Gillian Jacobs on the Legacy of ‘Community,’ Longing for the Classic Screwball Comedies of Yesteryear and Not Feeling Funny
Early in the Netflix series Transatlantic, about how the American Emergency Rescue Committee helped spirit artists, writers and Jews out of Nazi-occupied France in 1940, a character snidely dismisses one of the group’s most impassioned operatives: Mary Jayne Gold, an heiress using her father’s money to help finance the effort. “Ms. Gold is a spoiled young lady with no clue about the real world,” he says smugly.
Gold, a real person who’s one of Transatlantic’s central figures, is played by Gillian Jacobs, which might be surprising to some.
Best known for portraying Britta, the flawed activist on Community, Jacobs has mostly done comedy and light drama over the last decade, appearing in shows like Girls and starring in rom-coms such as Ibiza. She was great on Love, in which her character Mickey battles addiction issues while contemplating a romance with Paul Rust’s nerdy, complicated Gus. Although she had no experience doing improv, she starred in Don’t Think Twice, a bittersweet comedy about the frictions within a long-running improv troupe. She played a struggling novelist whose relationship has hit the skids in I Used to Go Here, a somber character study that finds the author returning to her alma mater to speak while facing a personal crossroads.
But Transatlantic is different: a period wartime thriller in which Gold, who’s soon cut off from her father’s fortune because she refuses to return home to Chicago to settle down, must learn to prove her worth behind her financial resources. Old-fashioned without being too glib or self-conscious about it, the series combines action, romance, drama, history — even a few laughs. And Jacobs fits the era perfectly: Although her essence is quite contemporary, she always radiated a classic-film elegance, which is perhaps not surprising since she’s such a fan of movies of the era. Without straining for gravitas, Jacobs is compelling in this largely dramatic role — ironic considering that, when she was cast on Community, it was partly because, at that stage of her young career, she was so tired of doing somber dramas that she was desperate for something lighter.
Talking over Zoom while hanging out at her mom’s house, Jacobs projects a sunny, relaxed air. Even though she’s talking to Cracked, she confesses that she doesn’t necessarily think of herself as funny — and that, before Community, she didn’t even have much comedy experience on her résumé. But over the hour that we talked, what became clear quickly is that she’s always been in touch with her silly side — whether it was performing Monty Python sketches as a kid or figuring out how to make Community’s lines crackle by closely studying her castmates. Her journey has been one of learning to develop confidence in her talents as both an actor and as a comedian — especially after she had a difficult time at Julliard, where she was nearly kicked out because the faculty didn’t think she had the dramatic chops. As she tells me, she had to rediscover her joy for acting.
Jacobs happily jumped around her career during our conversation, interested in considering the unconscious connections between different roles she’s played that hadn’t occurred to her before. She doesn’t have anything to say about her Community co-star Chevy Chase, who famously alienated others on set. (“I’d rather not talk about that, if that’s okay,” she responded politely when I brought him up.) But everything else was fair game, including a rare happy memory from Julliard, the unlikely process of auditioning to play Britta, her feelings on the long-in-the-works Community movie and what she thinks about acting instructors who try to intimidate their students into being better.
What’s so striking about Transatlantic is that it’s about serious subject matter, but there’s also room for some Casablanca-like escapism. That’s especially true with your character, Mary Jayne Gold, who’s involved in dramatic stakes, but also has moments of lightness and gets a love interest to boot.
One of the reasons (I was drawn) to this part is because the references that (series co-creator) Anna Winger was giving me for this character were in line with some of my favorite movie stars of the 1930s and 1940s. I was someone who watched a lot of Katharine Hepburn films growing up. I’m a fan of Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard and Rosalind Russell — all of those women. It was very evocative to me to take one of those Bringing Up Baby, screwball-heiress characters — or It Happened One Night — and put them in a story of this kind of seriousness with life-or-death stakes.
That was something that I was really drawn to and felt very singular about this project — I hadn’t seen that approach too often. And just being a fan of all of those women, I never thought that I would ever get to be in something approaching that. It’s not a genre that really exists in contemporary film and television, so for someone who’s a film-history buff, it felt like, “Wow, this is an opportunity I never thought I’d have.”
