Gillian Jacobs says it’s always her goal to “feel busy”, and she seems to have fulfilled it even during her COVID-19 quarantine. “I did a scripted podcast from home and voiceover jobs for animation, so I’ve found a way to keep working,” the actress and director tells NME over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “I’ve been learning a lot about audio equipment, audio file settings on computers and how to optimise a closet for sound. So I guess I’m gaining new skills!”
Jacobs, the daughter of an investment banker father and a mother who works in alumni relations for a Pittsburgh university, has worked prolifically since landing her breakthrough role in hit sitcom Community just over a decade ago. As Britta Perry, a brittle hipster who walks the line between progressive and pretentious, Jacobs was a key member of a brilliant ensemble cast that included Donald Glover and Joel McHale. After it wrapped its sixth and final season in 2015, Jacobs starred in three seasons of Judd Apatow’s salty Netflix romcom Love, playing the rebellious and frustratingly erratic radio programmer Mickey Dobbs – another complicated role she excelled in. She’s also taken on a steady succession of film work, alternating along the way between comedy (Life of the Party, Ibiza) and horror (Visions, the upcoming Come Play).
Jacobs is clearly in-demand as an actor and as a director – she’s currently making a Disney+ documentary about the women who helped to build Marvel Comics. She also takes on interviewing assignments for Glamour magazine, so it’s a little surprising to hear her say she’s never really shaken off the classic freelancer’s fear. “As soon as you get a job, you’re thinking: ‘What’s the next job?’” she says. “And you know, when I first started out there’d be long gaps of time in between jobs and no guarantee that there ever would be a next job. So I think I have this constant need to keep working which probably isn’t entirely healthy.”
Still, Jacobs’ latest job definitely ranks among her best. In I Used to Go Here, a poignant and at times painfully relatable comedy film directed by Kris Rey, she stars as Kate Conklin, a seemingly accomplished writer whose life appears to be imploding. When her debut novel flops horribly and her book tour gets cancelled, Kate, who’s recently split from her fiancé, accepts an offer to give a talk at her former college. It’s a perfect distraction-cum-consolation prize that lets her revisit her old student haunts and reconnect with a lechy professor, David Kirkpatrick, played by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement.
But once she’s back at her alma mater, South Illinois University, Kate makes a series of increasingly questionable choices which ultimately leads her to catch Kirkpatrick in bed with his most talented student, April (Banana Split’s Hannah Marks). In one of the film’s most moving scenes, Kate tells April she envies her because “it’s all, like, possibility for you, [whereas] I’ve already fucked up”.
Jacobs says she was drawn to the role because she could empathise with Kate’s crisis of confidence. “I can certainly relate to a moment of feeling like things haven’t worked out as you expected,” she says. “That moment when you’re feeling kind of at sea and unsure of what direction you should go in next, I mean, who hasn’t felt like that?” She also says she understands why Kate’s novel, a pretentious-sounding romance called Seasons Passed, is such a dud.
“I think she was too concerned with what she thought people wanted and what she thought the literary trends were at the time,” Jacobs says. “She was so busy trying to be savvy and canny in terms of what she wrote that what she wrote didn’t really speak to her as a person. And because of that, it wasn’t her best work.” It’s a trap that anyone who’s tried to make it in a highly competitive creative industry will recognise all too well.
When I ask Jacobs whether she’d like to give a talk at her own alma mater, New York City’s Juilliard School, she replies with a fabulously deadpan: “No.” Today, Jacobs says she “didn’t have such a positive college experience as Kate”, but that’s definitely an understatement. In a 2016 essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny newsletter, Jacobs recalled her demoralising experience at the world-famous performing arts school, where one acting teacher told her: “You’re a pretty girl with such ugly physical habits. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to undo them.”
In her Lenny essay, Jacobs also writes that “it wasn’t until I was cast on Community that I was given the opportunity to do comedy”, and it’s clear she regards the show with a lot more fondness than her college years. Back in May, she joined her old castmates Glover for a virtual table read in aid of the COVID-19 relief efforts. Jacobs says they had no trouble finding their rhythm. “I mean, I think when you’ve worked on a show for six years, it’s kind of seeped into your brain somewhere, right? If we were to ever do anything like that again, in real life, I don’t think it would take us very long to get back into it,” she adds.
Does Jacobs think the table read’s success could speed up the long-mooted Community movie? “I think it wouldn’t hurt,” Jacobs says, noting that the show has found “a new audience” since being added to Netflix earlier this year. “But also, I have never seen a script for a movie or had any concrete conversations about a movie beyond all you lovely people who ask about it in interviews.” Jacobs laughs playfully. “I feel like if you all just apply this pressure to [creator] Dan Harmon, maybe we’ll get closer!”
She’s equally enthusiastic about the prospect of more Love, which was cancelled by Netflix in December 2017 a few months before its third and final season premiered. When I say that Apatow told NME in June that there’s “always a chance” it could come back, she replies: “That’s so funny. I’ve never heard him say that. But I agree with him. I think they’re characters that you would want to check in with. Where are they at now? Are they even still together? A lot of shows now are doing a time leap, and we could do that naturally because the show’s been off air for a few years. I think it would be fascinating to check in.”
Jacobs’ I Used to Go Here character isn’t really like Love’s Mickey Dobbs or Community‘s Britta Perry – Kate Conklin’s despair looms closer to the surface – but she still feels like a quintessential Jacobs creation. She brings so much humanity to her characters – even Mimi-Rose Howard, her obnoxiously confident artist from Dunham’s Girls – that you can’t help rooting for them a little. Jacobs says she doesn’t need to like everyone she plays – actually, it’s a “fun challenge” not to. “Your goal is to come up with the character’s internal logic,” she says. “So even if you don’t agree with what they’re doing, you have to justify in your own head why they’re doing it, so that it makes sense to an audience.”
Like keeping busy, it’s another goal Jacobs seems to be fulfilling admirably. “I guess I’m always looking for a role that feels like something I haven’t exactly done before,” she says. “I have different things I gravitate to in each project, but the overall feeling is not wanting to repeat myself.” Still, this doesn’t mean she lacks specific goals. Jacobs has spoken about being a huge fan of the original British version of The Office, so would she like to work with Ricky Gervais at some point? “Oh yeah! And with Stephen Merchant. I love that movie he did with Florence Pugh, Fighting with My Family. And I’d love to work with any of the actors from The British Office – I mean, just put me in any combination. Can you help?”