Oh, Jason Mendoza, you sweet, beautiful idiot. As played by actor Manny Jacinto, The Good Place’s resident aspiring DJ marks a significant moment in the very short history of dumb, hot Asian bros on television (see also: Chan, Josh on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). Jason seems to have been specifically engineered to resist stereotype, first starting the show as a Buddhist monk named Jianyu who took a vow of silence only to reveal himself as the sweet but stupid screwup from Jacksonville, Florida, that he is. (Bortles!) Ahead of The Good Place mid-season premiere, we spoke with Manny Jacinto on developing Jason’s voice, his love triangle with Janet and Tahani, and the grossest gag that Ted Danson has pulled on set.
I’d like to start at the beginning. D’Arcy Carden said that the audition sides were really unusual. What were yours like?
Wow, this is taking me back. I’m sure D’Arcy mentioned that the sides were dummy sides, so it gave us a glimpse into our character but it didn’t necessarily give us a glimpse into the actual story line of the show. My particular character was a bit different because when you’re introduced to Jianyu/Jason, he’s a silent monk. But for the actual audition, I was given sides as Jason Mendoza, so you can imagine that they weren’t the most intelligent. It was two scenes. The first scene was a job interview. It was to be, like, “chief executive operations manager,” and you can obviously tell from that I have no clue what I’m talking about. I go on to rant about my favorite subjects in school and all of these quirky little Jason Mendoza stories. In the second scene, the audition involved me and my buddy Pillboi, who you see in some of the flashbacks of season one. It’s me pitching him a product about an energy drink/deodorant idea. I actually wish that they could have incorporated those into the show, but who knows?
Was Jason Mendoza fully formed when you auditioned?
He was definitely tweaked. When I first got the audition sides, he was very bro-ish so I played it towards that line. Then when I went in for the callback, they were like, “We want him to still have that dim-wittedness, but also make sure to have this sweet side of him.” That’s a very big part of who Jason is, that he has this innocence and sweetness about him, which makes him more likable.
How did you develop the voice? He speaks in a way that’s idiotic and endearing at the same time.
The only thing I can say, because I don’t want to reveal it yet, is I got the voice from a YouTube video that I saw. I can’t reveal any more because I just don’t want people to define him for being that, but it was definitely just through coincidence that I saw this video and then I tweaked it to give him a bit more maturity, a tad bit more intelligence.
Or at least some emotional intelligence.
At the end of the day, he wants to do good. That’s his primary motive. Although he’s oblivious to other people’s motivations, he wants to do good and he wants to be better, but obviously it’s just a bit hard for him in those terms. And a big part of Jason is how he carries himself. Once I embodied how he moves, the voice started to come out.
Was it freeing when you finally got to talk?
It was all of the feelings. It was intimidating; it was fun. I remember our first table read, and I remember Jameela [Jamil] and D’Arcy just staring at me because they’d never heard me talk as that character. And they just could not stop laughing during the table read. Obviously, I’d like to think that I talk as a “normal person” in real life, and when they heard me talk as Jason Mendoza, they just could not believe it. So that was a really sweet moment when I saw their reactions.
Do you think Jason subverts stereotypes?
Definitely. I think when they were coming up with Jason/Jianyu, they were trying to figure out something different and one of the things that popped up was that you don’t really see a lot of dumb Asian guys on mainstream television. He’s usually intelligent or the model minority. I’m not saying playing Jason is pioneering, but it’s so great for me to do because it’s not a stereotype. Getting to put a bit of a twist on that and showing a different dynamic towards an Asian character is really cool. And I feel that the fans like the fact that I’m not some super-smart student.
You’re not the IT guy.
Exactly. And I’ve had my fair share of those, so I guess you just have to go through the ranks before you get to be Jason Mendoza.
Did you have to deal with stereotyping when you were going out for auditions?
I can’t say that I completely avoided it. There were definitely auditions and even bookings and jobs where I played your typical Asian model minority, an IT tech guy or something of that nature. It’s tough sometimes, especially when you’re starting out, because they make these roles sound as if they won’t be a typical nerd. I remember getting an audition the other day, but they described him as first of all being an outsider. He was intelligent. It’s a positive spin on basically what they were describing as being a nerd. It was almost like they were trying to trick you to do this. It was interesting because they make it sound like it’s a role that’s inspiring or different, but at the end of the day, if you really analyze it, it’s a bullied nerd. I’ve definitely had my fair share of auditions for those kinds of roles, but I think if you can stick it out and you can create your own roles, you can bypass those. But it also depends on if you’re broke or not. That can also be a measure as to whether or not you take certain roles.
Did you go out for that part?
It was given to me by my agent, and I was like, “No, I can’t. This is exactly what I don’t want to do.” So I passed on it. Luckily, I’m at the position where I can do that. But five, six years ago, I wouldn’t be so quick on saying no. I’d have to really consider it.
Yeah, you’ve got to pay your bills.
Which is the unfortunate part. That’s why creating roles is really important, especially for the Asian community on both sides.
The other great thing about Jason is that he’s a total babe.
[Laughs.] I wouldn’t say that. Oh man, I always get embarrassed when that’s mentioned. I’ve always been not comfortable being viewed like that, but it’s a nice compliment to have. I remember one of our executive producer’s assistants was like, “Hey Manny, how much are you paying the writers to write all of this stuff about you?” Because it was always complimenting Jason as the hot guy or the attractive guy. And I’m just like, “Oh, you know, I’m paying them 15 percent of my paycheck just to get those statements in to make me look good.” But yeah, it’s a compliment I’m trying to take more warmly now.