Winger has said that she was looking for someone who could play a “Katharine Hepburn glamor heroine,” which is a nice compliment to you, but I was really glad it wasn’t you doing a Hepburn impression. It reflects the era without trying to imitate it.
Yes, they were very explicit that they did not want me to try to mimic the accent of the time. It’s so interesting: Have you ever heard of this podcast called The History of English? It’s a podcast I really love, and they just did a bonus episode on the Transatlantic accent and how that came to be the predominant accent for film. I went to Juilliard, and the people that they’re talking about originating that accent were some of the original teachers at Juilliard — it was an accent that, definitely, I was taught at school, but one that I don’t really use in my acting. I think I just knew in my unconscious mind what the films of that era were, and the archetypes of that sort of character. They were not looking for me to (do) an imitation of a film performance from the 1930s or 1940s.
Your career is going great, but I do feel like you would have also killed during that time period. Is there a part of you that thinks, “God, if I could have been in It Happened One Night…”?
Or His Girl Friday! I definitely watch with envy. Cary Grant was my first big crush in life. I wish I could be in one of those movies. I aspire to Rosalind Russell level of fast repartee and that back and forth — that (verbal) tennis match between her and Cary Grant, I would kill for that. When I looked in the mirror on this project — that hair and makeup, wardrobe — this checked a lot of the boxes for me. But, yes, if (someone) could write me a 1930s comedy, I would be so thrilled.
Comic actors seem to come in two categories: the ones who were the funny class clowns growing up, or the ones who liked performing and found out they had an ability to do comedy. Were you either of those growing up?
It was not in my conception of myself that I was funny. I mean, I enjoyed comedy a lot. I had one acting teacher as a kid who loved comedy, who loved Monty Python, The Lemmings. He would have us memorize and perform Monty Python sketches. I remember doing “Dead Parrot” as a kid and him playing the Lemmings album for us. Because of him I watched Waiting for Guffman and all the theater-kid classics, and I loved it all. How many kids got to perform Monty Python as a kid?
But I didn’t think of myself in that way. I was obsessed with Shakespeare as a child — absolutely obsessed — and got the opportunity to be in some Shakespeare plays as a kid, and memorized monologues and scenes from Shakespeare. I was obsessed with George Bernard Shaw from the age of 12 on, and so I was really thinking of myself much more in that world.
I think the turning point for me, where I realized that I had any kind of knack toward comedy, was maybe my second year at Juilliard. I did a scene from a Chris Durang play in my acting class — I loved Chris Durang plays, I was very starstruck that he taught playwriting at Juilliard. It was my classmates’ response to me in that scene where they were just laughing so much and telling me how good I was in that. I was not a star of my class — I was not seen as the best actor in my class or someone who the teachers really praised all that often — so it was really my classmates’ response that planted the seed somewhere in my head that I could maybe do this.
But I didn’t go to Upright Citizens Brigade. I didn’t go to Groundlings. I didn’t go to Second City. So when I got on Community, I felt unprepared in a lot of ways. I didn’t have the background of some of my castmates. I was learning on the fly. But as I’ve realized, the best teachers I’ve ever had have been my scene partners. I like to say I went to graduate school for comedy by being in that cast.
Dan Harmon is known for being a comic genius who’s very obsessive about his scripts. Was that intimidating to be around since you were just learning the ropes of comedy?
I think, mercifully, I wasn’t aware of that. I didn’t live in Los Angeles until that show — I didn’t come up through that or really know anybody in comedy. I don’t think I really understood, which was probably to my great benefit. I just tried to do the scenes as best I could — and then also just steal from my castmates. I would watch them do a scene, and then I would see how they took it from the page to the screen — what they brought to it that was different, or how they made it their own, or watching Donald Glover improvise. I was really a sponge absorbing that.
To land a sitcom when you didn’t have an extensive comedic background is impressive. How did you get to the point where you thought you could land the part of Britta?
I had done so many serious, dramatic indies back-to-back-to-back at that point. I was consciously wanting to do comedy, but if you haven’t really done something before, people aren’t going to be thinking about you for that. Truthfully, I didn’t have anyone to look to to think that I could do it.
So it was a pure audition process. Weirdly, I was doing an indie movie with Corey Stoll, my Transatlantic castmate — Corey Stoll, Melanie Lynskey and I were all doing this tiny indie movie in the woods of New York State. It was pilot season of 2009, and we were putting each other on tape for auditions and trying to upload it with the world’s slowest wifi, the worst internet connection.
