One of the first lines Kirby Howell-Baptiste's character utters on The Good Place might very well have come out of the actress's own mouth at some point. “I freaking love it, you’re so weird! Let’s go!” her empathetic Simone tells William Jackson Harper's anxiety-riddled Chidi, who’s perched, paralyzed with indecision, between the two chairs across from her desk. He’s just asked her, St. John University’s resident neuroscientist, to run him through the school’s MRI machine and tell him why he quite literally almost died of self-doubt. Simone responds with the unfiltered enthusiasm of a brainy golden retriever, eagerly diving into the first wonderfully bizarre opportunity to cross her path.
It’s easy enough to draw a line from Simone’s brand of enthusiastic nuttiness to Howell-Baptiste herself, who also made a huge splash in 2018 with her role on the first season of Killing Eve as Eve Polastri's dedicated assistant. The role—technically comic relief, but played so well that the term feels almost reductive—expertly parried the show’s breakneck psychotic glint. Then came Barry, a show on which Howell-Baptiste satirized the geeky desperation of aspiring L.A. actors-slash-Lululemon-salespeople in Gene Cousineau’s troupe. Her appearance in this year’s Veronica Mars reboot as bad-ass bar owner Nicole saw her enter swinging, punching the lights out of a creepy drunk guy, which is the best televised catharsis you’ll get all year. If you’re sensing a theme here, don’t think too hard about it. Howell-Baptiste swears she’s just looking for great material, and luck has delivered her to the door of expertly written, consistently great TV shows.
Watching Howell-Baptiste in any of her roles is like pulling your head out of the swirling black hellscape that is modern society and emerging into, say, a highly caffeinated afternoon tea with a friend. The actress isn't naive, but she believes that—at least in certain corners of the entertainment world—something good is coming. And she’s the proof. After moving from London to L.A. in 2011, she joined an Upright Citizens Brigade chapter, which is where she met her Good Place and Barry cast mate D’Arcy Carden. By 2016, she’d landed a recurring role on Judd Apatow’s Love, and soon enough, she was involved in some of the most exciting projects TV had to offer. As her new show Why Women Kill, a soapy Marc Cherry melodrama set in three different decades (her ‘60s and ‘80s co-stars are, respectively, Ginnifer Goodwin and Lucy Liu) races towards its finale, she’s prepping for her role in Disney's ‘70s punk-themed 101 Dalmatians prequel.
The best part? She’s returned to The Good Place for its fourth and final season, playing a totally deranged Simone, so shocked by the afterlife that she’s convinced her own brain is making it up.
Howell-Baptiste spoke to GQ from a top-secret project she's filming in the U.K. to fill us in on how she walks the line between comedy and drama while working with some of the most legendary actors around—and fulfilling her civic duty of being weird on TV.
GQ: I should probably congratulate you on officially entering the afterlife this season.
Kirby Howell-Baptiste: Thank you! It’s very exciting.
What drew you to the role of Simone when you first auditioned?
One, I was a huge fan of The Good Place. I watched since Season One. So you have Chidi, who is very freaked out by the things he doesn't understand, and that causes him great anxiety. And then they created this character who is similar to him in so many ways, but also completely opposite to him in that the unknown doesn't frighten her. The unknown actually excites her. That's a really fun character to play because we're in a time where a lot of things are confusing, but it's also quite exciting because it means that we're hopefully on the precipice of a lot of change.
It's funny you say that, because this season is the first time we see Simone get totally thrown off course when she encounters something she doesn’t understand.
She's someone who's believed in science her whole life, and the pieces just don't add up to her. But she's still still really chipper about it. She's not just gonna blindly accept that she's in the Good Place, but that doesn't put a damper on how much she can enjoy it. In her mind it's like, Oh, this is just another wonderful thing that my brain can do! Why not just live in this fantasy for a little while?
How did you and William Jackson Harper find a rhythm that reflected those differences between your characters?
Will and I have really good chemistry, and it helped to know his character from watching it as a viewer. Simone comes from a logical place, and he often comes from a philosophical place, so that's where we butt heads. But working with Will is very, very easy, and I think that shows.
Was it difficult to join that core group of actors who have been together since the pilot?
It's almost like going to your friend's family's house for Thanksgiving. They're very excited to have you there. They're a loving family, so they welcome you in. Top to bottom, Mike Schur gathers really wonderful people, and every single department—art, props, costumes, everyone is just so nice and so genuinely excited about new people joining the family.
