Gillian Jacobs and Aya Cash Always Auditioned for the Same Parts. Now They’re Sharing a Stage.

Aya Cash and Gillian Jacobs in Kings. Photo: Joan Marcus

Years before they made their names on television, Gillian Jacobs and Aya Cash would run into each other at the same auditions with the same group of people. “We were in a lot of waiting rooms for way too long for parts we didn’t really want to play,” Cash remembers. “It was a whole group of us in New York,” Jacobs adds, and as they sit together, they work through the list of other names: Zoe Kazan, Halley Feiffer, Betty Gilpin, Cristin Milioti, Mamie Gummer, Dreama Walker … “Who else?” Jacobs says. “Who did I lose things to?”

Despite all the time they shared in reception rooms, the two actors had never worked together, onstage or onscreen, until now, in Sarah Burgess’s play Kings at the Public Theater. It’s a change of pace for both, as they go from the L.A.-set dramedies Love and You’re the Worst to the roles of Washington lobbyists who also happen to be exes. But it’s also a deft bit of casting, owing to Cash and Jacobs’s parallel careers, and they seem at home as professional counterparts onstage. In advance of Kings’s premiere, Vulture caught up with both actresses to talk about moving between New York and Los Angeles, adjusting their habits from theater to the improv-heavy world of TV comedy, and making friends in those audition rooms.

How did you first get involved in Kings?   
Gillian Jacobs: I did a reading of an earlier version of this play, January of last year. It was pretty substantially different than this one, but the core of my character was the same. Then I don’t remember how many months later Tommy [Kail, the director] told me that they were going to do the production, and asked me to do it.

Aya Cash: My offer came through two auditions [laughs]. I got the script and went in, and then went in again. I had met Tommy years ago and we have a good friend in common. I knew he was fun and that that would be a good experience. I didn’t know Sarah [Burgess], and I had never worked at the Public, which was really exciting.

Gillian, the last play you were in was Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Little Flower of East Orange at the Public ten years ago. Were you looking around for plays to do now?
G.J.: I think exactly ten years. I initially felt that experience was so meaningful to me that I almost didn’t want to do another play. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do a play anymore. That I lost that skill.

A.C.: The answer is yes, you can.

G.J.: You forget the pain after it’s over.

A.C.: The reason I got into acting wasn’t film and TV. I think at the heart of it, I will always be a theater girl. Some nights are great — and some nights you’re like, “Wow, I should give this up. This is not for me.” I have never given birth, but I hear it’s like that: You only remember the good. That’s what keeps you going back. The best part about being on film and TV is they pick the best take. It’s just a painful experience to go out every night and to sometimes feel like you didn’t get it right.

G.J.: The converse is that you do have more authorship over your performance when you’re onstage. You get to build to it, you get to craft that arc every night, but then it’s also like, what if I feel nothing that night? What if I get out there and it feels like there’s nothing? It is scary in that way, too.

A.C.: It’s why theater requires technique in a way that film and television doesn’t. Because when you are empty, what do you do?

You’re playing these lobbyists who are total villains, I think, in the popular imagination. They’re clever and charming and relatable to an extent in the play, but you also think, “You’re doing terrible things to the country.” How do you find a way in?
A.C.: I think in the intelligence of these characters is one thing to connect to. I think sometimes it’s more fun to be the bad guy. I’ve been also enjoying the confidence of this woman in her beliefs and in her beliefs that she is right. I am a very porous person. It’s really nice to play someone who thinks they’re right and knows that even if I disagree with them.

G.J.: I know we’re the villains. Selfishly, as an actor, it’s fun to play.

A.C.: Gillian said something the other day that I thought was really wonderful, which is that, as women, often the central argument or the central conflict is around a relationship, and in this, it’s ideas — ideas, and the arguing of ideas.

The lawmaker characters in the play are often trying to craft a narrative in order to sell their ideas to their constituents. Do you see a similarity between D.C. and Hollywood in that way?
G.J.: When I first got out of college, you’d go on a lot of general meetings initially with casting directors and producer. I didn’t really know how to be in those meetings because that’s not a class in college — how to do a general. My agent said to me, “You’re going to have to learn how to be good in a room, how to give a good meeting.” It is about being the most charming, approachable, affable version of yourself regardless of how the other person is responding to you. I think that’s what our characters are doing.

A.C.: There’s the Hollywood thing of, “Who’s the most important person of the room?” and having a conversation with someone while they’re always looking around to see if there’s anyone better.

Do you feel further from that in New York?
A.C.: It’s why I live in New York. I am porous. I find myself starting to value things that I don’t actually want to value when I’m in L.A. too long. I think you can live in LA. and not participate and not do that, but I can feel myself comparing or doing things that I find unhealthy for my own psyche. When I’m in New York, it’s a lot easier to stay out of that because you don’t see it. It’s not the primary business.

G.J.: I loved that about when I lived here. My friends, most of them, did not do this, and they didn’t really care that much about what I did. I found that in L.A., too, but it takes more effort.

