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.
Natasha Lyonne, Michelle Williams, Billy Porter, and More Stars Bringing Television To New Heights
The working title of our show was not Fosse/Verdon—it was just Fosse, but then the producers got smart. They realized that Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse were romantic and creative partners who remained entangled until the end of his life. It was the right time, in 2019, to make a show about a partnership. It was also the first time that I’ve had pay parity with a male costar and equal space to voice my thoughts. I’d never experienced anything like it. Since I felt completely supported, I could jump higher and take more risks.
You started acting as a child. Did you find that people treated you—and continue to treat you—in a diminishing way?
Absolutely. When you’re physically small, when men hug you, they pick you up off the floor. That doesn’t happen anymore.
What’s your favorite Fosse musical?
Cabaret. When I performed the song “Maybe This Time” [on Broadway, in 2014], it never didn’t get to me. I’m sad that I’ll never sing it again. Musicals are deep in me: When I did a tap dance for Fosse/Verdon, I realized it returned me to this very primal love, before anything negative was associated with acting, work, or identity. I felt like I was a little girl. It was a genuine moment of joy.
Williams wears a Louis Vuitton turtleneck, skirt, belt, and boots.
I started out doing stand-up comedy at U.C. Davis and then moved to San Francisco, which has one of the most interesting comedy scenes in the country. In comedy, we’re all mutants and we share these different superpowers. Early on, I learned that humor is a way to break tension. It’s a very powerful tool.
Is it easier for you to be autobiographical or political?
I came from The Daily Show, where you are steeped in politics and the news. It’s your life, day in and day out. But for me, as an Indian-American Muslim, I always felt this insider/outsider relationship with America. And because of my background, at this moment in time, the personal and the political merged.
Do your parents worry when your show takes on Saudi Arabia?
Sure. That episode was banned in Saudi Arabia, and my parents said, “We don’t want you causing international outrage and controversy.” They said, “Please just tell embarrassing stories about your childhood.”
Minhaj wears a Prada jacket, pants, and belt; Jil Sander shirt; Shinola bracelet; Dior Men boots.
I honestly didn’t know much about witchcraft before starting on Sabrina, but now I realize it’s just dudes being scared of women and their power.
You were a child on Mad Men. Have you finally seen the episodes you were too young to watch?
I have now seen Mad Men. I can say I’m a fan, but it’s weird to watch your 6-year-old self. Oftentimes, while I was watching, I’d forget that I was in the show. So many things happened to Sally on Mad Men before they happened in my real life: My first kiss was onscreen; I got my TV period before my real period. I was prepared for everything because on Mad Men Sally was a little ahead of me. She taught me the ways of the world.
Shipka wears a Chloé dress; Isabel Marant belt; Cartier ring.
Tell me about kissing Chris Hemsworth.
I was on the shoot for Bad Times at the El Royale, and I still hadn’t met Chris. He played a cult leader, and I was his devoted follower. I knew he was on set, and I wanted to meet him because we had a kissing scene that day. At the last minute—we still hadn’t met—we were about to make out, and I’m like, “How many kids do you have? Oh, you have three kids,” and then—“Action!” He was really nice, but it was super-awkward, and they ended up dropping the scene from the film.
You cut your hair very short for Devs. Is androgyny part of your character?
Yes. The show has to do with a tech company. Secret stuff. My character is really smart and knows quantum physics, so that’s kind of like a superpower. I was supposed to shave my head for the part, and I was always down for that. I think I’m going to shave it all off anyway: I’m so into being bald.
Spaeny wears a Bottega Veneta sweater; Sophie Buhai earrings; Tiffany & Co. ring (right hand); Cartier ring (left hand); Manolo Blahnik shoes.
My first part was in a film called Complicity. I played a boy who gets raped and then kills his rapist. I was 11 years old. It was baptism by fire.
In your TV projects, you seem to undergo torture or get killed a lot.
I love a good death, and I’ve had a few really good demises in my time. On Game of Thrones, I was killed at the Red Wedding. That was my favorite death: full of arrows and then they cut off my head. I was covered in blood and my limbs were hanging off.
Do you have any surprising secret skills?
No. I went to drama school to learn all those skills, and then I was like, “I ain’t going to sing or dance in films, so I’m not going to singing or dancing class. And I can’t be bothered with the fencing class, because I won’t be fencing.” Cut to: I have been sword fighting for half my life and now I’ve had to sing and dance. This is why you should go to class. Kids: Stay in school.
