Meet Our January Cover Star, Gillian Jacobs of Community!
The Community star has five movies wrapped for 2015, plus a role on the upcoming season of Girls in addition to her regular sitcom gig. Maureen Halushak takes a leisurely lunch with the woman who’s about to be everywhere—seen here in the season’s buzziest labels
I walk into Carbone, a Michelin-starred Italian restaurant in New York City’s Greenwich Village, at 12:01 p.m., armed with the following information about Gillian (hard G) Jacobs: she’s about to start taping season six of cult comedy Community. She will play a multimedia artist named Mimi-Rose on season four of Girls. She stars alongside Leighton Meester in the female friend–com Life Partners—in theatres Dec. 5—and has at least five more films in the can, including Hot Tub Time Machine 2, the sequel to the 2010 hit. And the Internet went nuts last fall when news broke that Judd Apatow handpicked her to star in his first television series in a decade, Love, expected to debut in 2016 on Netflix.
But what do I really know about Gillian Jacobs, aside from the fact that she’s about to become the it-est it-girl of 2015? Intensive pre-interview “research” (i.e., Google stalking) yields little to nothing on her personal life, aside from what is perhaps my favourite Wikipedia entry of all time: “Jacobs is a teetotaller. She is a fan of professional wrestling and is a regular at Pro Wrestling Guerrilla shows.”
I have also been told she enjoys reupholstering furniture.
At Carbone, the teensy Jacobs, 32, is already seated for our noon reservation. It’s the day after her FLARE cover shoot, and three hours before she’ll start prepping for tonight’s CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards. (Canadian design star Tanya Taylor, one of the 2014 nominees, asked ardent fan Jacobs to be her date.) She also has a wardrobe befitting it-girl-hood; her recently Coveteur-ed closet is a case study in how to have fun with colour and print via Opening Ceremony, Kenzo and Clover Canyon. But fitting into her designer LPDs (little print dresses) doesn’t trump her enjoyment of cheese and carbs (and cheesy carbs)—over the next two hours we will eat butter-drenched garlic bread and warm burrata and the lightest, pillowiest ricotta tortellini that either of us has ever tasted.
It’s the kind of meal Jacobs—dressed in a lime-and-grey-striped mock turtleneck and dark wool cardigan stolen from the Community set—couldn’t fathom, or afford, as an upstart actor who lived across the river in Williamsburg long before it became fodder for Portlandia. “I was really, really broke, and I slept on this chair that folded out into a bed,” she says. “I was at the stage where all my friends were worried about me.” It’s a period of struggle that still seems fresh a decade—and a decade’s worth of increasingly cool gigs—later, at least given the number of times she references it in our conversation. (Nine.)
After four years at the Juilliard School—the Pittsburgh, Penn., native was accepted straight out of high school, on the strength of a monologue from a Carol Shields play—Jacobs bounced around the city and between sublets, doing off-Broadway, countless auditions (including one for Mindy and Brenda, an ill-fated sitcom co-written by Mindy Kaling) and the requisite Law & Order appearance (she played an artist living in … Williamsburg). And then, eureka: she won roles in two very different shows in 2009: The Good Wife and a new NBC comedy about a community college study group. “It was a real Sliding Doors moment,” she says. “My character on The Good Wife was sort of peripheral, Community was more central.” She accepted the latter, moved to Los Angeles, and has played anarchist-babe Britta Perry ever since.
“Gillian came in with the ability to channel tragedy through the screen to the audience,” says Dan Harmon, Community’s creator. “When things are working well in comedy, the jokes are landing but you also believe the person you’re looking at is real, and you’re laughing from two places: your gut and your heart.” Britta started out as a “misguided notion” of Harmon’s ideal woman; over time she morphed into a conduit for his life view. “She’s the only real character on the show,” he says. “That became the gimmick.”
As a result, Britta is often the butt of “don’t pull a Britta” jokes. (Over the past five seasons, we learn that Britta has been calling bagels “baggles” for her entire life; she also accidentally kills a frog in a lame April Fool’s prank and confuses Susan B. Anthony with Sophie B. Hawkins.) “It’s more interesting and fun to be flawed,” maintains Jacobs. “I also love that Britta bounces back no matter what.”
The same could be said for Community. The geeky, somewhat sappy comedy (“We usually learn something about friendship and come out on top,” says Jacobs) with a small but slavish following seemed to be on the chopping block for most of its five-season run on NBC. In season three, the network pulled it from the lineup several episodes in, only to bring it back three months later. Harmon was fired for season four, then reinstated for season five, after which NBC finally pulled the plug.
Community’s diehard fan base immediately launched a Twitter offensive using the hashtag #sixseasonsandamovie, lifted from a second-season episode. It’s since been tweeted more than 778,000 times; as a result, season six will appear on Yahoo Screen, and a movie is in the works.
“Without Twitter, Community would have been cancelled,” says Jacobs, who very obviously loves her fans. (She’s one of two Community stars, along with Yvette Brown, to make surprise appearances at all three Communi-Cons, the show’s fan-run conferences.) “But when you’re a flop, they cut your order down to 13 episodes, so that gave all of us more time to make movies.”
So she did. Jacobs’ 2014 credits include a sidekick role in Elizabeth Banks’ Walk of Shame; a star turn alongside Justin Long, Jerry O’Connell and John Corbett in November’s noir thriller The Lookalike; an appearance in the intergenerational drama Black or White, starring Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be released later this month; and another starring role in the aforementioned Life Partners.
