Manny Jacinto is ready to move beyond playing “the ultimate himbo.”
For four years on NBC’s afterlife comedy “The Good Place,” Jacinto charmed audiences as the goofy Jason Mendoza, a Floridian (and Blake Bortles’ No. 1 fan) who died by suffocation after willingly locking himself in a safe, Trojan horse style, in order to pull off a robbery. Although as episodes went on Jason exhibited growth and some smart moments, Jacinto laughs that he sometimes still gets social media comments focusing on Jason’s simpler traits.
He expresses nothing but kind words and gratitude, both for the team he worked with on that series and for the fan base it has given him. (“I was able to learn and witness and just be in the presence of so many people that are just so damn good at what they do. I was put into a show where the fans are just so positive and so supportive,” he says.) But he also knows that if he was only seen as Jason for too long, he might get stereotyped.
“I do think that Hollywood has a tendency to put people in boxes, and I don’t want to just be one thing. I didn’t want to go into acting and do all this as a career just to play one note,” Jacinto tells Variety.
While Jason was on the “more high-energy, chaotic spectrum” of characters, the next couple of TV roles Jacinto worked on are more straightforward, the actor says. First up is Cody, a drug-dealing friend with whom protagonist Lisa (Rosa Salazar) crashes when she moves to Los Angeles in “Brand New Cherry Flavor,” which drops Aug. 13 on Netflix. Then, less than a week later, he will be seen on competing streamer Hulu’s adaptation of “Nine Perfect Strangers” as Yao, right-hand man to Nicole Kidman’s Masha at her wellness retreat.
That both new projects are limited series and adaptations was not intentional when Jacinto was choosing his next roles. (It should be noted he also has the highly-anticipated “Top Gun: Maverick” film on the horizon.) But the calm, centering nature of both of these characters, despite the chaos around them, was important to Jacinto.
“I like being the quiet one, and I like having a sense of mystery. It’s my home base, in a sense, being more still,” he reflects, noting that is what he got to explore in the first few episodes of “The Good Place,” when Jason had to pretend to be Buddhist monk Jianyu so no one would find out he didn’t really belong in the titular location.
“I remember how awkward and how much of a struggle I felt that was. But then, there was so much comedy, there was so much interest from audience members in those three episodes because you didn’t know what he was going to do. So, there’s this appeal I find in that. I don’t know if I take advantage of it or if it’s intrinsic to me,” he explains.
Jacinto booked and started filming “Brand New Cherry Flavor” first, though the COVID-19 pandemic breaking out across the globe required them to pause and return for reshoots months later, after he had wrapped “Nine Perfect Strangers” in Australia. That character is kept on the outskirts of most of the madness of curses, zombies and vomiting kittens for the majority of the series, serving as a tether for Lisa, and therefore the audience, to a more grounded reality. He serves as a constant reminder of who she was and what she wanted before getting involved in a revenge fantasy, amplifying just how much has changed.
In “Nine Perfect Strangers,” by contrast, Jacinto’s character is smack in the center of the action and is the “moral compass” for it, he says. He is a former paramedic, who Masha credits with saving her life years earlier, but he quit that job to join her in her pursuit of building a wellness retreat. Her methods of micro-dosing her clients without their knowledge, let alone consent, are unorthodox at best — and potentially harmful to their health. Yao understands this better than most, given his professional background. So, while there is a layer of him “being super devoted” to her and “wanting [the retreat] Tranquillum to succeed as best as possible,” he also knows what they are doing “can go very wrong,” Jacinto says. This gave him additional layers to play because Yao “is definitely struggling with that internally. He’s not really being able to vocalize it; he’s trying to hold himself together.”
Jacinto got the callback for “Nine Perfect Strangers” while on the set of “Brand New Cherry Flavor,” which, he recalls, put a smile on his face for the rest of that day — something he had to keep in check when working on a twisty horror series. With both series, a big part of the appeal for Jacinto was with whom he would be collaborating.
“I looked into Nick Antosca’s work before [‘Brand New Cherry Flavor’],” Jacinto says. “‘Channel Zero’ was just the creepiest thing to me. I can’t articulate the feeling I was getting, but it was disturbing and weird and he just did so much with a lower budget project and I was like, ‘Oh man, if this guy can make me feel this way with “Channel Zero,” I can only imagine what he’ll do with the big empire of Netflix.'”
“Nine Perfect Strangers” afforded him the opportunity to, for the first real time, sit down and dig into backstory with a director (Jonathan Levine). And of course, “when you get a call to play with Nicole Kidman, you go and play; you don’t mess around with that,” he says.
The overarching theme of “Nine Perfect Strangers” being how far individuals will go for a sense of peace and happiness also spoke to him.
“To me, it’s almost a generational thing. With my parents, their whole pursuit in life was to just work, put food on the table, but I get to reap the benefits of [that]. I have more comforts than they had and I have more time than they had. And with more time comes more space to think, and I think when you don’t have those distractions of having to work all the time, you’re forced to spend time with yourself. So for me and my generation, we’re really trying to be happy and seek self-fulfillment. That’s why going to therapy isn’t taboo anymore, self-help or listening to these podcasts aren’t taboo. I struggle with that a lot — with identity and what makes me happy at the end of the day,” he says.
Jacinto certainly has no shortage of acting work, which is something that makes him happy. What would really make him happy next would be to lead an indie film or step into live-action anime, he says. “I think it’s a perfect ground where you can combine physicality and and comedic uplift, but also have moments of drama.”