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Abbott Elementary's Janelle James on the "Edgy" Season 3 and Working in High Heels for Seven Hours Straight

James' Ava is going to show some new layers

Max Gao
Chris Perfetti, Quinta Brunson, and Janelle James, Abbott Elementary

Chris Perfetti, Quinta Brunson, and Janelle James, Abbott Elementary

Disney/Gilles Mingasson

Janelle James seems to be having the time of her life on Abbott Elementary. The stand-up comedian, who has worked as a writer on Black Monday, Central Park, and History of the World: Part II, has redefined the archetype of the bad boss with her Emmy-nominated portrayal of hilariously inept principal Ava Coleman.

Over three seasons, Ava has shown that she helps the students of an underfunded Philadelphia public school in her own way. "The reason the show is shot in the way it is and the reason the cameras are in the school is because of Ava," James said in an interview. "I just think it's very fascinating that the show opens up with her bringing these cameras into the school under the guise of 'Oh, it's about the kids,' and it's really about her trying to get a name for herself and become famous, and then she essentially has succeeded. This is truly, in her mind, like the Ava show."

During a busy day of shooting the third season of Abbott, James jumped on the phone with TV Guide to discuss the premiere (which finds Ava applying some knowledge during a summer program at Harvard), her love for physical comedy, and why she does not want Ava to ever become a "good" boss.

Everything We Know About Abbott Elementary Season 3

I'm not sure if "tyrant" is the right word to use here, but Ava definitely begins this premiere on a mission to make changes at Abbott after going to Harvard over the summer and learning what it means to be a principal. She's really committed to taking her job seriously.

Janelle James: I beg to differ. That's the wrong word. This is what everyone asks for. Ava is delivering on the professionalism. She's delivering on the rules. She's delivering on being a principal, what people believe a principal should be, so tyrant, I think, is too far. [Laughs.]

Fair enough. We find out that the camera crew hasn't been in the school for months because their equipment was stolen, and it has taken them months to save up enough money to get new cameras. That was a clever way to explain the time jump in the premiere due to the real-life WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. What was your first reaction to all of the reasons that are given about where the new season picks up, and how would you describe Ava's arc in the premiere?

James: So when I read how they do the time jump, I was like, "Oh, this is super clever." But that's something that I expect from the show. I feel like even though we're doing a traditional sitcom, Quinta and the writers have been really good at subverting what you think is gonna happen or doing things how you think it's gonna be done, because it could have just been like, "Oh, we were all asleep and dreaming," like all sitcoms do. [Laughs.] So I thought it was really cool how they did that, and then for Ava to come back, and then it also explains why she had a little extra time to "go to Harvard" and think about herself. So I like that new flavor to her. And then of course, she will never truly become that [perfect principal], because then what is the show? I never want her to fully go into "rules land." So it was fun to do a different flavor for her, and like you said, she lost interest. [Laughs.]

Ava has made all of these changes at Abbott — no more eating lunch off-site, no more free periods, no more teaching cursive, rearranging all the chairs and desks in a classroom — but it was funny to me how the teachers were trying to find a factory reset button for Ava. And it was "Back That Azz Up" of all things that led to her undoing.

James: I mean, it's iconic. That's a song that turns the most prudish person into a dance animal, so it was fitting. I thought especially using Gregory as a tool was hilarious. But what I thought was interesting about it is taking away all those things, like the off-campus lunches — those are things that real teachers have said to me, is not possible and does not happen. So we did that; we took it away. And then we all saw how that went, you know what I mean? [It's funny what happens when] Ava follows the rules, so I thought that was really funny.

The "Jeremy Allen Black" line in reference to Gregory flexing his arms in front of Ava was really funny. Did you come up with that?

James: I did not come up with that. Quinta wrote the first episode. I don't know who came up with that joke. But I have my own jokes about Jeremy Allen, so I had no qualms in saying it. I thought it was hilarious and funny that we filmed this two months ago, and it's still current now, so that's a testament to his celebrity, actually.

