From creator Michael Schur (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreation), the NBC comedy The Good Place, currently in its fourth and final season, is a unique and special story about what makes a good person, which is something that many of us strive to be. While it has surprise after surprise and twist after twist, at its core is Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), an ordinary woman who’s had many ups and downs since entering the afterlife, and who’s become more and more determined to shed her own, more selfish way of living, in order to earn herself a spot in The Good Place.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Manny Jacinto (who plays the dopey and dutiful Jason Mendoza) talked about feeling the sadness and joy he’s feeling with it being the final season of The Good Place, how he reacted when he received the news that the series would be ending, learning what the Season 4 arc would be, wanting to soak in every scene of the last episode while on set, what he appreciates about his character, what he learned from working on this show, the Jason-Janet dynamic and working with D’Arcy Carden, cracking up his castmates, and the memento he got to take with him. He also talked about working on the blockbuster sequel Top Gun: Maverick, watching Tom Cruise work, and why he’s excited about the film.
Collider: I absolutely love this show. The Good Place has been such a gift to humanity, in general. I’ve had such a tremendous time watching it and I’m sad that it’s going, but it’s been such a great season.
MANNY JACINTO: Yeah, it’s been really fun. And there’s still a lot of fun and crazy and weird stuff coming up, which I’m really excited about.
Now that you’ve finished shooting the show, do you feel like you’ve gone through a grieving process to say goodbye to this character?
JACINTO: Yeah, I guess you could call it that. I’m feeling everything from sadness to joy to anxiety to nervousness because it still has to come out and you hope that people will be satisfied with the ending, and that there won’t be a Game of Thrones riot online. It’s a show that some people hold dear, and we definitely try to live up to what our fans are expecting of us. In terms of this being the last season, I think it worked to our advantage to know that it was gonna be the last season. We really took our time and our moments, in all of the scenes. We were able to spend time together, and really take it in and soak it all up because we knew that it was our last go at it, so that was nice.
How did you receive the news that the show was ending, and what was your reaction to that?
JACINTO: Honestly, panic because I did end up putting some money down on a place. We literally just officially signed the contract, maybe a week before I got the email. So, my first reaction was, “Oh, dear God! Maybe this is an omen.” I was obviously concerned with trying to survive financially, and all of that stuff, but my first reaction was sadness about it being the last season. It’s like that feeling that you get when it’s your senior year in high school, and it’s the last time you’re gonna see these guys. The way I describe it is like, when you’re in high school, it’s cool because you know you’re gonna see your friends again ‘cause it’s just gonna be a summer break and you’re gonna come back. But now, we’re graduating, and we’re gonna go off to our own lives and we might not see each other, for maybe years. Maybe we’ll have a 10-year reunion, but by then, we probably won’t go to our 10-year because we’ll be insecure about our goals, so we won’t see each other ever. So, I went into a bit of a spiral. It’s bittersweet. That’s the bottom line. It’s been really bittersweet.
At what point did you learn what the arc for this season would be, where your character would end up, and what the series finale would be?
JACINTO: Fortunately Mike [Schur] is very open with his cast. In the first season, we didn’t get to know the ending until we absolutely needed to know what was the Season 1 finale was gonna be. But for this season, we met up with him, after we shot the first episode. He was able to get some time to really sit us down and take us through the arc of the fourth season, and he took us through everything. Mike’s brain needs to be studied because that man can take you through almost every single detail of a season. He really broke it down. There were some bits and pieces that he didn’t necessarily get to and were a bit of a surprise when we found out. At the table read, there would be new little jokes, but nothing too major. But in terms of the major plot points and twists, and where our characters were going, and how it was gonna end, he broke it down for us. We definitely had to take a moment and really just sit there and soak it all in. When I heard the ending, I was like, “Oh, man, this is really something special.”
By the time you got to that last episode, did actually shooting that episode make you feel any differently about it ending, from just hearing about what it would be?
JACINTO: Typically, when we’re shooting the show, we do our scenes and then go back to our trailer to chill out, or I’d try to take a nap ‘cause I don’t really drink coffee or anything, but when it was like our last episode, I just wanted to be there. I remember just watching every single scene that day and soaking it all in, and also being really tired because of it. I was like, “Man, I thought I would be so sad. I almost want to force myself to have tears, shooting these last scenes, just because of how bittersweet it all is.” It was just all in the moment. I was expecting to sad, but it wasn’t sad, at all. It was almost more of a celebration than a grievance, if that makes any sense.
What have you most enjoyed about playing Jason and exploring who he is, for four seasons? Are there things that you grew to appreciate about him, that you didn’t necessarily realize, on day one?
JACINTO: The biggest thing that I didn’t necessarily get, right off the bat, is his emotional empathy towards his friends. He is very oblivious to the things that are happening around him, whether it be things around the neighborhood and things that are happening logistically, but in terms of how his friends or the people around him are feeling, he’s very hypersensitive and aware of that. That was the thing that I definitely learned and leaned into, a little bit, as the seasons progressed. I like to think that Jason is very much the heart of Team Cockroach. Regardless of whether Eleanor wants to do some crazy batshit stuff, or Tahani has these weird things that she wants to get done, he’s always all for it, regardless, and that also applies to his past relationships in Jacksonville, like Pillboi and Donkey Doug. They’ll get him into this crazy situations, but it’s all for his friends, and to make his friends happy.
