After years of success as an actor in supporting roles, Manny Jacinto has taken the leap to leading man.

The Filipino-Canadian actor achieved breakout success on the hugely popular sitcom A Good Place as the loveable Jason Mendoza. Following the acclaim from the sitcom, he went on to land roles in Nine Perfect Strangers alongside Nicole Kidman, Bad Times at the El Royale and even a brief appearance in Top Gun: Maverick.

These roles provided Jacinto with a huge career launchpad for which he’s eternally grateful. However, he had always yearned for something more and wanted to play characters that “push the narrative” rather than just support it. His wish was granted as he landed a dream role in the upcoming Star Wars series, The Acolyte. It was a surreal moment as he went from a struggling jobbing acting to being front and centre in a huge franchise in less than a decade.

“It’s almost like I couldn’t acknowledge that it happened among my peers,” says Jacinto. “There’s so many secrets and twists and turns, I didn’t want to spoil anything.” 

In The Acolyte, Jacinto plays the character of Qimir, a former smuggler who makes his living as a trader at an apothecary on the planet of Olega. The new series tells the story of a former Padawan [Amandla Stenburg], who reunites with her Jedi Master [Lee Jung Jae] to investigate a series of crimes, but the forces they confront are more sinister than they ever anticipated.

We sat down with Manny Jacinto to discuss the mixed response to the series, the pressures of Star Wars, and growing Asian representation in Hollywood.

SM: The Acolyte has been out for a few days now, what has the response been like?

MJ: With every Star Wars project, I feel like there’s a lot of love but also a lot of the other stuff. You have to try to block out the noise. Yesterday, I spent time with my wife and my sister-in-law and we just went to the park with our dog. I just needed some quiet time and not worry about what people are saying. 

We are super proud of it. I was messaging Leslye [Headland] yesterday and she asked how I was feeling. I just said I was so proud of what we made and that we did it our way, and that’s all that matters at the end of the day.

SM: It feels like there is so much added pressure with Star Wars that you don’t get with other roles.

MJ: That’s the beauty of starting something new, but it’s such a tough thing. With Star Wars, there’s so much layered expectations from generations prior. At the end of the day, it’s Star Wars – it’s meant for teens or younger adults.

It’s tough because as you get older, your taste for things gets more sophisticated so we [project] those tastes onto things that are meant to be enjoyed by a more youthful audience. Adults suck! Don’t grow up and keep that childlike imagination.

SM: You weren’t able to read a script during the casting, how did that feel?

MJ: I was fortunate because it wasn’t your typical casting process. I had a meeting with the casting director, Carmen Cuba, and after that went well, the team reached out to Leslye and they got us to meet in Los Angeles. We talked about the character that she was thinking of, this chaotic, low-status character, and how you would tackle it and the arc. We got along really well and brainstormed ideas. 

I had to leave a little earlier than expected and I couldn’t stop thinking about this character. So, I wrote an email and [outlined] seven different approaches to this character, and she appreciated my enthusiasm. The next thing you know, she called me up to be part of it.

Manny Jacinto

SM: I’ve also read you were inspired by Han Solo, Jack Sparrow and Buster Keaton for Qimir’s movement. It sounds like there’s so much work and preparation before the cameras even start rolling?

MJ: I come from a dance background so the physicality of characters inform my choices a lot. But I also studied engineering, so I have a really analytical brain at times. It benefits me because it’s good to combine both.

There’s the part where I am very analytical about things and I dissect the boring acting stuff like objectives, character relationships, settings, motivations etc. Then, you get to the fun part of letting it all go and exploring the movement and the voice. Trying things out. 

I think you need both. You need the analytical / problem solving aspect of creating characters, and then you need the artistic and physical aspect of letting go and trusting the work and the process. 

SM: Apart from the Star Wars factor, what excited you about this project?

MJ: I felt like I was more so pushing the narrative than supporting it with this character. I was also a big fan of Leslye. Her demeanour and her approach to storytelling is so fresh and very specific.

I could tell she was incredibly passionate about The Acolyte. The projects where the showrunner or director is just filled with passion – and it’s not just about money – they end up doing so much better because it’s like their baby.

It’s something they’ve been thinking about and exploring for years. For Leslye, it’s a dream come true for her. To be able to help her manifest that was a huge honour. 

SM: It must have been difficult to have a project you were really passionate about but not being able to tell people. Who were you allowed to talk to about the show?

MJ: I could share bits with my wife. When I was shooting the show, I was in London, so I was primarily with the cast and crew, so I was around them to talk about it. But outside of that, I couldn’t really talk to anyone. 

When I finished shooting and coming back to a “normal lifestyle”, I felt like I was a civilian again. I wasn’t part of this world any more and I had to learn how to socialise and be normal after this experience because I couldn’t even talk about it. It’s almost like I couldn’t acknowledge that it happened among my peers as there’s so many secrets and twists and turns, I didn’t want to spoil anything. 

