Gillian Jacobs’ Community Values

Published January 2, 2014

ABOVE: GILLIAN JACOBS

A 30-something high school dropout with a penchant for one-upmanship, wannabe psychologist Britta Perry makes up one-seventh of the most exclusive study group at Greendale Community College. Rarely found studying, the offbeat group—complete with a bored, at times racist millionaire and a socially awkward pop-culture fanatic—came together mostly by chance, but has since evolved into a tight-knit circle of friends often campaigning for a particular cause.

Although Juilliard graduate Gillian Jacobs can’t necessarily relate to Greendale’s apathetic learning approach, she’s certainly found her comedic sweet spot playing Perry for five seasons. Having worked on a string of dramatic projects leading up to her role in Dan Harmon’s Community, Jacobs has racked up a laundry list of impressive credits, with each role showcasing a different side to the multitalented actress. We spoke with Jacobs before Community‘s fifth season premiere, tonight on NBC.

JAMIE LINCOLN: Do you have any big plans for the holidays?

GILLIAN JACOBS: My mom is coming to Los Angeles, which is what’s happened for the last couple of years, and we have zero point zero plans… which kind of makes me happy. [laughs]

LINCOLN: [laughs] Really? Do you find the holidays a stressful time, then?

JACOBS: I think that they usually are, yes! There’s a lot of expectation and it’s easy to fall short of that, and you want it to be the perfect break and it usually isn’t, so I feel like if I set the bar low, then I can’t be disappointed.

LINCOLN: I saw you tweeted the other day, “An unexpected Christmas carol in July is lovely and moving. The same song on December 24 makes me want to rip my ears off.” Do you think Christmas is overdone?

JACOBS: I think that there are a lot of really beautiful Christmas carols, and then sometimes there are horrible renditions of them that are played to death in malls that make me sad. I try to avoid stores where they’re playing bad versions of Christmas songs on repeat.

LINCOLN: Totally, I definitely agree. Before I dive into my Community-related questions, I want to take us back to your Juilliard days. As one of the most respected acting schools in the entire world, I’m interested to hear what the day-to-day student life was like.

JACOBS: Pretty rigorous! Every hour of your day is scheduled for you; you don’t get to choose any of your classes, so everybody has the same classes at the same time. You’re in class from about nine in the morning until 1 at night, five days a week, so it’s sort of your whole world while you’re there.

LINCOLN: When you graduated, were you constantly competing with your former classmates for roles?

JACOBS: I did not find that to be the case. A lot of people I went to college with felt like they wanted to pursue theater exclusively, so I don’t think that I really was in competition with people that I went to school with. I see other people from other classes, and I’m sure I’ve been up against them at various points, but I never felt like I ran into people I went to college with—or in my class, directly —at auditions that much.

LINCOLN: I once read you used to compete in a Shakespeare monologue contest. I’m dying to know, did you have to dress up as a bard?

JACOBS: I got to wear modern dress, although I did do some Shakespeare plays as a kid where I was in various strange costumes. We did a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when I was at Juilliard, and I played Puck, and they painted me blue from head to toe. That was quite an adventure, trying to shower that off every night. But for the Shakespeare Scene and Monologue Contest, no, I wore my normal clothes. I probably tried to look fancy, but I wasn’t in period garb.

LINCOLN: Coming from a more dramatic background, to a hyper self-aware show that often pokes fun at television in general, are you more drawn to dramatic or comedic roles?

JACOBS: Well, I certainly wanted to get into comedy when I got the role on Community because I was very tired of these gut-wrenching dramas I’d been doing. I was very anxious to do something silly and fun, and then I think when you’re doing a lot of comedy and you watch a dramatic film you’re like, hey, could I still do that? And it makes you want to go back to that [genre] as well, so I think I’d like to ping-pong between the two if I could, that would be my dream.

LINCOLN: Are there any traits you think you and your character Britta share, or are you two polar-opposites?

JACOBS: I definitely think that there’s overlap; I’m probably overly earnest myself. I care about causes, but I’m not the most proactive or effective person, and I think Britta’s kind of the same. I hope that I have more of a sense of humor about myself than she does, but I definitely see some overlap between the two of us.

LINCOLN: One question I think we’re all wondering: How do you really pronounce the word “bagel”?

JACOBS: [laughs] Well, I pronounce it bey-gull. Dan Harmon, who created the show, he apparently pronounced it bag-gull, and got teased a lot, so that storyline comes from Dan. I did have a fan recently say to me, “and it’s pronounced bey-gull!” And I was like, “I know that!” [laughs]

LINCOLN: [laughs] A friend of mine also pronounces it bag-gull, and I used to make fun of him all the time.

