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Maybe it’s just us, but Gillian Jacobs feels like a secret everyone suddenly discovered at the same time. That would be 2009, the year she was cast as Britta Perry on NBC’s Community. In the four years prior, she’d made appearances in a few episodic TV shows and four fairly small films. Since, she’s averaged between four and six films a year. Only The New York Times would’ve made money on an early career bet back in 2006, when they wrote of her performance as a rape victim in the Off-Broadway play Cagelove, “Make sure to remember the name of Gillian Jacobs, a stunning Juilliard graduate who has the glow of a star in the making.”
Hearing her talk about her childhood, you could almost imagine her as the investment banker she said she wanted to be in first grade instead of the actress she became. She was an only child with a nice doll collection who spent a good deal of time in the company of 60-year-old-friends listening to NPR and reading books. Cat lady also sounds like a not-unpredictable outcome. But those same sexagenarians also fostered a love of plays and theater, and by the time she was eight, she’d decided she wanted to be an actress. In an effort to channel her “dramatic tendencies,” her mom enrolled her in acting classes at Pittsburg Playhouse. (Oh moms, channel if you must, but don’t you know containment is a fool’s errand?) By 11, she was dragging her parents to George Bernard Festivals and participating in the Shakespeare Monologue Contests at the Pittsburg Public Theater.
She was a good and dutiful kid (she did cut school once – to go to a museum), and on graduating high school, gained admission to Julliard. Suddenly, she was the student on probation with a faculty whose main objective seemed to be critiquing away any shred of confidence she’d ever had in herself. The biggest lesson they taught her wasn’t about acting; it was that obedience will only get you so far. Their fabulous parting gift? Convincing her she was terrible at theater. She decided she was better suited for the lowbrow world of movies and TV.
After a few episodic roles – including the requisite L&O – she went to L.A. to audition for Community, arguably the worst looking specimen in the room (flu, bad pants and a complete lack of hope will do that to a person). To creator/producer Dan Harmon, she just seemed authentic. “Gillian made me believe that my horribly written character was a real person.” It was essentially Jacob’s first comedy, and as awareness for the cult sitcom grew, so did the industry’s appreciation for her ability to combine droll sarcasm with razorblade timing. As the unpredictable, annoying and somehow sympathetic high school dropout/aspiring psychologist, she gave her character a depth remarkable among the population of 30-minute network shows. When NBC cancelled Community in 2014, there was probably only one person who wasn’t disappointed: Judd Apatow, who seized on the break in Jacob’s increasingly busy schedule (she also had a recurring role on Girls) to snatch her for his new Netflix show Love. Now starting its second season, the show’s been highly praised for its authentic look at dating. Regarding Jacob’s performance as Mickey Dobbs, a (very) flawed radio program manager, The A.V. Club made an observation that seems to apply to all of her work: “[Jacobs] makes you feel like no one else could play her part.”
But as often happens, one great show or two can often overshadow an actor’s most profound work. It’s Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice where her exquisite, unflashy performance proves the Times’ prescience. As a talented member of an improv group struggling with ambition, success, and the fear of losing what she loves, her work is so pure and nuanced, it doesn’t dawn on you until later just how good she is. With no improv experience, she played so naturally among a cast of vets that you have to wonder if she shocked even herself.
If so, she’s not looking to stop. Like the best of artists, she wants to do what scares her. She recently directed her first film, the documentary short The Queen of Code, the real life story of Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, who worked on the first computer and headed the team that was eventually responsible for the groundwork for the programming language COBOL. And you get the feeling that Jacobs will be responsible for more stories that call attention to the unheralded accomplishments of women. She’s going to have to work around Love (which has already been renewed for a third season) and two upcoming films. It took Juilliard, time and some therapy, but it feels like she’s where she’s meant to be. First grade ambitions aside, the investment is paying dividends we’ll hopefully be enjoying for a good long time.