Jameela Jamil Never Expected to Be An Actress—Now, She's Fighting for Inclusivity

Jameela Jamil didn't move to Los Angeles under the pretense of making it as a huge movie star. In her words, she simply "wanted to be happy" and to try to work as a comedy writer. Cut to under five years later, and Jamil is one of the stars of the beloved comedy series The Good Place, which will enter its final season this fall. "There are religious themes in our show, and moral philosophy," Jamil said. "It doesn't make it sound like a great comedy when you frame it around the idea of moral philosophy, but it's the spoon full of sugar that helps the medicine go down. We are teaching people moral philosophy in the disguise of comedy, and the show is genuinely taken seriously by actual big philosophers. It's taught, and they air our show, in universities and moral philosophy classes around the world, which is really exciting. It makes us feel very legit and smug." Here, the actress, who is just as widely known for her refreshingly outspoken online voice, talks about her crush on co-star Ted Danson, growing up as a late-bloomer, and her real thoughts on social media.

When did you first move to California?

I moved to California four years ago. I moved to California cause I wanted to be happy. I was definitely not trying to be an actress. I wanted to be a writer, and a comedy writer, in particular and I was forced, really, to go to the audition for The Good Place. And I was only kicking and screaming 'cause I thought that I didn't deserve to be there in a Mike Schur comedy because I had no previous experience whatsoever, but they gave me the role 'cause Mike Schur is a strange, strange man.

What was your audition like?

My first audition was uneventful. It was one minute long and they asked me if I had an experience, and I didn't want to embarrass my agent, so I told them that I was a theater actress in England. I got through to the second round, and the second audition was with Mike Schur and all of the producers and that was very surreal. Mike made me improv with him, and I remember him asking me, "You know how to improv right?" And I did a sort of Fanny Brice where I was like, "Can I improv?" So I lied, said I could, and I had to shit myself through an improv with Mike actual Schur.

And it went well?

It went great! I have been on a show opposite Ted Danson, my hero, for three years. It was my first audition, so basically almost as soon as I got here, I landed that role and my life changed and I never thought I would want to be an actor. I always looked up to actors so much, but I never thought I could be one, and now I'm sort of in this incredible position in Hollywood, and I realized I love doing this. It's such a fun and incredible craft.

Were you a Cheers fan growing up?

I was a big Cheers fan growing up and I was a big fan of Three Men And A Baby and Little Lady. I loved Ted. I definitely fancied Ted. Is that creepy? Am I creepy?

Tell me about your character on the show.

I play Tahani on The Good Place, who's a sort of resident bitch of the neighborhood. I play a very complex, nuanced woman and that's because Mike Schur likes to write complex, nuanced roles for women. Turns out that people didn't turn the TV off immediately and they enjoyed the show about many complex, nuanced women.

There are religious themes in our show, and moral philosophy. It doesn't make it sound like a great comedy when you frame it around the idea of moral philosophy, but it's the spoon full of sugar that helps the medicine go down. We are teaching people moral philosophy in the disguise of comedy, and the show is genuinely taken seriously by actual big philosophers. It's taught, and they air our show, in universities and moral philosophy classes around the world, which is really exciting. It makes us feel very legit and smug.

Were you on social media before you started the show or was this something that happened after you were cast?

I was on Twitter talking bullocks for years and no one was listening, and then I had to join Instagram, really, for The Good Place. They made me join Instagram and I guess I have really taken to it and it's become a fairly massive part of my life, and I use it to scream at people.

I think I do good work on Instagram. I think I've created a safe space on social media which wasn't easy to do. But it's this really beautiful place that people can come to, and so many people do. We've gone over 700,000 followers on Instagram with no social media team; it's just me and my friend, Megan. And it's a genuine community of people who are just tired of being erased. I think so much of my career has been about fighting erasure and I'm the first South Asian woman whose done most of the jobs that I've done, and that's something I take great pride in. And that's something that convinced me to take this incredible job even though I felt completely unequipped and so afraid of being globally exposed for being a shit actress. I did it because I thought it would be cool for a South Asian woman to play a role where she is named a South Asian without that being the entire premise of her character. Where I wasn't stereotyped, and where my ethnicity wasn't the entirety of my story. That was a big deal to me because I really care about representation because I didn't have any when I was growing up.

We are determined to try to represent everybody, and that means anyone from someone from any race, or any background, or any age or with no hair, with loads of hair, with a colostomy bag, with no colostomy bag; everyone is welcome, everyone is celebrated. And I think we need more of that in Hollywood. Whenever Hollywood takes a chance and tries to do that it pays off tenfold. And so, you look at Bridesmaids or Black Panther or Crazy Rich Asians or The Good Place, even. When someone takes a risk and they represent the masses, the masses flock. And so I hope to see more of that in my own industry.

