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The Good Place’s Kirby Howell-Baptiste Had to Learn Neuroscience and Master an Australian Accent

Kirby Howell-Baptiste. Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Though the ever-indecisive Chidi (William Jackson Harper) fell for Eleanor (Kristen Bell) in many of the alternate realities featured on The Good Place, he’s developed feelings for someone else back on Earth in season three: Dr. Simone Garnett, a bubbly, impulsive neurosurgeon played by British actor Kirby Howell-Baptiste.

You might recognize Howell-Baptiste from Barry, or her Killing Eve role as Elena, Sandra Oh’s competent though unlucky-in-love assistant, but on The Good Place she’s adopted an Australian accent and an ability to spew all sorts of scientific jargon. As Simone’s grown to be a key part of The Good Place’s core group, Vulture caught up with Howell-Baptiste to talk about joining the show, adopting an accent, and her own Simone-like impulsive decision to move from London to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career.

It’s always fun to see someone new join a show like The Good Place. Were you a fan going into it?
I was and am a huge fan of the show. I actually said to Mike [Schur] when I booked it, “I’m so excited to be a part of it, but the one bad part now is that I know what happens.”

Was there any sort of initiation?
Well, no. I think the best initiation for anyone coming in to a show is to watch it. Just watching it helped me with my audition because I knew how season two ended. Mike is really, really great about talking to you, so we had conversations once I got it about the character. He’s also really great about that. He’s very available if you want to go and pop into his office.

I’ve read he does a lot of research on philosophy and will give handouts about the ideas on the show. Did you have to bone up on neuroscience?
I did a lot of it on my own. I wasn’t given homework or anything, which I think also speaks to the character of Simone. She’s naturally good at this thing, she’s obviously studied, but it’s not as serious for her as it is for Chidi. It’s like, “Let’s have fun! We can have fun!” Neuroscience is also fascinating to me anyway. I’d have to look up certain words or whatever, then you go into a rabbit hole of “What’s this thing in my brain?” You go down very long Wikipedia rabbit holes, and the TED talks, and then it’s midnight and you’ve been doing it all day.

We know a little bit about Simone’s research, but did you talk to Mike much about her backstory or how she ended up at this university?
Mike and the writing staff were amazing at formulating character. It was very well-fleshed out, but then I do feel there’s a little bit of room they deliberately leave. In terms of backstory, I figured out how she’s there and what she’s come through, and it’s stuff that’s helpful for me as an actor, but not stuff where I’d have to necessarily go and tell Mike. What Mike and I spoke a lot about was the fact that she is a foil for Chidi. They are both very intellectual, but the way they come at their intellectualism is different. For Chidi it’s anxiety, and for Simone it’s excitement.

The show treads a delicate balance, because there’s something between Chidi and Simone that has to feel real, even though we know Eleanor and Chidi ended up together in these alternate realities. What do you think goes into Chidi and Simone’s attraction?
I think they both are very excited by information and by knowledge and by learning, and I think they see that in each other. And I think that Chidi is very endearing. In the season premiere, she says, “You’re so weird, I love it!” Simone doesn’t overthink things and sometimes that’s beautiful, but sometimes that quality is somewhat hectic.

I would say that I think that attraction goes beyond romantic. That’s an attraction everyone in the group has. As humans, we gravitate towards people who are similar but also a little different, and everyone in that group possesses someone different. For me coming in, it’s important to not try and be like anyone else, but to also possess the thing everyone else has, which is uniqueness.

Was it intimidating joining the show?
You know, playing this character was one of the lowest pressures I could have entered into. If I’d known how big the following was, it might’ve added pressure to coming in, but the writers are so incredible and that’s your safety net as an actor. I also felt very connected to the role even as I auditioned for it. I think I’m a very competent, confident woman, but I do like having fun and being like, “I don’t know, why don’t we go to Ojai this weekend!” I related to Simone in that she is like, “You can have fun and also be a serious working adult.” I think that’s all I can be!

