Chris Perfetti has two litmus tests when reading a new project: The script should make him laugh out loud in a public place, and the thought of another actor playing the character should fill him with jealousy. Abbott Elementary, the hit mockumentary-style sitcom about a group of passionate educators—and a slightly tone-deaf principal—at an underfunded Philadelphia public school, passed both of those tests with flying colors.
In the Emmy-winning workplace comedy, which now airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on ABC, Perfetti plays Jacob Hill, an affable and socially awkward history teacher who, like all of his eccentric colleagues, is determined to help his students succeed, despite the school district’s less-than-stellar attitude toward educating children. “I felt like I knew that person exists in the world, and that person is maybe somebody close to me,” Perfetti tells W over Zoom. “But there was also this element of, ‘I want to know how somebody becomes that outspoken and that eager to contribute in a way that may end up with him falling flat on his face.’”
Below, Perfetti talks about the unique challenges of shooting a mockumentary with children, the show’s forthcoming exploration of the teachers’ personal lives, and his fondest memories of this year’s Emmys, when costars Quinta Brunson and Sheryl Lee Ralph both took home their first statuettes.
What kinds of conversations did you have with creator/star Quinta Brunson about understanding Jacob’s personal and professional lives?
She told me it’s been a priority of hers from the jump to capture [what happens in public schools] as authentically as possible. Obviously, our show is slightly heightened, but we are trying to fool people into thinking that this is actually happening—everything you’re seeing is a bunch of private moments captured on camera.
We talked a lot about how Jacob would function in terms of his dynamic with Janine [played by Brunson]. He was always a best friend or a sibling that you would hope was in your life. It was very clear to me that he was well-intentioned—obviously, at times, to a fault; she didn’t shy away from talking about how much of a social puppy Jacob was, or how much of a clown he could be. I thought that was exciting, because I am typically cast as sad, brooding, tragic characters, but Jacob and Janine share a real optimism and idealism.
You’re a classically trained theater actor, and while you’ve done television in the past (Crossbones, Looking, In the Dark), this show’s format is entirely new for you. How have you mastered the rhythm of shooting not only a sitcom, but a mockumentary?
I’ve been doing a lot of theater in New York on and off Broadway the last 10 years, and there actually is some overlap. There’s a real performative aspect to who Jacob is: he thinks he is the lead of this documentary about Abbott Elementary. He really enjoys talking to the crew and giving interviews.
In terms of general rhythm and performing in front of a live audience, that is kind of what we’re doing. Usually, there’s a formulaic map for how TV is shot, [but] we have the gift of all cameras going at all times. So while I usually find the experience of watching myself on screen mildly to moderately traumatic, I’ve actually been watching Abbott, because I want to see what they picked and what made it in. I’ve been surprised and intrigued by how we are telling the story.
The added benefit of the mockumentary format is that you get to break the fourth wall and play with the moments between the lines, when there isn’t any dialogue. How much of that would you say is scripted, and how much of it is improvised?
Largely, it’s scripted. While we are definitely flexible on the day to how something is working and whether it needs to be tweaked, it really comes mostly baked. The looks to the camera are very instinctual; they’re not written down. But in terms of the writing and the jokes, I feel very blessed that it comes to me as close to its final form as it’s gonna get, and anything I come up with on the day is not gonna be as funny, usually, as what they’ve already written down. They think of all of these weird, subtle, true-to-life behaviors and jokes that don’t need to be messed with.
Why do you think the show has resonated with so many viewers?
It really feels like our writers and our producers are steering clear of predictable storylines or elementary school tropes. I feel like the success of our show is when we dial in and get very specific about some uncanny series of conundrums [at a public school], as opposed to writing the “fire drill” episode.
I’m really excited for people to see season two, because I think our writers are doing a lot to subvert expectations and to keep people guessing. On the whole, our second season is a deep dive into why these people are the way they are. We’re going to go home with these characters; we’re leaving Abbott. We’re seeing just what makes them tick in a different way.
I found it refreshing that Jacob’s sexuality was revealed and accepted without question last season. What does it mean to you to play a queer teacher?
It’s depressingly cliché that one has to say representation matters. Quinta not writing some big reveal episode that Jacob is queer is, in itself, both political and not. It speaks to that quality in her writing, [where], if you don’t get it, you have to look it up, you have to understand why this isn’t a big deal, or why this is funny.
It’s incredibly gratifying to think that queer teachers could feel represented by seeing a character like Jacob on TV. Queer people are in the world—they’re doctors, teachers, lawyers and everything in between. So why wouldn’t it be in our show? The fact that one of the queer characters on the show’s primary function is not to be the “queer” opinion, that it is not the defining characteristic of this character, is a gorgeous step in the right direction.
There’s a common saying in show business that you shouldn’t work with children or animals, but the children have delivered some of the funniest lines on Abbott thus far.
I have really hit the jackpot in the sense that Jacob teaches sixth through eighth graders, so my kids are older actors, so my class is incredibly well-behaved. A lot of them call me Mr. Hill. As opposed to their younger counterparts, they’re mildly interested in what we’re doing and how to make a TV show. For the most part, I feel like all of the rambunctious and “sound-bitey” stories of what it’s like to work with kids happens to my other colleagues.
Largely, the experience of being on set, for me, is just trying to make the most out of the very limited time that we have to do something that I know is going to be permanent, so I am a nervous wreck on set. The kids are this incredible reminder that our proximity to fun and spontaneity, to play and to make believe, is always right there.
Growing up, did you have a favorite or inspirational teacher that helped you get to where you are now?
[School] was a real mixed bag for me. It was hard. That said, there were some [who made an impact on me], and they were largely the English teachers or the drama teachers. One really sticks out in my mind, maybe because she was the first to hand me a play. She was like, “Oh, this person doesn’t want to listen, or this person wants to be the center of attention. They should read a play.” There’s this real cosmic, karmic thing happening now where I’m playing a teacher after making the lives of so many teachers probably, remotely hellish. [Laughs.]
Do you remember how you reacted when Sheryl Lee Ralph won at the Emmys?
Look, I have very mixed feelings about giving artists awards in general, but the feeling when somebody you know and love’s name is called is a ridiculous surge of every kind of emotion. We were just screaming and elated. I remember at one point, my entire table was holding on to each other while Sheryl was up there, because every moment with Sheryl is an unpredictable, gorgeous spewing of beauty and love. The sound in that room when they called her name is tattooed on my brain.
How did you and the cast celebrate Quinta and Sheryl’s wins?
I made the mistake of latching onto Janelle [James], so I was up way too late, drank way too much, danced way too hard. But we were all together for most of the night, and there was a lot of hugging, a lot of passing around people’s Emmys.
During a recent Television Critics Association panel, you said everyone showed up at work the day after the Emmys “riding this wave of love.” What will you always remember from the morning after those celebrations?
The incredible dopamine crash. [Laughs.] No, honestly, even when we were at the Emmys, which was such a groovy experience, I was so excited to go to work the next day. I feel like an eclipse has happened on the show. There are a bunch of talented, genuinely kind people all in the same place. And as much as I love what our show is doing, I love the people who make our show, and I know I’m not the only person who feels that way, so I was so excited to go back to work the next day.
The people that have come up to me and said that they are digging our show, or that they want to be on our show—it’s just an incredible feeling. I hope that people are finding in our show a place to laugh and a place to see somebody that they know or relate to, because as an actor, that connection is all I’m after.