What's the bravest thing you think you personally have done in your life?

The bravest thing I've done in my life was move to Los Angeles even though I was told I was too old at 28 and too fat. And they said I was too ethnic. Going anyway and not listening to people, recognizing that people were projecting their own personal fear onto me, and just getting up and booking a one way ticket and coming to America with no visa—sorry, Trump—no money, really, because I had spent all of it on charity, and I had no contacts, and no friends here. I did it anyway, and I think trying is winning and everything else is just cake and orgasms.

Did you wake up one morning and just decide to do that? It's such a bold move.

Once every decade, my body decides to challenge me. When I was seventeen, I damaged my back very badly in a car accident and that taught me how to respect my body in a way that I'd never done before. When I was twenty-eight, a doctor found a giant lump in my breast and I had a week in which I would find out whether or not it was cancer. And during that week, I made a bucket list and the number one thing on that list was move to California because I'd always dreamed of it. So, when I found out it wasn't cancer, I had to have an operation and six weeks from the operation date you're allowed to fly. And so I booked my ticket for exactly six weeks from that day, and I got on a plane on my own. I had no idea what was going to happen here. And I'm not talented at sex, so I couldn't be a porn star. It's just not the thing that's great about me.

What was your favorite movie growing up?

My favorite movie growing up was The Truman Show. I think it's a perfect film. I think it was so ahead of its time and such bizarre concept that ended up, sort of a bit coming true.

Do you watch reality shows?

I don't love reality shows but I'm fascinated with how much other people love reality shows, and that we sit there not living our lives but watching other people sort of live theirs. I don't even know what it says about us, but our obsession with it and how much those people mean to us; it's so strange. And I think it's probably my own certainty that I would become obsessed that makes me not participate in them. I do have big plans to get into The Bachelorette. I've been assured by everyone that it is the finest entertainment on television. Sorry, Scorsese, you're out. The Bachelorette's in.

What was your favorite birthday party?

Oh, I've never had a birthday party. My family tried to throw one for me when I was ten and no one came. I was just bad at making friends. I was very bully-able and very socially inept and constantly bullied as a child and then as a teenager. And then a little bit in my twenties. As a child, I was very chubby, and I was also Pakistani, at a time when England didn't love Pakistanis. I'm half Pakistani and part Indian, and I was also came from a poor background. And I came from a broken home and I was also mostly deaf until I was about twelve years old. And so I think those things inhibit your social skills and you miss a lot. And I was home sick a lot, and also I couldn't participate in a lot of learning because of the fact my hearing was gone for most of my childhood.

How did it come back?

I had an operation when I was twelve. A man called Dr. Valentine, I still remember his name, performed a new operation on my ear in which he sort of replaced my eardrum. I have partial hearing now, I can hear enough. It can be quite lonely at times, not being able to hear. And I go through periods of it still becoming worse and worse as I get older, but it's also made me a very observant person and I think it's contributed to my emotional intelligence and my ability to perceive other peoples needs. And I think it's made me a good friend. Still a bad shag but a good friend.

Where was your first kiss?

I was twenty-one, because no one was attracted to me when I was younger, ever. I was so much taller than all the boys, and I had very broad shoulders. In fact, this is so upsetting but it's 100% true: When I was younger, I grew up in the days of MSN which is instant messaging. The millennials might not know. I grew up at this time where other girls at school who were popular, who I wanted to like me, they would get me because I was so tomboy-ish and I was into the same stuff that boys were because I had an older brother who I was very close with. They would get me to write messages to boys that they fancied from other schools. And I would develop a relationship with the boy over instant messenger, but they'd never, ever know it was me, and they'd walk right past me at parties not knowing that I was the girl that they had everything in common with, and I was the girl that they loved. My actual teen years was desperately looking for love, and dreaming of love all of the time. And just waiting for either Hugh Grant or Will Smith to scoop me up into their arms and kiss me but they never did.

My friend took pity on me when I was twenty-one. Because everyone on my twenty-first birthday, the film The 40 Year Old Virgin had just come out and everyone that I knew gave me a copy of that film, so I had twenty five copies of The 40 Year Old Virgin. And they were all sure that I would never do it. And a friend of mine finally kissed me on a bench outside a bus stop and it was the best. And he was such a good kisser. I've heard so many horror stories about people's first kiss but I think actually doing it at twenty-one is the key. I recommend that to all the kids.

Who do you have a crush on now?

I love funny men. Hilarity is the journey to my vagina. Jim Carrey was also a really big crush of mine. Like, I have so many crushes. This is so gross, but I might genuinely fancy my boyfriend more than I fancy anyone else which has never happened to me before. But let's think. It's so scary because I might meet them. I met Jim Carrey at the Golden Globes and almost died. Who do I fancy now? Shit. Oh no, am I dead inside? Am I dead below the waist?