Manny Jacinto Says Goodbye to Bortles, Magic Mike Dances, and 'The Good Place'
When Manny Jacinto, best known as The Good Place's lovable Florida dummy Jason Mendoza, visited the Thrillist headquarters earlier this month, I had to ask him about one of his coworkers' recent good deeds. Ted Danson had just been recently arrested alongside Jane Fonda protesting the government's inaction on climate, and I wanted to know how the cast reacted. What I didn't know at the time was that soon Jacinto would be putting himself in the same position. A day before this story was to be published a blast went out explaining that Jacinto would be joining Fonda on Capitol Hill this Friday.
It's all in keeping in the spirit of The Good Place, Mike Schur's wondrous NBC comedy, which in its last season is still asking big questions like: Is humanity truly worth saving from eternal torture? And, can people actually improve on a moral level? And, is former Jacksonville Jaguar Blake Bortles a national hero? As the show moves toward its finish line, Jacinto's Jason is still an adorable idiot who thinks problems are best solved with Molotov cocktails, but he's now an adorable idiot with a conscience who sometimes stumbles into wisdom. Going into tonight's midseason finale, Team Cockroach -- which includes Jason, reformed demon Michael (Danson), Arizona dirtbag Eleanor (Kristen Bell), British socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil), neurotic academic Chidi (William Jackson Harper), and not-a-girl all-knowing being Janet (D'Arcy Carden) -- are facing down another threat. Having decided that their experiment proved that humans are capable of evolving, the afterlife's Judge (Maya Rudolph) has decided the only way to fix Earth is to start from scratch. (A 90-minute series finale will air January 30.)
Jacinto -- a Canadian with a degree in civil engineering and a background in dance -- has seen his star rise with The Good Place and is now grappling with its conclusion. In Jason, he created a quintessential lovable sitcom doofus, earning his place in the pantheon alongside the likes of his inspirations, Joey Tribbiani on Friends and Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation. After causing heads to turn with his photo shoot in our lounge area, Jacinto and I sat down in a conference room to talk about cast slumber parties at Danson's, doing good, and his upcoming role in the Top Gun sequel.
Thrillist: What was The Good Place cast's reaction when Ted Danson got arrested?
Manny Jacinto: Oh my goodness. I remember just seeing that on Twitter or on Instagram. I think D'Arcy was the first one to post it up. And then one of our directors posted it up. It was like, of course, of course that would happen because Ted is like the coolest awesome human being on Earth. And to do that at his age? He could just as easily just be like on a boat fishing or just like on a beach somewhere chilling out with what he's done in the industry or in the TV landscape. He could just be sitting in relaxing. But no, he wants to do more and he wants to help, which is something to aspire to.
Going all the way back to the beginning of The Good Place, was there a moment in the show or in your personal life where the idea of Jason clicked for you?
Jacinto: I really don't know if this is a good thing or bad thing, but I really connected with him [during auditions]. Joey was definitely one of my favorite characters on Friends so I can see bits of Joey in there. And Andy Dwyer played by Chris Pratt [on Schur's Parks and Recreation] was also a favorite of mine. It was a character that I loved watching and also loved playing so it kind of just resonated with me when I got the audition. Not to say that I took Joey and Andy and combined it into Jason. I found his own avenue. But in terms of being able to find him. I think was [knocks on desk] the first scene I had with Kristen where I revealed to [Eleanor] that I'm a fake drug selling DJ from Jacksonville, Florida. In those moments of guidance when Mike was on set I was able to find it with him and finesse things, like finding the truth in the joke and not just trying to be funny. Having his help and also Kristen being there helped me form the character a little bit and give me some clues into who he is.
Do you have any favorite words or phrases to say as Jason?
Jacinto: "Bortles." I think that's his hero call or whatever. If you need Jason to come, just yell out "Bortles!" and he'll be right at your door. There was this one favorite line of mine that just recently aired was when he was interrogating Glenn, one of the Bad Place characters, and he goes: "If you're a devil how come you're not wearing Prada?" It's such a great little tidbit. A very classic Jason Mendoza moment.
The cast members all seem very close from the outside. What were your final days on set like?
Jacinto: It's funny because, I mean, we all knew coming, in that it would be the last season, so certain things would change. Instead of going to our trailers to chill out and wait for the day to pass, we would all kind of just watch each other's scenes. I know D'Arcy and I definitely made an effort to just be present at each scene even though we weren't there. We just would be there to watch, especially during the final episodes. I think that's the biggest thing that kind of changed overall, like with the tone and the energy and the vibe on set. At the end of the day, it really sucks that we had to end this. But yeah, I mean, who knows? We have each other's numbers. We're going to keep in touch. Yeah, it's like it's very much like that. We're all family still. So whenever we can we try and see each other.
