For Chris Perfetti, “Abbott Elementary” was not just another pandemic-era script on his desk. “I first read the pilot in the spring of 2020, and it was in no small way a profound moment,” he tells Variety.
The actor, who plays the enthusiastic, delightfully corny BFF to Quinta Brunson’s Janine in the hit ABC sitcom about public school teachers, was sitting on a park bench in Atlanta, laughing to himself.
“I remember chuckling out loud and looking around me and being very aware of if I was making anyone uncomfortable,” says Perfetti. “I had a strong feeling that if anybody had the guts to make this thing and make it right, it would be great.”
Less than two years later, Perfetti was on stage at the Screen Actors Guild Awards accepting a win for best ensemble in a comedy series.
“I’m still getting used to all the nice people saying hello to me on the street in Brooklyn,” Perfetti says of his newfound fame. “I’m just trying to soak it all in.”
In between seasons of “Abbott,” Perfetti is currently starring in an off-Broadway production of “King James,” Rajiv Joseph’s latest play about two men whose friendship develops over the course of 13 years in tandem with LeBron James’ basketball career.
Perfetti rang up Variety to discuss the award-winning classroom comedy as well as his starring turn in “King James,” which is running through June 18 at Manhattan Theatre Club.
As someone who had become familiar with you via “Abbott Elementary,” I couldn’t help but think about how long the monologues are in “King James,” and how different that must be in terms of memorizing lines.
It’s not as hard as you think. Anybody can do it. And when you are particularly blessed with a good writer like Rajiv Joseph, as I am now, everything that you’re supposed to say just makes sense. It seems like the only possible thing that you could say in that moment. And the beauty of doing a play with just myself and another actor is that if he’s not talking, it’s probably because I’m supposed to be. I’d say it’s 50% something that you hone and that each actor finds their own way to get good at, but then it’s also something I feel like anybody could do.
Did you have any sort of personal connection to LeBron before joining the play?
Something that drew me to the project, in addition to how well it was written, is that I felt like I had a lot to learn. There was a lot of space between Matt, the character, and me. At the end of the day, there are a lot of things that we share. There’s a real sense of his spirit that I feel like I get and can relate to, but he comes from wildly different circumstances. Sports was a big thing in my house growing up, but it wasn’t a big thing in my mind. I’ve known about LeBron for as long as he’s been playing the game, but it’s only through working on “King James” that I’ve done a deep dive on him, and all that surrounds him — what it means to be a fan of his. The ways in which sports and acting are alike are many. LeBron is an incredible athlete, but I also think of him as an artist. He’s a master at what he does. There’s so much that is theatrical about sports. I went to a lot of games growing up, and there’s so much pageantry involved. To do a play, especially a two-person play, there’s a lot of the same skills involved, in terms of focus and athleticism. I’m not in any way trying to say what we do is interchangeable, but I feel like there’s common ground there.
I saw the show a day after the Lakers were eliminated from the NBA playoffs, and LeBron ignited a bunch of retirement rumors based on some vague post-game comments. I thought about how that might play into a fifth chapter of the show.
I think the play stands on its own and that people will get a lot out of it no matter what’s happening with LeBron, but it’s been pretty wild to see how it’s changed in this incarnation. We started the play at Steppenwolf in Chicago and we did it at CTG in L.A., and both times, the regular season was coming to an end and the Lakers were not in the playoffs. And now they are! People are coming to our play in jerseys. The LeBron fandom penetrating the New York theater scene, I wouldn’t have imagined it. It’s pretty cool.
While shooting the first season of “Abbott Elementary,” was there a sense on set of how enormous the show would be?
I’m surrounded every day by consonant pros and people who have been doing this for a long time, so they might have a different answer. But no, I think actors get very comfortable with things not working out. You have to, as a survival mechanism. I knew that I was really tickled by what we were working on, but you expect things to go whichever way they’re going to go. However much I liked it, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the tsunami of love that has come our way. And for the stars to align in the way that they did. The pilot was a particularly groovy experience because we got to do exactly what we wanted to do. When we shot the first and second seasons, so many other brilliant people came into the fold, and I’ve never worked on a show that’s just firing on all cylinders. I’m surrounded by really brilliant people, designers, crew, producers, writers, actors, and I feel very grateful for that.
I noticed a parallel between your characters in “Abbott Elementary” and “King James,” which is that Jacob and Matt are both well-meaning white liberals who admire Black culture and are sort of on the outside looking into a world in which they want to be accepted. With Jacob particularly, he’s often the butt of the joke and embraces his students labeling him as “corny,” but I think in the wrong actor’s hands, both of those characters could be portrayed as very annoying. How did you find the right notes?
First, thank you. I’m not opposed to either of them being annoying, and they are at times. That speaks to how well-rounded the pursuit of “Abbott Elementary” needs to be. Part of the reason I think Quinta is so drawn to this genre is that, at its best, you should believe it’s actually happening. That somebody actually got these things on camera and that it’s real life. And in order to do that, we need to draw characters that are fully fledged and rife with flaws. It doesn’t behoove me to judge the characters that I’m playing. It’s way more interesting to think about why they are the way they are. I’m not opposed to Jacob or Matt being annoying, but it’s sort of our job as an actor to be a detective and psychologist and figure out, even if that person is exhibiting what would be considered annoying behavior to somebody on the outside, why they’re doing it whether it’s rooted in some sort of deep anxiety or desire. That’s what interests me about about Jacob. What he has going for him is that he shares with Janine this triumphant optimism and this gargantuan sense of possibility that he can change the world. And obviously that results in him having to put his foot in his mouth a lot and trip over himself. But I think at the end of the day he’s a good person.
Jacob starts out as Janine’s friend, desperately looking for Gregory’s (Tyler James Williams) approval, but that dynamic flips in Season 2 as Jacob sort of becomes Gregory’s support system. Was there a specific turning point where you started approaching the friendship with Gregory as less idolization and more on an equal footing?
We shoot our show so quickly that I just hold on and trust our brilliant writers, which they make very easy. They fill in the gaps so that any 180 in a relationship is valid, and there’s substance for it in the text. Jacob reveres both of them, and I think it’s a function of the characters spending more time together that the need to impress Gregory has waned slightly. We did 22 episodes in our second season, and the fun of it is subverting people’s expectations.
A funny recurring bit is Jacob’s contentious relationship with Mr. Morton (Jerry Minor). My colleague told me there’s a contingency of fans online who are into the idea of you two as a couple.
For something to permeate my bubble, it needs to be sent to me by Quinta, or it needs to go so viral that you couldn’t avoid it if you tried. But I love that people are talking about them in that way, and about the show at all.
Is there any romantic tension between them?
I don’t think so. I’m not counting anything out, but if there is, they don’t really know it. At this point, they’re more concerned with scoring points than getting to know each other. But I’m obsessed with this theory.
I know “Abbott” is on hold due to the writers strike, but has Quinta given you any insight into how she envisions Jacob in Season 3?
We’ve talked about the season, and I know she has it very well-formed in her mind. I’m in good hands. We’re in an odd place right now where the engine to the boat has turned off and we’re just floating. Maybe when the engine turns back on we’ll talk about it, but I kind of like not knowing, too.
This interview has been edited and condensed.