Gillian Jacobs on Being the Director of Your Own Life

When I meet Gillian Jacobs (pronounced with a hard G), I am surprised at how petite she is – a testament to her ability to breath a larger than life quality into the characters she plays.

Take her role as Britta in the hit comedy Community, or the sex-crazed, alcohol-addicted ‘Mickey’ on the millennial-approved Netflix sitcom, “Love”. Elements of these characters that are at once relatable but also fantastical, make the story-lines she is involved in so captivating. We meet at Diet Coke’s “Infinity Flavors” party at the AGO – a colourful evening full of mind-bending art (think Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors exhibit) and notable Torontonians who’ve come together to celebrate the launch of four new Diet Coke flavours. Jacobs is visiting Toronto for the first time and is radiant despite the grey spring weather and a delayed flight from Philadelphia where she’s come from visiting her mother.  

Happy Monday!

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The message of the evening is to “just do you” – a life motto Jacobs certainly embodies. Like the time she jumped from acting to directing The Queen of Code, a documentary on computer coding pioneer Grace Hopper, “I had tried to get a job directing a 30-for-30 short about sports for ESPN but I know nothing about sports so my ideas were not very good. Months later a producer for ESPN, Dan Silver, called me out of the blue and presented this project.” She had never even heard of Grace Hopper previously, “[Dan] sent me a one page summary of her life and accomplishments, which I didn’t understand because it was a lot of computer acronyms from the 1950s. I slowly taught myself about her career and discovered a whole passion for women in STEM”.

Not only did she have to learn about Grace Hopper, she also had to learn an entirely new role on set: that of the director, “ I’m very comfortable in my role as actor. I know what’s required of me and expected and how to do my job well.” It was only by shutting off the negative thoughts that she found the source of her directorial strengths, “ A little voice in the back of my head said ‘Can I be a director?’ I realized, ‘Yes, I can!’ I just had to get over that little fear telling me to run away.”

Though she now has the self-confidence to jump headfirst into a project she knows nothing about, she wasn’t always that way. In a piece she penned for Lenny (Lena Dunham’s online publication), she poignantly describes how a public failure ended up greatly contributing to her sense of self and gave her insight into the agency she has in her own life, “I’ve realized my life is a series of decisions I’m making. Even when it doesn’t feel like that, I realize that more so than not I have more agency in a situation than I give myself credit for. There were patterns of behaviour that I would make over and over again that would make an event feel like something was happening to me when in reality it was actually a choice I was making. Once I identified that it gave me the ability to make a different choice.”

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Living life with the intention to “just do you” doesn’t always have to be about taking life-defying leaps. Ironically, when I ask Jacobs about the last time she made a decision aligned with Diet Coke’s “just do you” message, it’s not her directorial debut that comes to mind, it’s watching TV, “I’ve been working on a play for 6 days a week so I gave myself permission to stay in and watch Netflix. I always feel very guilty if I sit around all day, because my mother hated television so I had to sneak it growing up.” Her favourite show to binge? “I love Ru Paul’s Drag Race!”

Photography by Mike Palmer.