New Faces: Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Television’s Secret Weapon

Meet the star of Barry, Killing Eve, The Good Place, and the upcoming Veronica Mars revival.

Newport Beach Film Festival UK Honours Event
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Whether you’re aware of it or not, a ton of your favorite TV stars got their start at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, the famed improv troupe , theater and school with outposts in New York and LA. SNL‘s Kate McKinnon is a UPC alum, as is Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s Ellie Kemper, Legion‘s Aubrey Plaza, and Atlanta‘s Donald Glover, to name but a few. And now comes Kirby Howell-Baptiste, with roles on not one, but three current TV hits: Barry, Killing Eve, and The Good Place.

“It felt like getting to be a kid and have fun and mess around,” Howell-Baptiste said of her first UCB class, recommended to her by a co-worker at the Los Angeles cafe where she was waitressing at the time. “I had always skewed slightly more comedic and when I started at UCB, it just clicked.”

That’s an understatement. In addition to finding herself as a performer at UCB, Howell-Baptiste quickly found a booming television career. “My first co-starring role was on Comedy Bang Bang, which Scott Aukerman and a bunch of other UCB people produced, wrote and starred in,” said Howell-Baptiste, who had been doing film extra and stage work in her native London before moving to Los Angeles.

Soon after came a guest starring role on Showtime’s House of Lies. “That was the big, notable thing that pushed me forward,” she said. “It was nerve-wracking, though, because it was essentially a monologue. It was a scene with just Kristen Bell and I, but it was completely integral to the episode, so that was wonderful because I was like, ‘This can’t be cut.’”

Flash forward three years, and it seems like you can’t turn on the television without seeing Howell-Baptiste, who was quick to point out that her sudden ubiquitousness is partly coincidence. “It’s been three years of work that all kind of came out at once,” she said. “I’m actually quite selective about the jobs that I pick but it just so happens that these things hit really hard in a very small window of time.”

Of her three current roles, it’s Simone—a neuroscientist who dates William Jackson Harper’s character, Chidi Anagonye, on The Good Place —that’s earned her the greatest fan recognition. “The Good Place fans are so, so nice,” she said. “I never think I’m going to be recognized, because in real life i have a septum piercing and always look kind of messy. But I was at the farmer’s market once in this huge hat and all the sweats I could find and this guy was like, ‘Are you Simone from The Good Place?’ Kudos to him for even finding me in that heap of clothes!”

Later this month, she’ll have a new set of fans to contend with, as she joins the cast of the Veronica Mars revival on Hulu (which, if you’re keeping score, marks her third major collaboration with Kristen Bell). In fact, Howell-Baptiste is a new fan of the show herself. “I don’t know if I missed it or if it didn’t come to England, but I’d never seen it,” she said of the original series, which debuted in 2004. “I watched all three seasons in the span of a month. It’s so, so good.” That intense binge session, she said, made walking onto the Veronica Mars set feel extra surreal. “I’ve had this happen twice in my life. The day that I got to go up to ‘The Good Place,’ I freaked out. I took photos everywhere. It was like I was on a Universal Tour. And it was very similar with Veronica Mars. When I walked into the Mars office, it was so, so cool.”

And she’s confident fans are also going to like what they see.”I’m not too worried,” she said. “We don’t always see this in the world, but for the most part, people are good and happy and want to be excited about things.”