Do you identify with Simone's instinct to find the rational in things she doesn't understand?
In general, I try to find the logical answer, but there's always this little voice in my head that's, like, "But what if?!" A part of me is open to the most outrageous suggestion. It seems wishy-washy, but I think it's good to be open. It’s kind of a Simone trait—sometimes in science the answer is just, like, "I don't know."
If you could scan any of the cast members' brains, who would you want to scan?
D'Arcy Carden. D'Arcy is one of the funniest people I've ever met. Every time I do improv with her I'm distracted because she thinks of the most amazing things. She makes up a lot of little songs and jingles, and I just want to know what goes on in there.
You’ve also crossed paths with Kristen Bell a lot throughout both of your careers.
We first worked together on House of Lies, when I came in as a guest star, and then getting cast on The Good Place was a pleasant surprise. We got to know each other really well, obviously, over the course of doing The Good Place, and then when the Veronica Mars audition came up, she could vouch for me. To get to punch someone in a role... that's the fun of acting: getting to misbehave in a way you wouldn't normally get to do in your real life.
I also like that you and Kristen always play women with complex, dynamic friendships. On The Good Place, even though you're technically romantic rivals, you're also close friends. And the TV that I watched growing up would have pitted you against each other.
Totally. There's no one, and certainly no woman, in that writer's room that would have made it as—for lack of a better word—basic as just two girls fighting over a guy. And that was really refreshing to me, because I didn't want to play a role like that either. Like you said, the TV I watched was always, like, if there was a guy who dated one girl and then dated another one, the girls just hated each other, but the guy got away scot-free. And it always felt weirdly weighted. Simone and Chidi have their own relationship, Eleanor and Chidi have a relationship, and then outside of that, Eleanor and Simone have a relationship. And making it nuanced makes it much more interesting than just being a catfight.
It seems like that nuance is something you seek out in most of your roles—that they're consistently multifaceted, and they never reinforce overplayed or problematic tropes.
That's important to me. We learn a lot from TV, particularly in places where people don't have the same access to diversity, whatever kind of diversity that may be. So it's our job to be responsible about what we put out into the world, because that's what people emulate.
I grew up watching shows where it was always, like, hot girl cliques and geeks, and that does affect culture. But now I watch a lot of shows, and they're so much more honest, and people are, like, “It's fine to be a little weird.” And when I look around at kids it feels like, because TV has shown an example that it's ok to be different, that is what people then bring into their real life.
With that responsibility in mind, do you place particular priority on female-driven shows when you consider projects?
I look out most for really great material, and as I am a black woman, I think the majority of really great material written for women that feels true and authentic and honest is often by women. That doesn't mean it's exclusively by women. But every project I've done that's been good and been recognized has had very diverse writer's rooms or creators that ten years ago probably wouldn't have existed, and it shows in the material.
You have worked with some pretty renowned actors in the past few years. Are you ever intimidated getting to set for the first time?
They say never meet your heroes, but a lot of the people that I've loved and met have been just as amazing in real life. Lucy [Liu] is one of them, Sandra [Oh]'s one of them. Ted Danson, I grew up watching on TV. And yet he comes to work and is just as excited and just as happy and just as enthusiastic and friendly as everyone else, as if this is his first job. Maybe I should just quit while I'm ahead and not meet anyone else. Maybe I've peaked.
Are there any types of characters you’d still like to explore?
It would be fun to be someone who's slightly dislikable. Dislikable characters are really brilliant. Like, Olivia Colman does an incredible job in Fleabag as the stepmom. She's also someone who's gone back and forth between drama and comedy seamlessly, and I admire her so much. But I think it's really, really fun to play a character like that, and it’s really liberating as a woman, because we're always told that we have to be likable. It's liberating when you can be a bit of an asshole as a woman, because we are sometimes.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Carden, who plays a Siri-like artificial intelligence bot on NBC's extremely funny sitcom, reveals how she built her character, why she almost quit auditioning for TV roles, and which legendary TV actor is "a giddy little weirdo."
Start saying your goodbyes to everyone’s favorite show tonight.
How the actor, who plays the show’s Chidi Anagonye, got abs beneath all those sweater vests.
Jameela Jamil was no stranger to TV, but she’d never acted. And when she landed the role of upper-crust punching bag Tahani al-Jamil on The Good Place, she found herself learning from the best: Ted Danson and his fart noises.
Originally Appeared on GQ