Vancouver actor Manny Jacinto talks The Good Place, Star Wars and his secret Canadian status

You never want to head into an interview unprepared. But walking up to my conversation with Manny Jacinto, for the first time, I think I had the opposite problem. 

Because while the actor has already more than made the rounds — first turning heads as a loveable doofus in the NBC sitcom The Good Place before moving on to trade lines with Nicole Kidman in Nine Perfect Strangers and now landing a pivotal role in Star Wars: The Acolyte — I knew him from something else. 

In this moment, he’s leaning back under studio lights, prepping for what was then the still days-away June 4 premiere of The Acolyte — the franchise’s gamble to draw in a younger audience, shifting the setting to roughly 100 years before the main prequels — and with a cast, crew and characters comprised of women, people of colour and 2SLGBTQ+ people. 

Actually sitting across from him — his almost independently famous good looks and nonchalant, disarming Keanu Reeves charm on full display — I decided to let the penny drop on what I knew.

“Is that you?” he asks, laughing at the picture on my phone. “Oh my gosh, man.”

WATCH | The Acolyte trailer: 

I’d just shown him a rather embarrassing-for-us-both screenshot of The Unauthorized Saved By The Bell Story, biopic about actor Dustin Diamond.

Somehow, both Jacinto and I ended up there — me as a background actor with an unfortunate haircut and general aimlessness, and Jacinto an actual actor who was merely playing an extra named Eric, Diamond’s stereotypical rough-around-the edges on-set friend who virtually strong arms him into alcoholism.

But that was far from the end of our intersections. We both attended the University of British Columbia at the same time — he gained a civil engineering diploma and ring he still fears ever being forced to use: “It’s in the cupboard right now,” he said, only half joking. “I’ll bring it out when I need to, when I need to build a bridge.”

Because we were both dancers in a relatively stratified community, we must have competed against each other numerous times. We confirmed one head to head in 2012 where I remember his crew, though I never actually met him. They were the impossibly professional, self-choreographed trio in ties; we were the oversized group flailing to Grease in matching letterman’s jackets. 

A man with long hair wearing a robe peaks out from an earthen dwelling with futuristic gadgets embedded by the door.
Qimir (Manny Jacinto) in Lucasfilm’s The Acolyte, exclusively on Disney+. ©2024 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved. (Christian Black/Lucasfilm Ltd.)

I hung around as an extra on Once Upon a Time, the show where he got his first break as Quon, a sort of middle-man from China who introduces a character to a mystical healer named The Dragon. 

Before all that, during the 2010 Olympics, all the aspiring performers were making the most of the influx of tourists. While I was performing dancing at Spirit Square, Jacinto was just a few kilometres down the road making a case for his talent (and, it turns out, nearly breaking his nose during a flubbed backflip, before taking public transit back home in a blood-stained shirt as fellow riders tried not to stare.)

What strikes me isn’t that until this moment, we’d shared so many rooms without ever turning to meet. It was the fact that, despite crawling though the same muddy ratlines aimed somewhere South near Hollywood, I had only just discovered he was Canadian.   

“I thought that I would be in Vancouver acting for a lot longer than I would have,” he explained, having moved to British Columbia from Manila shortly after he was born. “But you know, I made the trek down to L.A., and then, luckily, my first trip down to L.A., like something hit and then it just kind of snowballed from there.

“I mean, I try and rep Canada whenever I can, but yeah, it’s kind of maybe a little secret sometimes.”

That “sometimes” was of course The Good Place, the Mike Schur series where Jacinto starred as Jason Mendoza, an ostensibly silent monk who somewhat quickly reveals himself as a jock in possession of both an obsession with NFL quarterback Blake Bortles and an IQ roughly equivalent to that of your average fence post. 

Three people stand looking unimpressed.
Jacinto, centre, appears with The Good Place castmates Kristen Bell and Jameela Jamil. (Colleen Hayes/NBC)

For him, the shift was out of this world — not least for the fact that he’d never before tried to make people laugh. 

“I love it man, but it was honestly incredibly unexpected,” he said. “The Good Place was my first comedic thing and I remember my reps being like, ‘Are you sure they got the right guy?’ “

The comedic success he partially attributes to his equally rhythm-dependent dance training. His tendency to now include at least a touch of comedy in every project is because of his surprising love for it. “It’s so special to be able to make a room laugh,” he said, smiling.

But what surprises him is where he’s landed, and when; through what he calls luck, he’s already sitting right on the precipice of something real and potentially lasting only a decade after setting out.

It was also surprising how he’d gotten there. 

Looking for roles

Jactino is of both Chinese and Filipino heritage, and part of the reason he made the trek south was a lack of diverse opportunity in Canada.

While there were roles, even the occasional interesting one (he cites an early job on CBC’s The Romeo Section as getting him the cred to actually land The Good Place), what he saw more were one-dimensional, sometimes stereotypical opportunities for Asian men.

So with a degree he didn’t want, often too broke to afford groceries and handing flyers to strangers for his own dance shows, Jacinto moved on to what he hoped were greener pastures.  

It was an act of trusting his gut, something he says guides him in every role he chooses.

Landing on The Acolyte, to him, seems like a point proven: The parents he once hid his art from (“I told them, just give me five more years. Give me five more years to figure out what I want to do.”) are beaming as they attend the red carpet. 

And instead of promoting roles he doesn’t respect, trusting his gut got him where he wanted to be — as he strongly hints that taking The Acolyte was a Sophie’s choice between a few different offers.

But being part of such a huge shift in the franchise (The Acolyte‘s rumbling diveristy backlash is part of an argument so old, just over a week ago Star Wars‘ creator George Lucas was forced to defend the original films’ largely white cast with the claim “Most of the people are aliens!”) validates his pickiness about his roles and what they say. 

“I’m so proud to be able to inspire younger kids that look like me to take up a lightsaber … or to make stories that’ll further the legacy of Star Wars,” he said. “I’m really, really proud of it.”

Three people stand in a room. The two standing on the left hold yellow paper in their hands. The person standing on the right holds an ipad and is speaking.
Amandla Stenberg, left, Lee Jung-jae and director Leslye Headland on the set of Lucasfilm’s The Acolyte. The series has already sparked backlash for its inclusive focus. (Christian Black/Lucasfilm Ltd.)

But even with all that to look forward to, I’m still curious if he’s looking back — to all the competitions, frantic performances and hopefully improving opportunities at home. 

“Man, just like washing my hair with the water, it gives it so much volume — it looks so good!” Once again, he’s laughing. 

“But beside the point. I get a sense of calm when I get back home. So I wouldn’t put it past me to — if I can come back home and tell a good story, that’d be the dream.”


Posted in CBC