William Jackson Harper plays the ever-agonizing ethics professor Chidi Anagonye on the best sitcom on TV, The Good Place. Not only are Chidi's convictions rock-solid, but running jokes throughout the show have suggested that the character himself is absolutely ripped beneath all that self-doubt, and all those sweater vests.
Naturally, because this is a sitcom, the call came for William Jackson Harper to tear off his shirt early in season 3. By no means a slouch, but also by no means a health buff, Harper had to make some changes if audiences were to buy into Chidi as a secretly musclebound hunk (and boy did they buy into it). GQ caught up with the actor about what changed in his diet and routine to get him in WWE Superstar shape, and why he was scared to even look at the online reaction.
GQ: In season one, I think Eleanor said your character is "surprisingly jacked." I suppose you knew that the shirt was coming off at some point.
William Jackson Harper: Well, I was kind of hoping it wouldn't. I exercise, but I've always been a little bit afraid to go shirtless in front of people. I grew up a little awkward and chubby, and I kind of got made fun of, and so I was always scared of it. I was hoping it wouldn't happen on the show.
But I work out now because I try to maintain a very normal, average looking physique. When I read the script for that episode, I was like, "Oh. Oh snap. Okay. Well, the goal now is to just see if I can remove some of these unwanted lumps and just see if I can make my body as featureless as possible." That was what I was going for.
You did prepare, in a special way, to be shirtless on camera more than you usually would in terms of diet and working out?
Oh yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.
What did you do to prepare? How does this compare to what you would eat and drink and do at the gym a year ago?
When this came up, I kind started doing a lot more HIIT classes, high intensity interval training. I've seen results a little bit more consistently with that, and there's a lot more muscle profusion.
Also, I went on this sort of modified but typical high protein, low carb diet. It was sort of a modified version of the Dukan Diet, but I didn't quite do the full thing. I took what I wanted and left the rest. I only did that for about two weeks leading up to the actual scene, itself, and then yeah. Once it was all done, [I went] back to my normal thing, which is alternating the cardio days with weight training days.
What do you think was the biggest change you had to make to your diet in the intense phase?
Honestly, it was actually having to eat more than normal. There were so few carbs, in order to keep my energy up, I just had to constantly be eating something, otherwise my energy would just completely flag. I put my body into a place where it's burning fat and also ramping up my metabolism. I had to eat pretty consistently.
It's a lot of meals throughout the day rather than three big ones.
Right. Yeah. It's also trying to eat leaner proteins, so I didn't do a lot of red meat. It was a lot of chicken and fish and usually pretty dry, just some salt and pepper on it and trying to keep it pretty simple.
Did you discover any methods of cooking that you ended up liking and taking away from it?
Well, I found that when making salmon, for example, you really don't need to do a whole lot to it for it to taste pretty much the way it always tastes. You know? You can cook very simply and still have a lot of flavor in your food. That was something that I took away from this. It's like, "Oh, I don't have to actually know a whole lot about cooking to eat stuff that tastes pretty good."
Salmon's one of my favorites. You just throw it in the skillet skin side down, and you're pretty much good to go.
You're pretty much good to go! I know! I always assumed you have to throw a lot of seasoning on things in order to make them basically palatable, but there's a lot of stuff out there that you just don't have to. You don't really have to do anything to it, especially if you blend the right flavors together.
Did you pay attention to the reaction? I mean, I'll say I saw what I'll call "enthusiastic" approval on Twitter.
I didn't. A friend of mine texted me, he was like, "Yo. Twitter wants Chidi to get naked," and I was like, "Oh. Oh. Okay. I guess we did okay."
Honestly, I was just hoping that I wasn't getting made fun of. That's really all I was concerned about. I was like, "God, please don't let these people make fun of me." I couldn't take it if a few thousand people just decided to just roast me online.
What do you think the nature of the roasting would be? That you were trying too hard or what?
No. I thought people would just be like, "Whoa. What a weird-looking dude." I thought people would think I was weird looking. Well, "That dude's got a weird body. I don't like that. Tell him to put his shirt back on."
I was doing a bit of research, and I remembered there's an episode kind of early on where everyone gets to eat their favorite meal. Right?
What do you think yours would be?
It's definitely sushi. A really great sushi meal is the most satisfying thing in the world to me.
What kind of sushi are we talking? Like sashimi or some salmon rolls or what?
Basically, like, the highly curated rolls and some sashimi, and then the... I'm not sure what you call it, the sushi that comes on a little bed of sticky rice sort of.
I know you can't really talk about it yet, but I interviewed Ari Aster last year, and you're going to be in his next movie. I'm kind of excited to see a darker side to what you put across in your work.
Oh, yeah, I'm excited about that movie, too, actually. It's a unique, interesting, very dark, very strange movie that I'm really excited about.
To go back to The Good Place and even to just the attention you're getting, I think it's fair to say not many people knew about you as an actor three years ago. Suddenly, Chidi is a personality type in and of himself. Something that people really latched onto. How does that feel?
It feels great. Honestly, I am, as a person, pretty wildly indecisive. Chidi talks about it, which I think can be grating. I, on the other hand, whenever I can't make a decision, I just go into a weird sort of catatonic state and don't say anything and don't respond. It's validating for me, because I feel like I just annoy people with how indecisive I can get, so it's nice to see other people doing the same thing, and responding to it.
It's kind of refreshing to see a TV show where the nerdy dude its most objectified hunk.
Yeah. That's right. It's so weird. It's so, so weird, man. In my head, I still feel like that chubby little 13-year-old. Watching the show, I was like "That's another guy. That's not me." You know?