You don’t have to be an Abbott Elementary fan to know who Janelle James is. In fact, you don’t even have to watch the show, week-in and week-out, to know the character she plays on the ABC comedy, Principal Ava Coleman. You can likely piece together that information from the thousands of memes and fan-made clip compilations and gifs of James, as Ava, that now litter the internet.
Her to-camera deadpans, her sharp deliveries, her quick-witted one-liners – they’ve all made her a stand-out character on a show already filled with talented jokesters, not to mention, recent Emmy winners.
In season two of creator Quinta Brunson’s love letter to the Philadelphia school system – one her mother was a part of for years – Ava hasn’t changed much. While Brunson’s optimistic elementary teacher Janine Teagues is going through a breakup and figuring out her own needs for once; Tyler James Williams’ Gregory Eddie is also single and throwing himself into teaching for the first time in his professional career; while Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Barbara Howard is fresh from contemplating retirement and Lisa Ann Walter’s Melissa Schemmenti is combining classrooms and Chris Perfetti’s Jacob Hill is learning sign language and hosting his old theatre group, Ava is, thankfully, still Ava. Selfish and self-motivated, overconfident and outspoken, hilariously incompetent, and, oddly, capable of getting sh*t done — when it suits her.
There are no real villains on this show, but she comes the closest – not because she’s mean-spirited or downright evil, but because she’s the kind of lovable narcissist we all wish we could be.
UPROXX spoke with James about starting out in standup, migrating to network TV, partying with her co-workers, getting the camera crew in trouble on set, and if Ava’s sexual harassment of Gregory will ever turn into anything more.
Chris Perfetti (who plays Jacob on the show) told W Magazine that he made the mistake of latching onto you at the Emmys afterparty and subsequently “went too hard.” What is partying with Janelle James like?
Going too hard? He’s still alive, isn’t he? [laughs] No, before I arrived, I was like, ‘The amount of work I did to get this pretty, I am going to party. I don’t care what happens.’ So, that’s what it was like. Just dancing and having fun. We’ve been working hard. So I really wanted to let loose.
Did you have work the next day?
We had a 9 am call time, which is late for me but early for the day after the Emmys.
So then, what’s the Janelle James hangover cure?
What did I do? The whole day was a blur. I don’t even remember the day. I don’t know how I got to work. I don’t know what I did. I hope they got something useful out of me, but I just was like, ‘I am here, that’s enough.’ I don’t drink that often, so when I do, I usually go for it. But because I don’t drink that often, I don’t have a patented cure for a hangover. Ava would. ‘Power through’ is the Janelle James method.
Were you nervous about how the show would follow up on the success of season one?
I definitely didn’t want that sophomore slump thing going on. That’s just my ego. Like, who wants that? But we had a short season. So, really, it didn’t even feel like we left and came back. We’ve been working through all of this. The first episode [of season two] kind of felt like that, like we never left. Except everything’s a little shinier. Barb’s got some new hair. Ava’s got new clothes. We had a whole tailgate thing. Those little indicators that let you know the budget went up.
You were doing stand-up for a bit before landing Abbott Elementary …
A bit meaning 10 years, okay?
Was comedy in some form always the goal?
I had no idea what comedy entailed. I thought there were like five comedians: Chris Rock, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy. It’s such a niche form of entertainment and a profession. I truly just fell into it. I was in a grocery store and someone handed me a flyer for an open mic and I went. I was like, ‘Oh, this is weird and cool. They’re just standing up there talking.’
And I had a good time, and the guy came up after, he’s like, ‘If you want to come next weekend, do some time, you can.’ He had to explain to me what that meant. I remember thinking, ‘Well, I’m at least as funny as these dudes.’
Is there anything from the standup world that you miss when you’re filming a TV show?
Especially in the first season, it was like, ‘Oh, I’m not getting that immediate gratification of laughs.’ But now, that’s my aim. So, sometimes if you see the camera shaking, that’s because I’m killing. That is my goal, like, ‘I know you’re not supposed to laugh, but I’m going to make you laugh.’ So, I’ve figured out a way to get that. [laughs]
A lot of stand-up comedians like improv but this is network TV. Did it take you a while to strike a balance with the kind of jokes you could insert?
