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‘Abbott Elementary’s’ Perfetti perfection in role

Actor an audience fave as do-gooder teacher Jacob Hill

By Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times
Published: April 20, 2024, 6:04am

LOS ANGELES — “I’m so excited for this!” Chris Perfetti says as he approaches the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Our greeting is drowned out by a cacophony of nearby construction and clusters of energetic children on field trips shuffling down the pathway — in the distance, a row of yellow school buses that snake the perimeter stand guard.

Perfetti, in monochromatic black sweats, T-shirt and baseball cap, is just four steps into the rotunda, under the shadow of the museum’s famous Three Graces statue by Julia Bracken Wendt, when he is recognized.

“Excuse me, are you Chris Perfetti … from ‘Abbott Elementary’?” a student from Lawndale High School asks bashfully.

“Yeah,” Perfetti says with a smile.

“Oh, wow! I love that show,” the teenager says, sharing an enthusiastic look with his classmate. “Our AP bio class is here on a field trip. We’re seniors in high school. I’m sorry to bother you. This is just so cool.”

“I was in AP bio for about a month,” Perfetti says. “Congratulations. You’re so close to graduating. Just a couple of months to go. Stay motivated.”

The scenario playing out in real life is something Perfetti’s “Abbott Elementary” character, the lovably corny, socially awkward history teacher Jacob Hill, would definitely freak out over. Teenagers thinking he’s cool? He’d run to the teachers’ lounge to broadcast the news.

Created by Quinta Brunson, the mockumentary comedy follows a group of teachers trying to give their students the education they deserve at an underfunded primary school in West Philadelphia. The series features an ensemble cast — Brunson, Tyler James Williams, Janelle James, Lisa Ann Walter, William Stanford Davis and Sheryl Lee Ralph — in which every member delivers scene-stealing laughs. But Perfetti, who had performed mostly onstage in New York and in small roles on TV before being cast on the sitcom, has held his own — making Jacob, “Abbott’s” equally sincere and absurd white liberal do-gooder, a fan favorite and meme king. During the show’s post-Oscars episode last month, for example, which looked at whether the school’s namesake was racist, Perfetti delivers a master class in instant GIF-ication, passionately shouting at one of Abbott’s descendants, “Where were you on Jan. 6?!”

But it doesn’t stop there. The casual disclosure of Jacob’s idiosyncrasies across three seasons has brought hilarious depth to what could easily be a mere caricature of a well-intentioned ally. He’s not the biggest fan of Chris Pratt. He admits to having applied to Morehouse, a historically Black college. He suspects his gluten intolerance is internalized white guilt. He listens to podcasts at triple speed when he isn’t hosting his own, “The Abbott Life.” He’s an avid viewer of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.” He is awkward and overeager to please, but also a phenomenal friend with a heart of gold. And a good teacher.

“It was easy to make Jacob annoying without any heart or ground to stand on, but in his audition, Chris really brought more heart to the character and warmth and honesty, which, to me, was more important than being funny and nailing the jokes,” Brunson says.

Curiosity, enthusiasm

Perfetti offers this explanation for his understanding of the character: “[Brunson] had an idea for who these characters were, but also gave over permission for those people to just be those people. I trust that she saw in me where it could go, the kind anchoring characteristics of what Jacob might be. At the end of the day, we’re trying to dupe you into thinking that this is real life. You need to have characters that seem real and flawed and multifaceted and ridiculous, otherwise, we won’t really care about their struggles. It’s way more interesting for me to play a real person than a cartoon version of a person. The comedy in Jacob is sort of baked into really tragic circumstances; I kind of obsess myself with Jacob’s fears and desires and hope they’ll come out funny.”

At 35, Perfetti radiates the same curiosity and enthusiasm Jacob would while wandering through the museum’s Dinosaur Hall. As he cranes his neck to marvel at Thomas, the 34-foot-tall Tyrannosaurus rex that holds court in the middle of the room, I ask if he was a kid who went through a dinosaur phase. “I would venture to say I’m still obsessed,” he says, making his way toward a massive triceratops skull nearby. “I’m watching this documentary series narrated by Morgan Freeman. It’s called ‘Life on This Planet.’ My Netflix queue is embarrassing. You would think I was a 90-year-old man. But the series is amazing. It’s all about like the history of life on our planet and I’m on an episode right now where he’s talking about if this huge meteor hadn’t wiped these dudes out, we would not be here and that’s probably something that I should already know from school, but it’s like amazing to hear it again.”

That inquisitiveness didn’t necessarily make Perfetti a great student, however. “I just couldn’t be bothered. School was a really mixed bag for me. The process of absorbing something to regurgitate it, I couldn’t find a way into that. That’s why being here now is so amazing because, in my 30s, I feel like I have such a thirst for this.”

His study habits as a performer were more thoughtful, because the reward was in the self-discovery.

“I had a drama teacher who said that theater is not therapy,” Perfetti says. “And I remember understanding why she was saying that. But to be fair, it is kind of my therapy. I mean, therapy is also my therapy. But acting feels like the conduit through which I can experience being a human on this planet and understand what that is. And it is the greatest high I have ever felt. … You kind of get to become an expert on everything. I remember when I was in drama school, being in the library and studying daily life in turn-of-the-century Russia — it’s like, ‘What the f— am I doing?’ I ate it up because I wanted to do it as opposed to just a couple years before where I didn’t see my purpose.”

