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Gillian Jacobs on Fearing Improv, the End of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and the Lessons of Philip Seymour Hoffman

From her breakout role as Britta Perry on Community to her scene-stealing work on Girls to her current Netflix series Love, Gillian Jacobs always achieves the same effect: She makes you feel like no one else could play her part. Through a combination of empathy, unpredictability, and charisma, Jacobs makes the characters she plays both more compelling and more authentic. In Mike Birbiglia’s new movie Don’t Think Twice, she stars as Samantha, a woman conflicted about giving up the community of her improv-comedy team for a shot at advancing her career. Vulture caught up with Jacobs to discuss being horrified of improvising, the state of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and trying to live up to the example of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

How did you end up getting involved with the movie? Did you know Mike?
I’d met him once — I went to see the Trainwreck comedy tour and met him backstage, but it was really my agent reading the script and being super passionate about me doing it. It’s funny, because it’s a part that’s closer to who I am as a person, but I weirdly haven’t done a lot of acting roles like that.

In all your projects you always look very comfortable onscreen, and it makes me feel like you’re friends with everyone you’re working with. Watching the movie, it felt like you’d all come up with it together, even though that wasn’t the case.
I think Tami Sagher and Chris Gethard were there much more for the evolution of the process, and did a lot of readings of the script and saw through a lot of incarnations. Keegan [Michael Key, who plays Jacobs’s character’s boyfriend] and myself came in much later in the process. The script did develop somewhat from the rehearsal process, and certain scenes did shed fat after rehearsal conversation, but by and large what you see on the screen is the script that I read.

So it was pretty tightly written.
Yeah, and I thought he did a great job of giving an arc for all of the characters. Because you know, a lot of times when you have a movie like this, it’ll really be like two of them will have the arc and the other ones are sort of ancillary. Also, just like, letting people be as funny as they are. Because Tami and Chris, I think, are so funny. They’re like heavyweight boxers of improv comedy, and I feel like [Mike] stacked the deck for himself.

Chris especially has a lot of space to flex his muscles. He almost strikes me as more of a dramatic actor in the movie than a comedic one.
Yeah, it’s so funny, because he’s such a legend of improv comedy. But I think he’s got all that stuff in his life, like he’s very honest in his stand-up and his work about his issues with depression and his struggles. It was a really great gift that Mike gave him to tap into some of that but through a scripted thing and really show people — like, at the premiere I just did in New York, my agent and my manager were like, “Chris Gethard, oh my God …

You’ve done a lot of comedy recently, but you’re getting very good at playing these parts that are comedy but drama. Like Love, on its surface it’s a comic role, but it’s not really — it’s much more dramatic.
[Laughs] Yes! Mickey is much more dramatic.

Right, the line is blurring — there aren’t many stone-cold dramas on TV anymore.
Uh-huh, yeah, and you can’t really compete with something like Breaking Bad when it’s a story about two people dating. It is really funny, and Paul Rust is so funny, but for me, the part of Mickey feels much more like I’m in a drama.

Your characters in Love and Don’t Think Twice are these women who are allowed to explore their neuroses and problems and embody them onscreen. Are you seeing more parts like that being written?
With the three-dimensionality that male characters always had? Yeah, I think I am, and it’s great that Mike wrote a female part like that. Love certainly, yes, and Mimi-Rose on Girls. I’m trying to think of what I started my career playing. Very heavy dramas, humorless dramas.

You did the Law and Order thing, right?
I did one episode of Law and Order, but it was Criminal Intent, and I wasn’t the criminal or the victim. I didn’t get my classic Law and Order guest appearance. I didn’t get interrogated by Sam Waterston, Jerry Orbach didn’t make a quip. But, yeah, I do feel like I’m getting to play much more three-dimensional of late, which is really nice.

