Welcome to Awards Contenders. This month, SYFY WIRE is talking to the actors, directors, designers, and craftspeople whose work was featured in the best movies and TV offerings of 2019. Today, we speak with actor William Jackson Harper about his parts in the Critics Choice-nominated The Good Place and Midsommar (up for best sci-fi/horror film).
There is no “answer,” but the answer is William Jackson Harper. As Chidi on The Good Place and Josh in Midsommar, he helps transform the black nerd — or blerd — from a stereotype to someone incredibly interesting, desirable, and even powerful. (After all, the fate of the universe rests on Chidi’s decision with the end of The Good Place.)
Currently shooting Amazon’s upcoming The Underground Railroad, Harper took a break between running errands to chat with SYFY WIRE about the connections between The Good Place’s Chidi and Midsommar’s Josh, why representation matters, and the ethics of taking your friends to watch questionable pagan rituals.
Chidi and Josh are both academics, but with very different approaches to the belief systems they study. What would Chidi make of the rituals of Midsommar?
Chidi is one of those guys who is interested in a deep exploration of right and wrong, and that’s not part of Josh’s equation at all. For him, it’s about being an anthropologist. It’s really just about observing as much as he can. There is no judgment to be made. Chidi would be like, “How do you arrive at the correct judgment?”
Chidi would reject any belief that puts people in danger, any real physical danger. If you’re willing to put some sort of bad into the world and cause harm to others for your own benefit, there's something very wrong with that. But they both go down the rabbit hole with their respective fields.
Have you seen some of the Internet debate about Josh’s motives and whether or not he deserved his fate?
I don’t think he deserved it! I mean, sometimes you break the rules to achieve what you’re trying to achieve. And yes, he broke the rules. But it’s not reasonable to kill him because he looked at a book and took some pictures. He’s not looking to exploit people. He was just looking to bring these traditions, these beliefs to the public. Obviously, he gains from turning their culture into a commodity, but …
I think it’s more because he’s condescending to the locals, and outright cruel to his friends, by withholding information. Instead of warning them that the “ättestupa” is a violent ritual suicide, he lets them walk right into it. Even Dani, who is already recovering from trauma and loss, when she asks, “Is it scary?”... he doesn’t answer. Unless he wasn’t entirely sure? Maybe he thought they’d do it in effigy? He asks Pelle, “How real is this?” Maybe he didn’t know.
Oh, I think he knew. And that’s definitely not okay. I actually had a bit of a moment during that scene where I was like, “Wow…” I mean, it feels awful now, to know what’s coming and how terrible it is. As far as Josh was concerned, they all wanted to come, and it’s something he initiated, and something he’s studying, and what you see is what you see. And that’s the only way I could come down on it and not be like, “This guy’s just a dick,” you know?
Personally, I would not do that. If I was going to some ritual that was going to be deeply disturbing, I would definitely give some warning. But Josh is not that guy. That was part of the character that was hard to latch on to, to be okay with that. It takes a certain type of personality. And that was something [director] Ari Aster and I talked about, so that Josh’s reaction isn’t a gleeful, “They did it!” But more of a shocked, “Wow, they really did it!”
No matter how prepared you think you are, no matter how academically distanced you are, watching someone get splattered on a rock is going to be traumatizing, or so I would wager.
Yeah. It’s just interesting to watch all the debate surrounding Midsommar. And The Good Place, too — even when people are shipping Chidi and Eleanor, it’s about the greater good.
Yeah! There are so many theories about what their pairing could mean. It isn’t like typical shipping. I think it’s really paid off. And I think it’s good to show that this is what the world looks like.
Sometimes we receive a lot of homogeneous pairings in media, and it’s really important to normalize this sort of interracial relationship. I think honestly that a lot of people’s reactions to the show and to our relationship are because we don’t make it a big deal. I find it more significant that the salient point of that relationship is the fact that they’re not like each other.
Is there race in the afterlife?
In my version of the afterlife, we would witness the beauty of people’s differences, but our bodies don’t really exist. In our rendering of it, we’re limited by our human bodies and then what we actually look like.
While we’re talking about race, another interesting twist regarding Midsommar: We often think about anthropological studies as the white man exposing non-white customs to a white audience. This is a reversal.
Yeah! And honestly, I really thought about this. I couldn’t help but think about what it meant, how cool it would be to turn that on its head? At least just this one time, it’s not about the study of a culture of non-white people. It’s a black anthropologist exposing the undiscovered customs of white people. It’s interesting to throw that out into the public sphere. For me, that was really driving Josh.
Another area where Chidi and Josh usually diverge: You’re talking about something driving Josh, about him being decisive, but Chidi has had problems in this area. And people find it helpful to have him out there representing anxiety issues...
We’re out there! [Laughs] I’ve never considered myself as having an anxiety disorder, but I’ve always been a very anxious person, ever since I was a kid. It’s something that’s been pointed out to me by my mom, by my girlfriend, and I never realized how atypical that is until someone points it out. It doesn’t feel atypical to me. It feels like there are a lot of people like me, who are bothered by a lot of things, sometimes really mundane things. It’s weird because it feels like it shouldn’t bother you, but it does. And there’s nothing really wrong with Chidi’s life, but he’s battling these things, too.
I used to feel like even if other people are dealing with these things, they’re just better at coping with it than I am. Not paralyzed by it. And I love that people can express anxiety and depression more openly now. I didn’t think about therapy as something to try until I reached adulthood. I previously thought, “I don’t really have anything wrong with me. My life is fine. I don’t need to go to therapy.”
But then I had a lot of friends who seemed totally well-adjusted who talked about going to therapy. And it’s interesting sort of unpacking the nuances of that, and how people of color deal with mental health and inner turmoil. It’s important for people to see these shadings, you know?