The ‘Good Place’ Cast Tells All – Rolling Stone
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The ‘Good Place’ Cast Tells All

The six series regulars on their mysterious auditions, Season One’s shocking twist, and what they really think about Hollywood legend Ted Danson

Pictured: (l-r) William Jackson Harper as Chidi, Kristen Bell as Eleanor, Manny Jacinto as Jason, Jameela Jamil as Tahani, D'Arcy Carden as Janet, Ted Danson as Michael.

William Jackson Harper, Kristen Bell, Manny Jacinto, Jameela Jamil, D'Arcy Carden and Ted Danson in 'The Good Place.'

Colleen Hayes/NBC

Back in the summer, I spent two days on the set of The Good Place, chatting with the cast and crew about saying goodbye to the wonderfully weird and thoughtful NBC metaphysical comedy. My interviews with the show’s six regular actors — Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, D’Arcy Carden, William Jackson Harper, Manny Jacinto, and Jameela Jamil — were wide-ranging and discursive, covering more ground than we had room for in that feature. Here are some highlights that didn’t make the cut.  

The auditions were one big lie.

Bell and Danson knew what the show was going in. Everyone auditioning for the other four regular roles was kept in the dark until after they were hired. They were given fake script pages, with characters vaguely resembling Janet, Jason, Tahani, and Chidi.

D’Arcy Carden: There was no indication that [my character] was AI or robotic or anything at all. It was a helpful woman who was the operator on a health line. The scene was that somebody was calling her and saying, “My doll is broken. So I’m calling a broken doll hotline and you have to tell me how to fix my doll.” And she was just, like, giving people good advice: “Oh, the eye fell off on your doll? Well, find a button and sew it on.” An unflappable help operator, I guess, is the way I would explain it. And I think it was very smart of them not to include anything that indicated that she was Siri-like, or else whoever auditioned might have played it a little more [robot voice] “I am Janet,” which obviously they didn’t want. The person who auditioned before me was like a 15-year-old boy, and the woman who auditioned after me was like in her sixties. So walking into that audition, I was like, “Oh, boy, I don’t know what this is.”

Manny Jacinto: They gave me two different scenes. One was a scene where I was applying for a job as executive manager of a bank. And I’m just this kid who comes in and gives my resume, and I’m telling them all these ridiculous reasons why I should be the bank manager. And I tell them, “I’m really good at science, I like the sciences.” It was super fun. I remember I couldn’t stop laughing because of it. And then the second scene was me and Pillboi. It wasn’t a scene that we’ve ever seen before. I wish we could have, but it was a ridiculous scene where I had an invention, and he didn’t back me up. And then there was a twist where I started crying, and then I was actually just acting just to make sure that he was backing me up. It was crazy.

Jameela Jamil: I was not an actor. I was a writer at [production company] 3 Arts. And they said, “There’s this audition, they’re looking for an overly tall, annoying Indian woman with an English accent. It’s basically you. Go do the audition.” And I said, “No,” because I thought I wasn’t worthy of being in a Mike Schur project, because I didn’t know how to act. And then I heard Ted Danson was in it and I was like, “Definitely not. I can’t act opposite my hero.” But then I thought, “I get to meet one of my heroes, [creator] Mike Schur, I might as well go for the story.” And I went to audition, somehow got called back, [then] got called back again to improv with actual Mike Schur in my audition for 10 minutes, having never improvised before. He wanted me to do a fake interview to camera as if I was the character, but I didn’t know anything about this character. I didn’t know anything about the show. I didn’t know anything about the storyline or anything. He just gave me three clues that she was a socialite and just made me do an improvised interview into the camera as if it was my big panorama moment. So I did something about Lady Diana and did an improv for 10 minutes. I blacked out through the whole thing and somehow got a call a week later saying I had the job.

William Jackson Harper: I was told I was going to be auditioning for a guy named Chris who works for the Innocence Project and he meets Eleanor at a conference and then he finds out that she’s not supposed to be there, and that’s all I knew about the show. I had no idea what the premise of the show was at all until I got the part.

Season One’s big twist was kept under wraps, too.

