Jameela Jamil landed her role on 'The Good Place' with no acting experience—here's what she says about talent vs. tenacity
Sept. 18, 2019
Jameela Jamil knows she's been lucky.
"My first audition was for 'The Good Place,' and [creator] Mike Schur gave me the job because he's a very strange man who gave a complete novice who'd never acted before a job," she jokes.
But it was a stroke of bad luck that made her the type of person who could land a major comedy role with no acting experience. When she was 17, Jamil was hit by a car, and a resulting back injury left her unable to walk for more than a year.
"My brother had to take me to the toilet every day," she tells CNBC Make It. "There's something about that that sort of gifts you perspective, and you realize that you shouldn't be taking yourself too seriously and you shouldn't be taking life for granted."
She recovered, and says the experience permanently changed her perspective and made her someone who's open to any new opportunity and willing to tackle any challenge.
"I've never been afraid of embarrassing myself or getting something wrong or failing, and therefore, whenever an opportunity comes my way that I think could be a fun thing to do — even if it means I will be nationally shamed and humiliated — I go for it."
Jamil was 21 and working as an English teacher when she was approached one night by a man at a London pub about auditioning to become a TV host.
"I'd never wanted to be on television. I had never done anything. I had no experience, but I just thought, 'Yes, I will go to that,'" she says, adding, "Well, at first I said 'No,' and then he said it was £1,000 a day and I was like, 'Yes, please.'"
Jamil auditioned and got the job as a TV presenter on T4, a music and pop culture-focused station on U.K. television.
"Overnight, I became a TV presenter on one of the biggest TV shows in the United Kingdom, which I was wholly unprepared for and didn't really become good at for like another year, which was mortifying to have to learn that publicly on television," says Jamil. "But I did it anyway. I sucked it up and I took the criticism and I kept going."
In 2012, Jamil was recruited by BBC Radio 1 to join as a DJ, and by the following year she was promoted and became the first woman ever to host The Official Chart on BBC Radio 1, a position she held until 2015.
Despite her success on the program — she claims to have brought 200,000 new listeners to the program — U.K. tabloids tended to focus on her appearance.
"I myself was fat-shamed nationally by the U.K. tabloid papers," she says. That experience prompted Jamil to speak up about issues of body image. In 2014 , Jamil spoke to the House of Commons about body positivity and the media's portrayal of young women and girls. It's a message she remains passionate about today.
Though things were going well for Jamil professionally, a cancer scare in 2015prompted her to rethink her career trajectory. "I'd been told I was too old, too fat and too ethnic to try and make it into America at 28," she says. Still, after learning that she was not sick, she quit her job and moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting full-time.
A few months after she arrived, Jamil got an audition for a career-making part— the role of Tahini on "The Good Place." She had no acting experience, and the show was so secretive that she didn't even know what the character was.
Then she got lost on her way to the audition.
"There was a beautiful Indian woman walking up the road," she says, "and the casting was for a 'wealthy-looking South Asian woman.' And so I walked up to her and I asked her if she was going to this audition. She said no. And I said, 'Well, okay can you show me where this is?' And she said, 'Oh yeah, no, you're in the wrong place. It's way down this road.'"
Jamil followed the woman's directions for 10 minutes before realizing she was headed the wrong way. She turned back and realized the address she had been looking for was hidden behind a bush. "I walk in, she's in the audition! She was an actress! She was there! She was walking into my slot!"
But despite those early challenges, Jamil nailed the audition — with the help of a few fabrications. "I also told the casting director that I had acting experience, which was a lie. I told her I'd been onstage, but I was talking about my school days," she says. When Schur asked if she had improv comedy experience, she fibbed once again. "I was like, 'I love Improv! Did loads of that on the theater in England!'"
When her agent called to tell her she'd gotten the role, Jamil says she sat down in the middle of the street in disbelief.
"I've had a great experience in Hollywood, to be honest," she says. "Sickeningly so, because I got so lucky with that audition and I got to have an amazing cast to work and I got to learn how to act from Ted Danson — and Mike Schur is the greatest boss of all time."
Jamil is quick to emphasize the combination of talent and good fortune that have gotten her where she is today. "I think it's important to acknowledge luck," she says. "I have been very lucky, but I am also bright and I'm very strong and I've survived a lot of things and I am tenacious, and that comes from a lot of bad experiences. I think that my tenacity has definitely been more helpful to my career than talent or the aesthetic."
Today, she remains vocal in conversations about weight and women's appearances. In 2018, Jamil founded the " I Weigh ," movementwhich encourages young women and girls to talk about what makes them valuable beyond their physical appearance. She says her activism has "evolved from body positivity to life positivity."
Since launching I Weigh, Jamil has caught headlines for calling out brands like Avon for body-shaming women and celebrities like Cardi B and the Kardashians for promoting weight-loss products like "tummy teas," laxatives and appetite suppressant lollipops to young women and girls.
Jamil seems to be having an impact. Avon issued an apology about the ad she tweeted about, and Kim Kardashian deleted an ad for appetite suppressant lollipops from her Twitter and Instagram feeds that was rebuked by Jamil and her followers.
While Jamil appreciates these victories, she remains committed to progress — personally and professionally. "For me, trying is the win, and I think that that has helped me through my life. I think if I have the, not big balls, the big ovaries to go and try something, then I think that that is the win, and everything else is just cake."
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