Is there a Team Cockroach group chat?
Jacinto: Yeah. We haven't put a name to the group yet, but I should put one down. But yeah we do have a group chat that's going around sharing different memes.
Do you share show-related memes?
Jacinto: Every once in a while. A lot of meme exchanges were happening when Will took off his shirt. That was a hit on the cast group text.
Jason is a good-hearted soul who has learned a lot, but also doesn't progress since he's not the brightest bulb. How have you tracked his journey to self-discovery? How do you play those moments of revelation?
Jacinto: It's definitely a line to walk, as the seasons progress to not go back to the original douchebag Jason Mendoza or dummy Jason Mendoza. He is still a lovable dummy in a sense, but the writers are very good at creating an arc for the character, but I think what I've learned throughout the season is to kind of lean more towards Jason's heart. As the seasons progressed, he definitely becomes more empathetic, he definitely becomes more self-aware, and aware of the people around him rather than being selfish, so I really lean towards his loyalty amongst his family, Team Cockroach, and definitely like his heart, doing good for the people around him. By leaning into that, that kind of helped them evolve emotionally because I know it's going to be hard for him to evolve intellectually.
Of the typical Jason costumes which do you prefer: The Jianyu monk robe, the dapper suit in the Bad Place, or the Florida douchebag look?
Jacinto: It's funny because every time I'm in the flowy garment in the Good Place everyone says it's perfect because we film outside on the lot and it's so hot. I have the easiest costume to wear. I don't have to go into fittings or anything so they just give me the same uniform everyday. That is ideal. It's also very nice when people have a lot of compliments toward the Bad Place suit. They have very descriptive compliments especially in the Twitterverse and social media, which is always very nice. But also his Florida outfit is super-comfortable and also very weird but also kind of cool. Because it's like, whatever, I'm just going to wear this. I'm going to wear cropped capri-esque jeans and Jordans. He's kind of making his own statement. It's his own Jason Mendoza fashion line.
In one of the most recent episodes that aired you are showing off your dance talents. Chidi tells new character John that Jason will teach him the Magic Mike dance. You came from a dance background, what it is it like showing off those skills and can you actually do the full Magic Mike dance?
Jacinto: I think it might have been Kassia [Miller] and Jen [Statsky] who were the writers for that show. It was so funny when we read that scene, I definitely squirmed a little bit when I saw that little text "Jason does the Magic Mike dance." I didn't know exactly what that would entail, but I knew it had to have a little sexytime in it. I had to study the video and they gave me video to study as well.
Which video did they give you to study?
Jacinto: The original one where I think it's Channing [Tatum]'s first debut performance onstage. He has the cap. Man, that guy can dance, and I had to live up to [it]. I had to pick and choose. I had to pick one that wasn't too scandalous but still Magic Mike. It was hard to finesse at first, but then we settled on a midpoint that kind of met both words. I think they were happy with it. I don't know. It was interesting. They just like to put me in those situations.
What do you mean by those situations?
Jacinto: Like, sexytime things. Any chance they can show any kind of dance move or anything, they are always for it. I don't have to be like, hey, Mike, can we do this to show off some of my dance moves? They are the ones ahead of the game. They are always on top of it.
As it's coming to an end: What do you think the legacy of Jason Mendoza will be?
Jacinto: The easiest one for me to think of is like: I would like to think that Jason would be like forever the Jacksonville Jaguars mascot or something like that. Maybe he can replace the current Jaguars mascot. But, I don't know, in terms like if I dig deep down intellectually, yeah, I'd like to think that you know, Jason kind of took some walls down and kind of opened things up for Asian men to be seen in a different way. I'd like to think that at least his humor and his energy can be carried on as more and more people discover the show.
For you, personally, what are your biggest ambitions for after the show is over?
Jacinto: Biggest, biggest ambition -- and because we haven't seen a lot of it -- is an Asian male lead. To be a part of something of that caliber, whether it be in a feature film on a TV series, that's I think at the end of the day, what we're kind of aiming towards. But I also just love to play interesting, quirky, very complex characters, and they don't necessarily have to be leads. Either of those on the spectrum to be a male lead or to have a complex role that could be super-challenging to do is just as satisfying.
You're playing a pilot in Top Gun: Maverick. That's stepping into a huge sequel that I think a lot of people never thought would happen. What prep did you do?
Jacinto: In terms of preparation, I think it was all kind of mental. Doing research as well. You kind of get what you're going into with the Navy and the fighter pilots and stuff. You just read up on as much as you can. They gave us some information to get familiar with the world. Because Tom [Cruise] sets a certain bar on set and you definitely want to meet it when you're a part of something like this. You don't want to disappoint. Doing my research was part of it, but also getting as jacked as possible. I think all of the people involved just hit the gym right away.