Madden wears a Givenchy jacket; Calvin Klein Underwear tank top; Dries Van Noten pants; Shinola bracelet; Dior Men shoes.
My agent called me and said, “They’re casting a show about a women’s wrestling television program in the ’80s.” I said, “I want that job!” However, I very quickly learned that the producers didn’t think I was right.
Why? Too petite?
Yes, but I’ve secretly been strength training for years. After four auditions, I wore them down. And yes, I’ve learned how to wrestle and throw women across a ring. It’s incredibly empowering.
Do you ever practice by beating up your husband?
I don’t ever beat up my husband. I’ve been known to wrestle our cat a little bit. He doesn’t love it.
Brie wears a Givenchy sweater and skirt; Balenciaga boots.
When I was 12, I was washing dishes at home and the Tony Awards came on. It was the year Dreamgirls was up for best musical and Jennifer Holliday sang “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” I was in shock: all of these beautiful black people in high fashion with gowns and hair and makeup. At that time, you didn’t see a lot of people of color on television, dripping in style. And Jennifer Holliday sang like I knew how to sing in church, except she was on television! The connection of money, style, and television launched me into this space where I thought, That’s what I’m going to do. I can be that.
How did Pose come about?
They called me in to play the dance teacher. I was like, “Well, this ain’t quite the role I want, but…” I told them at the audition that I felt I’d lived through the world of Pose. I said, “Wouldn’t you need a father figure in the ballroom world?” Because one of the things that’s so powerful about Paris Is Burning [which influenced Pose] is that it’s about a marginalized group of people who had nothing in a world where people were dying of AIDS. And they chose life anyway. I wanted to tell that story.
Porter wears a Thom Browne dress and shoes; Wolford fishnets; his own jewelry.
I moved to California from London because I wanted to be happy. My very first audition was for The Good Place, and it went great: I am now on a show opposite Ted Danson, my hero. As a young girl, I always fancied Ted! Is that creepy? Am I creepy? But, my Lord, he’s still so hot.
Were you on social media before the show began? You currently have 2 million followers on Instagram.
The Good Place asked me to join Instagram, and now I use it to scream at people [laughs]. In all honesty, I think I’ve found a genuine community of people online who are tired of being erased. I understand being challenged: The bravest thing I’ve done in my life was move to Los Angeles, even though I was told I was too old, too fat, and too ethnic. I had no contacts and no friends in L.A. But I got on a plane anyway and flew to California to have an acting career. This had to work: I’m not talented at sex, so I couldn’t be a porn star. And I have no upper body strength, so pole dancing was out.
Jamil wears a Sacai coat; Prada boots.
For my sweet 16 party, my parents knew I loved The Book of Mormon so they had Andrew Rannells, who was one of the leads in the show, come and perform. It was literally the best moment of my life.
You were named after the kooky octogenarian in the film Harold and Maude.
Yes. As a joke, my dad started calling me Maude when my mom was pregnant, and it stuck. I do love that movie.
Do you ever sing any of the Cat Stevens songs from that film when you do karaoke?
No. I sing “The Confrontation” from Les Misérables. I love musical theater. The first album I really listened to was Hairspray, and the first thing I auditioned for was Grease. I was Jan, one of the Pink Ladies. I got to sing in a musical, and I had never been happier.
Apatow wears a Dior jacket, top, and pants; Cartier earrings, necklace, and ring.
I had not listened to the Dirty John podcast, but I heard friends talking about it obsessively. Two days later, my agent asked me, “Have you heard of Dirty John?” That was exciting to me: I love things that are creating conversation in the culture.
Your character, Debra, is both intriguing and infuriating.
I never judge my characters. I looked at playing Debra as almost a women’s studies project. She was self-made and had raised a family by herself, but she had this Achilles’ heel: She needed to have a man in her life. As horrible as it got for Debra, she thought she could handle and change that man. As the show goes on, she becomes more and more aware. We reflected that awakening in her clothing: In the beginning, she wears pink and light colors. And as the situation with John becomes more and more extreme, we go darker. By the end, she’s in black.
You were in a happier marriage on Friday Night Lights.
Kyle Chandler [who played Coach Taylor, her character’s husband] and I really fought for that marriage. Right from the beginning, we said to the writers, “Don’t make one of us go and have an affair.” I think the audience really appreciated that.
