With Azazel Jacob’s “Terri,” newcomer Jacob Wysocki has made his entrance. In every single scene of the film, critics and audiences at the Sundance Film Festival were clearly won over by Wysocki’s portrayal of the titular character, an overweight teenager who struggles at home (his primary caregiver is a pill-popping uncle) and at school (kids taunt him with names like “double d”). But Terri’s life takes a turn when his assistant principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), decides to take him on, leading them both on a path to self-discovery. Though the basic plot sounds like many conventional student-teacher coming of age dramas, in the hands of Jacobs (“Momma’s Man”), “Terri” becomes a strange and subtle sibling to that genre. Poignant and unexpected, it provides a showcase for the talents of Wysocki, whose previous work was limited to ABC Family’s well-received (but quickly canceled) “Huge.”
indieWIRE sat down with Wysocki as the Sundance Film Festival was nearing its end. Excited and humbled, it was clear that this was a dream he never really thought was going to come true.
What were your experiences with acting prior to “Terri”?
I did a little bit of theater in high school, but my main attraction was with improv. I was in a company called ComedySportz The High School League, which is a theater based in Hollywood that does outreach to 70 high schools in Southern California and teaches them improve. I was like, “Oh my god, this is so fun,” and I did some shows in high school. But upon graduating I thought that acting was just not a tangible career. It’s a longshot. So I decided to go to college and get an English degree. But I did keep doing the improv… And that’s how I got discovered. Somebody saw me doing improv with my group and said, “You seem really talented, why don’t you come audition for this thing?”
And it was “Terri”?
No, “Terri” was my second audition. My first was for this TV show called “Huge” on ABC Family. And I was like, “Let’s try it for fun.” I had no idea that it would work out. But it did, and that got me an agent. I was also able to drop out of college, which was becoming extremely tedious and tiring at that point.
What ended up happening with “Huge”?
It got canceled after the first season. People liked it, but I just don’t think it was a show that the people higher up were too into. Because honestly, it’s a show about a bunch of fat kids. How commercial can that be?
That’s too bad, but at least it led to this.
Yes, it led to this. This was my second audition and I was blown away when I found out I got it. Honestly, acting is not something I ever thought I’d be doing. I put it behind because I didn’t think it was possible. And now I’m here doing this interview at Sundance? It’s blowing my mind. It’s completely weird and freaky but fun and exciting at the same time. It’s so much at once. But it’s a lot better than college… It’s so fresh and new.
You mentioned how improv and comedy were your main attractions to acting, but your performance has many significantly dramatic moments. How did you approach that?
To be honest, I’ve never seen myself as a dramatic actor. I’ve always seen myself as a comedian. I did some stuff on “Huge” that was a little more serious but it was mostly a comedic role. When I read the script for “Terri,” I just felt so connected to the character. But that was just the most daunting task of the whole thing: Convincing myself and being confident in myself that I could do this. And I think that’s all that it took. Because if you keep telling yourself, “No, you’re not good at this,” you’re never going to be good at it. You probably won’t even take the chance. But I was really willing to take this chance and do it right.
And how did you go about doing it right?
A lot of the time it was making sure when I’m filming whether I was being Terri or whether I was being Jacob. And if I’m being Terri, is it too much or too little? It was all about finding this middle zone… this subtle nuance of reality. And once I got out of this mindset that I wasn’t a real actor, my fear really just melted away.
In the midst of all that, how was working with John C. Reilly? That’s an actor who has shown he’s excellent at both drama and comedy, and you had all these long and fantastic scenes between just the two of you.
The most intense filming was probably between me and John because they are pretty lengthy. I think he completely embodied this character and when somebody does such a great job, it makes my job easier. I mean, it was kind of like that weird dream come true because in the improv world you look up to people like him and the movies that they do. So when I found out I was going to be working with him, I was very nervous. I didn’t want to let him down and I didn’t want to let the director down. And I also just didn’t want to let myself down. But when we started working together, it seemed like we had done something before. Just the way he would like push you or give you something that you didn’t expect allowed you to take it in and react and give him something back. I thought I was going to be intimidated and it was going to be tough to get the ball rolling, but he’s just so good at what he does and that made my life so much easier.
What it’s been like here with the film and watching people watch it and talk about it? This is your first Sundance?
Yes, and there are so many different things that are overwhelming about it. I mean, I seldom leave California and this is my first time in the snow.
The first time ever?
Ever. I mean, maybe when I was like two years old. But I’ve made my first snowman and I’m doing all this snow stuff and that’s amazing. And then of course I’m here with this film and people are telling me that they like it, which is crazy. I’m getting thrown around and doing all this press and it’s just a whirlwind. I’m just trying to catch my breath and figure out what exactly is going on. I’m sure I’m just going to go back to California and in two weeks I’ll just be like, “Wow, that really happened.” It’s not bad overhelming it’s just like, I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Speak of which, what is next, as far as you’re concerned?
It’s weird, because I’ve always been so practical with my planning. But now that this is here I feel like I can actually look for a future, which is scary. Ultimately, I want to keep working and I want to keep making film. There’s nothing else that I think I want to be doing. So the end goal is to continue doing this and not going back to community college.