Gillian Jacobs’ Career: Shakespeare, Strippers, Comedy

The star of NBC’s “Community” talks about getting laughs (which she loves) and touching frogs (not so much)

Last Updated: June 7, 2011 @ 3:28 PM

As the prickly, rigid and quite frequently foolish community college student Britta Perry, Gillian Jacobs has a repertoire on "Community" that has ranged from paintball to tap-dancing to sex with Joel McHale's character — a varied terrain that makes perfect sense given Britta's neurotic backstory, which includes foot modeling, billboard vandalism and dropping out of high school to impress Radiohead.

The sophomore comedy from creator Dan Harmon has acquired a small but devoted following, which includes enough critics to have landed the show three Critics Choice Television Award nominations. If it's still a longshot for Emmy recognition, stranger things have happened — and, in fact, stranger things continue to happen every week at Greendale Community College, where the show is set.

Gillian JacobsYou've had a very unconventional career path: you did Shakespeare and studied at Julliard, then you had a stretch where you played a lot of strippers and hookers, and now you're doing comedy on TV.  You planned it that way, right?
No. (laughs) I mean, I will say that after my stretch of playing lost girls, I was certainly looking to do comedy. My psyche couldn't handle another one of those movies. I wasn't necessarily looking to do comedy on TV, but I don't think it's an accident that I ended up on "Community."

Also read: 'Community,' 'Modern Family' Creators Debate Twitter Feud, Ailing Primetime

Was it hard to persuade casting directors that you were capable of comedy?
Yeah. I'd go in and say, "What I really want to do is comedy," and they'd kind of raise their eyebrow and give me a look. It's like an actor saying, "But what I really want to do is direct."  I think that sometimes they have to sort of have already seen you do it to think thst you can do it. So yeah, I wasn’t getting a ton of those parts.

But thankfully, now I can walk into a room, and even if they haven’t seen "Community" I can say, "Look at this episode and this episode," and give people an idea of what I can do. It's such a blessing in this town, where you see actors showing up in hospital scrubs to play doctors. You've got to get as literal as you can get to convince people sometimes that you can do something.

So how did you persuade them that you could do it?
I think I was just a good fit, you know? The character was a natural entrée into the world of comedy. She's a girl who isn't necessarily funny – she's laughed at more than laughed with.

Sometimes in TV, they don’t want to see you trying as an actor.  And because Britta was a more principled, rigid, putting-herself-on-a-pedestal character, that was not so dissimilar, maybe, from what I could do as an actor. And then as the series has gone on, the character has evolved naturally and allowed me to stretch comedically.

We spoke to Dan Harmon recently, and he said he thought the show needs to grow up a little in season three.
Oh, okay. I haven’t heard one word from Dan about season three, so you know more than I do. So we're gonna grow up?

Also read: Dan Harmon Talks 'Community' Renewal, Season Three

That's what he said — that he thought it was time to not just be the smart aleck all the time, to make a show that people can welcome in without effort.
I trust Dan implicitly. He thinks more deeply about television as a medium and an art form than just about anyone I know – so if that's what his gut is telling him, I'm sure that it will be great. He really thinks about it in a much more deep and complex way than I ever thought about why I like the shows I like, or why I like the characters I like, or why I laugh at the jokes I laugh at.

So, great. Let's grow up!

Gillian JacobsHas being around him changed how deeply you think about TV comedy?
No, I just feel lucky that the quality of the show does not rest on my shoulders. We in the cast are fans of our own show, and we get really giddy sometimes when we see the stuff they’ve cooked up. Like when we read the script for our fake clip show, where we did flashbacks to episodes that didn’t exist. We didn’t know anything about that script going into the table read, and it actually got a standing ovation at the end of the table read.  The cast stood up and cheered for it because it was so ambitious and so original. 

If you locked me in a room for 100 hours, I couldn’t come up with that. So hat's off to Dan and the writers for having that kind of imagination.

Also read: 'Pop! Pop!': The Oral History of Magnitude, the Party Machine of 'Community'

When you got the role and sat down to figure out who the character was, you certainly ran into a crazy backstory: She dropped out of high school to impress Radiohead, and she'd got a thing about dinosaur costumes… You can't research what those kind of people are like.
Yeah. I think the character is a melding. For instance, the dinosaur costume was my idea. I did dress up as a Tyrannosaurus Rex when I was about six years old. In that instance, the Halloween episode of the second season, the writers came to all of us and said, "Do you have any ideas for Halloween costumes?" And I said, "Can I be a Tyrannosaurus Rex?"  I had my mom actually scan some pictures of my costume and email them to me – it was a green velvet Tyrannosaurus Rex costume that my grandmother made me.

And in the first year with the squirrel costume [for a Halloween episode], that was my idea as well. Initially, Dan didn’t understand why I wanted to dress like that. He had said, "What about a pirate?" or something like that, and I just felt that it should be more asexual than that. I felt that Britta would be taking more of a stance against sexy Halloween, and that she would have strong feelings about girls using Halloween as an excuse to dress like sluts. Maybe that's someplace where Britta and I agree.

Also read: Behind the 'Pop! Pop!': Meet Luke Youngblood, the Actor Who Plays Magnitude on NBC's 'Community'

Gillian JacobsWhen Dan saw me standing on set holding my giant acorn, he kind of saw why I wanted to dress like that. He ended up liking the idea, but initially I think he found it baffling.

Do you ever find things in the script that are baffling to you?
Maybe some times when there was a joke, and I wasn't sure how to deliver it properly. And I remember I had an episode in season one where I was trying to steal a frog from a biology lab. It was essentially a silent scene by myself, creeping around this biology lab with all these different animals in it.

Acting by yourself is pretty darn hard, especially having to do physical comedy. And I really found out that I don’t like frogs. I didn't want to pick that frog up. I was in the back hallway with the animal trainer for 20 minutes, squealing like a little girl. You know, frogs are really squishy when you pick them up, and then they start kicking their back legs.

So that was something where I definitely had to rely on the director to help me figure out how to make that all work.

Also read: Stephen Tobolowsky: My Heartfelt Thanks to 'Community' (Plus, What I Learned From Chevy Chase)

What are you doing on your hiatus this year?
I'm going to work on a film called "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," with Steve Carrell and Kiera Knightley. Other than that, I went to upfronts, and we're going to Comic-Con in July for the second year, just trying to get the good word out on "Community."

Did they make you feel like a rock star at Comic-Con last year?
It was one of the most overwhelming experiences of my life. We were cautiously optimistic going there. But People waited in line for hours, and they had to turn people away from our panel. We got a standing ovation when we came into the room, there was cheering and clapping and screaming and flashes going off …  I actually started crying, it was so overwhelming.

Do you think Emmy voters might agree with those Comic-Con fans this year?
Well, if we're so fortunate as to get nominations, we'll all be very grateful. We certainly gained critical acclaim in our second season, and hopefully that will at some point translate into nominations. I mean, I really do believe that this is a quality show worthy of that attention. But I don't have any control over whether or not we get it, so I'm not going to lose sleep over it.