Photo: Getty Images
“A big, beautiful, utterly perfect cartoon giraffe.” “A hot, rich fraud with legs for days.” “Tall and glamorous and has cappuccino skin and curves everywhere.” If you watch The Good Place, you already know that these quotes describe Tahani Al-Jamil, the NBC sitcom’s resident faux-lanthropist, who leaned into the high-society benefits of charitable work during her time on earth, but now faces the tough road of actually becoming a good person in the afterlife. On one hand, Tahani’s effort to improve herself has opened up a trove of insecurities and inferiority complexes that stem from her elite family. On the other, she’s still a pretentious chatterbox who’ll stop at nothing to remind people about her trips to Johnny Depp’s private bird sanctuary and Malala Yousafzai’s foreword to her diary. Ah, what a life she lived!
Jameela Jamil, who portrays Tahani, recently hopped on the phone with Vulture to discuss all things Good Place–related. We talked about why Tahani deserves her own “Passive Aggressive Narcissistic Place,” why Ted Danson is the perfect dance partner, and the story behind her “mortifying” dessert on The Great British Bake Off.
I think people would be surprised to learn that this is your first professional acting role, as you’re just so perfect as Tahani. When did you decide to make the transition from presenting to acting?
I didn’t, actually. I heard about the audition from my manager and she put me up for it. I was like, “No. I don’t know how to act! I’ve never acted before.” My team wanted to send me to an audition to see if I could act, out of a morbid curiosity. [The Good Place creator Michael Schur] was looking specifically for a woman of Middle Eastern descent, and they said, “Why don’t you just go and see what happens?” I wanted to make the transition from hosting to comedy writing, so my manager was like, “You’re going to meet the comedy writer. Maybe you can meet him and get a comedy-writing job if you can’t act.” So I went to the audition, and I was so sure there was no way he would think I was good, so I just relaxed. They must’ve mistaken that for actually knowing what I was doing, which was a huge mistake because I had no idea and I had anxiety for the entirety of season one. [Laughs.] It was a crazy twist of fate. I guess every other Indian actress in Los Angeles was dead, and I was the only one left.
And you had no idea what you were auditioning for, right?
I read fake scripts under a fake name with a fake premise. I genuinely was like, “Oh my God, what if this is Mike Schur’s first porno?” I had no idea who I would be playing. I could’ve been playing a gimp. And you’re booked in a seven-year deal before the final audition happens — literally sign on the dotted line seven years of your life. It’s a testament as to how much of a freak Mike is. It could’ve been a franchise of The Fast and the Furious. Zero idea.
Tahani was originally written to be much kinder and less inherently pretentious than how she behaves now. Why was it important for you and Mike to steer the character away from that direction?
That’s more London, especially a socialite in London. You’re not going to find a genuinely warm and authentic socialite from London. It just doesn’t happen! And I know because I’m from there. I believe American people have a very romantic view of what English people are like. They think it’s all Mary Poppins and soft and warm and Princess Diana–esque — charm and manners, and everything we say is nice and sweet. No! I wanted to break through that stereotype and make sure people know that Londoners have a bit more bite to them.
I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for Tahani that Eleanor didn’t like her. I wanted it be like they’re both triggering each other. And then we get to learn Tahani’s backstory and figure her out. I came up with so many people who were in that “scene,” because I was a DJ at the kind of parties those kind of women frequented. I had a lot of experience and based so much of Tahani on people who I knew and met. It was my chance to exorcise all of the demons of the things I’ve ever found annoying about people. [Laughs.] It’s fun to get the chance to play with that.
Do you think Tahani deserves to be in the Bad Place?
I think the concept of hell and heaven is so extreme. You can only get into the Good Place with no sins? No thanks! That doesn’t make sense! The point system is too extreme. I don’t know anyone who would get into the Good Place. We’re all just human. I don’t think Tahani was that bad. I don’t think she should be in the Bad Place with Adolf Hitler or actual evil people. She probably deserves a Middle Place where all of the Tahanis of the world should go! Or maybe a Passive Aggressive Narcissistic Place.
How much do you think she’s changed in the grand scheme of this Bad Place experiment? I’ve found that people are the most divisive over Tahani’s development — especially with her relentless insistence on elaborate name-dropping.
I think she’s changed despite those hundreds of reboots. Of course, she has her habits and is still name-dropping this far into the series. Now that she knows she had such empty motivations and she was so vain and so self-contrived and self-obsessed, that in itself is a huge transformation for any person. The transition she’s had into actually catching herself to not be a nightmare has been quite fast and swift.
Do you have a personal favorite name-drop? Mine is her adventure on “James Franco’s ironic trolley.”
I’m going to recite this as verbatim as possible: “I haven’t been this upset since my good friend Taylor was rudely upstaged by my other friend Kanye, who was defending my best friend Beyoncé.” It’s so good. She’s such an asshole. I’m sorry, an ashhole. She’s a nightmare. I could never be friends with someone like Tahani, but that makes her all the more fun to try and love. I’ve grown to love her over season two. I couldn’t stand her in season one — I love playing her, but couldn’t stand her. But in season two, I’m warming to her, and that’s the power of Mike and the writers.
