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For most of the world, travel came to a screeching halt during the COVID-19 pandemic. This was not the case for Manny Jacinto.

The Filipino-Canadian actor packed his bags and headed down under when he was cast in a new show, Nine Perfect Strangers. It was a world away for Jacinto, who is was born in the Philippines but raised in Vancouver. And instead of spending quarantine holed up inside watching Netflix like the rest of us, he was surrounded by gleaming turquoise waters and Oscar- and Emmy-winning famous faces in Byron Bay, as he prepared to take on his most sinister role yet.

The show is a twisty new series from Big Little Lies writer David E. Kelley about a mysterious wellness retreat. It boasts an all-star cast including Nicole Kidman, Melissa McCarthy, Regina Hall, and Michael Shannon, who portray a few of the eclectic guests all battling with personal struggles and yearning for transformation. Each one has put themselves on the path to healing by heading to Tranquillum House, where Yao, played by Jacinto, is one of the retreat’s workers ready to aid them on their recovery journeys—no matter the cost. He’s the right-hand man to Kidman’s character, cult-like leader Masha, who sports a Russian accent so jarring, you’ll quickly realize that the guests are most certainly not in the good place.

The cast of Nine Perfect Strangers eating dinner
Image via Amazon

The actor is much more calm than Jason, the goofy DJ with a heart of gold he’s best known for on The Good Place. It could also be argued that he’s equally funny, but in a much more witty and clever way than the beloved character. He’s definitely more charismatic, but he’s certainly not as intense as Yao, whose brooding and enigmatic nature is a polar opposite from Jacinto himself.

During the first watch, it’s hair-raising to see Jacinto slip easily into the character, and viewers will truly know that Jason is gone when they feel Yao’s icy assertiveness on screen. In one scene, he takes away Frances’ (played by McCarthy) cell phone and even though it’s a short interaction, he comes across as positively eerie, revealing a steely edge to his man bun-wearing persona.

We caught up with Jacinto to talk about prepping for the show, his co-stars, self-care, America’s Best Dance Crew, and his most memorable interaction with a stranger.

Hey! So where are you right now?
I’m in Los Angeles, yeah I’m in L.A.

Okay! I was curious, I was like, is he in L.A. or is he still in Australia, because I know you filmed the show in Australia, right?
We did. Yeah, we were there for five months. Yeah, in Byron Bay, Australia, which was surreal. That was actually my first time there. But now we’re back. Back to the grind in L.A.

Oh no way, what was that like, filming there? Because I mean, obviously, you know, with COVID, and everything, just having to be cautious about all of that. I heard that you guys had to quarantine for that first. 
Yeah. I mean, so initially, we were supposed to film in L.A, you know, it was supposed to be a local production here, and it was gonna be easy. I can go back home, sleep in my own bed. But, you know, I think maybe three weeks before or two weeks before, we had to fly out to Australia, that’s when I found out that we were going to go to Byron Bay, Australia. To be honest, though, we were spoiled. Like, with the quarantine with where we were able to stay. We were just spoiled throughout. And I mean credit to our producers, to Nicole, to all those people, because they made us feel comfortable. 

But it was a surreal experience. Because you know, the world was going through a crazy time, it still kind of is. But in Byron Bay, Australia, everything is so isolated, that we weren’t dealing with COVID cases, we were still practicing safety protocols, you know, wearing masks and keeping six feet apart and all that stuff. But for the most part, it wasn’t a lingering thing, a lingering demon that was like, ‘Oh, you got to worry about this.’ And it wasn’t something that was affecting our work, which is, you know, ideal.

“With The Good Place, and with a comedy, you have direct feedback in regards to whether a scene was good, you know, especially with the character that I inhabited previously.”

Yeah, no, that’s so funny, because now I’m drawing parallels. I’m like, OK, the show is about these strangers who go to an isolated retreat, and you guys kind of got to be isolated a bit. It’s obviously not a retreat because you’re working. But still, it’s just funny.
[Laughs] It was perfect. Like, it was such an ideal situation for sure.

Manny Jacinto and Tiffany Boone in Nine Perfect Strangers
Image via Amazon

Obviously, a lot of people know you best from The Good Place. But obviously, Nine Perfect Strangers is a lot darker, and a lot different from a show like that. So I guess, what can you tell us about doing something that’s so different from what you’ve done previously?
I think it provides challenges for sure. With The Good Place, and with a comedy, you have direct feedback in regards to whether a scene was good, you know, especially with the character that I inhabited previously. Like, he was able to say the jokes, he was able to get laughs and you get that directly from the cameraman, or the writers behind set, but like with something that’s more down to earth and, and grounded, like a drama, you don’t know whether or not the take was good or not. So silence provides so much anxiety for me like, yeah, you don’t know. You just kind of have to trust that they like what they got, or that they got what they needed. You know, and if they didn’t, they would ask for another take. So you know, you deal with that anxiety or that stress or worry. But I think it was a muscle that I really wanted to exercise or kind of go back to, to be honest. And I mean, who better to do it with than like, Nicole, and Michael, Shannon, and Melissa, and all these superstars?

