It’s true: Manny Jacinto’s jawline could slice through bread. Its dramatic sharpness and smooth edges could be part of a Michaelangelo sculpture. After a quick assessment over Zoom, I feel it could very well hang in the Louvre. It’s not lost on Jacinto that his jawline has been a consistently hot topic of Internet fodder; the soft-spoken actor is equal parts flummoxed and flattered by it. “It’s very nice that people say that,” Jacinto says, before pausing. “But I have much more to offer than just a razor-sharp jawline, as they say in the Twitterverse.”
While it’s easy to wax poetic about Jacinto’s facial structure, it isn’t half as fascinating as the man himself—or his versatility as an actor. Jacinto has been working hard the past year to prove just that. During the pandemic, he’s been involved in a few wildly different projects that flaunt his range: the star-studded wellness series Nine Perfect Strangers and the horror drama Brand New Cherry Flavor among them. Only recently, he was able to take a break—he’s now back home in Los Angeles from a jaunt to his hometown of Vancouver. Jacinto—much like his current alter-ego Yao on Nine Perfect Strangers—is Zen. “I try to go back at least once or twice a year to get grounded, get out of the craziness of L.A.,” he explains.
Success is still a relatively new concept for the Filipino-Canadian actor. Over the years, Jacinto had a handful of bit parts on CW shows like Supernatural, The 100, and iZombie before he was cast in the Canadian spy drama The Romeo Section in 2015, which earned him a Leo Award nomination for Best Supporting Performance in a Dramatic Series. But it wasn’t until he landed a role on NBC’s afterlife comedy The Good Place in 2016 that his career really took off. For four seasons, he portrayed Jason Mendoza, a Floridian goofball with a heart of gold, who quickly became a fan favorite. And while Jason earned him widespread exposure—something he says he’s eternally grateful for—Jacinto has actively avoided being typecast.
“There were a lot of roles coming my way that [were] definitely the same type of character, goofy, oblivious, all the synonyms for dumbass basically,” he recalls. While he appreciates that people enjoyed him in that role, Jacinto had to be discerning with which projects he selected. “At the end of the day, I want to exercise different muscles,” Jacinto says. For him, it meant having the patience and trust that different types of roles would come his way eventually so that he could prove himself. And thus far, it’s worked for him.
With Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers, which debuted in mid-August, Jacinto portrays Masha’s (Nicole Kidman) right-hand man and sometimes lover who helps run Tranquillum House, the boutique wellness resort that aims to heal nine troubled individuals. As Yao, Jacinto’s earnest, man-bun-sporting healer wants to believe that Tranquillum House helps people. With Yao, like all his roles, he found himself in method-acting territory, eating much healthier and working out more vigorously. “When you get word that you have to be shirtless or in an intimate scene with some prolific people, you definitely change your exercise routine,” Jacinto laughs while pushing his hair back.
Although the silliness of Jason is gone in his latest role, Jacinto did observe some parallels between Yao and his Good Place character. “The thing that is obvious for me is the love triangle that both characters had,” he says. “With Jason, he was in that love triangle with Tahani and Janet and Yao is in the love triangle between Delilah and Masha.” For Jacinto, the commonality exists in that confusion. “Both characters [Jason and Yao] are placed in the situation where they’re being pulled back and forth between two different people they really admire,” he explains. There’s a much more surface-level comparison Jacinto sees between the two roles: the monk-inspired robes he had to wear on both shows. “I think I’m just going to put in my contract ‘only monk robes,’” he says.
Also in August, Jacinto took on the role of Code, a bougie drug dealer in Netflix’s Brand New Cherry Flavor. For the actor, working with showrunner Nick Antosca was a big draw. “He’s incredibly talented and down to Earth, but the things that he comes up with are just mind-boggling and disturbing,” Jacinto says. What appealed to the actor about Code was his “Jack Sparrow-like personality.” “He was kind of everywhere but he was also very honed in,” Jacinto says of the character.
While it was filmed about two years ago, Jacinto’s next project is perhaps his biggest yet. In May 2022, he’s set to star in Top Gun: Maverick as a pilot named Fritz—a role which, like the movie itself, has been kept largely under wraps. Working with Tom Cruise, he recalls, was “intense.” “It’s [Tom’s] baby,” says Jacinto of the film. “And having seen clips of footage, he doesn’t disappoint.” He’ll also star in his first proper rom-com I Want You Back, which he finished filming in March. “It's a fun one,” he says of the film. “Jenny Slate is whip-smart and so good, and then you have Charlie Day [who is] just born to perform.” Beyond the rom-com, Jacinto is eager to jump into uncharted territory. “I want to dive into an A24 indie or be a part of a huge franchise, whether it be a Marvel movie or an anime,” he says.
As Jacinto continues on his acting journey, encouragement from veteran actors in the Asian community has helped him stay determined. Though Jacinto is measured, in fear of being “boastful,” he admits that “seeing your heroes or the people that you admire have your back is such an inspiring thing to hear.” What Jacinto wants is to continue making people laugh or cry. “I want to take on projects that make me feel something emotionally,” he says. “Because if it makes me feel something emotionally then I think the audience will be moved.”