Both of you are in L.A. dramedies ending after their next season.
A.C.: I tried to start a fake fight with Love, just to get publicity for us. We shoot in the same diners, and I was like, “Yo, you’re in our diner.” Nobody responded. You should just write how much we dislike each other, so people will watch both of our shows and decide who’s better.

G.J.:From basically 2009 until Love ended, I’ve always been under contract for a TV show, which has been an incredible blessing for my career — I’m so lucky — and I’m trying to embrace the freedom. I haven’t had a bad experience in a while. We’ll see.

A.C.: For me, it’s abject terror. We still have to shoot the last season. That’s great and exciting to be able to go and really properly say good-bye to our crew, the cast, the character, as cheesy as that sounds.

G.J.: It’s not!

A.C.: I’m still in mourning. This was my first real longtime gig, so I actually don’t know what it looks like after this. Am I going to be going in 14 auditions to play naggy sitcom wife? I’m going to try to direct a movie — we’ll see if that happens if I can get the money. I’ve been really wanting to take a longer clown class so I might be able to.

Why the clown class?
A.C.: I’m not good at it. I tried UCB, too. I cried! I was not good.
I like to do stuff like that once in a while for the same reasons that Gillian was talking about doing this play, and the idea of having to just stand in front of people with no script, no nothing, makes me wants to vomit. I had a great time being bad at that.

G.J.: When you come from a theater background and study theater in college, we are not taught improv. We’re taught respect for the script. You have to be word-perfect, and anything less than that, you’re not doing your job. We both wound up working in comedy on TV in L.A., in which a lot of the people come from an improv background. Having to learn as you go on set has been a journey for me. Being on Community especially, just sitting around a study-room table with all these people who did have much more of that background, I feel like I was just trying to absorb everything.

A.C.: I do Easy on Netflix, which is completely improv but there’s no pressure to be funny. It’s non-comedy improv, which I’m also fine with. It’s the idea of being idea that suddenly I’m like … in a kumquat. See, that was my bad improv. Why would there be a kumquat?

G.J.: Why not?

You talked about being in L.A., and the fear of conforming to what people want you to be. How do you get away from that?
G.J.: When I first graduated from college, I was convinced that every job would be my last. I felt this compulsion to take every job offered me for a long time. I’m trying to get to a place where I’m only doing things that I’m genuinely excited about. That can be a scary thing, when you’re like, “What do I actually like? When’s the last time I actually thought about that?” I think doing this play was, in part, me answering that question.

A.C.: The luxury of having something like a TV show that gives you financial stability is the ability to take time off and to live life outside of being in a show. I took the fall off for the first time ever — I was a waitress for a long time and all I wanted was to be able to take some time off and not worry about it financially. This business tells you constantly that if you take a second, somebody else is right there behind you.

Aya, you talked about wanting to direct, and Gillian, you’ve directed a short. Is the idea that you can protect yourself and have more creative control if you’re heading a project yourself?
G.J.: I think it’s only natural that you see all of these creative people who are known primarily as actors wanting to try writing and directing and producing.

A.C.: At a certain point, being an actor is still a passive business. You have to wait for someone to say, “I pick you.”

G.J.: The thing they used to yell at me at Julliard was that I was too passive as an actor! I remember a teacher making me go out and buy a costume that I thought my character would wear, which really took a while for me to sink in, but then I have tried to apply that to how can I make more creative decisions as an actor. When you work with somebody like Tommy [Kail], who really fosters that environment, you’re able to do that.

A.C.: I cast Gillian in lots of things when they kept me in the waiting room. All the other girls would go, “Oh, she’d be great. She’s really, really good.” And you can either look at everyone with side eye or you can introduce yourself and maybe be happy for someone. So many of my actress friends are those people who I met when we were being treated like herded cattle.

G.J.: We aren’t actually in competition with each other because as people develop as actors you see these skills emerge in everyone — their unique voice as an actor.

A.C.: I don’t want to pretend that there is no jealousy or competition. It’s just how you handle that. I get jealous all the time, but I try to say, “Okay, what does that mean, is that an ego thing or does that mean it’s something I really want and I can work towards that?” It can point you in the right direction.

Do you have a way to remind yourself you’re on solid ground when that jealousy pops up?
A.C.: I walk by where I used to waitress. The idea of getting to do a show at the Public, if I look back at myself ten years ago — it’s like, the fucking shit. It’s still the fucking shit! There’s a stupid … Oh god. I can’t believe I’m saying this. A stupid Instagram post —

G.J.: I was going to bring that up. The one you found.

A.C.: [Pulls out her phone, starts searching.]

G.J.: The thing that I think we’re struggling with, whether you’re living in New York, whether you’re living in LA, is where does your sense of self-worth come from? If it only comes from your professional life, then it’s very easy to shake, because we don’t know what’s going to happen. If it comes from other things, then you feel like you have a more solid basis for who you are as a person.

A.C.: [Holds up her phone, quoting]: “Remember when you wanted what you currently have.”

G.J.: None of us are guaranteed that we would have ever booked a single solitary job. Now, we work.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Gillian Jacobs and Aya Cash on Working Together Onstage