When actor Jameela Jamil — known for her role as Tahani on “The Good Place” — first got the script for a forthcoming Disney show called “Mira, Royal Detective,” she says she agreed to a role voicing the very “extra” Auntie Pushpa without even reading it.
It’s a project unlike any other, she says.
The cartoon series, which premieres Friday, takes place in the fictional India-inspired land of Jalpur. It features an intrepid girl named Mira, a commoner who is appointed to the role of royal detective by the queen. The cast is voiced entirely by actors of South Asian descent, including Kal Penn, Freida Pinto, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Maulik Pancholy, Hari Kondabolu and Sarayu Blue. The voice of Mira belongs to 16-year-old Leela Ladnier, in her first role.
I chatted with Jamil over the phone on Thursday about how she is coping in the current times, why she loves Auntie Pushpa and what’s next.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Neema Roshania Patel: Hi, it’s great to connect with you. First, how are you doing with everything that has been going on?
Jameela Jamil: I’m all right. I am worried about the world. I am very lucky that I am just in my house and I have a boyfriend that I really like. I am just reading all these horror stories about all these couples stuck together who don’t like each other. There is going to be a huge divorce boom. I feel fortunate to have a boyfriend who I like, not just love.
It just feels like a good time to put something out in the world that might make people a bit happier, even if that’s just for a half-hour. Being part of anything that gives anyone a respite feels important right now, and that’s why Mira is perfect.
NRP: My mom’s name is Mira, so it feels special — and unbelievable — to have a Disney character share a name with her. There’s a lot that is groundbreaking about a show like this. What, of all that, has been most special for you?
JJ: I think obviously the representation is important, but mostly that we have a Disney girl who isn’t waiting for a prince to save her. She is saving the day. That’s important not just for South Asian girls but for all girls — and all boys — to see. I think that messaging is what I would have benefited from.
That’s the messaging I needed, rather than thinking that my purpose is to be very thin, to have this long, curly, beautiful, blond Rapunzel hair, and wait for a prince to save me.
This show sends out the kind of messaging that I want my daughter to see.
NRP: What was your first thought when you heard the premise of “Mira, Royal Detective”?
JJ: Oh my god, I was so excited. It was an immediate yes. I didn’t even have to read the script. It was an all-Indian cast. Authentic music and everything. And I just love the general premise of a young, female royal detective.
She is like a mini James Bond but less smug.
NRP: What do you love about your character, Auntie Pushpa?
JJ: She is just so extra and I love that because I am not really an extra person in real life, even though I play characters who are, so I guess that part of me gets fulfilled through the characters I play. [Auntie Pushpa] is such a drama queen. So ridiculous, so vain, but she means well and she clearly cares about the kids.
Her obsession about keeping up appearances is just so funny. She is a good dose of comic relief.
NRP: Have you ever worked on a project with so many fellow South Asians before? What has that been like?
JJ: No. Outside of Bollywood, I don’t even think there has been a project like this. I have never even heard of one. I was just so amazed.
NRP: Was everyone separate while working on this, or did you get the chance to voice with any of the other actors?
JJ: I didn’t really get to meet anyone while voicing. The hope would be that maybe we can for the next season. I am a big fan of everyone. It is a wonderful cast and everyone is very excited to be part of it. In an industry where all of us have been around for a while, it still feels so brand new.
NRP: Is this your first time doing voice-over work? How was that different for you?
JJ: I’ve been doing voice over but this is different because it’s the one that means the most to my inner child. This is a show my inner child would have loved to watch. Seeing the finished product just meant to much to me. I was a little tomboy, I wasn’t a girly girl.
There is a lot of myself in Mira. I was a nosy little problem solver.
NRP: Can you talk more about what makes this special for your inner child?
JJ: I felt very seen when I watched the finished project. I feel tremendous excitement for what this means not just for South Asian girls but really for all children. Other kids can learn about us and learn that we really aren’t so different. Representation is what helps us understand each other and seem less scary to each other.
I want kids to see the beautiful side of our culture. There really isn’t much representation of that part of Indian culture in mainstream culture.
NRP: What do you remember representation of Indian culture being when you were a kid? The scene I always think about is that part of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” where they show Indians eating monkey brains.
JJ: Yes, exactly. I didn’t feel it existed at all. I would only see white people wearing brown makeup playing stereotypes and it usually was derogatory.
NRP: What was your favorite cartoon as a kid?
JJ: “The Jungle Book.” It’s the best music of any Disney film ever. It’s my favorite one. I used to watch it all the time. I guess also “The Simpsons” I watched a lot of. And I used to watch “The Little Mermaid” religiously and I am still terrified of Ursula.
NRP: What’s next for you?
JJ: I don’t know. The world is shut down so I guess it is kind of hard to say. I have a YouTube channel that is about to launch in a couple of weeks about [Instagram account] I Weigh. I was planning on taking the summer off to write — to work on a book and screenplay — so I guess I can still do that.
The I Weigh YouTube channel will basically be an extension of the Instagram, giving a platform to activists and artists to talk about everything from mental health to racism. It’s radically diverse and full of so many people from different parts of life.
I don’t have all the answers and I know that other people don’t either. There isn’t really one place where you can go to learn, so I am trying to create that place.
That, and I guess waiting for the world to come out of this pandemic.