Gillian Jacobs Is Ready to Let Go of Her Fears

Gillian Jacobs

In 2008, not long before she was cast as Britta Perry in NBC’s “Community,” Gillian Jacobs — a theater nerd with Juilliard creds — appeared in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “The Little Flower of East Orange,” directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman at the Public Theater.

It was the last time she acted onstage.

“Little Flower” was a hard act to follow. It fulfilled her dream of working with Hoffman (he died in 2014), and her co-stars were Ellen Burstyn and Michael Shannon. The result, she said, was “incredible.”

There was also the fact that her new series required her to move away from the New York theater scene to Los Angeles, where she remains.

“I felt a little trepidatious to do another play because it had been such an important experience for me,” she said. “But then enough time passed, and I got a little less precious.”

A decade later, she’s back at the Public — this time in Sarah Burgess’s “Kings” as Kate, a Washington health-care lobbyist. Kate is trying to persuade a newly elected representative from Texas, Sydney Millsap (Eisa Davis), to support legislation that will benefit a rather unglamorous client, the American Podiatric Medical Association. (Now in previews, the show opens Tuesday, Feb. 20.)

Kate is feeling the heat: Washingtonian magazine has just released its list of top D.C. gay power couples under 45, and on it are Kate’s ex-girlfriend Lauren (Aya Cash) and her wife.

Later this year, Ms. Jacobs will appear alongside Melissa McCarthy in the movie “Life of the Party.” In a surprisingly emotional interview at the Public’s Library restaurant, Ms. Jacobs, 35, talked about conquering her fears and why her role as Mickey in Netflix’s “Love,” whose final season begins March 9, resonates. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Why the return to theater?

I wanted to challenge myself again. I wanted the rigor of having to be word perfect, of not being able to pull the panic button and say “Cut!” When we did our first full run-though, something went wrong, and I instinctively looked over to Tommy [Kail], the director, like, “Make it stop!” Then I realized there’s no stopping. So I’ve been cherishing both the sheer terror and the pleasure of letting it fly when you know so well what you’re doing.

“Kings” is eye-opening to those of us who don’t know much about lobbying.

I’ve learned about broadening a bill to death, in which a lawmaker can publicly say they support something while privately reassuring the lobbyists and super PACs that they won’t vote for it. That concept — of saying, “I support this, but this bill doesn’t go far enough, and I don’t want to lose out on an opportunity for more comprehensive legislation down the line” — I am now going to regard with suspicion.

In 2016 you wrote about your not entirely positive experience at Juilliard.

I left Juilliard feeling like I didn’t know how to act onstage anymore. I felt so criticized and wasn’t sure that I could do it. But they didn’t teach us on-camera acting, so I didn’t feel like they had told me I couldn’t act on camera, and I gravitated toward movies and TV. I think I had to go away, find my confidence again as an actor, and then be able to come back.

Are you one of their success stories now?

I haven’t gone back to the school so I don’t know if I’m a dart board in the office or they’re proudly claiming me as one of their loves.

You seem the antithesis of Mickey in “Love,” with her sex and substance addictions.

The dynamic between Mickey and her father [a dysfunctional alcoholic] was shockingly similar to my father even though the writers didn’t know anything about my dad. I’m a very tightly wound person who’s tried to have control and decided never to drink or do drugs, and that was my response to a father like that. And Mickey wound up imitating the behaviors of that parent. So maybe the behaviors are different but the drivers — the anxieties, the fear, the pain — are the same.

What is that dynamic with your father like?

[Begins to cry] Well, he passed away. [Long pause] So mine is a closed chapter. The gift that the show gave me was when I tried to perhaps see things from my father’s perspective for the first time. And that empathy has been an amazing thing in my life because it allows you to let go of a lot. It was surreal to work on that episode and say, “I love you, Dad,” which is something I can’t ever say in real life again.

It’s been an emotional time for many actresses because of the #MeToo revelations. Do you have a #MeToo story?

O.K., do you want me to cry again? I had moments years ago where I spoke up and was not listened to. And I tried to then take it to people in positions of power and was told that it was my problem to deal with. So it’s been incredibly painful because I’m allowing myself all those feelings for the first time. But if I allow myself the possibility that this is a moment of real and lasting change, then maybe I can let go of some of that cynicism and hurt and hopelessness.

Finally, a happier question: Any plans for a “Community” reboot?

Oh my God, anything is possible right? But I’m used to finding out news about the show from other people. So I’m sure, like, you will tell me.

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