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Gillian Jacobs on 'Don't Think Twice' and being terrified of improv

The "Community" alum thinks it's important to learn not to hate yourself while acting.

Gillian JacobsGillian Jacobs

In “Don’t Think Twice,” Gillian Jacobs plays the seasoned member of a close-knit New York improv group. In real life, the “Community” alum, 33, has never done serious improv. In fact, she was terrified of it. You wouldn’t know it watching the film, Mike Birbiglia’s follow-up to “Sleepwalk with Me.”

Jacobs throws herself whole hog into the role of Samantha, whose troupe is famous for having members go onto a “Saturday Night Live”-esque sketch show. She has stayed behind and, as disappointments mount, wonders if she might never make it big.

You’re not an improv person, though you’ve been a fixture of the comedy world for years now. Why did you avoid it?
It was always something that really intimidated me. When you see an improv show it looks like magic. They all seem to be psychically communicating with each other. They can bring something that happened earlier in the show and tie it into a neat bow at the end. I found it wildly intimidating. Before I came to New York to start this movie, two of my “Community” castmates — Jim Rash and Danny Pudi — were doing an improv show in L.A. They said, “Why don’t you come onstage and perform?” I was too afraid. I came out at the beginning, then I hid on the side behind this pillar. They were like, “What’s wrong with you? You’re about to go to New York and do this for real! You’ve got to get over this!”

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How long did it take you to get cool with it?
I either chose to forget or was never told that we were going to do shows before we started shooting. We had rehearsals, and then Mike said, “We’ve all got to go to [Uprights Citizen Brigade Theatre], we have a show in an hour!” I said, “For a paying audience?” He said, “Yep!” You’d have a terrible show, then we’d have one that went great. Or you’d have 15 minutes of bliss and then five minutes of disaster. You really learned to trust the other people in the cast. I felt more and more confident to make a big choice or take a big swing, because I know no matter what crazy pickle I’d get us into, they would rescue me.

Has that impacted your acting since?
You have to learn to silence the inner critic. This film just reaffirmed that. The less you hate yourself as you’re acting, the better you’ll be. [Laughs]

I’m sure you at least dabbled in improv when you were a kid going to high school arts programs.
You know, they defunded the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts a couple years ago, which I went to. Zach Quinto went to it, Kevin Bacon — all these amazing actors, writers, visual artists, singers, dancers. It was free. It was open to kids across the state of Pennsylvania. I’m on a one-woman campaign to bring it back.

Arts are usually the first thing to go during budget crises, but it’s so important for so many people, especially young people starting out.
It was a chance to be surrounded by 200 kids who are interested in the arts. You were no longer the one kid from your school that was interested in it. We all got exposed to totally different art areas outside our own interests. A lot of us were seeing our first modern dance show, or going to our first art gallery or poetry reading. It was really this kind of utopian experience. And it doesn’t exist anymore. It makes me really sad to think there’s this whole generation coming up who aren’t getting access to it.

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Finding a community like that is a great way for artists to help each other.
You see that in this movie — what this has meant for these people to have found each other at this theater. They’ve formed this family with people of similar interests who are going to affirm what each one of them is passionate about in life. Some people don’t get a lot of support from home or from friends. That can be really discouraging.

At the same time, this is a really sad movie about hopes being dashed and people coming to grips with the possibility they don’t “have it.”
I like that Mike didn’t shy away from the fact that sometimes life is filled with disappointment. [Laughs]

Brutal, almost depressing honesty like this can be comforting, in a weird way.
It’s true. When you start to open up about your own insecurities, other people around you do as well. Some people you’d think wouldn’t have any insecurities have them. It’s like, “You, too?” Then you feel less alone.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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