Canada's Manny Jacinto on Nicole Kidman's 'masterclass' in 'Nine Perfect Strangers'

TORONTO — There were moments on the set of "Nine Perfect Strangers" when Canadian actor Manny Jacinto felt like he was in "a masterclass" with Nicole Kidman.

The Vancouver-raised star worked closely with Kidman in the new miniseries premiering Friday on Amazon Prime Video in Canada, playing the confidant to her character, an enigmatic Russian guru at a wellness resort using unusual methods to help clients heal and transform.

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The Filipino-born Jacinto, known for his role as goofy Jason Mendoza on the NBC comedy "The Good Place," says Kidman would slip into the persona of her character "for a few moments or even for a length of time before" the director yelled "action."

"Especially with more intense group scenes, I would notice that she would look to me without even saying anything, because she needed just this moment of connection," he said in a recent video interview.

"I think that was her way to be like, 'What we're doing here is powerful. It's what we need to do.' It became an anchor for me."

The two would also talk in character before takes, with Jacinto as Yao and Kidman as Masha, discussing matters related to the resort.

"It was like a masterclass, being able to work with her," he said. "She's just so incredibly open and vulnerable that, at first you feel a little cautious, but then it just became natural just after a few scenes."

Such intensity helped fuel the mystery in the eight-episode drama, about nine soul-seeking guests at a picturesque resort run by Masha, whose soothing demeanour belies her cunning ways and sneaky treatment plan for clients.

The Tranquillum House guests are played by Melissa McCarthy, Michael Shannon, Bobby Cannavale, Regina Hall, Luke Evans, Asher Keddie, Samara Weaving, Grace Van Patten and Melvin Gregg.

Television giant David E. Kelley co-created the series alongside John Henry Butterworth, with "50/50" filmmaker Jonathan Levine directing production last year under COVID-19 protocols in Australia.

The story is based on the New York Times bestselling book from Australian "Big Little Lies" novelist Liane Moriarty. It's produced by the team behind the HBO hit adaptation of "Big Little Lies" and includes Kidman and McCarthy as executive producers.

Jacinto said the book and series "could be considered as almost their own separate entities."

"The book definitely dives into more of the backstories of the characters, whereas this limited series is more involved in the conflict and interactions between all of the characters," he said.

Jacinto described his character as the resort's "moral compass" who keeps the ship together while privately struggling between his devotion to Masha and love for a fellow wellness consultant, played by Tiffany Boone.

The Los Angeles-based performer said he related to the inner conflict and search for identity experienced by his character and the guests.

"I have definitely gone through those moments of deep self-reflection, especially when I made the jump from Vancouver to L.A., because L.A. is such a big place," he said. "You meet a lot of people, but it's a very lonely place and you can't help but be like, 'Why aren't I closer to people here?'"

Jacinto's journey was a long and winding path that started with civil engineering studies at the University of British Columbia

"It was like, 'OK, this is who I am. I am an engineer, I'll wear the boots, the construction jacket.' That was my identity," he said.

But he was also a trained dancer and found himself in a hip-hop dance troupe, carving out a new identity as "the struggling artist type" and eventually becoming an actor.

His move to L.A. in 2015 brought huge success with projects including "The Good Place," Netflix's new supernatural thriller series "Brand New Cherry Flavor," and the upcoming film "Top Gun: Maverick."

But he feels like he's "still grinding it out, if anything," he said.

And he still wrestles with the question: "Who am I now?'"

"Is my identity tied to just being an actor? Is it tied to other things like humanitarian work, trying to give my stance on climate change? It's a lot of things that I'm still struggling with," he said.

"Maybe that's why this project resonated with me so much, is because I think we're all just trying to figure out who we are and how to improve ourselves."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 16, 2021.

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