The volleyball scene is in your head.
Jacinto: Exactly. It's like, "I need to start taking a lot more supplements and protein powders." I think that was the biggest thing that really hit all of us that got involved: Let's hit the gym, let's start running some miles.
Were you going to the gym with other people in the cast?
Jacinto: During filming, yeah. The hotel had a gym in there and it would not be empty even at like midnight.
It seems like there's football, according to the trailer.
Jacinto: Yeah, possibly. Little snippets of different sports maybe. Tom Cruise doesn't disappoint when you want to see some skin on screen. So we can leave that there.
I know you can't say too much more, so let's move away from that. I want to ask you to explain an Instagram post of you taking out the trash after the Emmys. What was that about?
Jacinto: It's just so funny to me. It was my first time at the Emmys. I read Bryan Cranston's book and this was kind of in my head because in it he talked about how he would go to like all these awards and stuff. This was the first time at the Emmys and everybody gets all glammed up and takes these pictures and they look so nice, and it's true, everybody looks amazing. But at the end of the day we're just regular people and we have to take out the trash. We have to change the baby's diaper. It was a nice reminder for me anyway that this whole glamour thing is not exactly what we're all living every day. I still have to take out the trash at the end of the day.
You were talking with our photographer about taking photos. Have you been memorializing the end of The Good Place by photographing the set?
Jacinto: I was. Well, for one thing it was super-frustrating with film because I was just learning it and a lot of times it would be just black, nothing would come out. But it was great because it forced me to be present and observing on set. These are pictures that I get to collect and then I'll share them with the cast maybe once I get time to put them together into a collage or a book and maybe share with the public, maybe at a Good Place 10-year reunion or something like that. It's special to have, and it was a good distraction from crying on set knowing that it was going to be our last season.
The Good Place is about these ethical lessons and questions of morality. Is there a core thing you personally took away from the show?
Jacinto: We talk about altruism. It's really tough to have a true altruistic act, meaning like, if I do something good, am I really doing it for the purpose of being good? Or am I doing it to make myself feel better? So I remember we did a panel and Will touched on this and I guess my mentality towards like being a good person now is leaning towards this idea, which is I'll try -- like whether it be donating to charity, whether it be giving a tip, whether it be helping a person cross the street -- to do these acts of goodness, purely for the fact of doing it for the other person and not for my benefit and not for me to feel good. So I think that's kind of like my biggest moral takeaway from this whole experience.
Not doing good things just to post on social media.
Jacinto: Exactly, like, "Hey, I donated this amount of money to charity. Look at me." It's a line that I definitely play with a lot. Like when I tip drivers, it's like, "Make sure to look at that $5 bill that I got you." It's not that big of a deal, man. It's a tough line to play with, but that's definitely the goal that I work towards whenever I try to be a good person.
A quick production question: The blue goo.
Jacinto: The blue goo!
You got spurted with demon guts. What are those days on set like?
Jacinto: They are a little terrifying because you don't know what's going to come out. We do a lot of weird stuff.
What is the weirdest?
Jacinto: That. The blue goop. There was a moment where Jason goes home to Jacksonville and they had a monster truck run over a taxi. That was awesome and weird. The one where Will was on the train and he gets sprayed by all that red goop or whatever. Will gets a lot of the weird situations as well. He gets all the acupuncture needles on his face. It's weird because we don't know what will happen. We know that we will be in good hands, but you can't help but be nervous in those situations. But they take care of us at the end of the day.
Nervous that it's going to be gross?
Jacinto: Yeah. Or it's going to go somewhere it's not supposed to go.
How much crying was there as you wrapped it up?
Jacinto: It's tough because I guess we were all so focused and also pretty tired by the end of that last episode. In terms of tears and what not, I think it just comes in spurts. I think it was our Comic-Con panel where Ted started to tear up a little bit, and then once he tears up we all tear up obviously.
When Ted Danson's crying, everyone's crying...
Jacinto: If you don't, you have no heart, no soul. It comes in spurts. Like when you try to hold it back, you know, you can't really help it. I'm sure by the time April rolls around when we usually start filming, some tears will probably start flowing when I'm like, Where's everybody?
Have you thought about reunions? Are there plans in place to get together?
Jacinto: Last year we did this after the end of the third season, we did a slumber party over at Ted's place. Maybe we could do that again.
What is a slumber party at Ted Danson's like?
Jacinto: It's everything you can imagine: Unicorns and rainbows. No, it's the best. It was exactly that feeling that you get when you were 10 years old and you were going to go to your first sleepover. That exact feeling. But now you're 30 years old and you're going to a 70-year-old man's property, and you guys are just hanging out, and instead of video games, you're kind of just talking about life.