The secrecy continued throughout the first season, where only a select group of people — Schur, Bell, Danson, the writing staff, a few producers, and Schur consultants including Leftovers showrunner Damon Lindelof and Amy Poehler — knew that Michael was really a demon and that the humans were all trapped in the Bad Place. The secret had to be kept from the other four actors, and from the crew — including most of the directors who were trying to get Danson to deliver a performance when they didn’t understand what he was really playing. This created complications for those in on the secret and those not.

Ted Danson as Michael. Photo by Colleen Hayes/NBC

Danson as Michael. Photo by Colleen Hayes/NBC

Ted Danson: I was with a friend, John Krasinski, who was about to go do some fabulous movie, and I wanted to impress my friend so, I said, “Well, I’m working with Mike Schur. You’ve worked with Mike on The Office.” “Oh, love him, love him, he’s great. What’s it about?” “Well, it takes place in the afterlife and I kind of play a middle management guy in the Good Place.” And I could see his eyes go, “Oh, The Office but in heaven, got it.” I went, “No, motherfucker, no. See, what happens is, I’m not really batting for the Good Place, I’m batting for the Bad Place. I’m a demon.” And he went, “Oh, wow, that’s amazing.” I’m like, “Yeah, there you go.” And walked off feeling better.

So I did not keep the secret very well.

Kristen Bell: I didn’t think too much about it as a secret I was keeping, because my character didn’t need to know. But she knew she didn’t belong. So, she already knew something was fucked. So, if I thought I was supposed to be in the Good Place, maybe I shouldn’t have known the twist. But I think it was kind of beneficial, especially because Eleanor needed to be so suspicious towards the end.

I didn’t think about it that often, to be honest. I didn’t think I was withholding something. I was falling in love with [the cast], obviously, and we were becoming close. But I was almost more like excited and had anticipation as to when they would read the script, or how Mike would drop that bomb. And I had a very easy time keeping the secret. I mean, Ted told everybody. He didn’t tell the cast here, but he told all our mutual friends. I’m shocked I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t even tell my husband.

Carden: When they say, “We’re not telling you the ending,” then you start going, “Well, why, what is it? It’s got to be something if you’re not telling us.” Will and I would do the thing where you’re, ”OK, what if it’s this, what if it’s this?” And I remember one day we both were like, “Let’s stop doing this. If they don’t want to tell us, there’s probably a reason. Let’s do what they’re asking us, which is basically focus on each individual episode and not look into the future. They haven’t led us astray yet, so let’s just believe Mike Schur when he says, ‘I have a plan.’” So that was pretty early on. Then when it came time to find out, it was especially surprising because I had almost let go of that thing. I thought we would find out when I got the episode.

Jamil: I knew something was coming, but I thought it was going to be way more basic than it ended up being. It really caught me off guard, and I’d really been thinking about it. I knew something was going to happen, but I could never have imagined that’s what it was. Especially because Ted had played Michael so sweetly, I didn’t fathom it.

Jacinto: We all had our speculation and our theories about what would happen, but we had no idea. I was like, Maybe we go back to earth. A lot of the theories were, “We’re going to go back to earth and it’s going to become like Parks and Rec, and we’re just going to reset every day, and it’s not going to be serialized anymore.” My main theory was that Ted and Kristen were so big, they’re these legends on TV right now and they don’t have time to be playing with us. So I thought that they were going to leave at the end of this season and it was just going to be the four babies running the show. That was my speculation. They were going to pass the baton. I was so wrong.

Ted Danson is as forking fantastic as you think he is.

The cast all speak warmly of one another, but the affection is even more palpable whenever the TV legend’s name comes up.

Carden: In one of the first few episodes, in front of a crowd of extras, I had to do my approximation of human crying in this weird, loud moan. And I remember thinking, “I’m a little embarrassed to do this right now in front of this crowd of people, not to mention Ted Danson. What the hell am I doing right now?” But we turned to each other one take and grabbed each other’s hands, and did the cry up into the heavens together. It was so refreshing, his way of being like, “I got your back. I’m here with you. I’ll go where you go.” And from that moment on, you forget that he is the legendary Ted Danson. You’re just like, “Oh, this is just the best scene partner I could possibly have.” He’s just down for whatever. He loves to play. So whatever you give him, he will return it. It’s incredible.

