On the first day shooting the new film Choke, 25-year-old Gillian Jacobs found herself standing on a stage wearing nothing but underwear and a pair of 5-inch heels as she tried to convince everyone on the set that she was a stripper named Cherry Daiquiri. Luckily for Jacobs, it wasn't her first twirl around a pole. In the 2007 Adam Rapp-directed indie film Blackbird, she played a runaway-turned-exotic dancer. She researched that role by taking her first trip to a strip club and later attempting to choreograph her own striptease while her family prepared Thanksgiving dinner downstairs.
While one might not expect a performing-arts school graduate like Jacobs to practically have a degree in stripping, the actress's small but growing list of stage and screen credits has given her an opportunity to learn all kinds of things. Just a few years out of Juilliard, she's already played a rape victim (in a stage production called Cagelove), a drug addict (in the Philip Seymour Hoffman-directed play The Little Flower of East Orange), and a homeless teenage prostitute (in the forthcoming film Gardens of Night). "I thought I was going to be the ingenue, playing Juliet in Romeo and Juliet or some innocent young thing, and instead I'm playing these lost girls," says the girl who spent her teenage years in her hometown of Pittsburgh poring over American Theatre magazine with earnest visions of one day starring Off-Broadway. "I'm not conservative, but I am kind of clean living in my own life. I've had to learn how to fake taking drugs-I've snorted fake coke, smoked fake heroin. It's been an education." Jacobs says that part of what has attracted her to these characters is the opportunity to prove that there is more to them than addiction and anguish. "There's always been something about the character that's drawn me to them," she explains. "I think what's common in all of them is vulnerability."
In Choke, based on the Chuck Palahniuk novel, Jacobs's character Cherry—secretly wise with the proverbial heart of gold-falls for the well—meaning best friend (Brad William Henke) of the film's protagonist, a scam artist played by Sam Rockwell. Both men are professional historical reenactors with sexual dysfunctions, and Cherry's love interest is a chronic masturbator. "We shot the strip club scenes at this place called Titillations in New Jersey," recalls Jacobs, who thought she recognized the location recently on a TV show. "I was actually watching a rerun the other day, and I was like, ‘I recognize that place! I've seen that swing before!'"
Fortunately, Jacobs's next role, in Donnie Darko-director Richard Kelly's new thriller, The Box, offers somewhat of a reprieve from her usual bump-and-grind. "I play a babysitter," she says. "So I don't have to take my clothes off in that one."
Lucy Silberman is an assistant editor at Interview.