Growing up, who did you have a crush on?
Tom Selleck in Magnum, P.I. The short shorts. The floral shirts. He was a sexual fantasy. I actually auditioned to play his wife in something. I remember thinking, No, Tom Selleck was a grown-up when I was a little girl. So that didn’t happen.
Britton wears a Stella McCartney shirt; Loro Piana skirt; Bulgari earrings; Tiffany & Co. wrap bracelet worn as necklace; Cartier ring; Tom Ford belt; Balenciaga shoes.
In The Loudest Voice, which is about Roger Ailes and Fox News, I play Laurie Luhn, who was a booker for the shows. To play her, we worked with very orange makeup and a look that was curated by Roger Ailes: the tight, the bright, the overly revealing. And legs. Lots of legs. There were no desks at Fox News, because with a desk, I suspect, you could get up to a lot of trouble underneath.
Do you have a secret skill?
I’m good with animals. When I was young, I wanted to live among animals. I liked sloths the best: That’s the animal I aspire to be like. A sloth just owns it. There’s great power in stillness.
Wallis wears an Isabel Marant top; Hermès skirt; Dior belt; Tiffany & Co. bracelet.
I am from Omaha, Nebraska, and I wanted to move to New York since the third grade. I had never been to New York, but I knew all about the city from watching television. I just knew New York was where I belonged. Later, I learned that most of those New York City shows like Friends and Seinfeld were filmed in Los Angeles. That was a bit of a mind fuck.
Was Girls your first part outside of theater?
No. I had another job playing a headless stripper in Sex and the City 2. It was just me in a Speedo grinding with another guy. On Girls, I played the ex-boyfriend who turned out to be gay and then became Hannah’s [Lena Dunham] best friend. My first nude scene was in season two. Suddenly, I would show up to work and there would just be a pair of underwear on a hanger. I was oddly comfortable with it.
Growing up, who did you have a crush on?
Maxwell Caulfield from Grease 2. He played Michael Carrington. He also played Miles Colby on Dynasty. Every day of my life is a hair tribute to Maxwell Caulfield.
Rannells wears a Dior Men coat and pants; Brioni turtleneck; Givenchy boots.
When I first read the script for You, I was not attracted to Joe, my character. I was like, “Oof—I don’t know.” He’s a villain, and yet he’s also an antihero. He’s seductive, but he’s a murderer. It’s fascinating that people—especially women—are drawn to this guy. The greatest challenge I have is not judging him. I don’t ever think of him as a killer. To him, murder is simply a means to an end.
Did you always want to act?
At the age of eight, I was in The Music Man, and I told my parents, “I want to do this for the rest of my life.” When I was 12, my mom and I went to L.A. and I started working immediately.
Was your first kiss on camera?
No, but starting out so young, you’re always having to display sexuality before you’ve had those experiences. For You, I was tied up in bondage rope for the first and, so far, only time in my life. Look [shows his wrists], I still have rope burn. First time, and it’s on camera.
Badgley wears an Alexander McQueen coat; Boss T-shirt; Jil Sander pants; Sophie Buhai bracelet.
My big childhood claim to mediocre fame is Pee-wee’s Playhouse. I played Opal on that show when I was around 6 years old. I’d already done a bunch of commercials, and they didn’t all air. You want the ads to get on the air if you want to get your imaginary Lamborghini. Sadly, I didn’t get the Lambo.
You always had a smoky voice.
Yes, but thanks to a lifetime of smoking cigarettes—which they recently discovered are actually good for you—my voice has become thicker and deeper over the years.
In Russian Doll, you are asking existential questions.
I am curious about what it means to have a life. I imagined being at death’s door, looking back and asking, “What happened here?” I also recognize that it’s a nice thing to move from a disconnected life to a more connected one.
Who is your cinematic crush?
Recently, I watched Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises, and Mamma mia! My boyfriend, Fred Armisen, was there. I took screen grabs of Viggo’s nude fight scene and told Fred the stills were for research. Usually, when I play this game, I think it’s best to pick dead people—to say, like, “Isn’t Peter Falk a babe on Columbo?” I’m also very disappointed to discover that Idris Elba and I did not get married. I think many women felt the same way.
Lyonne wears a Marni dress; Tiffany & Co. wrap bracelet worn as necklace, and bracelet.
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?