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How ‘Community’ Star Gillian Jacobs Found Her Way to Documentary Filmmaking and Animation

In the new film "I Used to Go Here," the actress plays a writer struggling to reach her dreams. But as Jacobs tells IndieWire, she's got plenty of creative passion to keep her going.

Gillian Jacobs arrives at the world premiere of "I Feel Pretty" at the Westwood Village Theater on Tuesday, April 17, 2018, in Los Angeles (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Gillian Jacobs

Invision

Gillian Jacobs hasn’t been on a film shoot for months, but that hasn’t kept the perpetually busy performer from landing plenty of work. The actress has spent the past few months in lockdown burning through various gigs, from recording the second season of the podcast “Blood Ties” to new voiceover work, including the comic book-inspired series “Invincible.” Jacobs and her “Community” cohorts even got in on the “Zoom reunion” fad early, putting on a charity-benefitting table read and Q&A in mid-May.

Predictably, the event renewed calls for a “Community” movie, though all Jacobs will say at this point is that she feels “lucky that I’m part of something where people want more of it.” For now, however, she has plenty on her plate, including a burgeoning career as a documentary filmmaker.

And she’s on the virtual promotional trail for her latest indie gem: Kris Rey’s “I Used to Go Here,” which finds Jacobs playing a struggling author who returns to her alma mater, only to find herself slipping back into old college habits (both good and bad). The film was set to premiere at SXSW in March, where the crowdpleaser would likely have resonated; even without a festival premiere, it has been received warmly by critics ahead of its VOD release.

Jacobs said that she and Rey had a number of conversations in the weeks leading up to the festival, which was ultimately canceled in early March, marking it as one of the first major American entertainment events to be put on hold because of the pandemic. “I’m just sad because I’ve never seen it in a theater with people,” Jacobs said during a recent Zoom interview. “I hope an audience finds it, and I’m really proud of the movie.”

Jacobs had been a fan of Rey’s work for some time, and had harbored dreams of working with the filmmaker since 2015’s “Unexpected,” in which Rey cast another beloved sitcom actress (Cobie Smulders) in an emotionally resonant dramedy. The character of Kate Conklin, who has yet to make good on all her collegiate promise, spoke to Jacobs.

"I Used to Go Here"

“I Used to Go Here”

Gravitas Ventures

“She felt like someone who was at a crisis point in her life, but she felt like a slightly different type of person than I had played previously,” Jacobs said. “I could understand the crisis that this character was going through and maybe some of the not-so-great decisions that she was making.”

The actress said that Rey’s casting only increased her affection for the project, and much like her character — who falls in with a group of whipsmart college kids during a weekend visit to her old university — she relished bonding with the group Rey assembled. (She especially sparked to fellow actress/filmmaker Hannah Marks, who plays Kate’s sort-of rival in the film. After making “I Used to Go Here,” Jacobs shot a couple of scenes in Marks’ next film, “Mark, Mary & Some Other People.”)

Even now, Jacobs is wistful when remembering the making of the film, which shot last summer in Chicago. “I’m getting very sentimental because I don’t know when the next time I’m going to be on set is,” she said.

In between her busy acting career and all sorts of voiceover gigs (she’s also lent her talents to animated series like “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” and “Adventure Time”), Jacobs is steadily working her way into yet another side of filmmaking. “I have a weird side career directing documentaries that I didn’t see coming,” Jacobs said, noting her her “Community” costars Ken Jeong and Danny Pudi both directed “30 for 30” shorts for ESPN, which lit a fire in her to do the same.

“Honestly, it was born out of jealousy,” she said with a laugh. Her association with the actors lead to a meeting with ESPN executive Dan Silver, but her own initial ideas didn’t connect. “I pitched him some sports doc [ideas], and I think he quickly realized I knew nothing about sports, and I had very weird pitches,” she said.

But after ESPN acquired FiveThirtyEight.com and started making short documentaries about compelling subjects as part of that site’s “Signals” series, Silver reached out to Jacobs, asking if she had interest in making a film about coding legend Grace Hopper.

“I knew nothing about her, and I said yes, and then had to figure out who she was,” Jacobs said. The result was “The Queen of Code,” which examines the life of the extraordinary Hopper, who worked on the first computer and headed up the team that created the first compiler. When Silver moved over to Disney+, he offered the fledgling filmmaker another project, a short documentary about the women of Marvel Comics, set to debut later this year as part of the streaming service’s “Marvel’s 616” series.

“My episode is about the women who have worked at Marvel comics over the decades as writers, editors, artists,” she said. “That was really fun for me, because I like learning. It was really fun for me to learn about comics, to read the comics that these women worked on, to learn more about Marvel. I enjoyed the challenge of it.”

Jacobs also has yet another side career on top of directing: she occasionally interviews interesting women for print publications. In March, she interviewed “Wolf Hall” author Hilary Mantel for Glamour, a major get for a self-professed “fantel,” and an experience so overwhelming that Jacobs said she cried when the pair first got on the phone. “Not gently,” she added.

“I Used to Go Here”

SXSW

All of which is not to say the actress has given up on acting, though she’s keen on breaking out of the “Community” box, citing Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite” as one source of inspiration (“I want to be in something like that“) and Gena Rowlands as another (“She my acting heroine”).

Jacobs’ upcoming projects speak to that eclectic bent. In August, Disney+ will release the comedy “Magic Camp,” a family comedy in which Jacobs stars alongside Adam Devine, Aldis Hodge, and Josie Totah. Also on deck: the Focus Features chiller “Come Play,” the long-rumored theatrical adaptation of the popular “Fear Street” books, and the Chris Pine-starring actioner “Violence of Action.”

Jacobs knows that it can be tricky to find a throughline in her work. “It’s a strange career,” she said. “I started out doing very dramatic indie movies to the point where no one wanted to see me for a comedy. And then I feel like post-‘Community,’ people didn’t know that I had done anything but comedy. So maybe post-‘Community,’ I’m trying to do both.”

Gravitas Ventures will release “I Used to Go Here” on VOD on Friday, August 7.

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