The latter, a more heartfelt, less twee Frances Ha, centres on the shifting BFF-ship between Sasha, a struggling lesbian musician-secretary (Meester), and Paige, her straight best friend, an environmental lawyer who has most of her shit together (Jacobs). Despite being best known for comedy, Jacobs has a serious background in “the craft”: she landed an acclaimed acting coach, Ingrid Sonnichsen, when she was 13, before moving to NYC for Juilliard at 17. That said, Jacobs says she relates as much to Meester’s role as to her own. “I know what it’s like to be stalled in your career, with the people around you being supportive but also being like, ‘Maybe you should just give that up.’”
The chemistry between the two actresses is the real deal. “Paige is not afraid to be gross or TMI, and I think Gillian has that in the best of ways,” says Meester. “We would always start out a take fairly normal. Then we’d get super weird and end up with a lot of friendly humping.”
A small movie about female friendship can be a hard sell at the box office, but if anything, Jacobs seems to relish underdog projects. She’s currently directing a documentary short on Grace Hopper, one of the first female computer programmers, which will be released through the website FiveThirtyEight later this month. During her research, Jacobs was shocked to discover that Hopper was one of many female programmers in the mid–20th century. “The more of these stories I learn, the more I feel like these types of pieces should be out there,” she says of the short. Its timing couldn’t be better, between the current swell of computer scientist movies in theatres or in production (The Imitation Game, Blackhat, The Snowden Files) and the women-in-tech discussion that’s currently dominating the zeitgeist.
Also zeitgeisty: the obsessively think-pieced Girls, whose fourth season—debuting on HBO Canada on Jan. 11—will introduce Jacobs to the remaining subset of hipsters who don’t watch Community. Her character, Mimi-Rose, makes her first appearance in February, but details are scant; all Jacobs will divulge is that some scenes were shot in Williamsburg, near her old apartment (“It was nice to be back there, and working”) and that she asked costume designer Jennifer Rogien to avoid leather jackets and stripes—“signature Britta.” Then it’s on to Hot Tub Time Machine 2, to be released on Feb. 20, followed by season six of Community (premiering the same month) and pre-production for Love, the Apatow series. It’s a romcom, and she’s the female lead opposite Paul Rust, but Jacobs can’t reveal much more about her character than that. One thing she does mention? “It’s the polar opposite of Community, in that it’s already been picked up for two seasons.”
After we’ve run through Jacobs’ exhaustive resumé, it’s time for the obligatory Personal Life Questions. As it turns out, she is a teetotaller and a wrestling fan. “Both true,” says Jacobs, as she sips on a cup of Earl Grey. She grew up an only child, loved going to the Shaw Festival on summer vacation, read a lot books—and still does. “The initial surprise after meeting Gillian,” says Harmon, “is that she does nothing between jobs except read books and listen to NPR.”
Jacobs has a long-time boyfriend—“He’s in the business but not an actor”—a social circle built from scratch when she moved to L.A., and a step-dog. She’s down-to-earth, kind (as evidenced when she alerted me to a piece of parsley caught on my tooth) and curious about my life—“What are you watching right now?” “What else are you doing in New York?”—even if she doesn’t seem game to disclose much about hers.
And so I play the upholstery card. “What? No! I am not skilled like that,” she says with a laugh. “Maybe they meant that I like to have things re-covered by professionals?” There is a gorgeous floral couch in her recent Coveteur shoot that Jacobs found in an antique shop and had reupholstered. Also spotted: dozens of pairs of Air Jordans (she’s a collector) among her treasure trove of sartorial quirk.
“It’s fun to meet designers at the beginning of their careers; there’s a lot of enthusiasm and energy,” says Jacobs, who cites Jonathan Cohen as another favourite. She first spotted his work on Lupita Nyong’o, and then, she says, “I followed him on Instagram and basically harassed him until I ended up meeting him when I came to New York.” She’s similarly passionate about Azede Jean-Pierre, whom she also approached on Instagram after spying Solange Knowles in one of Jean-Pierre’s ant prints. And her stylist, Caley Rinker, turned Jacobs on to Taylor; an Instagram love affair ensued before the pair met cute—in the same pink-and-red Tanya Taylor print—at last October’s CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalists’ presentation in L.A. Shortly thereafter, Taylor asked Jacobs to accompany her to the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund awards ceremony in New York City.
“It’s always nerve-racking to invite someone into a really important moment of your life when you don’t know them well,” Taylor says. “It’s a stressful night and you want to make sure you’re surrounded by people who are funny and want to have fun and—regardless of the outcome—are cool girls that you want to get to know.” (Her other date for the night? FLARE’s 2014 Woman of the Year, Jenny Slate of Marcel the Shell and Obvious Child.)
Jacobs did not disappoint. “She was just so normal and amazingly warm,” says Taylor a few days after the ceremony. “I’d be buzzing around and I’d look over at the table, and she and Jenny and my husband would be laughing their heads off. I felt like we created a nice friendship that night.”
Back at Carbone, it’s time for Jacobs to head to hair and makeup before meeting up with Taylor and Slate, of whom she’s been a fan since the Williamsburg days, when she stumbled upon a comedy night featuring the actress and her stand-up partner, Gabe Liedman.
“I went home and looked up all their videos and fell in love,” Jacobs says. “It’s really cool to get to meet people that I used to watch by myself in my apartment.” And so goes the it-girl circle of life: from observing them, to being one, to inspiring the next generation of baby it-girls, sitting at home watching YouTube videos, dreaming of becoming the next Gillian Jacobs.
Photography: Nino Muñoz for StocklandMartel.com
Styling: Rita Liefhebber
Hair: Carmel Bianco, Ray Brown Pro
Makeup: Hung Vanngo, CK One Color Cosmetics, The Wall Group
Nails: Tatyana Molot, ABTP.com