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Kirby Howell-Baptiste is in a good place — and not just the show. In 2018, the 31-year-old London native was virtually impossible to miss if you had a television, achieving a feat that no one else in Hollywood could claim: simultaneously costarring on three of the year’s most acclaimed shows.
“It’s quite surreal now when I look back,” she says of appearing on three Golden Globe- and Emmy-nominated series — the BBC America thriller Killing Eve, the HBO hitman dramedy Barry, and NBC’s philosophically bent sitcom The Good Place. “There was no thought in my mind that I was strategically going to be on the best shows. I was picking roles that I would enjoy playing and watching.”
To audiences, it may seem like Howell-Baptiste came out of nowhere to dominate their TV screens, but she dismisses the notion of overnight success. “There’s years and years of hard work, rejection, and gritting your teeth that has come before the final product, which is getting to be on cool shows!”
Raised in London, where she was active in the theater, Howell-Baptiste moved to Los Angeles in 2011, not out of ambition, but for a change of pace. “It wasn’t like how most Brits move here when they have a job,” she says with a laugh. “It was more like going on an adventure than a big life decision for my career. Like, ‘Oh, you’re moving to L.A.? I’ll come with you!'” She secured work in commercials and student films, eventually finding a home at the Upright Citizens Brigade. “My first costar was really UCB in a way,” says Howell-Baptiste of the improv and sketch training center. UCB would open the door for appearances on Comedy Bang! Bang! and her first big break: a guest spot on Showtime’s House of Lies opposite future Good Place costar Kristen Bell.
That small role, and a few bigger ones on ABC’s Downward Dog and Netflix’s Love, paved the way for Howell-Baptiste’s monster 2018. On Killing Eve, she provided comic relief as Eve’s (Sandra Oh) assistant Elena, while over on Barry, her character Sasha is part of Hollywood’s deadliest acting class. And most recently, she charmed on The Good Place as Chidi’s (William Jackson Harper) love interest Simone, who returned in the season 3 finale, setting up a gut-wrenching (and game-changing) twist.
“With Killing Eve and Barry, I’m in the first season of those shows, so it was much more of a surprise of what they would be,” she says. “But The Good Place [opportunity] was so exciting. I remember not thinking I was going to get the role but just being so happy that I got to audition, because it was — and still is — one of my favorite shows.”
Not only did she get the role, but she will be back for season 4 — and that’s all she knows about what is to come on the super-secretive series. She’s also tight-lipped when it comes to her future on Killing Eve, which is back on April 7. Thankfully, Howell-Baptiste can talk about Barry, promising that season 2 (premiering Sunday) will provide more of a glimpse into the lives of the students away from acting class. “You get to see the characters come into themselves a little bit more,” she teases.
Despite juggling that trio of high-profile shows, she has already landed two more: CBS All Access’ Why Women Kill and Hulu’s upcoming Veronica Mars revival, which again reunites her with Bell, who vouched for Howell-Baptiste when approached by the producers. “I told them the truth, which is that Kirby brings something special to every scene, that she would elevate our show tenfold, and that we’d be lucky to have her,” shares Bell. “Kirby is the perfect scene partner. She is very good at staying present as an actor — listening and reacting in a natural way. She’s incredibly prepared and professional, yet she doesn’t take herself too seriously. She is genuinely fun to be around and a hell of an improviser.”
On the cult favorite, Howell-Baptiste will play the “really cool” and “badass” Nicole Malloy opposite Bell’s spunky private eye. “It’s exciting for me to be a part of this thing that so many people already know and love,” she says. “It’s rare that you get to be part of a show that has such history.”
With her plate plenty full moving forward, Howell-Baptiste is fortunate to be in a position to be more selective about the roles for which she auditions and chooses to accept, while also eyeing the opportunity to do some writing of her own. “We all have stories to tell,” she says. “We’re in a really exciting time right now of hearing a lot more interesting stories, so I want to continue to be a part of that. I get to do the thing that I’ve always wanted to do, and that’s the coolest feeling in the world.”