Gillian Jacobs trained at Julliard, then spent much of the last five years bouncing between stage work in New York City, ultra-low-budget independent films, and outré choices like Choke and The Box. She seems like an unusual choice to play the female lead in a goofy single-camera sitcom, but that’s exactly what she’s been doing for the last year and a half on NBC’s Community, where she stars as icy killjoy Britta Perry, a woman approaching 30 and realizing she’s squandered much of her promise as she goes back to community college for one last shot at pulling herself together. Jacobs recently met with The A.V. Club on the set of the show’s Halloween episode, to discuss learning how to work in comedy.
The A.V. Club: This is your first weekly TV show. What’s been the biggest change for you in that respect?
Gillian Jacobs: I definitely feel like I’ve learned a lot about comedy working on this show. I’d never really done comedy before Community, so getting to work day in and day out with all these great people, directors, writers, and actors, I feel like I’ve learned a lot. I don’t know if I feel more confident, but it feels more familiar, and that’s really nice.
Anything else, a play or a movie, you go in and you know the arc already. You know, point A to point B. And on this, it’s like a surprise to us every week when we go to the table read. Dan [Harmon, creator] never sat me down and told me his master plan for season one. So it was as much a surprise to me as it was to the audience, and watching Britta going from the girl on the pedestal to the one who’s getting ridiculed and made fun of was really fun and unexpected for me.
And then as a person… [Laughs.] It’s been a huge change. I moved from New York to L.A. for this show, and I have consistent employment for the first time in my life, and I get to drive onto a lot every day and have the security guard wave at me. It’s been incredible.
AVC: Do you like L.A.?
GJ: I do. I feel like I moved in the perfect way. I moved with a job, and I feel like that makes a lot of difference, because it gave my life instant structure. Then I’m able to enjoy my free time, and I’ve discovered a lot of things about L.A. that I really like. So yes. I’m not one of those New Yorkers that’s constantly bitching about L.A.
AVC: Looking back at Britta as a character, she’s shifted from her declaration at the end of the season-one finale. How much of that do you think is genuine?
GJ: I think the ego is genuine. [Laughs.] I think both the ego of both the “Tranny Dance” fight with Slater and the ego of getting swept up as the women’s champion—I don’t know what you’d call it—the Aniston of Greendale is genuine. I think that whatever her true feelings for Jeff are at this point, she’s not willing to be really, truly vulnerable enough to just go for it. I think that she got embarrassed and her pride got hurt, so now she’s really going to revel in having the women rally around her. That feels good. That feels a lot better than being rejected, you know? [Laughs.]
AVC: Is that going to play out through the season?
GJ: I think the nice thing about our show is that it’s not like a cartoon, where you hit somebody with a hammer and they bounce back. There’s always repercussions, and we’re always referencing things, and there’s always fallout. So I don’t know exactly how it’s going to play out, but that happened between them, so that will always be there.
AVC: You mentioned you haven’t done a lot of comedy. Have you ever gotten a script for a Community episode and thought “I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this”?
GJ: Yeah. Definitely. I feel like that just day to day. [Laughs.] Like whatever lines I have that day are a challenge to me. The April Fool’s Day episode, with the frog, doing a scene by myself with a bunch of animals in cages, and throwing a dead body out of a window… I was really, definitely helped by Adam Davidson, our director on that episode. And then also the scene where I start crying, and then everybody starts crying, that definitely felt like an “Oh, gosh.” But luckily, the writing is so strong, and the other actors are great, and the directors are really great, so they really help me along. But definitely just doing a purely physical scene by myself… [Laughs.] It’s really exciting that they’re giving me that material, but then it’s like, “Oh, I want to rise to the level of it.”
AVC: As a cast, you’ve been such a great ensemble. Where is the show taking the cast as a whole this year?
GJ: To the moon! Let’s see. I have to think of what episodes we’ve shot. I think we always get a lot of fun out of big group brawls and chaos. Also, I think we continue to have those episodes where we try to help someone, and it goes awry. I think that’s a really nice staple of our show, good intentions gone bad. Boy, you know, it’s amazing how your brain can turn into a sieve and you can literally forget episodes that you have shot. I’m racking my brain right now trying to remember, but it’s that combination between group conflict and trying to help each other out, and then also turning on one member of the group, and then trying to reconcile. That’s sort of where we bounce around in.
AVC: The evolution into an ensemble happened really quickly. Could you all feel that chemistry clicking right off?
GJ: Yeah, I definitely think that in the pilot, I was incredibly impressed by everybody in the cast. Obviously, I knew who Chevy [Chase] was, and I knew who Joel [McHale] was, but I didn’t really know anyone else. And as we shot the pilot, I was just blown away by everyone in the cast, so I think that was a really strong indication that we could basically do anything, and it wasn’t just going to be a show with a lead and a supporting group. It was going to be us, as a whole, together. Yeah, I definitely think that played out over the course of season one, where Joel is the leader, but it’s a really strong ensemble.
AVC: Britta reflects someone we don’t see on TV a lot, someone who had a lot of promise and let that slip away. Whereas you are very successful. Where do you meet with the character in the middle?
GJ: I had some years of definite frustration. Auditioning and not working as much as I would have liked to, or working and being paid a pittance, and sort of scrounging by in New York and sleeping on a chair that folded out into a bed. I’ve always had sort of a guiding passion, which has been acting, since I was a kid, which Britta doesn’t have, but I definitely had that struggle: “Am I gonna pay my rent? Am I going to be able to have this as a career?” I relate to that. And I relate to having this idea of yourself, the person that you want to be, and falling short of it. So all of that, I can relate to.
AVC: When you were struggling along, what was the worst job you had during that time?
GJ: I don’t want to talk specifics… [Laughs.] I did some really, really low-budget films that probably they didn’t really have the money to be making them, but they were making a go of it. And I worked under some really interesting conditions. I have a lot of good stories for talk shows about the conditions in which I worked. One time, we didn’t have the money for trailers, so they rented the offices of the Dominican Communist Party in New York City. So that was really colorful. And many more like that. [Laughs.]