A friend of mine called me and said, “I just auditioned for this pilot, and this part — you are perfect for this.” And I was like, “Well, I don’t know what to do. Pilots get cast so quickly — in a matter of days. I feel like I’ve already missed out. I’m in the woods.” But I got so frustrated by the end of shooting this movie that I was like, “I’m just going to go to L.A. Pilot season is allegedly over — I’ve missed it — but I just have to go, just to be there in person.”
Thankfully, they had a really hard time casting the part of Britta. They had been seeing people, and they were still reading people when I got out there. I read the script, and I thought it was so funny and made me laugh — not a lot of pilots actually made me laugh. I loved the humor, and I felt like I understood this character — she was the more serious one in the group.
I went in, I auditioned, and sometimes timing is everything with auditions. They’d been trying to see people for a long time, and so I think by the time I came in, they were ready to make a decision. And I think who I was — my natural sensibility, and how that character existed within the pilot — it all just lined up. When I called my friend and I was like, “I got a pilot, I’m playing Britta on Community,” she’s like, “That’s the part I was telling you that that was you!” So that was one where it just felt meant to be.
What did your friend see in you that made her think you’d be a good Britta.
I don’t know. I don’t want to think about that too much because Britta’s kind of the killjoy. (Laughs) I never try to think about that too deeply.
So what did you see in Britta that you connected with?
I understood that she was a person who had a lot of ideals and firmly-held beliefs — and it might not line up with where she was in her life or who she actually was, but she had that conception of herself and who she wanted to be. She was sarcastic in the pilot and a little bit droll. She’s suspicious of this guy (Jeff), but also kind of playing it cool and clearly interested. But I think anyone who’s watched all six seasons of the show would also say that she’s probably the character that evolved the most in the writing and my performance of it over time, so I just tried to go with wherever she went. But I think the earnestness of her remained consistent throughout.
When shows go multiple seasons, the writers will start writing to their cast’s strengths because they know the actors better. Was Britta’s evolution them getting to know your sensibility?
I’ve never had direct conversations with any of the writers about that. Maybe I was also growing in my ability as a comedic performer as the show went along. I was so nervous the first season anytime they’d really give me anything to do — I remember there was a episode where I’m trying to steal a frog, and I was so nervous about that set piece, being by myself and having to do the physical comedy of it. So maybe as I grew more confident as a performer and I started stealing from Jim Rash and Donald and all those people, maybe they started to write to that more. I don’t know. Maybe when the oral history of Community comes out, we’ll get the definitive answer on that. (Laughs)
It sounds like maybe you don’t enjoy looking back at performances you’ve given. You don’t want to dissect them?
I think I have the eternal divine dissatisfaction that artists have. If I do watch something, I can both appreciate it and be like, “Oh, I wish I would’ve done this,” or “I could have been better in that.”
But I haven’t dissected anything too closely. I’m lucky to have been a part of shows that people continue to talk about and ask me about. So it’s kind of ever-present in my life, but not something that I’m going back and rewatching and analyzing too closely. But thankfully people still want to talk about them.
There’s constant talk about a possible Community movie. You were on Watch What Happens Live recently and you were asked again what’s going on with that. You mentioned that you haven’t seen a script. But do you think about where Britta is now? And do you also think, “I’ve grown as an actor, so I think I could bring more to Britta now than I could back then”?
No, honestly, because I don’t know what they’re going to write. I don’t know where she’s going to be at. I don’t know what Dan’s conception of Britta for the movie is. So until I see the script, I kind of can’t know.
We did a Zoom table read of one of the scripts, which was really fun and nerve-racking for a moment to go back. But then you’re all there together doing these parts again, and you slip right into it. I mean, it’s also the part that I did for the longest amount of time, so I feel like it’s in there.
I haven’t thought too deeply about any of that. It’s been just such a long journey of this show. And the thing that really strikes me now is, because so many people have discovered it through streaming, people have an image of this show as though it was this huge success when it was on. They don’t know how tenuous it was for the majority of the run of the show. It’s kind of remarkable that we were able to make over 100 episodes of that show given that we thought we were going to be canceled almost every season. So I think the nice part about the movie will be the lack of that stress — there’s no longer the “Are we going to still be here next week?” That part of it will probably be really enjoyable.
