TORONTO – Since NBC’s “The Good Place” came to an end in 2020, its Canadian star Manny Jacinto has drawn attention for one feature, especially: his objectively pretty face. But he’s out to prove he’s much more than that.
From Netflix’s 2021 series “Brand New Cherry Flavor” to Prime Video’s 2021 series “Nine Perfect Strangers,” the Filipino-Canadian’s characters have been funny, smart and strong but it’s his looks that are often singled out by bloggers and ardent followers.
In his latest role as the romantic rival to the hero in the Prime Video film, “I Want You Back,” he plays Logan, an unintentionally hilarious theatre director who spends an inordinate amount of time shirtless.
Jacinto, however, is quick to note he’s mindful of falling into caricature, and says there’s more to Logan than it seems.
“When I look at a character in a script, I always try and look for someone that’s well-rounded, that has different facets to them so that I can carve out the dynamics and show that this person isn’t just a dummy,” says Jacinto, who appeared on “The Good Place” as a silent Taiwanese monk who is later revealed to be a dim-witted small-time crook, who is actually Filipino-American.
Of his new role, Jacinto says, “He’s not just a snob auteur. There’s more to these people, a lot more redeeming values. I like that challenge. Maybe that’s why these (character) patterns keep coming up.”
While he says the industry is changing, problems persist in the way these actors of colour have often been represented on screen.
According to the summer 2021 study “I Am Not a Fetish or Model Minority” from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which analyzed the top grossing films from 2010 to 2019, only 4.5 per cent of leads or co-leads were Asian or Pacific Islander characters, while a third of those characters embodied at least one common stereotype, including the “martial artist,” the “model minority” and the “exotic woman.”
It also found that while they’re more likely to be written as smart, hard-working and single, they’re less likely to be written as sexy, funny and desirable.
“I Want You Back,” which premieres Friday on the Amazon streamer, follows Peter, played by Charlie Day, and Emma, played by Jenny Slate, as they join forces to sabotage their exes’ new relationships in order to win them back.
Jacinto says he was in the right hands with director Jason Orley, who had previously worked with Nancy Meyers, queen of the rom-com genre.
“He knew what he was doing,” says Jacinto. “And I wanted to do an old-school rom-com like ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ or ‘You’ve Got Mail,’ something with that kind of feel and vibe. And when I read this script, it had that — the grounded characters, those funny, incredibly awkward moments and real relationships.”
He’s buoyed by recent high-profile projects that have featured male Asiancharacters not only as individuals who are desirable, but who carry great depth. It’s a sign, he says, of the landscape shifting, albeit slowly.
“Crazy Rich Asians” promised to offer a watershed moment in 2018 when it captured the box office as the first major studio film to be led by an all-Asian cast since 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club.”
Since then, there have been 2019’s “Always Be My Maybe” and “Last Christmas,” and 2021’s “Love Hard,” which saw actor Jimmy O. Yang play a romantic lead, but one who catfishes as a white-passing acquaintancein order to win the attention of the female lead.
“There is definitely a change, but it’s a slow, steady moving stream, rather than a full on waterfall,” saysJacinto.
“It’s starting to happen and I think it’s a result of so many things coming together, with so many different streaming services and platforms. A lot of people my age or younger that are from different cultures are wanting to express themselves … and there’s a greater willingness to collaborate and tell stories from different cultures, because those stories are just so darn interesting. I’m so lucky to be doing this at this time, because this definitely wasn’t the case even five years ago.”
Jacinto’s varied credits range from comedy to drama to horror, and he is set to chase “I Want You Back” with the high-octane sequel “Top Gun: Maverick” later this year.
“There’s definitely a purposeful trajectory where I want to do everything,” says Jacinto, who scored one of his first regular TV roles in CBC’s “The Romeo Section” back in 2015.
“As long as it’s a good story, and the people telling it are passionate about it. I don’t want to play the same character over and over again. I want to explore, I’m so curious.”
Jacinto, who studied engineering and spent time as a background dancer before acting, says he’d like to one day soon produce, write and direct a Filipino story, preferably a rom-com.
“I would love for my culture to be seen on a mainstream outlet and to showcase what hasn’t been seen yet, our family, our ancestral roots,” he says. “The gears are rolling.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 10, 2022.