Of all the twists and turns The Good Place has rolled out in a season and a half, this still counts as one of the biggest surprises: The NBC sitcom is the very first acting gig for co-star Jameela Jamil. Having spent the better part of a decade counting down pop hits, quipping on panel shows, and engaging in breakfast-time chit-chat in her native England, Jamil was introduced to American audiences as Tahani Al-Jamil, a haughty, well-connected, philanthropic phony spending her afterlife seeking the genuine fulfillment that eluded her on Earth. With The Good Place resuming its second season on Thursday, January 4, The A.V. Club spoke to Jamil about transitioning from interviewer to interviewee, the potential for a love connection between her Good Place character and Kristen Bell’s Eleanor Shellstrop, and why Ted Danson is the last person you can trust with a secret.
The A.V. Club: Interviews were a big part of your old TV jobs—is it interesting to be the one answering questions now?
Jameela Jamil: It’s so weird. And I sympathize now so much more with the people I used to interview, because thinking of anything on the spot, I realize how much your mind goes blank over the simplest things. Also, I’m not in control anymore, which I hate. Kristen Bell was, I think, my first ever interview. So now to be working with her is so weird.
AVC: Did you bring that up after you’d both been cast on The Good Place?
JJ: I did. Of course, she did not remember me, because it was years and years ago, and she gets interviewed by a million people, but the good thing is that I remember how nice she was to me back then. Had she been an asshole, that would’ve been very awkward.
AVC: What was she promoting when you interviewed her?
JJ: Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Also, if you interview [Forgetting Sarah Marshall co-star] Russell Brand—especially at that time—then anyone after him seems like a dream. He took off my shoe and beat me with it or something ridiculous [Laughs.] during the interview. He’s a psychopath to interview when it comes to movies.
AVC: There’s footage of you interviewing him on the Arthur press tour where you end the conversation with something like, “This is terrible. Goodbye.”
JJ: Yeah. “You’re a nightmare.” [Laughs.]
I think my previous job has made me so sympathetic toward journalists and it makes me really understand where you’re coming from, so I always feel like I want to never do what bad celebrities or bad interviewees have done with me. I feel like I just want to give.
AVC: Having talked to so many different people as part of that job, does that make it easier to get into the mindset of a character, or give you a lot to draw on as an actor?
JJ: I think having lied to a lot of celebrities that I liked their music or films was a form of acting. [Laughs.] Which you must identify with: I’ve had to interview people like Pitbull and pretend to be enthusiastic about his music. And so I think, in that respect, I have probably been acting for years and years without realizing. [Laughs.] I’m used to being in front of a camera, even if it is just as a TV host, I think that helps a little bit. To be honest, nothing really prepares you for acting. Deep down, we’re all liars, we’re all actors.
AVC: Do you think it was easier to make your acting debut in a country where the viewers weren’t familiar with you in that previous context, or to have that to compare your performance against?
JJ: For sure. If you think about it, I was on people’s morning televisions sometimes seven days a week, and I was in their car, and in their kitchen with them every single week, twice a week. People knew me much better in England and it was great to have complete anonymity here. I imagine it was a bit weird for people to see me acting now. But I have been accepted thus far, by England.
AVC: How do you think Tahani has changed since we first met her at the beginning of The Good Place? Or has she changed at all?
JJ: I think she’s admitted to her flaws. Even to herself—she’s accepted that she’s a fraud in a lot of ways. What do they call her? “A hot fraud.” [Laughs.] She knows who she is now, and she’s actively trying to become better. I think self-acceptance is the moment when we all become better in life, anyway, so she hit that point quite early in season two. The game is up and she finds out in fact that she is actually a contrived person who just seems like a good person. So I think she’s growing up, I think she’s becoming more likeable. I hated her at the beginning of the show, and now I’ve grown to feel quite warm to her, because Mike Schur is amazing at building empathy. Rather than just make fun of the way that people are, he always makes a bit of fun of them, and then explains why they are like that. And then it makes you sympathize with them.
AVC: How much of her background were you aware of going into the production?
JJ: I had no idea what any of this was about. I was just told Mike Schur has a new project—these are fake sides about a fake character. We’re not going to tell you anything about it. And even after I’d signed a seven-year deal—which you have to sign before the final audition—I had no idea what I was going in for. And I was just praying to god that it wasn’t porn—that Mike Schur wasn’t making his first porno, and I wasn’t about to star in it. [Laughs.] Thank god it wasn’t—and it was The Good Place! And I wasn’t told until after I had the part that it was indeed a comedy, Ted Danson’s going to be in it, and Kristen Bell, and the premise was so good that, as a comedy writer, I was so jealous about the idea that I couldn’t even be excited for several days.