Paul Rust, who co-created Love, said he had you in mind for Mickey, the show’s troubled addict who develops feelings for his character. You’ve talked at length about the fact that you don’t drink or do drugs, but I was curious how it felt to know that he thought you could bring something special to her.
I was excited. I thought it was an incredible character. They all seemed to want me to do it. But then, of course, it was the nerves of starting a new show after six years of playing a character. I mean, I’d done plenty of movies during the run of Community, but it’s really something to take on and craft a new television character, and we knew we were doing two seasons right off the bat, so that’s intimidating. It’s first-day-of-school nerves, which I hadn’t really had, in that way, in six seasons (of Community). I felt that as well in wanting to do justice to the character. But you have to self-soothe: “They asked me to do this. They believe I can do it. You can do it.”
Was it hard to switch off Britta? Like you said, you’d done movies during Community, but Britta was such a big part of your career.
I feel like the tone of Community is so specific and unique — it exists within that world, and the context of the dynamics with the characters, and the writing. That show is its own thing. So, no. I’m sure I have bad-actor habits that follow me through every project — that’s more of a Gillian problem than a bringing-Britta-to-Love problem.
What sort of bad habits do you have as an actor?
I don’t want to tell you! (Laughs) I’m going to keep those to myself.
Fair enough, but I think anybody who does something creative has tics or falls into some lazy habits. We all deal with that.
The goal for me is to not be so self-conscious while I’m acting. The ideal version of it is that you can silence the inner voice long enough to be the character in the scene. That’s the sort of thing that you’re always chasing as an actor. But there are times, absolutely, where, before a take, I’m like, “Don’t do that thing” — to greater and lesser degrees of success.
I always appreciated that Love did not insist that these two people were meant to be together. It was a show that said, “Mickey and Gus could be a good match — but in some ways, they’re not compatible at all.” We as an audience constantly had to question how we felt about their courtship.
What I liked about the show was that I felt like you met these two people who felt fully realized in terms of their strengths and their weaknesses from the pilot. In the writing, they tried to be honest about, yeah, there’s some ways in which these people’s dysfunction meets and fits in maybe a codependent way — and there are ways in which these are very different people who are going to clash on things. I felt like it maintained that throughout, where these are two people who need to separately continue to do work on themselves. (Laughs) Sometimes they’d have wins in their personal life and losses in their professional life — sometimes they were doing better in their professional life and regressing in their personal relationship. The show was trying to be honest about the fact that these were not perfect people. They did not find love and it fixed everything — they were still having to work through all of the stuff.
Whether it’s Britta, Mickey or your Transatlantic character, they’re all people who are underestimated. They want to prove something to people who doubt them. I’m curious if you’re drawn to roles like that.
I think that you’re correct — I’m probably drawn to people who feel complicated and people who have something to prove. I never really thought about that throughline but, yeah, I see that as well.
The reason why I wondered is your 2017 Lenny Letter essay about your unhappy time at Julliard, where you got put on the school’s probation system, which meant you could have been cut from the program. You wrote about feeling like the teachers didn’t think you were that talented. I can imagine that might instill in you an interest to play characters who have to prove something to others.
Yeah, I definitely feel like I graduated not brimming with confidence and ready to take on the world. I graduated thinking, “Well, they’ve now made me feel like I cannot act in theater, so I’m going to focus on film and television.”
The first couple years of my career was really about figuring out, “Did I want to act?” Up until that point, I’d gotten a lot of approval and affirmations from adults and authority figures in my life — they told me I was doing a good job. Did I like to do it because I liked that? Or did I like to act because I like to act? I think through getting Community, I was still really grappling with that and having fun acting again.
Do you remember while working on Community a moment where you went, “Wait, I can do comedy — I’m good at this”?
I can’t think of a singular moment, but I’m seeing a parallel between that moment where my classmates at Juilliard really affirmed me in that scene and made me feel like I was funny and the way in which the cast of Community was incredibly supportive and enthusiastic about each other’s performances. It was really a cast where someone would do something in a take, they would call cut, and we’d be like, “Oh my god, that was amazing!” It was very vocally affirmative of each other. So I had those moments, as time went on, where it just felt like they were also telling me I was funny — they were getting a kick out of what I was doing. Just being a part of that, I’m really grateful for that dynamic — especially for me coming in feeling unprepared in a certain way. Had it been a different sort of cast dynamic, I don’t know what would’ve happened. But it was a very supportive group — they made me feel like I belonged. And it’s also the story of the characters, too — we were an underdog show. This is about a group of underdog students, and we were an underdog show. So it all went together.
