Though mainstream audiences may just be becoming acquainted with Chris Perfetti right now off of his breakout performance in ABC’s Abbott Elementary, the actor has been building up an impressive resume for years, across the film, television, and live theater mediums. Between supporting roles in HBO’s Looking and leading parts in indies like The Surrogate, you’ve probably seen him pop up somewhere over the last decade, or perhaps it might have been on stage, where he’s been steadily taking on work since his debut in 2011 in Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet, for which he earned a Theatre World Award for Best Debut Performance in an Off-Broadway Play.
However, it’s no overstatement to call his role as queer history teacher Jacob Hill on Abbott Elementary one of his most defining roles to date, especially given the fanbase both he and the show have gained since its premiere at the end of last year. Every actor in the series’ charming cast deserves appropriate commendation for making the mockumentary sitcom as side-splitting as it is, but Jacob’s cheery (yet naive) disposition stands out in particular in every storyline and subplot, all thanks to Perfetti’s pitch-perfect portrayal of his plucky personality. In addition, many have applauded the subtlety of Jacob’s “coming out” later on in the season, giving audiences some gay representation on Abbott without making it “A Thing,” which feels all too rare in this day and age.
As he and the show continue to campaign for Emmy consideration, we were lucky enough to chat with Perfetti, hearing more about how he came to be involved with the production, what went into establishing the cast’s camaraderie, and what the conversations about characterizing Jacob’s queerness were like.
Zoë Rose Bryant: Were you – or any of the cast, for that matter – anticipating such rave reviews and reactions to the show ahead of time?
Chris Perfetti: I can only speak for myself, but to be completely totally utterly PAINFULLY honest with you… no. The response to the show has been, in many ways, a bit overwhelming. I certainly knew Abbott was special on the page (actors read a lot of scripts) but, as with most projects, you make them in a bubble, and there’s so many things that can go wrong. I think, weirdly, the opposite happened with Abbott. Actors have to become very comfortable with things not working out, it’s how we’re able to get out of bed in the morning, and so that, coupled with the fact that we shot all of this show before it aired, before anyone could weigh in on it, has made the reaction pretty surreal.
ZRB: How did you come to be involved with Abbott Elementary, and what was your relationship like with Quinta beforehand (if you had one)?
CP: I have a sort of litmus test for a new project when I encounter it for the first time: I like to, if I can, read things in public places to see if I’ll laugh or smile in front of strangers, AND if the thought of someone else doing the part makes me jealous… I generally see that as a good sign. Both happened with Abbott.
I was working on another show in Atlanta when I read it for the first time and didn’t meet Quinta until I tested many months later.
ZRB: A big element of this show’s success is the cast and your camaraderie. What went into creating that connection on and/or off set? Was it something that just arose naturally?
CP: I’d say yes, our connection was very organic. Which, in my experience, is pretty rare. The stars sort of have to align for that to actually happen. From the jump, this cast -including myself- has been very excited by what each other is bringing… it’s a tremendous feeling. There’re no divas, everyone’s brilliant. And look, to be fair, everybody thinks they have the best cast. But I can tell you, unequivocally, they don’t. I do. I’ve stumbled into a very hardworking, humble, hilarious group of generous geniuses (say that five times fast).
ZRB: Many have said that Jacob provides some of the most refreshing gay representation in mainstream entertainment in years. His sexuality is never made into a “big deal,” and it’s revealed naturally, which feels rather fresh, even for 2022. How involved were you in the creation of this storyline, if at all? (Or was this all thanks to Quinta and the writers?).
CP: I wasn’t involved. Rather, it was Quinta’s idea and she pitched it to me after we shot the pilot as the rest of the show was coming into focus. I thought it was a great idea and her handling of this aspect of Jacob I feel like has been tasteful (even subtly political) at every turn. As you said, the real story about Jacob being queer, I think, is how little of a story we made out of it. To some degree this may just be a generational thing, but I also applaud any effort to draw characters whose sexuality is not their defining characteristic, as it’s not authentic. And I think authenticity has been a top priority for our show. It’s a mockumentary after all.
ZRB: When portraying Jacob, are you drawing on any of your own past teachers for inspiration (or other fictional characters, educators or otherwise)?
I’m thinking of a few of them for sure, but I’m trying also not to be too bogged down by how little I know about what it actually takes to be a teacher. Jacobs dreams, fears, hopes and aspirations are more interesting to me, and “playing at being a teacher” I would reckon is a bit general and boring to watch. I will say, though, that rather than drawing on the people who taught ME in order to play Jacob, playing Jacob has helped me understand THEM. God bless them. Everyone.
ZRB: Do you have a favorite Jacob line or scene that’s stuck with you since filming?
CP: Like many, my favorite line in the show so far was actually hurled out of the mad genius brain of Sheryl Lee Ralph; “Sweet baby Jesus and the grown one too!” It has become my mantra. A go-to maxim. A dictum for the ages! And the best line I can think of that Jacob says happens in response to being roasted by his students; “They’ll called me HuffPo-reading gay Pete Buttigieg.” Redundant, goofy…quintessentially Jacob.
ZRB: I know you’ve shifted between film, television, and theatre throughout the course of your career so far (and congratulations on King James!), but is there one medium you prefer over the others, and why? Is there one you feel most comfortable in?
CP: Thanks for the KJ love. Come check us out at The Mark Taper Forum till July 3rd! The boring answer is there’s exciting elements of each. Film and TV is the most elusive to me for some reason. The permanence of it is torturous. I am infinitely more at home on stage. Perhaps because the drama school I went to is first and foremost a theatre training program, paired with the fact that it just FEELS more like acting to me, is probably why I prefer theatre. The actor is so much more in control onstage. And we have more time. I tend to work relatively slowly so the process of cranking out an episode a week (which we do) is harrowing (but thrilling)! The aspect of TV I relish is that an audience can build a long-term relationship with a character. Something I tend to repel in real life- god, I need to go to therapy.
ZRB: Congratulations on the show’s renewal! What do you want to see for both the show and Jacob specifically going forward into Season 2?
CP: I want to see more of what I was blessed with in Season 1. Funny scripts, an exploration of the minutiae of human behavior, and further envelope-pushing of what network TV can be.
ZRB: Beyond Abbott, following the success of this show, what are the broader goals you have for your career in the future?
CP: Play good roles. Eat good food. Unfuck the world.
All episodes of Abbott Elementary season one are available to stream on Hulu.
Chris Perfetti is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series.
Photo: ABC/Scott Everett White