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

Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

"In drama school, you're playing characters that you would absolutely never be cast as and you're doing it for free and you're doing it for fun," he says. "So I got really used to eating brown rice and sardines and not needing to make a lot of money and not really expecting validation from anybody else or expecting success in that way. To be fair, it wasn't long before I got my first job, but I certainly wouldn't have imagined that my life would look like this right now."

Perfetti made his professional debut off-Broadway in 2011's "Sons of the Prophet"; other notable credits include stage work in "Picnic," "The Tutors" and "The Tempest" and roles in film and TV shows such as "Looking," "The Night Of" and "Crossbones." He was initially resistant to screen acting, though, saying it always felt elusive.

"It's a largely isolating and infinitely less collaborative medium," he says. "The actor is so in charge when they're in a play in a way that they're not in TV and film. ... I'm a very theatrical person and I thought that that wouldn't necessarily translate to TV and film. But TV and film has become a pebble in my shoe. It's this thing that I'm thinking about all the time."

In spring 2020, while in Atlanta on a project, Perfetti received the pilot script for "Abbott Elementary" — a series he didn't believe would get off the ground.

"I remember sitting on this park bench and people were doing laps walking by and I was laughing out loud reading each page," he says. "I wanted to turn to somebody and be like, 'This is so great! You have to read this script!' I also remember thinking that nobody would make the show. It just seemed kind of like a secret."

"Abbott Elementary" not only made it to TV, where it premiered on ABC in late 2021, it quickly became a sensation — a rare bright spot at a time when the industry was still reeling from the production havoc caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. It's since received 15 Emmy nominations, with four wins, including the prize for comedy series in 2022, and has already been renewed for a fourth season. The security of being on a hit show allowed Perfetti to buy his first home.

"It still feels completely surreal," he says. "I sometimes think somebody's gonna come and say, 'We need you to go now, thank you for watering our plants.' ... Even in New York, where I feel very comfortable, I was always renting and nothing was ever mine. When you are really able to anchor yourself in a way that I feel sometimes now, I dunno, I feel like the world just kind of catches up with you when you least expect it."

Sitcom success hasn't kept Perfetti from returning to the stage when time allows. After the first season of "Abbott Elementary," he starred in a production of "King James," Rajiv Joseph's play about two men whose friendship develops over the course of 13 years in tandem with LeBron James' basketball career.


"'Abbott Elementary' had just premiered the first season and it was the biggest show on television," says Glenn Davis, who starred opposite Perfetti. "The show was getting so much attention and he is someone who handles it so well. ... His focus is probably the one thing that I really took away from him; whenever I was onstage with him, I never felt like he was distracted or was anywhere else but in that moment."

Jacob holds Perfetti's focus these days, and he's excited to see how the character continues to change: Jacob recently ended his relationship with his boyfriend, allowing the series to explore how he navigates life as a single person, and as he nears his 30s he's begun to evaluate his evolving ambitions as an educator.

"Chris really harnesses a lot of that [character development] without even showing it and I think he's so nuanced that his work goes unnoticed," Brunson says. "And I hate that. I think he's one of the most talented actors I've ever had the pleasure of watching, let alone being in a scene with, but he's carrying so much with that character and making it look so easy."

But there is recognition in the way that perhaps matters most to Perfetti — how the audience responds. While meandering toward the museum's mammal exhibition, a field trip chaperone recognizes him and asks for a selfie while praising the show and his character. It's the sort of dynamic that still feels unexpected.

"The the gift that keeps on giving from 'Abbott' is I'm really used to working in a bubble and being in a room where the people who are receiving your work are there as you're doing it," he says, referring to the audience-actor relationship in theater. "And now there's like millions of people watching in their own room after I've done the thing, so I'm less aware of how people respond to it sometimes."

Talk about a grown-up field trip.

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