Janelle James talks about her role on ABC’s ‘Abbott Elementary’
Photo by Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet for Thrillist
Janelle James explains she has an ‘aversion to fame’ as she is pictured in the backyard of Osteria Brooklyn, an Italian spot she regularly visits in Clinton Hill. Or she did. As she puts it, it “doesn’t matter now.” James plays the hilarious principal Ava on Abbott Elementary School, a series that has been viewed by 7 million people. Unfortunately, or maybe not so unfortunately, avoiding fame is out of the question.
When we walk inside, she notices a group who have just finished their meal looking out the window. “I knew they meant something,” she said. “They must have argued, ‘Is that her?’ Now it’s too late, they’re all sad, you see.” James will take the recognition. “People scream when I walk into places sometimes,” she says. “What’s the alternative? We’re cancelled.” She laughs at the suggestion.
That probably won’t happen any time soon. Abbott Elementary School, one of the best and most talked about new series this year, has already been renewed for a second season, and Principal Ava is undoubtedly its star. The mockumentary centers on Quinta Brunson’s creator and star Janine Teagues, a dedicated second-grade teacher at an underfunded Philadelphia school, but Principal Ava is her most brilliant invention. Ava, to be honest, doesn’t give a damn about kids or education. She got her job because she caught the superintendent cheating on his wife and blackmailed her. She’s an aspiring influencer who is a magician with editing software and lightly sexually harasses the substitute teacher played by Tyler James Williams. When the school gets money for new carpets, she uses it to get a giant sign with her face on it.
James may be a little uncomfortable with all the attention, but she has an easy charm. Take, for example, her relationship with chef Raffaele Solinas, the owner of the rustic restaurant she chose for our interview and shoot. His favorite dish is a wonderfully fragrant mixture of lamb and polenta which is not on the menu. The lamb usually comes with pasta, and when it arrives on noodles for our photo shoot, she takes it into the kitchen, has a quick chat, and it comes back just the way she wants it. (Don’t try to order it that way. It’s a Janelle James special.)
James, best known for her stand-up, was in COVID isolation when the Elementary Abbot the script came to her, and although she knew Brunson from the comedy world and thought the material was funny, it took her agent’s encouragement to get her to audition. “Because I was probably depressed in quarantine,” she adds. However, she immediately had an idea of how to play Ava. “I have an aunt like her,” she said. “I feel like a lot of black women do. She’s not like someone I made up. She exists, you know? She’s groundbreaking not because she’s someone I I made up is you’ve never seen this person on TV before.”
James never really had any aspirations for television. Initially, she never really had any designs for stand-up either. Originally from the Virgin Islands, she went to fashion design school, attracted by the height of Project track mania. “And went to school, worked in a hair salon, worked in public relations, worked in advertising, like everyone else in New York,” she says. “I did all the jobs. I was a waitress, I hosted. And then I had babies, and that kind of shut me out of the job market for a minute.” She was living in the Midwest when someone approached her on the street with a flyer for an open mic night. His father had just died. “If I wasn’t depressed, I probably wouldn’t have gone,” she says. “And I did and I liked it.”
James mostly exploits his own life for his material. She talks about her two teenage sons – who she says don’t care – and her own mental health. “Anyone who came out of quarantine a better person is a sociopath,” she says in her set for Netflix season 3 The stand-ups since last year. On stage, she has a laid back style, laughing at her own jokes.
Even though she appeared on Showtime Black Mondaywhere she also worked as a writer, getting a regular gig on TV has changed her life, and not just because people recognize her now. Being Ava is “being able to take a vacation for the first time in my life,” she says. “Stand-up, you don’t make money for a long time. And TV is money.” And it’s fun. The mockumentary style gives James plenty of opportunities to perform directly in front of the camera, which she does brilliantly. “She’s very confident, head out, boobs out. Hair done, nails done. Refined. Almost beginner hand movements,” James says. “She always knows when the camera is on, which means most of her mannerisms are that of someone who knows and wants to be on camera, and who looks her best. She’s a diva.”
James relishes Ava’s naughtiness, fully agreeing with a Vulture article published the day of our interview with the title “A Plea to Abbott Elementary School: Let Ava Stay Terrible.” “There must be someone causing problems for the other characters to solve,” she said. “No, I don’t want her to change. She’s having the most fun of everyone, why would I? Let me watch the kindergarten. Who wants to do this? Let me teach babies. No, I want to steal and talk bullshit.” And, of course, in “Step Class,” the episode that aired just before a brief hiatus in the season, we learn that Ava is dealing with her grand- mother confused, but that just doesn’t make her, as James puts it, a “monster”. James wants her to be a character you love to hate. Not just hate.
It clearly works. James’ relative anonymity is disappearing. Even a haunt like Osteria Brooklyn with its smooth jazz and panettone for the road is not immune to a slight surprise. And then there is the Internet. “It’s weird, I can’t scroll the internet without seeing my own face. It’s kind of John Malkovich-y,” she says. “But that’s cool. I’m iconic, as the kids say.”
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