What do you feel that you’ve learned from working with this group of actors, and what have you learned about yourself, from having been a part of the show?
JACINTO: I’ve been very fortunate, in this shorter career that I’ve had, and I can take away the fact that you should just treat people kindly, from top to bottom. I’ve seen it in our producers, our writers, and our creator. Mike creates an environment that’s just so welcoming and warm and inviting and collaborative. When you do that at the top, people follow suit. People really followed by example. When you do that, it makes working on set so much better. It makes the actors, the writers, the crew, and everybody want to work hard and be passionate about the project. So, it’s carrying that sense of kindness and just genuine sensibility, regardless of what position the person is in. As long as you’re kind to somebody, it’ll go a long way.
Jason seems like someone who likes things to be easy, but the relationship that he’s had with Janet definitely has not been easy for him. What have you most enjoyed about the Jason-Janet dynamic, and getting to play those moments?
JACINTO: First of all, on paper, those are just the most ridiculous encounters because you have the dumbest DJ from Jacksonville, Florida interacting with the smartest non-human in the universe. That, in itself, is the most ironic interaction that’s ever taken place, and the fact that it works is so special. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think the reason why it works is because they’re both learning from each other. Even though Jason is a dummy and he was very selfish, at first, when you first met the character, ‘cause he just wants to be happy, he learns that he needs to become more sensible towards his friends, and the empathy starts to come in again when he learns that through Janet. And then, Janet learns to become more human. It’s not necessarily about just knowing things, but it’s more about feeling things out, and she learns that through Jason. So, I think the reason why that interaction is so special is because they’re both evolving, through each other. It’s also because I just have a blast acting with D’Arcy and she’s so freaking funny. Maybe that’s why it works. That’s probably the only reason why it works. I like to think Jason and Janet are learning something from each other, and also Manny and D’Arcy are growing, as well.
At the TCA Press Tour, your castmates said that you’re the one that was most likely to make everyone break character and laugh. Did you realize that was the case? Has there ever been a scene or a day where you intentionally set out to crack them up, or is it always unplanned?
JACINTO: Whenever I sent out to try to make somebody laugh, and usually the culprit is William Jackson Harper, one of two things happens – the joke falls flat, or most of the time, I end up cracking myself up, and then Will goes, “You crack your damn self,” and the joke ends up falling on me. So, unless I know I’ve got it down, I try to stay away from trying to be funny ‘cause the tables will turn on me. For the most part, when you get the chance to make your castmates laugh, it’s always a good time, and I definitely try and take advantage of it, whenever I can.
If you’re going to full up a project as special as The Good Place, Top Gun is definitely a great project to do. And if you’re going to do a big action blockbuster, you want to do it with someone like Tom Cruise, but at the same time, that seems like a lot to live up to. How cool is it to be a part of something like that, and does it feel like a lot to live up to?
JACINTO: I think so. It’s such a huge beast of a film, and you can’t help but feel like you’re a small wrench in this whole machine. It is very much like that, when you compare it to a TV series, like The Good Place. That’s not to say that The Good Place is tiny production, but with Top Gun, there are so many other aspects to it. There’s a lot of action stuff, especially with the planes and the Navy was involved. There are so many different aspects that have to be taken into account. At the end of the day, you just hope that you do your part as best as possible. As long as you focus on your little thing and don’t worry about trying to please other people or get in on a stunt, that’s all you can really do. That’s what I’ve learned. Tom and his team are just really good at what they do. When they need somebody and they don’t know something, they’ll make time to learn. They know that they’re not the best at everything, so they just try to be the best that they can. It’s just been a huge learning experience, to have some humility and, to commit as a student, rather than thinking that I know everything, coming off of the show. It’s been great, overall.
What did you enjoy about the first Top Gun film, and how do you think this new film will surprise audiences?
JACINTO: The shirtless volleyball scene is always something to enjoy about Top Gun. No. What I enjoyed about it is just the feeling that you get from it. I believe that I was born on the day that it came out, and I’ve talked to a lot of people about it and know that it was a phenomenon. I know people that have used the theme song for the entrance to their wedding. I have relatives and friends that were obsessed with Tom Cruise and had posters, and would constantly play the movie while they were pregnant, for some reason. It’s this weird phenomenon that happened. My uncle had a Top Gun posterover his mini-bar. That feeling of adrenaline that you get with the first movie, it’s definitely a ride when you watch it. It sucks that I couldn’t watch it in the theater ‘cause I was an embryo, or something like that. And I would hope that we’re able to carry that same feeling, that the first generation had, into this second generation of viewers. So, I’m excited.
Was there something that specifically represents Jason that you wanted to take home from the set and were able to keep, as a memento?
JACINTO: Actually, I’m looking at it right now. Joe Mande, one of our writers, and I ended up going to the play-off game last year, in Jacksonville, and Blake Bortles was kind enough to sign a ball and give it to us. Joe actually had it put into a trophy case, even though he’s not with the Jacksonville Jaguars anymore. So, I have this Blake Bortles signed football, in a trophy case on top of my desk, where I can be inspired by him, for years to come. That’s probably one of the most memorable things that I’ve been able to take away from this show.
The Good Place airs on Thursday nights on NBC.