JACOBS: I thought it was real-li-tor, not realtor, and I was corrected long after I was saying real-li-tor to everyone, so I was pretty embarrassed to realize that I had been mispronouncing it. I think we’ve probably all read a word that we’ve never heard pronounced out loud and we try it out in a sentence and fall on our face.

LINCOLN: Absolutely. I’m sure that happens with your name all the time, right?

JACOBS: Oh yeah, my name, all day every day [laughs].

LINCOLN: When you were a kid, too, I’ll bet.

JACOBS: Oh yeah, it’s so funny because when you’re really little and just around your family, they all know how to pronounce your name. Then you start preschool, and it was the first time I remember hearing my name mispronounced consistently and being teased about my name. I didn’t think there was anything weird about my name until I started preschool … and then, the Gilligan’s Island jokes [laughs]. Where’s the Professor? How’s Mary Ann? All that.

LINCOLN: [laughs] One of the things I love most about Community is that I never know exactly what’s going to happen, and I don’t think anyone really does. What’s been your biggest surprise on the show thus far?

JACOBS: Oh my goodness… well, I think the show itself! When we did the pilot, it seemed like a fairly normal show. There was self-aware, pop-culture reference humor going on, but there was nothing really to indicate where the show would go. I could have never predicted by the end of Season One, we’d be doing a full-on action film playing paintball, you know, basically doing Die Hard. The show itself was a surprise to all of us as actors because we don’t really hear a lot about scripts until we do a table read of them, so it was such a surprise every week to us. Dan Harmon said something I thought was really smart. He said, in your first season, nobody can tell you, “That’s not your show.” So if we really push the boundaries and the limits of the show in our first season, then going forward we can do whatever we want and no one will be able to tell us, “That’s not Community.” So he really went for it. You don’t often see people with that much ambition and boldness in the first season of a show.

LINCOLN: Absolutely. One of my favorites is the mobster chicken fingers episode where Abed is narrating the entire thing and it turns out he’s just talking to the Dean at the end.

JACOBS: That was a great one, we loved shooting that. That was exciting because it was very early on, and it was one of our first genre episodes. I thought it was so well done; they always try to stay really true to the characters, it’s not like we abandon the characters for the genre, or the homage. You’re seeing a power dynamic going on between Jeff and Abed and a different situation for the group to be in, and they use the mob Goodfellas movie to show that.

LINCOLN: In a lot of ways I think Community can be considered kind of a catchall comedy show, given that it includes everything from slapstick to satirical comedy. How would you describe your own sense of humor?

JACOBS: I’d say it runs towards the weird and the silly. I really love basically every show on Adult Swim; Tim and Eric is one of my favorite shows. Really strange, bizarre stuff like Xavier: Renegade Angel, those are the things that make me laugh really hard… and then, you know, cat videos on the Internet like everyone else. 

LINCOLN: [laughs] Obviously there was a ton of buzz over whether or not Community would be cancelled after the fourth season. From the perspective of an actor, how do you deal with potential cancellation news?

JACOBS: Stress eating, endlessly checking Twitter, and then trying not to think about it.

LINCOLN: [laughs] Is it one of those things where you’re constantly waiting by the phone for the call that’s like, “We’re back on”?

JACOBS: No, we don’t get phone calls, we read it on Twitter! We just hit refresh all day, waiting to hear. It’s a weird time where you read about your own show on Twitter, that’s how it works.

LINCOLN: Are you not able to commit to other projects in the waiting period? Are you expected to wait around?

JACOBS: Given the fact that we’re only filming 13 episodes, I have a good long break until we would start again. I probably wouldn’t sign on to something for the Fall of 2014 at this point, not knowing if Community is coming back or not, but only doing 13 episodes has given us all a lot of time to do other projects. I’ve worked a lot on other things besides Community, but I haven’t signed on for a year run on Broadway or something like that.   

LINCOLN: In my opinion, what makes Community so great is its mix of bizarre characters. I think Britta started off as the relatively normal one of the group, but with each episode she reveals how obsessed she can become with causes, and the spirit of competition. Looking ahead into Season 5, can you give us a glimpse into what we can expect from Britta?

JACOBS: Well I think there are a couple of moments from Season 5 where Britta is actually right about things, which is kind of rare for her. It’s not continuous, but she has a few bright spots as a wannabe therapist.

LINCOLN: Are there any future projects you’re working on that you’d like to share?

JACOBS: I have a film called Walk of Shame with Elizabeth Banks and James Marsden that’s coming out next year, and I’m in Hot Tub Time Machine 2 that’s coming out next year, and a couple of other films that have yet to be released. I did a web series for Yahoo called Tiny Commando with Ed Helms and Zach Levi, and I’m in a really weird movie about a butt demon called Bad Milo that’s available On Demand.

THE FIFTH SEASON OF COMMUNITY PREMIERES TONIGHT, JANUARY 2, AT 8 PM ON NBC.