It all works to make Perfetti a scene partner who never fails to surprise, says Williams, who plays Jacob’s more sedate colleague, Gregory.

“He preps everything like he does with theater. He comes into rehearsal with his own idea of the melody of the scene, then he waits to see what others are doing around him to refine it down,” Williams says. “But the energy that is Jacob is there from the start. I need time to ramp up, but Chris is already locked in from the first rehearsal. The best way I can describe it is, when I work with Chris, it feels like a jazz band that is just so perfectly in tune.”

Perfetti’s commitment to the character can often make it difficult to keep a straight face. While the actor insists he’s not a naturally funny person — he credits Jacob’s comic flare to what’s written on the page and, maybe, the timing he honed on stage — Williams says the blooper reel proves otherwise.

“There’s a thing where, especially in comedy, everybody knows what their joke is and can land it but then there’s certain days where somebody is just hunting for a break,” he explains. “It’s definitely felt like he’s been hunting. He’s broken me four or five times. In the episode where he dives into the trash can, that wasn’t scripted, he just did that.”

Perfetti, born and raised in upstate New York, glosses the origin story of these comedic gifts as the “stereotypical” tale of a kid desperate for people’s attention. A curiosity for theater that began in grade school turned into love — “for what I deem are all the right reasons,” he says — as a student of the Conservatory of Theater at State University of New York at Purchase.

“In drama school, you’re playing characters that you would absolutely never be cast as and you’re doing it for free and you’re doing it for fun,” he says. “So I got really used to eating brown rice and sardines and not needing to make a lot of money and not really expecting validation from anybody else or expecting success in that way. To be fair, it wasn’t long before I got my first job, but I certainly wouldn’t have imagined that my life would look like this right now.”

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Perfetti made his professional debut off-Broadway in 2011’s “Sons of the Prophet”; other notable credits include stage work in “Picnic,” “The Tutors” and “The Tempest” and roles in film and TV shows such as “Looking,” “The Night Of” and “Crossbones.” He was initially resistant to screen acting, though, saying it always felt elusive.

“It’s a largely isolating and infinitely less collaborative medium,” he says. “The actor is so in charge when they’re in a play in a way that they’re not in TV and film. … I’m a very theatrical person and I thought that that wouldn’t necessarily translate to TV and film. But TV and film has become a pebble in my shoe. It’s this thing that I’m thinking about all the time.”

In spring 2020, while in Atlanta on a project, Perfetti received the pilot script for “Abbott Elementary” — a series he didn’t believe would get off the ground.

“I remember sitting on this park bench and people were doing laps walking by and I was laughing out loud reading each page,” he says. “I wanted to turn to somebody and be like, ‘This is so great! You have to read this script!’ I also remember thinking that nobody would make the show. It just seemed kind of like a secret.”

“Abbott Elementary” not only made it to TV, where it premiered on ABC in late 2021, it quickly became a sensation — a rare bright spot at a time when the industry was still reeling from the production havoc caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s since received 15 Emmy nominations, with four wins, including the prize for comedy series in 2022, and has already been renewed for a fourth season. The security of being on a hit show allowed Perfetti to buy his first home.

“It still feels completely surreal,” he says. “I sometimes think somebody’s gonna come and say, ‘We need you to go now, thank you for watering our plants.’ … Even in New York, where I feel very comfortable, I was always renting and nothing was ever mine. When you are really able to anchor yourself in a way that I feel sometimes now, I dunno, I feel like the world just kind of catches up with you when you least expect it.”

Sitcom success hasn’t kept Perfetti from returning to the stage when time allows. After the first season of “Abbott Elementary,” he starred in a production of “King James,” Rajiv Joseph’s play about two men whose friendship develops over the course of 13 years in tandem with LeBron James’ basketball career.

“ ‘Abbott Elementary’ had just premiered the first season and it was the biggest show on television,” says Glenn Davis, who starred opposite Perfetti. “The show was getting so much attention and he is someone who handles it so well. … His focus is probably the one thing that I really took away from him; whenever I was onstage with him, I never felt like he was distracted or was anywhere else but in that moment.”

Jacob holds Perfetti’s focus these days, and he’s excited to see how the character continues to change: Jacob recently ended his relationship with his boyfriend, allowing the series to explore how he navigates life as a single person, and as he nears his 30s he’s begun to evaluate his evolving ambitions as an educator.

“Chris really harnesses a lot of that [character development] without even showing it and I think he’s so nuanced that his work goes unnoticed,” Brunson says. “And I hate that. I think he’s one of the most talented actors I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching, let alone being in a scene with, but he’s carrying so much with that character and making it look so easy.”

But there is recognition in the way that perhaps matters most to Perfetti — how the audience responds. While meandering toward the museum’s mammal exhibition, a field trip chaperone recognizes him and asks for a selfie while praising the show and his character. It’s the sort of dynamic that still feels unexpected.

“The the gift that keeps on giving from ‘Abbott’ is I’m really used to working in a bubble and being in a room where the people who are receiving your work are there as you’re doing it,” he says, referring to the audience-actor relationship in theater. “And now there’s like millions of people watching in their own room after I’ve done the thing, so I’m less aware of how people respond to it sometimes.”

Talk about a grown-up field trip.

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