Jameela Jamil Interview: ‘The Good Place’
“The Good Place” is Jameela Jamil’s first acting job ever — and she was ready to make it her last a couple months ago. “Definitely the minute I stood on set with Maya Rudolph — that was the moment that I knew that life entirely would be downhill from there. I was ready to retire,” she tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview (watch above). “I should retire while I’m winning because there is nothing better than acting opposite Maya Rudolph.”
All jokes aside, Jamil is still wrapping her head around the the change in course her career has taken since she landed the role of Tahani al-Jamil, a narcissistic British socialite with a penchant for shameless name-dropping, in the afterlife comedy. A native Londoner, Jamil was a TV host and DJ in England before moving to Los Angeles to pursue writing. She had absolutely no acting aspirations when her managers suggested she audition for the part of an English character on Mike Schur’s secretive new show starring Ted Danson.
“[They said,] ‘You should go in for this.’ I was like, ‘No, no, no, I don’t know how to act.’ And then they told me that Mike Schur would be at the audition and I was so excited just to meet him, but I knew there was no way he’d actually give me a job. But I wanted to meet him, so I went to the audition and for some reason that maniac gave me a job,” she recalls. “When I got the job, it was a matter of, you don’t even have time to sink; you just have to swim. You can’t let down Ted Danson! He is a national treasure. I would’ve been forced to leave America if I ruined this show.”
Working with Danson and “comedy genius machine” Kristen Bell has been an “amazing way to learn” about acting, Jamil says. What has also helped the acting rookie is the collaborative nature of Schur’s writers’ room. Tahani was initially envisioned as a sweeter character, but Jamil suggested they add more passive-aggressive bite to her.
“I think American people might have a very sweet, like Hugh Grant or Mary Poppins version of English people in their head. And I knew that Tahani was a socialite from London. I used to be a DJ for socialites in London. I know they are not sweet people traditionally,” she says. “I’m sure some of them are nice, but there’s passive aggression. If she’s a Londoner, she’s got suppressed rage. She has all these hidden innuendos in her sentences, she’s competitive. London is a city where people live on top of each other and they’re all cold and they haven’t seen the sunshine.”
Jamil based Tahani on an actress she declines to name. “It was really fun to exercise all the things I found annoying about this person in this role,” she says. But for all of Tahani’s vanity and pretension that could be annoying, she is ultimately endearing and a bit sad, especially when you realize she’s partly the way she is because she’s spent her whole life trying to compete with her sister for her parents’ approval. It’s a testament to Jamil’s compassionate performance and, she believes, Schur’s “masterful writing.”
“He really is obsessive about empathy,” Jamil says. “There’s no such thing as bad people; it’s just sad people. Mike showing us why Tahani is so competitive, why she’s so insecure, why she’s so fake and her motivations are so corrupt is so brilliant because it humanized her and suddenly she’s not this just like tall, irritating giraffe ex-model. She’s this broken bird. And I think it’s changed the way I now look at really annoying people. I feel for those people and I realize there’s pain underneath all irritating tendencies, I believe.”
Tahani had her own epiphany at the end of Season 2, when she realizes she’ll never be as good enough as her sister for her parents. But we didn’t see her again after Michael (Danson) proposed a “what if” for all four humans to get a do-over on Earth. Jamil can’t exactly promise we’ll see Tahani back on Earth in Season 3.
“You do see her, but I can’t tell you where, I can’t tell you what she’s doing. She’s wearing fantastic things. Then I get some bed action. That’s all I’m going to tell you,” she teases. “If you want clues, just ask Ted Danson. He’ll tell you anything, he cannot keep a secret. If you want my PIN number, ask Ted Danson.”