Harper: He’s just like a big kid, you know? He’s just a giddy, giddy, fun, sweet, funny, incredibly smart man. And whenever me and Manny are doing some weird stretch or dance or something on set just to pass the time, Ted will be sitting there and he’ll be like, “Oh, man, now I want to do it too.” And then he’ll go and he’ll do it. There’s a reason that people like him continue to work. Because you want to come to work and enjoy it. You want to come to work and like the people that you’re with. And that’s something that, he sets the tone in so many ways. He’s like, “I’m Ted fucking Damson but we’re all going to be fucking ladies and gentlemen here. And we’re going to treat each other with respect, and we’re going to laugh. We’re going to make jokes, and we’re going to be kind.” And you feel like you’re in good hands. You’re not tiptoeing around something when you’re dealing with him. It’s great.

Pictured: (l-r) D'Arcy Carden as Janet, Jameela Jamil as Tahani. Photo by Colleen Hayes/NBC

Carden and Jamil. Photo by Colleen Hayes/NBC

Jamil: When I was 17, I broke my back in a car accident, and I had to lie down in a bed for a year and a half, pretty much on my own because all of the people who were my age were off at university. I used to watch NBC shows all day, every day. So to come full circle to 13 years later, being in one of those NBC half-hour comedies with Ted Danson, when he was the person I was watching 13 years ago… It was too much for me to cope with. My tiny little brain just couldn’t handle it. We shot the final scene of Season One last, and he turned into Michael the demon and it was the most astonishing acting. It was amazing onscreen, but to be in the room, it was like a spiritual experience, because he just transformed and became so scary and creepy. And this is a man that we genuinely love too, and we’re now afraid of. And I said my goodbyes to everyone. And it wasn’t until I was driving on the golf buggy offset that it suddenly hit me what I’ve just been a part of, and I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed so much that by the time I got to my boyfriend’s car, he thought I’d been fired because I looked devastated. But it wasn’t that I was devastated. It was just, I think if I’d processed what I was doing I wouldn’t have been able to deliver.

Bell: He’s so much fun to be around. He’s just joy personified. He’s witty, and he’s happy. And he’s happy from the moment he wakes up until about 3:00 p.m. and then he gets sleepy. And that’s when we try to wrap up. He needs a lunchtime nap. Everything about him is cute. And I don’t mean to say that to — what would be the word? — emasculate him or something. I just, when I see him, I just want to run into his arms and hug him. I have a teddy bear feeling about him. He’s just fucking fun. He’s with it, we giggle all the time together. He’s kind and respectful to every person that has ever crossed his path, whether it was walking down the street or working with him for four years. He deserves the title of National Treasure.

…But he did not appreciate having to channel his iconic Cheers character in Season Two.

Mike Schur is an unabashed fan of Danson’s biggest TV hit, Cheers, and in the Season Two finale, wrote a scene where Michael would have to be behind a bar, cutting a lime wedge just like Sam always used to. Danson wasn’t wild about revisiting his past, but not for the reason you’d think.

Danson: Sucked. Hated it. My comfort level of playing Sam Malone was slow in coming. First year, when I saw the pilot, I said, “[Director] Jimmy Burrows, can I talk to you for a minute?” and started crying about how bad I was in the pilot. I was never a bar guy. I never picked up a woman at a bar. If a woman kissed me, we got married. I was not that guy. So it just panicked me on some level I think once I was on the air, and people were saying, “Ah, you suck” or whatever. People started having opinions of me, then it was like, “Well, what the hell. I might as well do it for myself and have fun. So kiss my ass.” And that allowed me into the arrogance of the bartender and the relief pitcher. But it took me a long time. So whenever I have to go back to that after not having done it in so long — evenings where we’re raising money somewhere and they say, “Ted, get behind the bar!” — it panics me. I hate it. Hate it. So I did not enjoy it. It made me sweat. It made me feel like I didn’t know what to do and I thought the scene probably sucked. It didn’t. But it felt like it.

 

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