William Jackson Harper: Getting To The Good Place William Jackson Harper shares where he was (physically and emotionally) when he was cast on 'The Good Place.' Then NYT ethics columnist Kwame Anthony Appiah joins him in a game about everyday ethics.
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William Jackson Harper: Getting To The Good Place

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William Jackson Harper: Getting To The Good Place

William Jackson Harper: Getting To The Good Place

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JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton here with puzzle guru Art Chung. Now, here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.

(APPLAUSE)

OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. You know him from the NBC sitcom "The Good Place." Please welcome William Jackson Harper.

(CHEERING)

EISENBERG: Yeah.

COULTON: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Look at that.

COULTON: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.

WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: Thanks for having me.

EISENBERG: You're welcome.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: So you play the ethicist Chidi on "The Good Place," a fantasy sitcom about a heaven-like utopia designed to reward people for being good in life - maybe.

HARPER: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: So where were you at in your life when you received the call for an audition for this?

HARPER: I was in the basement of my feelings.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HARPER: I had actually sort of given up the idea - given up on the idea of being an actor. I was like - you know, I'd been doing a lot of theater here in the city for a lot of years. And I was, you know, living with a whole bunch of dudes...

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: ...And I was 35. And I was like, you know, I think I've been fair to this...

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: ...Profession. I think it's time to move along and try to find some stability. So I was - I went back out. And I went out to LA for pilot season - sort of, you know, ready to go all in one more time, and if it all went terribly, that's fine. I'm out anyway. And actually, when I got the call that I got the job, I was watching the pilot episode of "Cheers."

EISENBERG: And what did you think of as a possible other career?

HARPER: Oh, I was - I don't know. I don't know. I was...

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: I mean, I sort of told myself, like, you know, you'll - I can go and do the teaching thing, I guess. But, I mean, as more of, like, a don't let this happen to you kind of - like, not as a teacher, but, like, as - in like, look at this career that I made. You don't want this. Do something different from what I did. And then...

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: ...But I - other than that, I had no idea.

EISENBERG: Well, I'm glad it worked out (laughter).

HARPER: Yeah, me too.

EISENBERG: Glad it worked out. And then you get the role of this character, Chidi, who is an ethicist, which - the moral center of the show. And also, we don't often see ethicists on television or in sitcoms especially.

HARPER: Yeah.

EISENBERG: So I imagine you get feedback from philosophers, ethicists that are pretty excited to be represented on television.

HARPER: Yeah. You know, I get the occasional, like, shout-out on Twitter, you know...

EISENBERG: Yeah (laughter).

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: ...And people wanting to ask me questions about ethics, as if...

EISENBERG: Oh, they treat you like you are the character.

HARPER: Oh, yeah - like, oh, you must really study all this. And I'm, like, I really do not. And...

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: ...I'm woefully underqualified to answer any question you may have. So...

(LAUGHTER).

HARPER: It's like - so yeah.

EISENBERG: And when people are asking you your advice on Twitter, what kinds of things are they asking you? I mean, is it personal, or is it more broad questions?

HARPER: Sort of broad questions. Sometimes it'll just be, like, a shot of their textbook and just asking me for help.

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: I'm, like, I don't...

EISENBERG: (Laughter) No, sir. Right.

HARPER: I can't help.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Well, for a sitcom, it has, I think, more plot twists. I mean, that's not usual for a sitcom to have...

HARPER: No, no.

EISENBERG: ...Crazy plot twists. And a lot of things happen to you.

HARPER: Yeah.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) A lot of things.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: I mean...

HARPER: Yeah.

EISENBERG: ...At the end of season two, they really put you through the wringer.

HARPER: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Were you terrified to receive a script?

HARPER: I mean...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

HARPER: ...After the blood cannon, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: If - the blood cannon, yes.

HARPER: There's this...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

HARPER: There's this - I don't know. I mean, you know, there's an episode called "The Trolley Problem" in which I run over a bunch of workers, and I'm covered in blood and guts and gore. And in order to achieve that effect, they shot me...