You speak with a British accent naturally. What’s it take to adopt an Australian one?
It takes a lot of Australian TV, a lot of Australian podcasts, and also YouTube. The night before the audition I meant to go out with friends, and I I texted them and said, “I can’t come out, I have to get this accent,” so I spent all night by myself practicing an Australian accent. It is difficult because I would ask friends who are Australian and they would try to give me tips about how to say certain words. Then you get all embarrassed and say it in front of real Australians. Around the Americans, though, I feel very comfortable. With Americans I’m like, “Just trust me, okay? I know this!” When I’m with real Australians, I’m like, “Please help me!”

You do Upright Citizens Brigade in LA right? Which D’Arcy Carden also does. I know you two were both on Barry, so what is it like to come in to a new show with her?
D’Arcy and I know each other from UCB. D’Arcy’s originally a UCB New York person and I started with UCB in LA. We did a few shows together last week, which was so fun. D’Arcy is truly one of the most hilarious people ever. I didn’t know anyone else [in the cast] — weirdly, a few years ago I did a guest star on House of Lies, so I had met Kristen, but that was a really long time and I’d just been a guest star. When I went into the first table read, D’Arcy was the only person I knew, but doing Barry with her was fun. We have two shows that we can have inside jokes from, which is really nice.

You’re also on Killing Eve. You were just shooting the second season of that in London, right?
Yes, a second season has just begun shooting in London. Killing Eve is similar to The Good Place in that it’s another show where we’re very quiet about it. For the sake of the fans and the integrity of the show, I think it’s very fun to not spill the beans.

How about the experience of shooting the first season? Your character has this wild backstory that you fill in with lines like, “I’m just going to go home, drink a bunch of wine and think about my ex.” What was it like to work with Phoebe Waller-Bridge on that?
Phoebe is a really wonderful writer. She sets up an incredibly rich world that is exhilarating for women in particular to play in. I think that’s what happens when you have a lot of female creators. Women feel real. I felt that as well on The Good Place. If you have women writing for women, they become real, fully fleshed-out characters.

What motivated you to leave London for the US?
I guess I had a real Simone moment of being very spontaneous. I wasn’t happy at the drama school I was in, I met someone when I was traveling around America, and they were like, “You should come out!” I was young enough that I didn’t consider the consequences, and was like, “Great! Sure! I’ll come to LA!” And I moved there! It wasn’t like a great plan. I didn’t even know about UCB until I got here.

I like to say that I had an Idris Elba route, which is coming to America and working here and having some success here and then going back and working at home. But it’s worked so far, and it’s been really enjoyable. I wish I could say it was a really well thought out plan, but the truth was I had some student loan money left, I took it, and I tried something.

One very important observation, looking at your IMDB page: You were both in Downward Dog and A Dog’s Purpose. Was there a point you thought you’d only do things with dogs? Are you a dog person?
I do like dogs. I am a dog person, perhaps not as much as my resume would suggest. My resume looks like I have a real dog agenda. There was a moment where I was talking to Megan [Amram] one day and she said, “Wouldn’t it be so funny if there was a dog thing [on The Good Place]?” and I said, “No! Please, no!” As an actor, you always worry you’re going to be typecast. This was a very unique typecast, but there was a moment where I thought, “What if I become the girl where they’re like, Yes, get her! She’s great at working with animals! It’s really nice between takes to pet an animal, but I don’t want to be pigeonholed into dog work!

Way too small of a niche.
Way too small, yes! For a time, it was a dog-heavy resume, but I came through to the other side.

Last question: As Simone, were there any pieces of jargon that were especially hard to memorize?
Yes, where I’m talking about the hippocampus and anterior frontal cortex. That stuff is hard because they’re not words you use every day. There was a lot of typing things into “” to figure out the pronunciation and then trying to morph that with the Australian accent.

Right, you have to pronounce “hippocampus” and do it with an Australian accent.
If I did it right, I did it right. But if I did it wrong, the internet will tell me!

The Good Place’s Kirby Howell-Baptiste on Joining the Show