Last week on Girls, viewers and Hannah got the same surprise — Adam had a new girlfriend, played by Community’s own Gillian Jacobs! As Sunday’s episode revealed, Mimi-Rose Howard is everything the rest of the Girls gang is not: friendly, empathetic, and generally well adjusted. Just in time for her Girls arc (as well as the imminent arrival of the reborn Community), we talked to Jacobs about her role on both shows, as well as The Queen of Code, the documentary she recently directed about computer pioneer Grace Hopper.
The main thing I noticed about your character on Girls is that she’s … nice. Which is kind of a rare thing for a character on Girls, and very different from Britta.
She’s more mature, definitely, than Britta. And more successful. And I think carries herself with a bit more self-confidence. Britta’s strugglin’.
Is it difficult to play niceness while still keeping your character interesting and dynamic?
I thought they made the character interesting enough that you don’t really have to try so much. For starters my name is “Mimi-Rose Howard.” That’s a pretty interesting name right there. I think you’ve just gotta trust that they’ve done a great job writing the character that she’s going to be interesting to people, and not to push that too hard.
In Sunday’s episode, most of your scenes are you alone on a stage, giving a speech. What was that like to film?
That was really fun. I haven’t given that many speeches to a crowd as an actor. It’s intimidating. You get up there with a room full of people staring at you, and you just have to go, full force. My mom was actually on set that day, so she was sitting there at the monitor with Lena and Jenni Konner and the director and the writers. I was glad she got to sit through it.
Was it easier or harder than giving a speech as yourself?
I think it’s easier as a character, because you didn’t have to come up with the words. Definitely I prefer that to writing a speech myself.
What’s the Girls’ set like compared to Community?
It’s a 180-degree difference. One, we’re shooting almost exclusively on location. We’ve been so broke on Community, we haven’t left our set in years. And it’s a much more efficient show. One day, we finished everything by lunch and I was, like, “What world am I in?” In the world of Community, it’s “joke, joke, joke, joke, joke,” so it was great to go back into dramedy mode. Some things on Girls just aren’t supposed to be funny, and that’s liberating. But it’s a very happy, easy set. I came home smiling every day after working on Girls.
How is the Yahoo Community going to be different from the NBC Community?
I think you will see promos and ads for it. [Laughs.]
Is it freeing to be allowed to say what you like about the network now that you don’t have a business relationship with them?
No, as tumultuous as our time was there, they did have us on for five seasons. We have to thank them for that. I mean, they got us to, what, 97 or 98 episodes? I wouldn’t be talking to you now about Community if it hadn’t been for NBC. But it certainly is refreshing that there’s all this energy and excitement at Yahoo in terms of their promotion of the show. They have a plan, and they talk to us about their ideas.
How are the two new characters fitting in?
Paget [Brewster] is sort of the mature voice of reason in our group, which we always lack. Keith [David], he’s from that baby boomer generation, like a Pierce, but he’s much more engaged. He has a tech background, he has an interest in virtual reality, and he’s an inventor. It’s always fun to see our characters bounce off against new personalities and have new people watch the insanity of the study group.
Were they prepared for how crazy it would get?
I think you can only tell someone so much, then they have to experience it for themselves. I told Paget, “It will be crazy and you will feel like you are losing your mind, but you will laugh so hard and it will be some of the most fun stuff you’ve ever done.” That’s a very accurate description of working on Community.
You directed a short documentary for 538 about Admiral Grace Hopper. What was it about her that inspired you to pick up the camera?
I had never heard of Grace Hopper when I was offered this short film. I had been talking to Dan Silver over at 30 for 30, the ESPN documentary series, about doing a piece that was set in the sports world. We hadn’t quite found the right fit yet, and one day out of the blue he said, “Do you want to make one about this woman?” I had to educate myself on her accomplishments. I didn’t understand anything about what she’d done. When I read her biography it was just gibberish to me. It was a bunch of letters. As I started to work on it, I really fell in love with her as a person. When I discovered that she was part of a group of female computer programmers and coders in the 1940s and ‘50s, I was shocked and so excited that I got really passionate about the subject.
Do you code now?
Heck, no. I am not very tech-savvy. Every aspect of this movie was an education for me.
There’s an interesting moment at the end of the movie, when you get to Hopper’s relationship to the feminist movement. She broke new ground for female programmers, but it seems like she didn’t have much use for the cause itself.
I went to this event called the Grace Hopper Celebration, which is this huge gathering of technical women that they have every year. I was talking to women there, and some of them were saying how they have difficulty with Grace Hopper being held up as this feminist icon when she wasn’t actually a feminist. She didn’t identify with feminism. She wouldn’t acknowledge the need for it. I found that frustrating, kind of willfully oblivious on her part. Especially because, as the decades went on, the numbers of women in computing were shrinking. When she started it was actually weirdly a golden age for women in computing. There were women in the field. As the years went on, the numbers went down and down and down. She had to be ignoring that fact.
Do you see her as a feminist icon?
It’s more complicated than that. She is an incredibly accomplished woman, and an inspiration to women in tech. Certainly I do give her credit for hiring other women and people of color. Also, in doing this doc, I read about how during the height of the Vietnam War, she would show up to lectures in her full Naval uniform, while her students were out there protesting Vietnam. She was not quite in step with the feelings of that time.
What would she think of Britta?
I think she would think that Britta could do well by getting a lot more structure, focus, and discipline, and having a concrete goal and creating steps to achieve it. Probably what any parent would say.