Most people who recognise Manny Jacinto will know him from The Good Place, NBC’s fantasy comedy in which he played dim-witted drug dealer Jason Mendoza – however, that’s all about to change.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon when I’m chatting to Manny Jacinto on Zoom and, while it’s my only interview of the day, it’s almost certainly not his. From the highly-anticipated Top Gun sequel Maverick with Tom Cruise, to Netflix’s upcoming horror drama Brand New Cherry Flavour, the Filipino-Canadian actor’s diary is full of press commitments for these high-profile projects, finally seeing the light of day after multiple COVID-delays.
“It’s a good, busy time,” he says from a grey room in Los Angeles. “I think we’re just trying to bounce back from the pandemic.”
Arguably the most exciting of all of these new additions to Jacinto’s resume, however, is his latest role in Nine Perfect Strangers – the Amazon Prime Video/Hulu drama based on a novel of the same name from Lianne Moriarty (Big Little Lies). Executive produced by and starring Nicole Kidman, the miniseries focuses on an elusive and exclusive wellness retreat ran by mysterious Russian resort director Masha.
When nine city-dwellers (played by the likes of Melissa McCarthy, Luke Evans, Samara Weaving, Regina Hall and other stars) with hectic, unfulfilled lives begin a 10-day stay in the hopes of mental and physical transformation, they start to suspect that the resort and its unorthodox methods are hiding a legion of dark secrets.
Jacinto plays Yao, a former paramedic and Masha’s right-hand man at Tranquillum House who seems to blindly follow the charismatic retreat director – a role he auditioned for via video tape. “I didn’t hear for months on end, I thought I didn’t get it,” he says. “By the end of it, I got a call saying that I was going to be working with the one and only Nicole Kidman and one of the greats Melissa McCarthy so it was pretty cool.”
Jacinto had worked with industry greats like Ted Danson, Jeff Bridges and Chris Hemsworth before, but Nine Perfect Strangers marked the first time he’d shared a scene with Oscar-winner Kidman (The Hours, Big Little Lies) and nominee McCarthy (Bridesmaids, Can You Ever Forgive Me). “It was incredible. They come from such different spaces – so you have Nicole who, you know, [is a] big, dramatic actor, also very versatile, but other than that, you have Melissa, who comes from the comedic space, the improv space, but is also starting to show her dramatic chops right now.
“I’ve met both of them at a point where they’ve done anything and everything, so the fact that they’re in the same room together right now, they have to love what they’re doing. The fact that I’m in a project with both of these talented women, getting to do a project with them is just,” he says, cutting off his sentence with a humbled laugh.
“And the fact that they’re so nice! The fact that they’re so grounded goes to show why they’ve worked so long, why they’re still in this industry, why they’re such professionals,” he adds. “You can’t help but take that away as a lesson onto other sets.”
While the opportunity of working with such a stellar cast was a draw in and of itself, Jacinto saw Nine Perfect Strangers as an opportunity to break out into a more serious role. “Toeing the line of drama and comedy was the biggest appeal for me to do this because to North American audiences, I’m strictly known within the comedic space.
“The fact that [producer Bruna Papandrea] and the producers, David E Kelley, Nicole and Melissa were able to trust me with a more straight, dramatic and grounded role – I couldn’t be more grateful that they trusted me with that.”
The 33-year-old prepped for the role by reading the source material, Moriarty’s novel of the same name, however he admits that he wishes he hadn’t. “To be honest, maybe it could have been best if I didn’t because I had so much expectation towards what we thought we were going to do.
“I feel that the book in itself is a novel, is a story, is a project that is great in itself, but what the team behind Nine Perfect Strangers has been able to do is a unique work that doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to the book. So yeah, I did read the book but I think I’d like to say that the show kind of one-ups it a little bit, or elevates it a little bit more – no offence to Lianne or anything.”
Those who’ve read Moriarty’s book will know there’s a major plot twist towards the end. However, in the series, this happens mid-way through, allowing for some hilarious scenes to take place between the resort’s guests, particularly Michael Shannon, who plays overly-positive teacher Napoleon. “I don’t know what I can share,” Jacinto says when I ask whether the scenes in question were just as fun to film as they were to watch. “I will say that even though, like Bobby Bobby Cannavale [who plays painkiller addict and resort guest Tony], Michael Shannon, Melissa and Nicole, even though they’re adults and professionals, they’re just a bunch of kids.
“I thought I was immature or like such a kid but no. I think you’ve got to have that childhood mindset to really continue in this industry and in this job. They’re just such fun and playful people.”
While the show was filmed “right in the middle” of the pandemic, filming took place in Australia’s Byron Bay, where COVID rates were relatively low. “It was just us in this vast space, beautiful area, so we didn’t really have to worry so much about COVID. It was in the back of our minds, but it didn’t affect our performances too much.”
The scripts did face a number of changes as production went on however, with the cast and crew finding out what did and didn’t work. “We were kind of working on the fly, it was such a unique aspect in that sense. You tried not to attach yourself so much to the scene or commit to a scene because you didn’t know if it was gonna stay or not.”
Raised in Canada’s Vancouver, Jacinto originally started out as a professional dancer before deciding to take acting classes. “I kind of snowballed from there, I basically found something where I could express myself through a different medium, not just through physicality but also through my voice and through my emotions. I just loved it and I couldn’t stop doing it.
“I have a very obsessive personality, so I just honed in on it and kept doing whatever I could do, whether it be student films or independent films or any auditions that I could do, I just went for it.”
While he managed to secure guest roles in shows like Once Upon a Time, Supernatural and iZombie, Jacinto only really broke out onto the scene when he was cast as Jason Mendoza in The Good Place. “It was unreal because I’m Canadian, so making the jump from Vancouver to LA is – you don’t know if it’s gonna work out or not. But you’ve just got to have faith. When I was able to secure The Good Place, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it happened.’ I’m one of the 5 per cent because not a lot can work and make it so when it happened, I was ecstatic.”
Prior to filming, he met with Good Place creator Michael Schur, who asked him what his interests were. “I told him dance and he was like, ‘Oh yeah, we can make that work,’ and I was like, ‘What do you mean make it work?'” Jacinto’s dancing background was then written into Jason’s character, with the low-level drug dealer competing in breakdance competitions in his spare time.
“The funny thing is I was training to be a back-up dancer for an artist [before joining The Good Place] and then instead of putting me in the back, Mike was able to put me in the front.”
The comedy came to an end after four seasons last year, which was “bittersweet” for Jacinto. “The series had to come to an end but, like anything, just like any project moving forward, you take away the lessons and you try and share those lessons with the next people and the next project that you work on.”
As for future projects, Jacinto can’t say much about Top Gun: Maverick but promises that fans won’t be disappointed. “I play a pilot named Fritz, one of the younger pilots. Without having Tom [Cruise] surprise attack me out of nowhere in regards to what I can say, from what I’ve seen so far, it’s a ride.
“We filmed it two years ago, it’s been such a long time so catch it in the theatre if you can because that’s his baby. He put so much blood, sweat and tears into that film, we all did.”