You mentioned an interest in comedy writing. Have you been able to sit in with the writers room and pitch ideas?
This is going to make me sound so weak. All of us do a little bit of improvising, which is the coolest thing in the entire world when that happens and our lines stay in. But I’m far too intimidated to contribute anything else. I had no idea how unbelievably talented our writers were going to be. Three scripts in, I became too afraid to write or do anything else on the show. They’re an elite group of people, and so young. Most of them are younger than me! I dare not. Eventually, I would love to, but now I’m too intimidated by how talented they are.
I’d love to be a fly on the wall in that writers room. Hear the creative process for food-pun names.
I’m so proud of them and so in awe of them. We’re actually not allowed to know a lot of what’s going on in the show. Mike keeps everything secret, even from us. It’s to make sure we don’t play things differently, so it makes it fun to constantly be talking among ourselves about what’s coming. We’re always trying to pry information out of Mike and the producers, but they’re always tight-lipped.
I’m eagerly anticipating the arrival of this Eternal Judge!
You’re in for a very big treat. You won’t believe it. I’m not allowed to say who it is, but you’re going to shit your pants. Sorry, shirt your pants. It’s funny because I asked D’Arcy [Carden] the week before, “Who would you most like to work with in the world?” And she said someone’s name, and then a week later we found out that person would be joining the cast. Now I think D’Arcy’s a witch. I’m not even overhyping it, it’s so insane. I’m privileged to be a part of this mad journey.
Nearly every time we talk to someone from The Good Place, the conversation leads to funny stories about Ted Danson. Manny Jacinto told us about a disgusting Swedish Fish prank. What is your most memorable story of the guy?
He’s America. To English people, Ted Danson is America. This is going to make him sound like a dick, but it’s really funny. I was going through a breakup during the show, and instead of pandering to me in any way since I was openly depressed, he would randomly come up to me and start singing “sad girl.” “Saaaaaaad giiiiirl.” Singing my worst fears to me to make me realize how overdramatic I was being. Whenever he noticed me being over-the-top after a fight with my boyfriend, he knew what my internal monologue was and would sing until I would laugh and cheer up. And it would change my whole day. He never doesn’t notice when you’re sad, and he never doesn’t pick up on your mood. Him and Mary [Steenburgen] I think are serial killers, because they’re too great and too perfect.
Actually, I have a better answer that’s much more important to me. It’s not “funny,” per se. I got to dance with Ted in the middle of the night to Nat King Cole — in an old-fashioned-movie way, like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. I’ve never danced with anyone before, ever, and so my first-ever dance was with Ted Danson, and that was one of the best moments of my life. It was essentially Ted Danson teaching me how to dance. I’m quite tall, and no one has ever tried to twirl me around. I’ve occasionally had men rub their genitals on me on a dance floor, because that’s what dancing has become in our generation. So to have someone in a gentlemanly way twirl me around on a dance floor as light as a feather was amazing. And there were fairy lights all over. It was, hands down, a top-three moment of my whole life.
Jameela Jamil's behind-the-scenes video of dancing with Ted Danson.
After that big twist in season one, fans have tried to sniff out future plot developments — some of the popular theories I’ve heard is that Michael is actually in the Bad Place, or even that he’s God. Have you found yourself theorizing about season three, now that it’s been renewed?
I don’t have to because I know what season three’s premise is already. [Evil laughter.] It’s bloody brilliant and so exciting, and nobody has guessed it so far. I do some internet-digging every now and then to see what people are guessing, but nobody has thought of what’s to come yet. Only one person online guessed what the ending of season one was going to be, and we kept watching this Reddit person to see if anyone picked up on it. The commenters were like, “Nah, that’s not gonna happen.” But I know what happens, and it’s so exciting and lives up to everything you’ve seen so far. I’m such a fan of the show, which is probably a bit sad because I’m on it, but I don’t care.
As a major Great British Bake Off fan, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up your episode of the show—
Oh my God. Oh my God.
—Especially because it’s in the Mary-Paul era. How did this wonderful thing come about?
It was so mortifying. There’s a top-ten highlights of the series going around Channel 4, and No. 4 was “Jameela Jamil sets fire to everything.” My reputation took a hit after that show. More people stop me in America because of that episode than they do because of The Good Place. The greatest failure of my life has been on a show that’s watched by bloody everyone. Outside of pasta, I’m useless in a kitchen and dead to the world. I had the only dessert in the history of The Great British Bake Off that was deemed unsafe to eat.
It was my meringue. They thought I was going to kill Mary Berry. Can you imagine if that’s how I went down? Can you imagine if that’s how Mary Berry died, by eating my dessert? It’s very embarrassing. I hate that you’ve seen it!
Honestly, I’d get on the next plane to Heathrow if it meant hanging out with Mary Berry. And I can’t bake at all.
Exactly. I flew back and forth from America for it, just because I’m such a lover of Mary Berry. To meet her and then disappoint her face-to-face is really still one of the greatest things to happen to me.