The Good Place’s Chidi Anagonye regularly performs a symphony of comic TV anxiety for our benefit, from his frequent stomachaches, to his various pastry dilemmas, to the masterpiece that was his “Peeps chili” breakdown, one of the funniest sequences to grace a network sitcom in years. Given his talent for portraying it, then, it’s not entirely surprising to learn that actor William Jackson Harper comes by his angst honestly, something made abundantly clear in a recent profile he did with Vulture. During the wide-ranging conversation, Harper talked through a variety of anxieties, ranging from his feelings about his body, to flop-sweating at parties, to his childhood fear of the Bad Place itself.
“I think about it in retrospect and I’m like, ‘That was kind of fucked up,’” Harper told interviewer E. Alex Jung, referencing his religious education and upbringing. “Honestly, one of the greatest sources of anxiety and fear in my life was my religion. I was afraid at all times I was doing something that was going to get me sent straight to Hell. I was just scared all day, every day of my youth.” Not that his nerves didn’t extend from eternity and into the here and now, too:
One hundred percent. Neurotic, anxious. The major difference between me and Chidi is that he talks about it a lot. When I’m feeling neurotic and anxious, I just completely disappear. I don’t want anyone to be dealing with that or see it. I remember I was on a date some years ago. We met at a party and we had a great time, and then we went on the date and I was really nervous. Eventually, after a couple of drinks, I started to relax. Then she said to me, “Oh, there you are. I was wondering when that guy was going to show up.” Of course, that weirded me out again immediately. I was right back to where I was.
Harper also talked about the much-remarked-upon—y’all know who you are—bit from “Jeremy Bearimy,” where Chidi’s despair drives him to go shirtless at the supermarket. Although extremely anxious after reading the script, he reveals in the interview that he couldn’t bring himself to raise his concerns to the show’s producers: “I was too scared to have the conversation. I didn’t want to reveal to them that I had a thing. I didn’t want anyone to know that I had a thing. So I just worked out really hard. Went on a diet. Like, I dieted for two weeks. I’ve been working out for two years now. I was hoping I’ll avoid ridicule. I’ll just look normal. No one will notice anything. And the joke will be funny, and that’ll be it. If no one says anything, I will have achieved my goal. I failed, which is fine. I don’t know, in my head, I look a little weird.”
Of course, Chidi’s nerves aren’t the only lovable aspect of his character; he’s also smart and funny, and capable—as in this week’s painful season finale—of finding unexpected certainty and calm in the face of moral dilemmas. That’s all on Harper, who won the role, at least in part, because he’d reached a somewhat similar level of resignation to the state of his acting career: “Honestly, I told myself it was going to be my last pilot season. I was getting older and wanting some kind of stability. I was in a place of, I may not be doing this again, for a while, so I’m just enjoying it. It’s kind of fun to just be in the room and just have a good time. So I was probably a bit looser and more relaxed than I would have been.”
You can read the full profile here.