Yeah, for sure. So as you kind of mentioned a little bit about the anxiety, I just wanted to touch on that a little bit. What you usually do if you’re like anxious or nervous about or about a scene or something like that? Do you have any tips or strategies that you use when that happens?
I want to say run away, run away really fast [laughs.] No, I think breathing. Breathing is huge, at least for me. Because I noticed that when I get anxious, I hold my breath. And then that’s when I start sweating and getting flush. But like, if I can control my breathing, take deep breaths. I mean, it’s so I don’t know. Simple or like cliche, but breathing is huge. Like a lot of us, for me anyway, it was something that I couldn’t control. And when I learned to kind of be more conscious of it, it helped immensely.

Yeah, for sure. And so going back to your character a little bit, so he’s obviously one of the employees on the retreat. He’s a very dedicated employee…
Absolutely, yeah [laughs]. To a fault.

But I also heard that he’s a little bit of a hipster in the description that I got. Were you able to identify with that at all?
Yeah, I mean, I grew out the hair, you know, I put it into a man bun, you know, lived that whole life. But I feel like again, going back to being in Australia, Byron Bay especially, it’s, I don’t know if you’d call it like a hipster town, but it’s very much [a] health-oriented, sustainably conscious area, you know, everything I had to do with kind of those practices, and you can’t help but have a hipster vibe when you when you’re around there. So yeah, I mean, that helped me get into the character of Yao for sure. But also, you know, reading certain books that revolved around self-improvement, eating healthy, listening to a podcast that talks about, you know, those aspects. All these things kind of helped me get into that energy, that vibe, and that character.

For sure. And so again, the show is about some strangers who come from very different backgrounds, and you know, their lives are changed when they sort of come together in this unusual setting. Have you ever had any unusual or interesting encounters like with a stranger or strangers that have impacted you in any way?
It’s a loaded question. Just random strangers or people that I eventually work with?

I mean, I guess everyone’s kind of a stranger to start with.
I got one. Yeah. So, um, I got into my first car accident in L.A. And it it was a bad one. Luckily, I didn’t get injured. But the car was totaled. Yeah, it really sucked. So I was stuck in the middle of an intersection, and I didn’t know how to get out or what to do. It was like my first kind of big accident. Eventually, I was able to get the car to the side of the road, and my phone ended up dying. This is my first year in L.A.—I still had my Canadian car, and all that stuff. I didn’t know if my insurance was going to work and all that. So I was just panicking. And this one guy, [a] stranger, saw that I was just alone and panicked. And he just pulled over and he did anything and everything to help me out. You know, he let me use his phone. He instructed me and told me what I needed to do in terms of like a car tow and handling it with insurance. And he even—and this is in L.A traffic—he drove me through L.A. traffic from, I think people in California will get this, he drove me from Santa Monica all the way to Woodland Hills, which is, in traffic, almost an hour and a half. It sounds so whatever. But it’s a lot, and he did that! For me. It was just out of the goodness of his heart. And so I think that was the one time where I was like, ‘Okay, I need to pay this forward,’ in a sense, and I’ve always remembered that.

That’s good. It’s like he was attracted to that positive Canadian energy. He’s like, ‘I’ve got to help this man!’
Yeah, and like lo and behold, he was running a charity. Like, the guy’s an angel. I still have his contact.

Oh, no way. 
Yeah, dude is a saint for sure.

That’s good. Also, glad that you’re OK, because I didn’t say that before but like obviously glad that it all worked out.
Yeah.

Manny Jacinto and Nicole Kidman in Nine Perfect Strangers
Image via Amazon

You got to work alongside some, you know, big names like Nicole Kidman, Melissa McCarthy, etc. What did you sort of take away from getting to work with them—did you learn anything that just really stuck with you after that?
I mean, um, let’s see. It’s like so many to choose from? With Nicole, so we had a lot of scenes together and I would notice that—I don’t know that this is how she works all the time—but you know, she would be in it, like a good time before the tape. I don’t know if it’s because of the accent and whatnot, but she’s just so committed in that sense, where, she’ll like create a kind of moment before with her partner. So I took that away in terms of like that commitment and dedication. 

And with Melissa, I would take away just her lightness, her ability to just create an environment that felt so welcome. You know, regardless of who she was talking to, whether it be the crew, or you know, one of the guys, like she just created such a positive, excuse my language, no-asshole, workplace. 

And then with Michael, I feel like he set the bar in terms of where I would love my work to be. Just because…[laughs] I think, maybe more so than Nicole, like he was definitely in it. And he’s not like that all the time, but like for darker, more intense scenes, you can see that he’s that guy that loses sleep over the work, you know, and I would love to have that kind of commitment. And he’s for me, the bar, in terms of where I would love my work to be.

I feel like the fact that you’re even thinking about it and taking note of that, it’s probably a good sign that you’re on that path.
Yeah, fingers crossed.

Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re the only Canadian in the main cast right? So I guess I’m just curious, if there’s anything that you said or did that others noted or said anything about?
The one, I’ll say this. The one thing about being Canadian, I actually don’t know if I should say this, but one thing about being Canadian, we have such, I don’t know if it’s like the vibe or the energy, or the wavelength, but it pairs really well with the Australian kind of demeanor. And whether it be the drivers, or just people in grocery stores and whatnot, they know that I’m not Australian, but they’re also like, ‘Oh, this guy isn’t American’ and they can pinpoint right away, they know, this guy’s definitely Canadian. Like, I think a few drivers pointed that out. They just knew because of, I don’t know, my vibe or energy or something. So it wasn’t necessarily anything that I said, it wasn’t like ‘aboot’ or you know, the stereotypical ‘eh’ words and stuff, but they knew through a vibe or through an energy.

That’s so funny.  I feel like that happens a lot. Actually, I have some Australian friends and yeah, it’s kind of like they flock to us. And they just know.
Yeah, yeah. And then we can, you know, bond together when we, excuse my language, talk shit about America.

You can curse. It’s Complex, we publish swear words so it’s all good [laughs].
All right, yeah, talking shit about Americans, that definitely can bond us if anything.

We kind of already touched on this a little bit, but the show looks at the idea of personal growth and self-care from… a very extreme angle is the way that I’ll phrase it.
Absolutely.

“I feel like once they’ve watched the show, after the rollercoaster of emotions, hopefully feel they’ll be able to have a moment of self-reflection, basically, of being like, ‘I’ve seen these people go through these ups and downs’ and then and then being able to look at themselves and being like, oh, ‘I relate to that character, this character and that character.’”

Are there some things that you really do for self-care and just sort of unwinding when you need to?
I mean, I need to do it more, obviously, but meditation is huge for self-care. This sounds kind of cheesy, but exercising proper control of your thoughts. Because, you know, in our day-to-day, our thoughts kind of control what we do and how we feel. But being able to actually control those thoughts and having us be the drivers of what we’re thinking is huge for me. So I think I find that through meditation, that’s a big thing. And you know, common practices like exercise and sleeping right is huge. Like getting enough sleep. It’s so underrated. That’s big for me. So yeah, those kind of, I don’t know if like, if we were to compare it to the practices of Tranquillum, I don’t know if it’s that extreme. 

I hope not! We’re normal here. 
Yeah, exactly. 

The guests in Nine Perfect Strangers
Image via Amazon

“I have this soft spot for something that I call ‘a grown man’s lullaby.’ I think it kind of started when I started listening to Frank Ocean.”

What’s one thing that you hope viewers take away from the show after watching it and getting all the way through?
I feel like once they’ve watched the show, after the rollercoaster of emotions, hopefully feel they’ll be able to have a moment of self-reflection, basically, of being like, ‘I’ve seen these people go through these ups and downs’ and then being able to look at themselves and being like, ‘Oh, I relate to that character, this character, and that character’ and then being like, ‘Oh, do I need to work on that? Is that something I need to improve on?’ So I think just a moment, whether it be a minute, whether it be a whole day, whether it be a whole year of looking at oneself and dealing with oneself. To be honest, I would hope if we’re able to do that, for one or two people that watch the show, I think we accomplished what we set out to do.

That’s so wise. Because it’s Complex, and you know, we love music over here, I gotta ask: who are you listening to right now?
I am listening to Leon Bridges

The new album!
Yeah. I am listening to James Blake. Um, I have this soft spot for something that I call ‘a grown man’s lullaby.’ I think it kind of started when I started listening to Frank Ocean. So that kind of vibe really resonated with me. So yeah, like anything that seems like a grown man’s lullaby that chills me out. That makes me feel calm and nice [laughs].

This is going into my music terminology.
[Laughs] Yeah, I think James and Leon [do] that pretty well as well.

Right on. This one’s super random. But I was thinking, so you obviously come from a dance background and you used to do hip-hop back in the day. You’ve said in other interviews that used to watch America’s Best Dance Crew and were into the Jabbawockeez and all of that. I could be wrong, but I don’t think they’ve filmed the show or aired it since like, 2015 or 2016. But if they ever did, like revive it, would you ever be like some sort of a mentor?
Yeah, I mean, I would! Yeah, I’d definitely consider being a guest judge for sure. Yeah. It’s so funny that you asked that [laughs]. Yeah. I think that’d be so fun. Yeah, why not? I want to say, I’d love to be a performer there. But it’s like, aw Manny, you’re not 21 anymore. Like, be careful. I get aches just bending down to pick up my shoes or something. Like, be careful. So anyways, yeah, I would love to be a dancer on it. But yeah, I guess to judge would be cool too.

I mean, you never know, you can get a crew together with all different ages. Like make it a whole thing.
Yeah, I’ll just need like, you know, a few ice packs and yeah, all that stuff and maybe a good massage after.