interview | janelle james

trench coat. Gasanova
heels. Camilla Gabrieli
earrings. Sterling Forever
rings. Vintage Fusion

Abbott Elementary has become a sensation. Overnight, it has become one of the most successful comedies on television, launching the show into mainstream success. For Janelle James, it’s catapulted her into the limelight, a limelight that she still finds herself grappling with. Fame is all part and parcel of the hustle, but for James, it can be a weird and wild ride. Still, like everything else throughout her ‘coming up’ over the last ten years, James has taken everything in its stride. From comedy tours with the likes of Chris Rock to writing her comedy album, she set the stepping stones to her success, including (but certainly not limited to) an Emmy Award nomination, and an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.

Now, with Abbott Elementary about to start filming its fourth season, James reflects on all the work it’s taken to get here. She’s not surprised. When speaking with her, she’s quick with a joke, so naturally funny, you can’t help but be in awe. The role of Ava Coleman was made for her, and while the character has been criticized for being ‘one note,’ James brings a depth, that shows Ava to be multifaceted along with the other characters on the show. It would be so easy to write her off or see her as one-dimensional, but with brilliant writing and James’ flawless humour, what we get is a character that goes from being misunderstood to giving us so much more than we ever could have bargained for.

In conversation with Schön!, James discusses Abbott Elementary, becoming accustomed to fame, her first ever red carpet experience, meeting fans and so much more! 

Hi, Janelle! Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Looking back over your career from stand-up to now being on Abbott Elementary, what have you learned about yourself?

[Janelle sings] I can do anything! I’m a hard worker, so I’m not really surprised that things have gone well. I remember doing stand-up and by the time I was in year three, I was like, “Why aren’t I famous, yet?” But everyone would say, “Ten years.”

Ten years?

Almost to the day. But I’ve learned if you continue on, if you work hard – God, I sound like a self-help book, [laughter] – and you’re ready, it’s ready. I put in the work and the work delivers, so I’ve learned I can definitely do anything.

So then, what was the “I made it!” moment for you?

When I paid off my debt! [laughter]

That’ll do it! 

It’s something that a lot of people don’t get to say. Being in LA, looking at the Hollywood sign for the first time in person.

When you made the move from New York to Los Angeles, was it jarring?

Luckily, I had been here before on writing gigs, so I knew LA and I actually liked it. I’d been in New York for years, it’s not going anywhere. It’s not like LA versus New York, it’s wherever I’m at. I came out here (LA), you know, it’s a place to train, it’s a place to pursue your dreams. It can be very demoralising because it’s very isolating out here, whereas I think being poor in New York is the place to be, because there are so many other poor people around you working on themselves. We’re all trying to figure out how to get our dollar signs for that day. You have people to commiserate with. And that’s also by class. You start as an up-and-coming comedian and you start seeing the same people, and whoever sticks it out for those 10 years, you can reflect back on what it took to come up. I’m very blessed. There’s a real community, so I got lucky. I came with a job and haven’t had time to be, “Oh gosh, LA is like whatever,” because I’m literally just at work [laughs].

You’ve written for The Rundown with Robin Thede and Black Monday, can you talk about how different writing versus performing is for you and what you love about each?

Writing is me. I was just talking the other day about how amazing set design is. Whatever the writers put on paper, the set designers make it happen. So, writing is pure imagination, I can construct a world all inside my head and have someone actualize it, is amazing. Also, having people saying what you write and having it hit is a different kind of feeling. With performing, there’s the element of being more visible. More of – what would you call it? A public figure? [laughs] Abbott has reached a wider audience so being recognized in public is still new to me as a person. I’m figuring it out.

Do you have to do the whole ballcap and trench coat thing?

Depends on the day because I’m very stubborn. I’m still shocked every time I go out. I know that people know who I am, but it still hasn’t sunk in yet? I can’t go out an act a fool, sometimes I have to be reminded people want to pose for pictures or want to have a chat. Apparently, my voice is very distinctive so when I laugh, that’s a wrap.

During your interview with Variety you said that you love new experiences. What’s one thing you love about them, and what’s something you’ve always wanted to try but haven’t had the chance?

New experiences make me feel alive. I’m here to learn. That’s what I do. My purpose here is to learn and have new experiences. I love hearing stories and learning from those experiences, too. What haven’t I done yet? [Janelle thinks for a moment] I’m thinking… let’s reanalyze.

No problem!

You know what, I’d say instead of having goals, I’ll do whatever. If it seems like a vibe, I’ll do it. Especially professionally.

So, in saying that, would you branch outside of comedy? Try your hand at drama? Romance?

Yes, absolutely! Also to prove that I can do that, too! [laughter]

trench coat. Gasanova
heels. Camilla Gabrieli
earrings. Sterling Forever
rings. Vintage Fusion
dress. Payal Khandwala
earrings. Atra Nova by Sheila B

Okay, just on a side note, I have to ask – do you still have an Android?

[Janelle laughs]

I’m calling you out! I saw on Twitter that you were being made fun of for not being in the cast group chat.

I still have my Android, it’s right here [Janelle holds it up].

Oh my God!