You don’t really see the Asian guy as the hot one who’s in a love triangle on TV.
Yeah. If you want to be incredibly specific, you rarely see the Asian guy kissing the Caucasian girl or even dynamics between Janet and Jason, where the female’s a bit taller. There’s always these ideas that you don’t want to date someone that’s taller than you. I don’t know. Maybe I’m overthinking it.
I think you’re right.
Yeah, it’s like in Mike’s [Schur] world, anything goes and nothing is wrong, just as long as we have the feeling behind it. We don’t have to play towards certain stereotypes and images that we’re constantly bombarded by. That’s what I love about this show.
Are you Team Janet or Team Tahani?
Oh, geez! As me, not as Jason?
Either and/or both.
Ummm, I don’t know. At the end of the day, as Manny, I’m just happy to be loved. And maybe Jason Mendoza would say, “I’m just happy to be pounding it out.” I don’t know. I can’t say what team I’m on.
You also eat a lot on the show. I feel like you eat more than anyone else.
That’s a really good observation. Yeah, I remember when I got caught by Tahani, I was eating cheesy puffs. When I was introduced to Chidi, I was eating some popcorn. In one of the last few episodes, I was eating a lollipop that Kristen [Bell] slapped out of my mouth. I think it’s just the kid in him. He’s constantly hungry and always needs a snack or some sort of junk food. That’s super cool that you noticed that. I didn’t even notice that.
How did you get into acting? I saw that you majored in civil engineering, so you’re actually super smart.
I don’t know if I’m super smart. If anything, I just worked my butt off. But thank you. In terms of my childhood, it was normal. You go through school, do well in school, and then I went to university. The performance arts aspect was never really an option because it was never in my family. Nobody was there to teach me anything about that. It wasn’t until maybe my second year of university that I got inspired to dance. It was because of the show America’s Best Dance Crew.
Exactly! Aww, man. You don’t understand how big of an impact that’s actually made in my life, seeing those Asian guys on TV doing their thing. I was like, “Hey, these guys look like me and I love to dance too, so maybe I should try it out.” Only a few weeks after, I went out to try dance class and I sucked. It was horrible, but I absolutely loved it so I just kept going and tried to get better and better. From there, I just found this thing that people kept talking about, which is your passion. I wanted to explore different aspects of performing, and I fell into acting. It just started to move forward from that point, and then engineering fell through the cracks because I did not want to do that. I had a bit of a taste of it, and I was like, “No, I can’t. This isn’t for me.”
I assume we’ll get to see you dance more on the show.
Yeah, I can hint a bit more dancing later on in this season. I think with the writers, they try to incorporate that aspect of Jason as much as they can, as long as it fits the story.
Do you have a favorite Fast and Furious movie?
Tokyo Drift, no doubt. So many reasons: Justin Lin, Sung Kang. That is definitely my number one, even though I know it’s the last with so many people. Even the soundtrack, I remember how it goes. The soundtrack was just killer.
That is the correct answer.
Is it? You agree with me?
It’s my favorite! Justin Lin saved the franchise, let’s be real.
That’s exactly true. The thing is, I’m a big fan of Justin Lin as well. I don’t know if you know the movie Better Luck Tomorrow.
I do. I love it.
It was a movie that subconsciously inspired me to do this. I watched the movie when I was in high school. It was the first time that you saw Asian-American kids, Asian-American teenagers acting in a movie. They didn’t have accents and the story line didn’t pertain anything towards their culture. It was just them being teenagers. So Justin Lin is definitely a big reason why Tokyo Drift is my number one.
Also, Better Luck Tomorrow was about bad Asians, which is what Jason is.
Yes. It comes full circle, which is amazing.
I know they filmed your reaction to Mike Schur telling you about the major twist in season one. What was going through your head when you heard about it?
Well, Mike was very formal about it. After episode eight, he was like, “Guys, after we’re done shooting, we’re going to gather you all into the common area in the cafeteria and we’re going to sit you down.” And I panicked. I was like, “Uh, am I getting fired?” This has never happened before. We’ve never had a meeting. And he seemed very serious about it. So my mind just went to worst-case scenario. But then he started recounting the story and Kristen had her camera out. So now it wasn’t, “Am I going to get fired?” It was, “Are we getting punked?” Then Mike came out with that twist, and I was like, “Holy crap, this guy is a genius.” All of the feelings started flooding in, like gratitude for being able to be a part of this, and excitement for other people to witness and to hear what I’d just heard.
Do you think Jason deserves to be in the Bad Place?
Umm, no. I’d like to think not. I’d like to think that he has a good heart. But because of maybe how he was raised, he’s just misguided. He needs a proper guide. No, I don’t think he deserves to be in the Bad Place. But, then again, the villain in all of the stories never thinks that they’re the bad guy. So maybe I have that syndrome.
What is Ted Danson like behind the scenes?
Ted, when you meet him, he is legitimately the nicest man on the planet. And he doesn’t have to be. He is a veteran in this industry. He can do whatever he wants. I remember there was one time he was eating Swedish Fish and all of the sudden he just paused. I don’t know if this was a party trick or if it just came to him on the spot, but he was able to eat the Swedish Fish through his mouth, take a piece of it, and then snort it through his nose like a booger. All of us freaked out. William Jackson Harper ran across the stage. I ran for my life. We just didn’t know what was going on. Witnessing that moment right there was like, “Oh my goodness, if anything, Ted Danson is Jason Mendoza. He’s just the biggest child out of all of us.” I just remember that, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment, Ted Danson taking a booger out of his nose.
This interview has been edited and condensed.