I’m guessing Community’s inventive nature might have been liberating for you, too. Maybe if it had been more of a traditional sitcom, you would have worried about a lot of comedy “rules” concerning how a show is supposed to be. From episode to episode, Community could be whatever it wanted.
And because we weren’t a multi-cam (show), we weren’t doing it in front of an audience, so you have that freedom. Also, we didn’t know going into the show that Community would become the type of show that it became. There were meta references in the pilot, yes, but there was nothing in the pilot that would have led any of us to know that we were going to be taking all these genres on and doing paintball and doing all these things. So it was sort of a growing awareness for us as a cast over the first season — we were learning what the show was as it was happening. It wasn’t like anyone sat us down and explained, philosophically, what it was as a show.
I mean, what a treat, what a fun challenge. It just made it fun and exciting and different. Week to week, you’re looking around and you’re like, “Oh, we’re all dressed like that this week? Oh, we’re doing a space movie, but it’s on a KFC bus?" I mean, what a gift.
You start out doing a lot of serious indie dramas. Then you do Community. Between Love, I Used to Go Here and Transatlantic, you definitely haven’t pigeonholed yourself in terms of the projects you tackle. Do you actually think of yourself as a comic actor?
Not really. I would be incapable of doing stand-up. I’ve been forced to do some improv shows — Mike Birbiglia, when we were doing Don’t Think Twice, forced us to do improv shows — but it’s only been a handful of times.
I don’t have the skillset or the training that a lot of comedians have. So I don’t know where I would put myself. How would you categorize me? I try not to think about myself too much.
How did it feel to be thrown to the wolves and have to do improv in front of an audience?
He very smartly had a sort of bootcamp for us. There were people (in the cast), obviously veteran improvisers: Keegan(-Michael Key) had been at Second City; Tami Sagher, Chris Gethard, legendary UCB improvisers. But what Mike smartly realized was that we had to believably be a troupe that had worked together for years, so regardless of background or level of skill, he wanted us all to take classes together.
He claims that he told us we were doing improv shows. (Laughs) I maintain that I had no idea because we finished our first class, and I was like, “Oh, where are you guys going for dinner?” He’s like, “We’ve got a show.” I was like, “What are you talking about?” He’s like, “We’re doing a show at UCB for a paying audience right now.” I was like, “I’ve had one class. What the hell are you…?!” The audience hasn’t been told, “Here’s a voucher, come see these people who don’t know what they’re doing.” (Laughs)
So that was wildly intimidating, but I think very valuable also in having that experience of being out there in front of an audience in New York at UCB. The whole process leading up to shooting really helped get me there, bond us as a group, and give me just a brief sense of what it would actually be like.
How do you think you did on stage?
I definitely remember I bailed on one scene, which is the cardinal sin in improv. So, not perfect, but probably better than I thought I was going to do. But I was also surrounded by some greats, so graded on a curve.
Still, that’s a long way from your character in Don’t Think Twice, who’s supposed to be an expert improv performer who may have a shot on Weekend Live, which is the movie’s version of Saturday Night Live. How did you get to a place where you felt, “I can pull off being an ace improv artist”?
Yeah, I think that’s where the acting comes in. (Laughs) But it is really funny: Amanda Peet and I go to the same hair salon, and a few weeks ago, I met her for the first time, and she was like, “Do Gena Rowlands as an umpire.” I was like, “Oh my god, you’ve seen the movie!”
Certainly with the impressions (my character did in Don’t Think Twice), I was like, “Mike, can we do people that I feel like I can do, like Katharine Hepburn?” I wanted to do Gena Rowlands — that was my pitch, because those were actresses that I knew and loved and was really familiar with. And I also thought it would work that the impressions she’s doing are not timely or current at all, and it would work for this person, who’s unsure if they want this at all. They’re not coming in doing someone from current-day — they’re doing actresses from an earlier era and really challenging (Weekend Live): “Are you sure you want me? This is what I like. Do you want this?”