AVC: How were you feeling going into that audition? It seems so nerve-rattling to not know anything about the project.
JJ: The auditions were fine, because I never thought that I’d be able to act. I had no idea, I’d never really tried to act before—not since I was a small child, when I was 6 or 7 at school. I was just so sure that I’d never make it past the first round that I just enjoyed the experience. Also, I got to meet Mike Schur—that was enough for me.
The point at which I had to sign the seven-year deal before the final audition, that was terrifying, because you’re committing to something where you are completely in the dark. And it just is a testament to how genius [Schur] is that actors were willing to do that, and agents were willing to sign their actors up for that. No one gets away with that. It was just a no-brainer: It’s Mike Schur. You go. You follow where Mike Schur leads.
AVC: So you were a Mike Schur fan heading into this process.
JJ: I love all of the choices that he makes comedically, and I love the talent that he chooses. He’s just got a unique eye for comedy. And he’s a nice guy—he’s a properly nice guy, in a way you’ve never heard of. When you hear the horror stories going around about what it’s like to work under certain men in this business, you couldn’t feel more lucky, more protected, more like you’re being guided by a complete feminist. I think he might be the best person. He might be Jesus.
AVC: Having such a positive experience the first time out the gate, are you worried at all that this might spoil you for the next show you do?
JJ: Oh, I’m totally fucked. And [Schur] has the best catering in Hollywood—I’ve been told that by everyone across the board. I’m now terrified, and I’ve only heard of horror stories from other people who’ve worked on our show and then gone off to work on another show. They come back with hollowed expressions because we’re all spoiled little shits now, because you’re working in an environment that’s so loving and trusting and caring and fun, and everyone’s funny, and nobody has an ego. In fact, the first thing Mike said—the day that I was given the part, after telling me the premise—was that he’s only got two rules. One of them is that the best idea wins, even if it’s the director, the producer, or the janitor who comes up with it. And number two: He has a very strict “no assholes” policy. And it really works, because everyone is nice on set.
AVC: In terms of that “best idea wins” philosophy: What are some ideas that you’ve had that have made it into the show?
JJ: I think what was so cool about it was that Mike and the writers were willing to let all of us guide our own characters. We obviously had a set character to play, but we were allowed to humanize them. I was obsessed with making Tahani more passive-aggressive than she already was. I found that played funnier, and I think that is much more English. They let me turn her into a little bit more of a nightmare than they had originally intended. I think she was sweeter originally, and I wanted to make her truly British.
AVC: Who do you think Tahani’s true soulmate is?
JJ: I think maybe it’s Eleanor. [Laughs.] I really do. The tension between them is too much. There’s actually a lot of fans who’ve been writing to me and Kristen that they want us to get together. That seems to be the biggest ’ship in the show. I’ve been getting a lot of erotic fan fiction about us, which is very exciting—I’ve never experienced anything like this before. People are making amazing paintings of Tahani and Eleanor getting together. I think everyone’s right. I think there should be a stab at it. In version 218 of the reboots, at one point we do get together. But they obviously didn’t show it because there’s so much to get into the show.
AVC: What was it like filming “Dance Dance Resolution”? That’s so much content packed into the regular running length of the show.
JJ: And there’s so much in there that we shot that you never got to see, which is such a shame, because it was all so fun and ridiculous. It was very intense, and it was early into coming back for season two. And very, very funny. It was one of the most fun episodes that we got to do. All of it was fun, but to be honest, season two was my favorite season so far. And it just keeps getting braver and braver, and it’s so annoying that we’re on hiatus at the moment, because you have no idea how fun it’s about to get. It’s about to get crazy. The ending of this next season is just brilliant. I’m so proud of it.
AVC: The show has done a remarkable job of surprising its audience—does it feel the same way from within the show?
JJ: Well, we’re not told anything as we go along, because Mike doesn’t want it to change the way that we play. We are playing people who are being constantly deceived, and he wants to make that as authentic as possible, so therefore he deceives us constantly, and never tells us what’s going on. So you get the most natural performance out of us, because we don’t know what the next twist and turn is going to be. It’s almost like he is Michael, and we really are the characters in his universe.