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: ...In the face and mouth with a blood cannon. It was, like, all, like, caramel syrup and food coloring and little pieces of foam and - yeah. Yeah.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

HARPER: That was - I mean, after that, I was like, oh, God. What are they going to do?

EISENBERG: And then...

HARPER: And then - oh, then the subsequent week, yeah...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

HARPER: ...That was the acupuncture week. And they...

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: ...They said to me, hey, man. So we're - we have this joke that we want to do in the next episode with you and needles.

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: Would you go out to this acupuncturist, and we'll just - you know, we'll let them, you know, like, just stab you up and...

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: ...And we'll take some pictures and see if it - how it looks. And so they drove me out (laughter) to this acupuncturist, and he put 50 needles in my face.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Who is it...

HARPER: And they laughed while he was doing it.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: When they start with, we want to do this thing with you and needles, were you, like, no (laughter) - like, what? Were you, like, OK?

HARPER: You know, you're just never ready for that question.

EISENBERG: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: You know? You're, like - you never, like - I could have said, like, I mean, anything.

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: But I - but instead I was just sort of like, oh, yeah, no, sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, I'm just - because I didn't - I just want to be a team player.

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: You know, you know, comedy.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: So before "The Good Place," you had a recurring role in the children's series "The Electric Company."

HARPER: Yeah.

(CHEERING)

EISENBERG: So you played a character named Danny Rebus who teaches vocabulary to us.

HARPER: Yeah.

EISENBERG: To me, that seems like a very fun gig. I loved that show as a kid. It was, like, smart and interesting as a children's show. I don't know what it was like to work on it.

HARPER: It was so much fun. It was - you know, you feel like you're actually doing some tangible good as far as, you know - as much tangible good that I think that an actor can do. You're just, like, I am helping kids learn. I'm doing that.

EISENBERG: Yeah, when kids recognize you from that, are they scared of you or are they excited?

HARPER: They're generally excited.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HARPER: I mean, now those kids are big. They're like...

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: ...Some guy will come up to me like, hey, man. I used to watch you when I was a child. And I was like, oh, my God.

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: I was like...

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: All right. Are you ready for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?

HARPER: Sure.

EISENBERG: Fantastic. You play a fictional ethicist on "The Good Place," so for your game we found the real-life version.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: He writes the ethicist column in The New York Times Magazine. Please welcome world-renowned ethicist Kwame Anthony Appiah.

(APPLAUSE)

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Thanks.

EISENBERG: Welcome, such a pleasure. How does one end up an ethicist?

APPIAH: Mostly by mistake.

(LAUGHTER)

APPIAH: I mean, I do work on ethics. But The Ethicist does something that most ethicists don't do...

EISENBERG: That's right.

APPIAH: ...Which is actually answer people's questions about how to live their lives.

(LAUGHTER)

APPIAH: Most ethicists have big theories about how to live your life but they don't actually - first of all, I know many of them. And there're many of them living terrible lives.

(LAUGHTER)

APPIAH: They're not doing a terrifically good job of it. But no I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

APPIAH: ...Theoretical ethics - theoretical ethics is sort of theoretical. It's a branch of philosophy. So I wasn't sure when I agreed to do it that I was going to be able to help anybody. Mostly I probably don't but - but I do, I think...

(LAUGHTER)

APPIAH: ...At least I give my readers something to read on a Sunday morning.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: So this is going to be fantastic. So, William, your game is called Can Or Kant.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Before the show, we posed everyday ethical dilemmas to Anthony, so we're going to pose these dilemmas to you. All you have to do is answer honestly, and then Anthony will tell you what the right answer is.

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: That's great.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: And if you do well enough, listener Vanessa George (ph), all the way from the faraway city of New York, will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.

APPIAH: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: OK. Here we go. William, what is your take on regifting?

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: I...

EISENBERG: You've done it?

HARPER: You know, actually, I have not.