To me, you’re one of many young actors at the forefront of the post–Manic Pixie Dream Girl era.
Yes, hopefully. I feel like thankfully that term and concept is so well-known at this point that people are shying away from writing them as much. I’m not seeing as many of those. It just doesn’t pass the smell test. Also, it’s like, being an actress is somewhat making choices and then somewhat just trying to do what you’re offered.

I think one of the reasons I perceive you as so comfortable with the people you work with is because you always choose great collaborators. Which is a good trait to have as an actor, though luck is obviously involved.
You know, it’s funny — my friend, who’s an acting teacher, was talking about that yesterday. She’s known me since I was 17, we did a play together, and after seeing the premiere in New York she said, “You just seem so comfortable now onscreen. I think it’s just hours and hours and hours in front of the camera.” That’s the real benefit of being on Community for six years. I have logged — I don’t even want to think about how many thousands of hours! [Laughs.] When you’re first starting out as an actor, there are so many technical things about being on camera that are very confusing, and no one, like, hands you a guidebook. So you’re just trying to not fuck up all the time. Once you master that, and you understand what everyone’s doing around you, you understand everyone’s job on set and what’s expected of you, you can relax — you feel your shoulders drop a bit because you know what’s going on, and you’re not just like, Am I in the way? Am I in the way? Did I do the wrong thing? Did I look at the wrong thing?

When you were studying at Juilliard, were they like, if you act for the camera, you’re betraying your art?
It was a little bit like that, especially if you did TV. But this was also before the Golden Age of Television, so TV overall wasn’t as respected. When I graduated from college, I did think it was really funny that in the lobby of the theater, they had pictures of alumni in plays, and every time someone got a big TV show, their picture would quietly appear. I remember when Sara Ramirez got Grey’s Anatomy, her picture went up; Michael Urie got Ugly Betty, his picture went up.

Do you still do any stage acting?
No, I haven’t done a play in years. The last play I did was at the Public Theater before Community. It was such a charmed last experience, too, that I feel a preciousness about it. I’ve been a little bit hesitant waiting for something to come along that feels as special. That play was written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, who wrote that Baz Luhrmann Netflix show The Get Down, and Philip Seymour Hoffman directed the play.

Oh wow, you were directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman?
Yes, and acted alongside Ellen Burstyn and Michael Shannon. So that’s a pretty high bar to cross.

What was that like?
Absolutely incredible. I feel like I’ll never live up to his standard. He set such a high bar for everybody and demanded excellence, but it was in such a way that it was inspiring, because you knew that’s what he brought to the project himself. It wasn’t like, oh my God, you’re being so hard on us, just let me be a lazy actor, because you knew that at the drop of a hat he could act circles around all of us. I still have this little nagging voice in the back of my head now that is him saying, “You could do better, you could go deeper, you could be more truthful, you could have higher stakes, you could put more on the line,” and I don’t always live up to it. But certainly when I’m doing a part like Mickey, I think about him all the time, in just trying to push myself past my comfort zone. I’m so lucky that I got to work with him.

Considering the various things you’ve done to this point, what do you want to do next?
I just like to do things that scare me at this point, and that can mean a lot of different things. Like, writing an article for Lenny Letter scared me. I directed a short documentary — that scared the crap out of me. I also think it’s exciting to push myself past being an actor, because that’s the only thing I really feel comfortable doing is acting. That’s why I wanted to do this, too, because the notion of doing improv scared me! I was terrified! Right before I went to New York to work on this movie, [my Community co-stars] Danny Pudi and Jim Rash were doing an improv show in Hollywood, and I was like, “I’ll come watch.” They asked me to come onstage and improvise with them, and I was like, “Ah, ahh,” and I hid behind a pillar on the stage and didn’t say a word the entire show. They were like, “What are you doing — you’re about to go have to really do this,” and I was like, “I’m terrified!” So yeah, I scared myself with this one. I just want to keep scaring myself, and try to be the actor Phil Hoffman would want me to be.

Gillian Jacobs on Fearing Improv Comedy