AVC: He had a good reason for naming that character after himself.
JJ: Exactly, and we really are his puppets. But I can’t believe how much no one ever guesses—like I have friends who are comedy writers who are so switched-on and smart and who love this kind of genre of comedy, and nobody guessed the ending of last season, and no one’s been able to predict where we’re going to go in the show so far. I think it’s just testament to how brilliant our writers are.
AVC: Take us back to the moment when you learned of the twist, which Kristen Bell recorded, and has since found its way onto the internet. Had it ever crossed your mind that the characters were actually in The Bad Place?
JJ: No. That was one of the only things that hadn’t crossed my mind. It would just be too much, it would be too mad. It didn’t even occur to me. That moment, I remember we all had goosebumps. And were were too shocked to even discuss it with each other when we left. I think we all texted each other hours and hours and hours later as to what the fuck—what the fork—had just happened.
I’m so happy that she captured that, because it was so authentic, because we had been kept so in the dark, which is amazing considering the fact that “Loose Lips” Danson was around us every single day and is the worst secret keeper I have ever met.
AVC: How so?
JJ: Here’s a perfect example: He told everyone apart from us the ending of the first season. Which was the one thing we were told not to do. He would tell people what the show was about, and if people didn’t look interested, then his ego would kick in, and he’d be like, “Well, what you don’t know is that it’s actually The Bad Place!” And they would be shocked and amazed. And he would give away the fucking ending to the fucking season all the time! [Laughs.] I can’t believe it didn’t get out, purely because of him.
AVC: Well, if you’re staying mum, and he’s not, how do you handle it? How do you, personally, keep a secret that good?
JJ: I found it really hard. I didn’t even tell my boyfriend, who I was living with at the time. I was keeping my scripts all hidden away. I get that thing that I think a lot of people have, which is that compulsion to do the thing that you’re most not supposed to do. So at the Television Critics Association panel, in front of all the journalists in the world, I didn’t say one single word. I kept my lips pressed shut for the whole half-an-hour interview, because I knew I was going to scream out the ending. Not just say it: I was going to scream the ending out loud. I found it a real struggle—and then I couldn’t believe it that, all along, Ted had just been going around telling everyone.
He calls me “Potty Mouth Jamil,” so we’re equal. He warns journalists about me before they interview me.
AVC: About the potty mouth?
JJ: Yeah. And about what a disgusting mind I have.
AVC: So how have you become accustomed to all the forks, shirts, benches in The Good Place’s creatively bowdlerized dialogue?
JJ: It’s made it so much easier for me to be around children, because I’ve completely adopted those words. I think it’s great, because it means that we get to be really edgy and brave on an NBC sitcom. It’s a really clever loophole.
AVC: How have you enjoyed the way Tahani and Jason’s relationship has blossomed in the second season? How did that change the way that you and Manny Jacinto played against one another onscreen?
JJ: First of all, who doesn’t want to even just pretend to be romantically linked to the male Angelina Jolie that is Manny Jacinto? So that was already a complete pleasure for me. He’s officially the most beautiful person in the whole world, to the point where it’s just intimidating. It was great, because Manny and I are great friends, so we got to have loads fun and we’re very comfortable with each other.
This was my first ever acting job, so it was the first time I’ve ever had to pretend to be romantically linked to anyone, and so it was my first ever onscreen kiss, and my seventh kiss ever. And Manny won’t want me to tell people this, but it was also his seventh kiss ever. [Laughs.] We’re both losers—we are now each other’s seventh kiss ever. [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s good to be on an even playing field.
JJ: Yeah, totally. But how sweet that you can see your seventh kiss ever on TV. [Laughs.] But it was definitely, definitely weird to pretend to be in love with your friend. I don’t even know how people do sex scenes. I can’t even imagine—because it’s such a cold, peculiar scenario. It was so weird when we were lying in bed together pretending that we had just had sex—even that was too much for me. I felt so shy in that situation. I really don’t understand how that scene in Monster’s Ball happened. I just don’t know how people do it. I feel like you have to be some level of sociopath to be able to do that convincingly. That just freaks me out.
AVC: What would your personal Bad Place look like?
JJ: I think my Bad Place would be the gym, and on top of already being in the gym—which is a Bad Place enough—people are trying to make small talk with me. And Pitbull is playing in the background.
AVC: It’s full-circle, back to Pitbull.
JJ: Oh yeah: Fork Pitbull. [Laughs.]