Manny Jacinto

SM: Did Top Gun: Maverick and the fanfare surrounding that movie help prepare you in any way? You were in the second- biggest film of 2022…

MJ: I’ve been fortunate to be part of projects that give you a taste of the pressure and the fandom. That prepares you for something like this. 

The biggest thing I got for that is it comes in waves and that it’ll pass. I remind myself that right now it feels like a lot of pressure and a lot of eyes on the show or on me but it’s going to go away. In time, all things must pass.

SM:I saw the picture of your family at the LA premiere. That must have been a full-circle moment because when you started out as an actor, you said to them, “just give me five more years.” And now here you are with a big role in a Star Wars series…

MJ: It was such a joy to be able to bring my parents to a red carpet. I would never have imagined as a kid that I would be there, let alone have it be my project and my parents be there. I feel very fortunate because as I get older, they get older and we spend less and less time together as I get more busy. It was very important to me for them to be there. 

I owe it all to them because they trusted in the process and they let me explore this avenue. I went to school for engineering and it was going to be a completely different path, but they trusted that I was passionate about something and they supported me the whole way. It was a special moment getting to share [this experience] with them.

My dad hasn’t been in a suit for about ten years, so for him to put on a suit again and look so sharp, it was such a joy. 

SM: You’ve said previously that you left Vancouver for Los Angeles because you were frustrated by the lack of prominent Asian actors in the city. Has this changed over the years? 

MJ: When I said that statement it was during a time where I found that a lot of Asian male actors in Canada were going off to China or their home countries to pursue acting there and try to make it big. I don’t know whether it’s my contrarian thinking or my stubbornness but I felt like I needed to make it out here.

I knew if I went back to the Philippines and found success, I would always wonder if I could find success in Hollywood or North America. So I decided to stick around a year and do my best here.

As the years have passed and as stories have begun to explore different cultures and backgrounds, more Asian actors have been able to come up. It’s a slowly but surely situation.

Manny Jacinto

SM: Did you notice a big cultural shift when you moved from Canada to LA?

MJ: I definitely noticed there was a greater community here for Asian actors. There’s a more concerted effort to collaborate and support one another but that comes with the fact there’s a greater pool of people. There’s more fish in the pond out here.

It’s great that we continuously have support in LA with organisations like Gold House and CAPE to really help us push for more diverse stories. 

SM: Your breakout role was A Good Place… How much did this change the trajectory of your career?

MJ: It changed my life and completely shifted the trajectory of my career. It really opened doors, not only for me as an actor, but it opened this can of worms in being able to see Asian males differently. 

It shifted away from that model minority or martial arts aspect, I was able to give the world a big dummy!

That character really resonated with people and made a lot of people laugh. It was a character that made quite an impact. 

SM: This was your first comedic role, everything before was predominantly drama. Up until that point, did you see yourself as more of a dramatic actor or was it all about opportunities?

MJ: When you’re starting out as an actor, you take the opportunities as they come. But, when I made the move to LA, I knew I needed to work on my comedic chops and really understand comedy and acting. 

I would never consider myself a comedian but I knew and appreciated a lot of shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I had a deep appreciation for those comedies and I knew that was something I needed to work on and it was a tool that needed refining.

I immediately took comedic acting classes to explore that and read the books and dove in. Funny enough, the opportunity came where I was able to use the tools that I learnt and I was ready for that opportunity. 

View on Instagram

SM: Following A Good Place, you starred in Nine Perfect Strangers alongside Nicole Kidman and briefly featured in Top Gun: Maverick with Tom Cruise… It might be cliché but is it true that these huge stars have a special aura when they’re on set?

MJ: Yeah, absolutely. Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, these are icons. They come from a time when Hollywood celebrities had such a high peak because we didn’t have so much to consume. 

They’ve developed this iconic aura about them. You can’t help but have that preconceived notion when you work with them. But, as you talk to them more, you find that they’re more generous and open, you find out they’re just regular people.

That’s what is so special about them; they are able to be both. They have the public persona and carry themselves as icons, but as you get to know them they are just great human beings. 

SM: What’s next for Manny Jacinto? What can we expect to see from you? 

MJ: I am so lucky to have a career where I have worked a decent amount. I have noticed that a lot of these characters are very much supporting characters. They are definitely fun to play but more so supporting roles. 

Moving forward, and fingers crossed as with The Acolyte, I can jump into more leadership roles and take on characters that are pushing the narrative rather than supporting it. I would love to be able to do that – and that’s what we are moving towards after The Acolyte.  

SM: Will you need a different approach to acting when you take on the roles that push the narrative, rather than support it? 

MJ: I think it all depends on the project. The great thing about supporting roles is they can be good scene stealers, whereas the leads can often be the ‘straight man’.

It’s still a learning curve for me, there’s so much for me to explore in that space. Maybe we can have a conversation in five years and I can be more eloquent in my response. If anything, I think there will be more responsibility and pressure – but I’ll let you know five years down the road. 

The Acolyte is streaming now on Disney+