Over just two seasons, “Abbott Elementary” has become something of a cultural tipping point. Creator and star Quinta Brunson is on her way to becoming a household name. The legendary Sheryl Lee Ralph won a long deserved Emmy Award and Tyler James Williams finally found his second act (one of many, no doubt). But if the ABC hit comedy has turned anyone into a star, it’s Janelle James.
A successful touring stand-up and writer, “Abbott” allowed James to show her acting skills as the unconventional and eye-brow raising elementary school principal, Ava. In fact, James performance has been so acclaimed that she’s earned Emmy, Gotham, Spirit and TCA Award nominations over the past 12 months and took home a SAG Awards ensemble honor alongside her co-stars this past February.
With Brunson as Janine, the show’s lead, and five other major roles to consider, it’s hard for any half-hour comedy to dive that deep into an individual character’s background. Even after 35 episodes. But the writers have given James enough hints here and there to flesh out her take on Ava.
“You could tell that she’s a partier. She tells Jacob’s boyfriend that she didn’t really finish school because it got in the way of partying. You know? You can tell,” James tells The Playlist. “So she went to college, but she maybe didn’t pay attention. She was a hustler in the episode with Barbara, when she talks about, ‘Hey, some of us don’t have the privilege of acting like we don’t have to hustle.’ So, now you see, she didn’t come from money, that she grew up hustling. So, it’s like little ways you find out where her personality comes from. But as far as like, ‘Hey, she had a two parent household and grew up in…’ It’s not that way. You know what I mean? I think this season was more about Quinta’s backstory and then maybe if we’re lucky, we get a little bit of Ava in season three.”
Once the writer’s strike (and potential SAG strike) is over, we can only hope to eventually get more of Ava in season three.
Over the course of our conversation last month, James reflects on how her stand-up audience has changed since “Abbott’s” success, what awards show she wants to host after killing it at the 2023 WGA Awards, her memories of working as a writer on “History of the World, Part II” and much more.
The Playlist: Hi, Janelle. How you doing?
Janelle James: Pretty good. How you doing?
Not too bad. First of all, congratulations on the second season of “Abbott.“
Thank you so much.
I loved Ava in the first season, but I was rewatching some of the episodes and it felt like the writers purposely tried to make her a little bit more likable in season two. Was that something they talked to you about?
No, they didn’t talk to me about it. They don’t really talk to me. I find out stuff at the table read. But I don’t know if more likable is what they were going for? I think they were just having her evolve and doing a little bit more backstory, making her more of a well-rounded character and not more believable, but making her a real person basically. So, first season I was very bombastic as you have to be. I think in the first season, all the characters have to establish themselves as what they are. And in the second season, if you’re lucky enough to get one, you open up and evolve. So if people took it as more likable [that’s] on you. It’s up to open to interpretation, I think. I liked her in the first season, so it’s…
I can’t say anything, Greg…[Laughs.] I just be saying stuff to amuse myself.
But I actually think there are all these little hints that she is a good person that keep poking through.
I mean, I always then turn the question back on you guys, “Why does she need to be?” The show is filled with good people. Ava drives the story, if she’s not around causing trouble, then it’s just a heartwarming show about kids. I mean, that’s also cute, but I’m not that interested in that.
Well, she’s not the villain, but she’s sort of the antagonist on the show. Has Quinta given you any backstory about her?
I will say, I think that Janine, Quinta’s character is also an antagonist, it’s just coming from another way. Ava’s messing things up and Janine is messing things up by trying to do good. So I’m not the only “villain.”
And that’s what’s so great about the writing. You don’t even realize. It’s just that Ava is so out there with her selfishness that we notice that she’s causing a lot of problems. But Janine wrecks sh*t. Every episode she’s wrecking something and Ava fixes a lot of Janine’s messes. But anyway. And then also as far as backstory, not knowing much about me, I feel like we all got a little bit of backstory this season.
Maybe I missed it.
I’m trying to think, I guess you know about my grandma dating the NBA player.
Yeah, you mean like what’s her motivation and how she ended up [where she is]?
Yeah. No, I don’t know her backstory. Again, nor do they discuss with me. Maybe that’s for season three.
I will say this, and this may be a deep cut, but I do hope at some point we do find out the Ghostface story.
Oh. I mean, that’s what I think. [Laughs.] That’s how you find out her backstory. It’s just little shit. Little things she says. So you know she was a partier in college. You know she hung out with rappers, just like you said. In that first season for the “Step Class” episode, she said something about “Me and ‘106 & Park.'” Like we just made our own top 10 that night. So, you could tell that she’s a partier. She tells Jacob’s boyfriend that she didn’t really finish school because it got in the way of partying. You know? You can tell. So she went to college, but she maybe didn’t pay attention. She was a hustler in the episode with Barbara, when she talks about, “Hey, some of us don’t have the privilege of acting like we don’t have to hustle.” So, now you see, she didn’t come from money, that she grew up hustling. So it’s like little ways you find out where her personality comes from. But as far as like, “Hey, she had a two parent household and grew up in…” It’s not that way. You know what I mean? I think this season was more about Quinta’s backstory and then maybe if we’re lucky, we get a little bit of Ava in season three.
In that respect I’m sort of curious to know, you guys are all professional actors, and you get these scripts.…
[Laughs.] And in particular, your character has hands down some of the funniest, just one-liners in the show. Even as someone who is a professional standup comedian who has been doing this for years, is it hard not to laugh? Or are you just so used to it that you can sort of disassociate?
Not in the moment. No. I don’t laugh. Like you said, we’re professionals and I know everybody would love to think that we’re just cracking up on set and every take takes 800 times and duh-duh-duh. We’re really just trying to hit our lines and make sure that my pacing and tempo is correct.
I think that takes so much thought and movement. I’m also doing a lot of physical things and trying to just stay in the scene that it may not even strike me as funny when I’m saying it. Now, the table read, we’re cracking up, but once we get on set, I’m like, “I just need to make sure that this hits.” Whatever this line is. Especially since I am kind of a one-liner. I might say two things in a scene. So my two lines got to hit, you know what I mean? And then I’m out, I’m walking out, so I’m not generally cracking up. Sorry.
No, I didn’t even think that you might be…
At the table read we’re cracking up. At the table read. Oh my God. But yeah, on set we’re keeping it moving and I’m just trying to make sure that what I read at the table comes across funny on screen and that just takes so much thought for me.