For 'Abbott Elementary's' Chris Perfetti, 'tragic circumstances' are comedy gold

Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Perfetti offers this explanation for his understanding of the character: "[Brunson] had an idea for who these characters were, but also gave over permission for those people to just be those people. I trust that she saw in me where it could go, the kind anchoring characteristics of what Jacob might be. At the end of the day, we're trying to dupe you into thinking that this is real life. You need to have characters that seem real and flawed and multifaceted and ridiculous, otherwise, we won't really care about their struggles. It's way more interesting for me to play a real person than a cartoon version of a person. The comedy in Jacob is sort of baked into really tragic circumstances; I kind of obsess myself with Jacob's fears and desires and hope they'll come out funny."

At 35, Perfetti radiates the same curiosity and enthusiasm Jacob would while wandering through the museum's Dinosaur Hall. As he cranes his neck to marvel at Thomas, the 34-foot-tall Tyrannosaurus rex that holds court in the middle of the room, I ask if he was a kid who went through a dinosaur phase. "I would venture to say I'm still obsessed," he says, making his way toward a massive triceratops skull nearby. "I'm watching this documentary series narrated by Morgan Freeman. It's called 'Life on This Planet.' My Netflix queue is embarrassing. You would think I was a 90-year-old man. But the series is amazing. It's all about like the history of life on our planet and I'm on an episode right now where he's talking about if this huge meteor hadn't wiped these dudes out, we would not be here and that's probably something that I should already know from school, but it's like amazing to hear it again."

That inquisitiveness didn't necessarily make Perfetti a great student, however. "I just couldn't be bothered. School was a really mixed bag for me. The process of absorbing something to regurgitate it, I couldn't find a way into that. That's why being here now is so amazing because, in my 30s, I feel like I have such a thirst for this."

His study habits as a performer were more thoughtful, because the reward was in the self-discovery.

"I had a drama teacher who said that theater is not therapy," Perfetti says. "And I remember understanding why she was saying that. But to be fair, it is kind of my therapy. I mean, therapy is also my therapy. But acting feels like the conduit through which I can experience being a human on this planet and understand what that is. And it is the greatest high I have ever felt. ... You kind of get to become an expert on everything. I remember when I was in drama school, being in the library and studying daily life in turn-of-the-century Russia — it's like, 'What the f— am I doing?" I ate it up because I wanted to do it as opposed to just a couple years before where I didn't see my purpose."

It all works to make Perfetti a scene partner who never fails to surprise, says Williams, who plays Jacob's more sedate colleague, Gregory.


"He preps everything like he does with theater. He comes into rehearsal with his own idea of the melody of the scene, then he waits to see what others are doing around him to refine it down," Williams says. "But the energy that is Jacob is there from the start. I need time to ramp up, but Chris is already locked in from the first rehearsal. The best way I can describe it is, when I work with Chris, it feels like a jazz band that is just so perfectly in tune."

Perfetti's commitment to the character can often make it difficult to keep a straight face. While the actor insists he's not a naturally funny person — he credits Jacob's comic flare to what's written on the page and, maybe, the timing he honed on stage — Williams says the blooper reel proves otherwise.

"There's a thing where, especially in comedy, everybody knows what their joke is and can land it but then there's certain days where somebody is just hunting for a break," he explains. "It's definitely felt like he's been hunting. He's broken me four or five times. In the episode where he dives into the trash can, that wasn't scripted, he just did that.

Perfetti, born and raised in upstate New York, glosses the origin story of these comedic gifts as the "stereotypical" tale of a kid desperate for people's attention. A curiosity for theater that began in grade school turned into love — "for what I deem are all the right reasons," he says — as a student of the Conservatory of Theater at State University of New York at Purchase.


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