EISENBERG: OK.

HARPER: I have - I have never regifted. I should probably give more gifts but...

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: ...I have - I have never regifted.

EISENBERG: OK. So then I guess you...

HARPER: Yeah. So I have no - yeah.

EISENBERG: ...You think - you're against it.

HARPER: I - I guess so. I mean, I guess if I - if I was a more charitable person...

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: ...I would have a context to answer this.

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: But I think being the stingy clown that I am...

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: ...No. I don't - I don't regift.

EISENBERG: All right. Anthony, what's your answer?

APPIAH: I think my answer is, if somebody gives you a gift, it's yours. And you're free to do with it whatever you like.

(LAUGHTER)

APPIAH: However...

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

APPIAH: However, you should try to do so in a way that doesn't give offense.

EISENBERG: Sure.

APPIAH: So...

EISENBERG: Just not to the same person.

APPIAH: Just not the same person. You know, you should keep track.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: All right, William. This is - this is where it gets serious. You suspect your partner of having an affair. Is it OK to snoop on their phone to find evidence?

HARPER: Umm (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: William is leaning backwards...

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: ...In almost a yoga wheel, I believe.

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: No. I don't think it is, not necessarily for any sort of moral reason. I think it's more just for peace of mind as well as letting the conflict, if it is going to occur, actually occur organically and genuinely.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

HARPER: Also, I think that I would lose any sort of moral high ground.

EISENBERG: That's true.

HARPER: I would forfeit that.

EISENBERG: There's a lot of people in agreement and a lot of people just thinking about their own past and thinking how...

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: ...They could have done it differently. All right, Anthony. What's your answer?

APPIAH: Well, my answer is that if your relationship is in a condition where that's the sort of thing you want to do, it's already in deep trouble. And so it's already in a certain sense over. You know, if it's reached that point, I think you should say, here's something wrong. I'm worried about whether you're being unfaithful to me. I think that's better than going behind someone's back because then you've - suppose you find nothing. I should say that my - my husband is there so he knows that he can now get away with anything he likes.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: All right. Here is your last question. William, you're in high school. Is it OK to let someone copy off of your homework if they didn't have time to complete it the night before?

HARPER: I mean, no, but..

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: You seem like a yes. You seem like a yes.

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: No. I mean - 'cause - because, like, what if they have to work, you know? It's like - I mean, you know, I had - I had that high school job where, you know, you're getting back at like 10, 11 o'clock and you just - you don't have time to do things. And so if we're being rigid about it, I guess, like, no. But you know...

EISENBERG: If we're being fast and loose.

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER: If you're being fast and loose, you know, help somebody out.

EISENBERG: OK, I'm going to say your answer is kind of. Depending on the circumstance, is that fair?

HARPER: Well, no. I mean, I guess. No, no, you're not supposed to do that, no, so, no.

EISENBERG: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: OK. Anthony, what's your answer?

APPIAH: Well, no, though the person who's asking you is likely to be your friend. So there is...

EISENBERG: How cool are they? Right, we don't know that.

APPIAH: There's something to be said for helping out a friend in difficulty, but I don't know that this is a way of helping out a friend in difficulty. Because in general, turns out you're not helping yourself very much by fooling the teacher into thinking you're doing what you're not doing. And you're not helping yourself very much because if you're not doing the work, you aren't actually developing the skills that you're supposed to be developing. So while it might seem like you're helping somebody in those circumstances, you're usually not. But given what we know, I think the answer is no. Yes.

EISENBERG: No. Yes. Yeah You guys are exactly in agreement on that one.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: I have no idea how the scoring could possibly work for this game. But puzzle guru Art Chung, how did our special guest do?

ART CHUNG: Congratulations, William. You, Anthony, and listener Vanessa George have all won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Anthony writes the ethicist column in The New York Times Magazine. His upcoming book is called "The Lies That Bind." William plays Chidi on "The Good Place." Let's hear it for Kwame Anthony Appiah and William Jackson Harper.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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