Well, we’re not all good at improv. Some people are quicker on their feet than others, and it’s just like anything else, you get better at it if that’s what you want. The first season at Abbot was only my second time on a TV set. So, I never wanted to overstep my bounds of, ‘I have a better idea than what you wrote.’ I only volunteer an idea if I’m asked. So, if we shoot it how it’s written, and the director says, ‘Hey, do you have an idea?’ That’s when I say something. I don’t go in with the plan of, ‘Oh, I’m going to get my jokes off.’ I think that’s disrespectful to the writers, and that’s not what I’m here to do. And it is a network show. I know that the scripts go through a lot of people before they get to us. Who am I to be like, ‘I have a better solution?’
What Quinta does or allows to happen that’s good is, yes, it’s written one way, but she’s going to say, ‘Say it how you would say it.’ So, that’s what I do. I bring mannerisms. Ava has always struck me as a fast-talking shyster. So, I’m speaking faster, my manners, she’s more girly than I am. I’m trying to just be funny in all the ways, not only what I’m saying, in how I’m walking, my entrances, my body movements, all of those things lend themselves to the character.
Does Ava grow as a character in season two?
In the first season, you saw a glimpse of … it’s not that she grew, it’s that, we found out that she does do things in her own way for the kids. So, you’ll see more of that in season two. How she does stuff may not be how everyone else would do it. It may not be how Barb would do it, but she does handle things in her own way. I don’t know if that’s growth. That’s just what she’s always been. Her personality kind of camouflages that. And then, the fact that she wants to be famous. She’s brought these cameras into the school. So, it’s not about what she does for the kids, it’s about Ava, the show. That takes away from what she’s doing, as an administrator.
Right. She’s the one who brought the documentary crew in there so everything she’s doing …
Is for show. That’s why she looks into the camera more than anyone else. She’s most aware of it. As the character, I’m always trying to act within the act. Like, I’m on Abbott Elementary, but Ava herself, is on a documentary and she’s well aware that they’re shooting her. So, that’s where some of her positioning and movement, and reaction comes from. She’s like, ‘Are you getting this?’ And the outfits and everything. We hadn’t seen her before the camera crew came. Who knows if she’s dressing just for this production or not?
Ava has become the poster child for quiet quitting. Why do you think people love her, or love to hate her?
People love her because she’s hilarious. She’s a character. And people love to hate her. I think, not I think, I know, mostly because in the first episode, I stole money from children. Even I can’t get away from that. Other than stealing from children, I think she’s an amazing person. A lot of people have problems with women who are confident. A lot of people immediately bristle at that type of personality. But the people who love her, are either confident or they wish they were. They wish they can be as outspoken. Maybe they’re in jobs that they know are just a bunch of crap, but they can’t say it or quiet-quit in the way that she is doing. So, she’s aspirational and awful at the same time. But I think that’s what’s great about Abbott: almost every character is like that.
Janine is idealistic, to her own demise. It’s not realistic that everything’s rainbows and flowers all the time. Barb is very dedicated to her kids, but she’s also [resistant] to change. So, everybody has their quirks, their pluses, and minuses. Ava is just the most bombastic and out there of all the personalities.
Are you rooting for something to happen between her and Gregory?
Her dynamic with Gregory, it’s not even that she’s really into him, it’s that she’s powerful. Which is what I think, a lot of those inappropriate boss-subordinate relationships are. It’s not even about attraction. It’s ‘Look what I can do because I’m more powerful than you.’ And you never really see women in those positions, behaving like Ava is. So no, I don’t hope they get together. I don’t think she wants that either. She’d have to learn what HR is. She’d have to learn anything about him and she doesn’t really care about that.
Quinta has said we’ll get to see more of the teachers’ home lives this season. Does that include Ava?
This is just what I know so far. We’re only on episode nine of 22 or something. But you will see Ava outside of the school. As far as her home life, I’m not sure as of yet. But I’m excited because something I pitched for Ava is coming up soon.
Abbott Elementary is currently streaming on Hulu.