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Gillian Jacobs Talks Working With First-Time Filmmakers, Her New Short and the Relationship Between ‘Community’ and Its Online Following

Gillian Jacobs Talks Working With First-Time Filmmakers, Her New Short and the Relationship Between 'Community' and Its Online Following

As Greendale Community College student Britta Perry, Gillian Jacobs has transformed over the four seasons (so far) of “Community” from a reluctant love interest of Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) to a character more complicated, funny and flat out weird than anyone would have expected when, in order to get in her pants, Jeff invented the study group that would become the core of the quirky NBC sitcom. 

The progressive would-be activist whose attempts to do good backfire so often her name becomes slang for screwing something up will be back when “Community” returns for its fifth year sometime in the upcoming TV season, with creator Dan Harmon back at the helm after a year off. In the meantime, you can see Jacobs in “It’s Not You, It’s Me,” a short from filmmaker Matt Spicer in which Jacobs plays a woman whose boyfriend (Fran Kranz) has begun to get on her nerves, pushing her to a breaking point. The film, which premieres online courtesy of comedy collective YouTube channel JASH, is a nice halfway point between the comedy work Jacobs has become known for recently and the darker theater and indie film work in which she got her start. Here’s “It’s Not You, It’s Me,” and below, Indiewire’s interview with Jacobs about the short, its potential PSA use and “Community.”

How’d you get involved with this film?

I was sent the script. [The director] Matt and I had met once very briefly, and I knew his producing partner Max Winkler [“Ceremony”] a bit, so we vaguely knew each other. I really liked it and thought those guys are really talented and making a lot of cool stuff, so I thought it would be fun to get a chance to work with them and Fran Kranz and Rob Huebel. It was a really good group of actors that they put together.

This is Matt Spicer’s first film. Is that of interest to you, or something you have no hesitations about, to work with someone on their first project?

You know, it’s nice to get in on the ground floor with people you think are talented and exciting. Sometimes it goes well, and sometimes it doesn’t, but I think as long as you go into something that’s low budget with a first time director with the mentality that you’re here to work hard and have fun and go along with the bumps in the road, then you can have a really great time.

The film goes to some very entertaining dark places, but starts out with something probably everyone can relate to, which is when someone’s every minor action is driving you nuts. How you would sum up that feeling? It’s almost as if these little things are too irrational to complain about, but then they add up to something bigger. 

That’s a great way of putting it. I think that also when you’ve been in a relationship for a long time, you can lose sight of what you love about somebody and just focus on the minutiae of what drives you nuts. The more attention you give to your negative feelings, the more they grow, so I think things just start to blow totally out of proportion. Also, he doesn’t have a job and I am supporting him, so I think the character has some valid concerns, but also thinks about how he eats noodles, which is maybe less of a reason to kill someone.

It’s almost a cautionary tale about just being able to tell someone you need some space, and that they should put on some pants.

[laughs] Yeah, that’s great! If this can turn into a PSA for “Put on your pants,” I’ll be very happy.

I’m sure the TV production schedule limits the amount of time you’re able to do other things. Do you look for any particular type of project when you have the time to work on something else?

I actually shot this while I was shooting “Community,” on a Saturday, a Sunday, and then the following Saturday, maybe. I definitely gave up my weekend to do it, but I wanted to be a part of this project. Sometimes you try to cram things in where you can. It’s nice, also, when you’ve been on a TV show for multiple seasons, to work on different kinds of projects and play different sorts of characters so I think you’re willing to inconvenience yourself to get a chance to be a part of a project like this.

Your earlier work in features like “Blackbird” and “Choke,” which were on the film festival circuit, include some dark themes. How did you make the move into comedy? Sometimes, it seems, there’s resistance if you start down one path, then people don’t want to see you in another way.

I have to credit Dan Harmon with that entirely, because I had never done comedy before “Community” really. He saw me audition for it and wanted me for the role. From there, I was able to meet a lot of other people in the comedy world and sketch and improv and people that I’d always admired and wanted to work with. It’s much easier to get hired for the next job when you already have your first job. So “Community” opened a lot of doors for me in that world.

Do you feel that you’ve gotten more comfortable with comedy over the years? Have you developed any particular approach to it or changed your way of thinking about it over these seasons working on “Community” and other projects? 