But I will give you the scoop, but I recently acquired an iPhone as well, because my assistant said my pictures are whack. But I’d argue that pictures are better on an Android and iPhones are more situated for social media.

Other than acting and writing, what creative outlets do you pursue off the clock?

Thank you so much for asking! Abbott has been so much of a sensation, we’ve been moving from season to season so fast. Thankfully and luckily, I’ve been busy with work. But I am looking at getting back into some of my hobbies. I made music, I used to dance, I used to paint. So many things I want to get back to. My son is a painter. I want to get back into reading. All of those things. It’s just been hard to find the time. I’m not blaming Abbott at all. It’s just the success has been overwhelming. Now that we’re going to be filming season 4 –

I can’t wait.

I’m looking forward to being able to manage my time again.

Do you have any memorable fan interactions? 

It’s so much fun being on a show that makes people happy. I feel bad when I’m not ‘on’ so, sometimes, I’ll say to myself, “Don’t go out unless you want to be on.” Older black women put me in the tightest of grips and say how proud they are of me. There was this one time I was at the Basquiat exhibit and this little girl came up to me and she asked, “Are you Ava?” and I said, “No.” She looked at me real hard, then shrugged her shoulder and said, “Okay.” And went back to her mother. A few minutes passed and she circled back again [laughter] I asked if she was a fan and she said she followed my Instagram. I was shocked. She said she’d been following me since she was 11!

In 2017, you penned Black and Mild, would you consider writing another comedy album?

As soon as I have thoughts again. I don’t like to perform comedy unless I feel like I have something to say. My comedy has been so consumed with the show, so as soon as I have thoughts again, I’ll be writing. The tour I did last year was all about this experience, and I was so tired. This wasn’t the energy I wanted to bring, you know? I was like an angry plaid shirt guy. [laughter] I’d like to come back to it with renewed energy.

I’ll definitely keep a lookout. Moving forward, do you feel more accustomed to fame and everything that comes with it? And can you take me back to your first red carpet experience? 

Red carpets are hard! They don’t give actors enough credit. We’re not models! It’s answering questions and posing for pictures that are going to be on the internet. It’s kind of nerve-wracking. Being dragged by the fashion Gays. It’s really nerve-wracking. But, my first red carpet, I brought my friend with me, and we were just gawking. I was pointing at people. It was very humbling. In interviews now, I’m laughing like a maniac, you know? I still try not to stress my publicist out [laughs].

I have to ask, what’s the most star-struck you’ve ever been?

I’m a huge fan of Queen Latifah. She doesn’t get the praise she deserves, but maybe she doesn’t want it. You never really see her unless she’s doing something absolutely fabulous. You know, so her story of being a rapper from New York to where she is today really resonated with me. I met Steven Spielberg who watches the show, and Paul Giamatti who stopped eating his sandwich to take a picture with me. I don’t know how many people I’d stop eating a sandwich for. So, I’m constantly surprised by who watches the show. I don’t know many people, but when they come up, I’m like, “Who, me?” 

Circling to Abbott Elementary, Ava has evolved since season one, and she’s become such a fan favourite. Why do you think people resonate with her?

She’s been a fan favourite right from the beginning despite the nay-sayers. People resonate with her, you said that Ava has evolved, but I think she’s starting to show more layers of herself. She’s not a one-note character, that’s what’s so compelling about these characters. You know, Barbara isn’t a church lady all the time. Some people identify with facets of who she is, and that’s what excited me when I read it. She is the smartest in the room. People describe her as ‘stupid’ or ‘rachet’ but she is the smartest person in the room. She reads you and that read will be so poignant [laughter] but I think she’s one of, if not the most layered character on the show.

One thing I loved this season was seeing Ava take responsibility for her own education. Going to Harvard to complete her own degree, reading Slaughterhouse-Five… 

She’s just someone that grew up in that environment. She sees that nothing has really changed since she was a kid, and now she’s in charge. She isn’t heartless, but she knows that it takes a certain level of hustle, a certain level of street smarts to get things done, and now she has that, she’s turned to books [laughs]. Now she’s taking that energy and utilizing it. She’s not a stupid person. I’ve seen people describe her as that.

Not at all. It could be so easy to put her character in a box, but she’s so much more than that. And lastly, what’s a piece of advice you’d give young Janelle?

Honestly, everything that I’ve experienced has brought me to where I am. I may have avoided a few men here and there [laughs]. I’d have to ask myself, “What the hell did you learn from that?” Other than that, I would say, maybe, “Calm down?” But I don’t even want to say that because all of that energy I had was drive. So, you know what, I’ll say, if I could go back and say it? “Good job. You’re going to do it.”

dress. Payal Khandwala
heels. RICAGNO
earrings. Atra Nova by Sheila B
bracelet. Elisheva & Constance
ring. Nissa Jewelry
trench coat + dress. forte_forte
heels. Aleví Milano
earrings + rings. Nissa Jewelry

photography. Mekhi Turner
fashion. Tamala Clarice
talent. Janelle James
hair. Dwain Thomas (Weezy)
make up. Naima Jamal @ crowdMGMT using Estée Lauder
production. Clara La Rosa
lighting assistants. Justin Usami + Benjamin Soto
location. Hype Studios, LA
interview. Dana Reboe


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