British-born Kirby Howell-Baptiste has become an increasingly familiar face on American television in recent years. You may remember her as Allison Tolman’s co-worker from the brilliant-but-canceled Downward Dog, or from her time playing theme songs for movies that don’t have theme songs on Love. Or maybe you’ve seen her on three of 2018’s best shows, soaking in the theatrical teachings of Gene Cousineau on HBO’s Barry, tracking a wily assassin in Killing Eve, and putting the “brain” in “The Brainy Bunch” as The Good Place’s resident neuroscience expert. Sadly, we bid farewell to the last of those characters—the effervescent Simone Garnett—in tonight’s Good Place episode, “The Ballad Of Donkey Doug.” But as Howell-Baptiste reminded The A.V. Club by phone earlier this week (on her birthday), goodbyes aren’t necessarily forever in a universe of endlessly rebootable afterlives.
The A.V. Club: This is the type of interview we’d do with an actor as they’re leaving a show, but my suspicions are we haven’t seen the last of Simone.
Kirby Howell-Baptiste: I feel like yes. I also feel like they write the show in such a way that there’s no character that you can guarantee you’ve seen the end of, because it operates in so many different times and worlds and this and that and the other. I don’t think there’s ever been a character where I’m like, “Oh, they’ll never come back.”
AVC: The breakup simulations must’ve been such an interesting acting challenge, since you had to play the same scenario over and over again.
KHB: At first I thought they would have Kristen Bell and D’Arcy Carden say the words and then it would come through as my voice. And then they were like, “No, we’re going to have you do it.” So it was really fun listening to them and then trying to take on their mannerisms. [As an actor] you get to be different characters, but it’s very rare that you get a lot of characters in one show—and particularly in one scene.
AVC: In terms of mimicking Kristen and D’Arcy, what did you find were the right ways to present their voices and mannerisms?
KHB: I’ve been watching the show since season one, so I feel like I’m so familiar with the characters. But I did watch a couple extra things before—I watched an episode the night before so I could really get their mannerisms. We’ll see. I haven’t seen the final product, so I’m remembering it from shooting. It may be very different onscreen.
AVC: Did you feel like you had an additional advantage in impersonating D’Arcy because you’re also on Barry together?
KHB: We did Barry together, we’re both UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade] people. I think D’Arcy does such an incredible job of bringing Janet to life, in a way that’s so different. I think every character is a little bit of yourself, and I think Janet is a little bit of D’Arcy, but D’Arcy finds a way to make Janet a completely kind of stand-alone character that’s unlike any other character we’ve seen on TV. So I don’t know that it helped that I knew D’Arcy—I think it helped more so that I had watched D’Arcy be Janet. We just spoke about this on the set of Barry, and I was like, “D’Arcy, I’m so in awe of the way you play Janet.” Because Janet has been rebooted a number of times, and each time she’s slightly more human, and I feel like D’Arcy has made incremental changes in her being ever so slightly more what we recognize to be a human.
AVC: If every character is a little bit of the actor who plays them, what parts of Kirby are in Simone?
KHB: The excitement. I find information and knowledge very exciting, as does Simone. I listened to a really great podcast yesterday about space, and that was what I did on the eve of my birthday. I was like, “I want to know about space tonight!” I’m in Palm Springs, and it was lovely, and you can see the stars. That was something that I latched onto with Simone.
With someone like Chidi, information is overwhelming, but for Simone, ideas and theories don’t give her anxiety—they make her excited about the endless possibilities. Also: I would like to think I’m as spontaneous as Simone. She’s spontaneous, but also still has her life together, and I would hope that’s me.
AVC: Do you feel like Chidi and Simone made each other better people?
KHB: I think that in all relationships you’re aiming for balance, and I think that when Chidi and Simone are together they offer a bit of balance to each other. I think her spontaneity and his rigidity work well. I think she could soften him and he could focus her. But I also think the Brainy Bunch—and the bunch before the Brainy Bunch—serves that same function, where they all have something that the other one needs, and the four in the group are in harmony. It’s symbiotic.
AVC: They’ve been compared to the main cast of The Wizard Of Oz.
KHB: Whoa. I never thought of that. You’ve blown my mind.
AVC: What Wizard Of Oz role do you think Simone plays?
KHB: I think she’s probably one of the munchkins. They’re fun and they’re like, “Keep going!” and they’re part of the journey. I wouldn’t be so audacious as to say she was the Wizard. Maybe she’s the Good Witch, Glinda, guiding them.
AVC: Coming to the show as a fan, how did you feel about playing the character who potentially gets between Chidi and Eleanor?
KHB: I never really saw Simone’s character as that. Obviously, she does technically get involved. But where Eleanor and Chidi have been reset and they have this whole new life, I never saw her as coming in and becoming this wedge. The bond that Eleanor and Chidi have goes beyond a romantic bond. The four of them, but particularly Eleanor and Chidi, are connected in a way that is unspoken and that we can’t quite define. Sometimes it manifests as a romantic relationship, and other times it’s friendship and companionship.
I feel like that is also a testament to the writing. The Good Place has incredible writers, full stop, but also has incredible female writers. Often when a female character is introduced, there’s immediately competition with another woman. I don’t know if the writers were aware of this, but they’ve written a character that isn’t in competition with any other women. And I really enjoy that. It never felt like she was coming in to butt heads with Eleanor, or that she and Eleanor wouldn’t get on because they were fighting over the same person. They all have a relationship with Chidi, and Simone’s relationship in this setting is romantic, and I think it doesn’t drive a wedge because I think Eleanor’s and his is not romantic in this iteration.
AVC: After all of those test scenarios, do you think Chidi chooses the correct way to break up with Simone?
KHB: I think he makes the right choice for him, which is all any of us can do. I mean, I have the hardest time keeping small surprises from my friends, so I don’t know how anyone would keep such a huge one. This information, as we see in the last episode, spins Chidi out anyway, so I don’t think he’d be able to continue a relationship with someone that he has set a precedent of honesty and understanding with and then hold such a big thing back.
AVC: Are you aware that some Good Place fans have theorized that Simone might not be human?
KHB: Whoa. I’m not aware of that. Is that the end of it, or is there more?
AVC: One version of the theory concludes that she’s too perfect to be a human.
KHB: That’s so cool. I’m going to read that. Those are words that have never been said about me, Kirby, as a human. [Laughs.] So I’m really excited to read that. When I die, I’m going to hopefully be buried and grow into a tree, but on the plaque on my tree, I’m going to put “Too perfect to be human.”
AVC: Even if she wasn’t human, you could not confirm one way or the other.
KHB: I could not confirm one way or the other. I love that there are fan theories about this show. I read one recently that Janet is god. I get excited by the fan theories. I mean, that’s the point of art, right? You see it however you see it. I think generally with TV and film, it’s put out there, and there is some room for interpretation, but I don’t think I’ve ever been on a show where there is so much room for interpretation. I think it’s incredible that people take the time to understand that there are infinite possibilities within this world that Mike Schur has created.
AVC: If you had to spend eternity with either Simone, Sasha from Barry, or Elena from Killing Eve, whom would you choose?
KHB: Simone. It has to be. Although, Elena’s pretty down to earth. I think Sasha is ever so slightly delusional in the way that you have to be to be an actor. There’s a real fine line of necessary delusion and then full-on delusion. So I don’t think it can be Sasha. Elena’s pretty sardonic, and I like her, but in general I like people who are really earnest and really excited, because that’s who I am.