I definitely feel more comfortable then I did in the first season, and I was lucky enough to get to work every day with people like Jim Rash and Joel McHale and Donald Glover and Danny Pudi and Allison and Yvette, so I feel like I’ve learned first hand a lot from watching people. You know, you read a script and then you watch the way they deliver their lines and you see what they bring to it that makes it their own and makes it funnier than you imagined it when you read it. I’d say I’ve gone to grad school for comedy being on “Community.”

I’ve gotten the chance to work with a lot of other really funny people like Ken Marino and Rob Corddry on outside projects, so I feel like I’ve just been a sponge for the last couple years. Then you try to learn what’s funny about you through trial and error, just trying something on set and seeing if people respond to it and if you get positive feedback for one thing or another, and then you start to piece together what it is that makes you funny. Then there’s just being really open to taking risks and big failures, because that’s probably when you’re funniest is when you’re taking a big risk.

You mentioned this community — there’s a sense overall of comedy being a vibrant scene right now, in Los Angeles and beyond. As someone I see popping up on podcasts and “Funny or Die” videos, would you say that idea of ease of collaboration is accurate?

I found it to be incredibly supportive. You work with one person and you tell your friends, “She was good. Hire her,” or they see her in something. I’ve had a very positive experience in LA in the comedy world and found everyone to be very nice and welcoming. It’s been really fun. You do something like film “The Thrilling Adventure Hour” and then you meet Paul F. Tompkins and have him ask me to do his live show or do his podcast, and it just expands. You meet one person and they ask you to do something else and so on and so forth. It’s just been a natural progression for me of getting to meet various people.

In that vein, JASH is set up to be one of those platforms not only for collaboration, but to be able to house everything from short films and to looser indescribable content. Do you have any interest in creating something yourself, to write or direct?

Yeah, more and more I keep thinking about things I would like to write or direct or just produce or shepherd into the world. Even something as stupid as Vine videos makes you feel like you’re making things on your own. I would like to start to do that more, to be creating things.

The sensibility of the comedy you find on both JASH and “Community” is particularly online friendly. Having been with “Community” as it’s built up a following, has the way you approach interacting with the fandom online changed at all or have your thoughts on the internet in general changed? 

Well, I feel like the internet has been largely responsible for “Community” staying on the air. Whether it’s people organizing on Twitter or Reddit or Tumblr, and connecting with each other as fans, and sharing petitions. For me, I was not on Twitter before “Community.” I sort of got peer pressured by Donald into joining.

Basically my entire internet experience has been framed by “Community,” so I see it largely through the lens of “Community.” Thus far for me, it’s been amazing to watch all these fans be so vocal and passionate and organized and really, truly, keep our show on the air.

It does feel like there’s a kind of conversation happening with the fans that I don’t think I’ve ever seen with a show before. But the last year has surely made that complicated — I’ve also never seen that kind of awareness of behind the scenes happen in a show before, and I was wondering if that affects at all how you look at your relationships at work. 

Well, when you feel like people are responsible for keeping your show on the air, you can’t then be upset that they then want to know what’s going on, especially when someone as important as Dan Harmon leaves. So I totally understand their passion and their interest in what’s happening in the show behind the scenes. Sometimes it’s hard as an actor, because we don’t really get to make any decisions about the show itself. You can sympathize with what they’re saying, but we don’t necessarily have the power to influence what happens to a show.

But I totally understand their interest in what’s going on staffing wise, or shooting wise, or our air date. You know, I get it. When we were supposed to air in October and then they moved our premiere to February, I approached the writers and I said, “I feel like we should create something that goes online on October 19,” the date we were supposed to give them a new episode. You know, to at least give them something, some original content. So they wrote this great little short that we put online. So for me, that was our way of acknowledging we know you’ve been waiting and counting down for this moment. We know you’re upset we’re not coming on until February. We hear you, and we’re thinking about you. Here’s our little gift to you in the form of a little scene.

Do you have any kind of hopes for Britta in the upcoming season? Are there any kind of things you want to see from her?

Well, she has a major, which is more than she had for a while. She has a passion. Maybe I’d like for her to get a little bit better at her passion, but it’s also kind of fun to watch her fall on her face. Especially now with Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna back, I don’t really think that far ahead. I just know they’re writing great episodes, and I can’t wait to start shooting them.

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