actually serve the story. We have just an incredible list of directors that really help us navigate those things and steer us in the right direction.
Were they mostly repeat directors so there was a familiarity going into the end?
We had a couple of new faces, but a lot of the usual suspects. And Kristen (Bell) directed us, which was awesome, because she knows us. We're all together, all the time. So, having her input is always great. It's always useful because she's an incredibly smart actor and an incredibly creative person, in general, and really discerning.
Over the summer, Midsommar came out and made a splash. You play the academic, Josh. Was there any remnants of Chidi in that performance?
Well, I think Chidi is indecisive, Josh is not. Chidi is deeply kind, Josh is not. Josh is a very singularly focused person and knows exactly what he wants to do, and is furious when that's put in jeopardy. And he doesn't think for a second about other people needing something. It's like, "This is my thesis. This is what I need, and I'm going to do it." And that's not Chidi at all. But they are both academics, and I know some people have drawn comparisons between the two, but I think that the one thing that they share is an academic obsession. I think the core of the two guys could not be more different.
As an actor, have you been pleasantly surprised that your roles of late have landed so strongly with audiences?
Honestly, all I feel about that is gratitude. That I get to be a part of things where the integrity of the storytelling is paramount. And that's what I'm excited about. And I just feel lucky that I don't have to always have an eye to the audience. Well, are they going to like it? Are they going to like me? That's not a question I'm interested in asking myself.
The Good Place returns for its finale season tonight, Sept. 26 on NBC.