After you wrote that essay, did anyone from Juilliard ever reach out to you to complain that you painted them in a negative light?
I’ve not heard from anyone. I also know that the Juilliard of 2023 is, I think, substantially different from the Juilliard I went to. From what I’ve heard, it is not the same place, and I am glad to hear that because I think certain things, like the cut system, really did not help people out.
I remember, after I didn’t get cut, certain teachers saying to me, “Aren’t you glad we gave you that kick in the ass? See how well you’re doing now?” I was really shaken as a person by that experience. I don’t know how many people actually felt that the threat of being cut from the program made them a better actor. I so wanted their approval — they could have really scared me without threatening to cut me from the program. So I’m really glad for students there now that they are not experiencing that.
But no, no one from Juilliard has reached out to me. Other students have told me that they related to the article, so I don’t think I’m alone in that experience. And then, actually, a lot of people from a lot of different fields told me that they felt that way about their fine art program or their architecture program. I didn’t know why they wanted me to write that essay — it felt like such a niche experience to be talking about. Would anyone care? But what I found out was that that experience for a lot of people, in a lot of different creative endeavors, sadly felt resonant.
This seems to be an ongoing debate in both the arts and sports: Do we need to put kids through the ringer to toughen them up to prepare for the real world?
These professions are really difficult, yes. In some ways, yes, I expected acting to be competitive and difficult because I did not have an easy time at school — but I may have also realized that because it’s a fact without having had that experience.
My first couple of years out of school were really rocky because of what I went through at Juilliard. I can’t know how I would have been had I not gone there or had I had a different experience there. But I certainly feel like the cut system, I don’t think it really benefited students — I don’t believe that it made those of us who were on probation, and didn’t get cut, better actors. I think it did more damage than good.
Acting is so personal and individual — that’s a difficult thing about the subjectivity of the arts. There’s some degree to which it’s taste — your taste as a teacher, what do you respond to? And that doesn’t necessarily correlate with what (the industry) is going to relate to. I think there’s room within film, television and theater for lots of different types of actors who have different strengths and weaknesses and styles. And so, even if someone’s style or who they are isn’t to the taste of that individual faculty, it doesn’t mean that they’re not going to find success in the profession at large.
You see that, too, with the people who are ahead of you in school and who’s getting work right away and who’s not — it doesn’t always line up with who the faculty seem to be obsessed with. So I tried to remind myself of that: “Beyond the walls of this school, what these teachers think of me is going to become irrelevant.” It feels like your whole world, and it feels like forever when you’re there. But it’s the way in which family or close friends can also get locked into their conception of you based on you at a certain period of time. I was 17 when I started at Juilliard — I never lived away from home, I was not a very adventurous kid, I didn’t grow up in New York City. And so in some ways too, as much as (the faculty) is seeing you evolve and they’re pushing you to evolve, I felt locked into their conception of me, which was not the strongest actor in my class. But I realized once I go out into the real world, no one’s going to be carrying that image of me with them. They’re going to be meeting me fresh.
When you’re doing something like Transatlantic, where people are looking forward to seeing it and you know it’s not going to get canceled, is there any part of you that misses all that drama and uncertainty around Community’s precarious situation?
I’ll take the former over the latter. I remember one week (on Community), Yvette (Nicole Brown) packed up her trailer and put everything in her car and was like, “I truly don't think we’re coming back next week.” I’m not looking to replicate that experience.
With both Community and Love, these weren’t big shows, but eventually they found their audience. It must be gratifying to be proven right — to know something you’re working on is good, and then for viewers to eventually catch up with what you knew all along.
You have so little control as an actor — so little control. That’s something that overall I feel much more at peace with — really, my control exists between “action” and “cut,” and everything else is the result of so many factors that I have no ability to control. As I’ve gone on, I’ve let go more and more of outcomes and results.
So, yeah, it is really nice when it feels like that thing you did that you felt was good — and felt like it came and went — then finds a new audience. But I think that I’ve gotten better about accepting what’s within my control and what’s not.
And then, every once in a while, Amanda Peet comes up and quotes Don’t Think Twice to you.
Not a bad day. Not a bad day. I was truly in awe. That was so nice. I mean, that gives you the little ego boost to keep going.