William Jackson Harper played Chidi on NBC’s The Good Place. The brilliant ethics professor lived in a surreal dimension outside of time that was populated by absurd, larger-than-life characters who frequently left him mentally drained. So it’s no surprise he was a perfect fit for the Quantum Realm’s resident know-it-all, the constantly exasperated telepath Quaz. What was it like bringing an entirely original character to life on a Marvel set full of famous faces? We asked Jackson Harper about that and more when we spoke to him about Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.
Nerdist: Why do you think you’re so good at playing a very smart person doomed to deal with far less intelligent beings?
William Jackson Harper: Oh, I don’t know, man. I definitely feel like in my life I’m sort of… I feel like I’m a little bit behind sometimes. So I don’t know why it’s turned out that way in a lot of parts I play. I don’t know what that is.
As one of the Quantum Realm’s humanoids, you had to deal with a lot of CGI characters. What did you do to stay grounded in your performance while filming alongside beings who weren’t there?
Jackson Harper: The thing with the filming is there were people who were actually there. I was interacting with actual scene partners a lot of the time. David Dastmalchian, who plays Veb, was there. He was down low and crouching around, a super tall guy spending the whole day doing this crouching thing and playing the whole scene. And then James Cutler, who played Xolum, he was there the whole time and was doing all sorts of wild stuff that was a lot of fun. I knew they were going to be rendered differently from what I was seeing, but I actually got to interact with people, with the actual characters.
Since Quaz has no direct comic book counterpart, did you turn to any other Marvel Comics characters for inspiration while you were developing the character?
Jackson Harper: I didn’t, because he was a brand new creation. I took that as a clue perhaps they just wanted to build out this weird world and sort of take the freedom that comes with that. So I didn’t really want to nod too much to anything else because it’s a brand new character. Peyton [Reed] and Jeff [Loveness], they crafted this thing. I wanted to honor what they were envisioning.
We get some of Quaz’s background. We understand the life he’s had to live since Kang showed up. But is there anything about the character and his past that maybe doesn’t come across in the movie that was important to playing him?
Jackson Harper: I feel like it comes across, but I think that this is a guy who was probably born over “it” in a lot of ways. I’m sure as a telepath he probably didn’t understand what was going on and why he was hearing and seeing all these things that just weren’t very nice or a little gross. Or maybe even some of it was kind of awesome. I’m sure he’s just like, “Oh, boy. Sometimes I just can’t help but read what’s going on in peoples’ brains.”
There’s a way in which he has a lot of answers that a lot of people don’t have. So when it comes to even being a part of this whole revolution thing, there are people even on his side he’s like, “It’s a good thing that person’s not in charge.”
Probably the reason he’s so invested in Jentorra is she says what she’s thinking. I bet you pretty much what she’s thinking about at all times is how to get this dude’s boot off our neck? So it’s like, “Alright, cool. She’s the person to lead this thing. The rest of you fools, I don’t believe you. I know that you’re lying to me. But Jentorra’s for real.”
The Quantum Realm exists outside of space and time, so it’s not clear how long its citizens even live. Did you learn or ask for specifics about Quaz’s age and how long he’s been dealing with Kang?
Jackson Harper: No, I didn’t. Time works differently, so for me I thought, “Man, wouldn’t it be cool if in this realm the equivalent would be hundreds of years?” Just as a weird thing to think about. If time and physical matter is all a little bit more amorphous and rules are all different, how long could that time actually be?
I feel like it’s several cycles of years, or even decades, of dealing with [Kang]. Enough time for him to build a huge empire and fortress and kick everybody off their land. And I bet you [Quaz] probably looked the same ever since it began, but it’s been forever.
Fans have floated you as a possible choice to play the MCU’s Reed Richards. Now, I know you can’t tell us if Quaz or any of his Variants will appear in the MCU again, but, hypothetically, if you were to return to the franchise, how would you like to do so?
Jackson Harper: I’m honestly open to anything as long as it’s interesting. I don’t really have a mission or a goal in how I come back, or if I come back. I wanted to do this movie because I just wanted to see how these things are made. I’m a huge geek for these. To get to be a part of it this time is great for me. And if I get to come back, awesome. And if I don’t, that’s fine. I’m still going to watch all of them.
Would playing Reed Richards qualify as interesting to you?
Jackson Harper: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Totally.
So you did the movie because you wanted to see how these things are made. What did you learn?
Jackson Harper: The scale of these things is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There’s a lot of repetition, and there’s a lot of moving pieces. A lot more than I’m used to. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t worked on things with special effects or any kind of weirdness. I have. But I think I haven’t worked on anything of this scale. It’s a lot of fun.
I’d like to do it again in whatever way I can. But really, the scale was something I just wasn’t prepared for. I was like, “Wow. That’s huge.”
Was that the hardest part of working on the movie? Adjusting to the scale?
Jackson Harper: Not really, because the job sort of stays the same. You’re still just playing the scene and trying to connect with your scene partners. Trying to find the most surprising but inevitable way to get to the conclusion of the moment.
The other thing that throws me is getting used to not being starstruck. Because, any project I go into there’s someone I’ve been watching for years that I’ve never met. I have to act like we’re just coworkers or something, and I’m still a fan.
That’s the thing, as some of the projects that I get to do coming up, I have to find a way to not freeze up and get starstruck when I’m around people that I’m a fan of.
Who were you most starstruck by in this movie??
Jackson Harper: I mean, well, everybody. I had the most interaction with Paul Rudd. Most of my scenes were with him. I’ve been watching him for decades at this point. And it was weird because he looks the same. The man doesn’t age. So there was sort of a, “Wow, I’ve seen so many things this dude has done and we just got to be coworkers.” Fortunately, he’s a really cool guy. Really laid back, really chill. But that was sort of just, “Come on, man. Just hunker down and do your work. Don’t freak out.”
You’re selling yourself short. You played a beloved character on a beloved TV show. Other people should be starstruck meeting you.
Jackson Harper: Yeah, but it’s different when it’s me because I was there the whole time. I know me. But other people, they’re other people and I’ve been watching them and I haven’t met them yet. So it’s still something where I get a little bit like, “Oh, wow.”
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike, and also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.