Whose idea was it to have a Harvard shirt that essentially spelled out Ava in colorful letters?

James: Okay, so I want to claim credit for that. Some might argue, but I remember at the table read when they said that she had a Harvard shirt, I did say we should bedazzle the AVA on it. Now the color was different than I asked for, but it was done.

Hilda Boulware, Quinta Brunson, Ryan O'Flanagan, and Janelle James, Abbott Elementary

Hilda Boulware, Quinta Brunson, Ryan O'Flanagan, and Janelle James, Abbott Elementary

Disney/Gilles Mingasson

What are you thinking about when trying to bring these words in the script to life? There's a kind of physicality and physical comedy to your performance that I think is the selling point of Ava and of the show in general.

James: I really do work on her mannerisms. I call her an urban debutante. That's what she's kind of doing. She's a Southern Belle, but in a Philly school system, as far as how she holds herself and her mannerisms. And [I'm] also punctuating the things that I'm saying with movement. It's a thing that I'm doing. It's exhausting, but I feel like it matters. And I'm glad you notice and anything to commit to the bit.

For example, I wear heels every episode and we shoot six hours, seven hours, and I wear heels the whole time. Quinta has offered to have me get lower, more comfortable shoes, but it will change how she moves and how she holds herself. So I will wreck my feet for the laughs [laughs], and it's also so much more funnier to me how small Janine is that Ava is towering over her and yet still bullying her. It's just a funny visual. It helps me do my physicality. It helps the viewer hopefully, like, "Oh, wow, she's doing all of this and in heels. That's a bad bitch." That's what I'm trying to convey with all that I'm doing. [Laughs.] I'm glad you notice that, so thank you so much. I love physical comedy. Physical comedy is underrated, and I'm so glad that I get to do that in this role.

I think it's normal for writers, after a couple of seasons, to write a character with their actor in mind, and even though you and Ava are two really different people — I have to make that part clear! — I think it's fair to say that you may be tempted to say some of the things that Ava says in your own life. What has it been like for you to have that blurring divide where the writers are writing for both you and Ava at the same time?

James: Oh, it sucks. I gotta watch what I say around them, because they will put it in the script, and I'm just like, "Wait, it's getting too close, because I can't continue to say I'm not Ava, and she's not me, if I'm actually saying things that I would say. So it does blur the line. I would like to think that I am not nearly that rude. That's one thing. But as far as the jokes and just how she is a good time, that is very similar to me. And even from the first season, a lot of my interests have ended up in the show. With the X-Men Storm, the writer who put that in knows that I love X-Men, and that's a character that I really love, so then I got that to play Storm. So sometimes it's not all bad, right?

I did read at one point that you pitched something for the second season.

James: I don't remember what that was. But I pitched something for [Season 3] that Quinta was very into, but then with the strike, it'll most likely get moved to Season 4. But she assures me it's coming, so that's great. I don't pitch much but if I have an idea, I will run it by her. And that might be just two times that I'm pitching, as far as storylines. I'm staying in my lane, but the two times I've pitched something, she's been receptive to it. She tells me it's coming, so I can't say what it is.

In a recent Entertainment Weekly roundtable, your co-star, Tyler James Williams, said that the first season of Abbott was introducing the characters, the second was digging into their lives, and the third is finding out what is complicated about their lives. What new layers are you finding in Ava's character this season?

James: What new layers am I finding for Ava? [I think] layers as far as how she sees herself and how she wants to be seen. I'm hoping that people, as they tell me they've been watching and rewatching the show, realize that the reason the show is shot in the way it is and the reason the cameras are in the school is because of Ava. I just think it's very fascinating that the show opens up with her bringing these cameras into the school under the guise of "Oh, it's about the kids," and it's really about her trying to get a name for herself and become famous, and then she essentially has succeeded. This is truly, in her mind, like the Ava show.

But in her pursuit of fame and wanting to be in front of the cameras, she now has to interact with the teachers more, she has to interact with the kids more, she has to pay attention to what's actually happening in the school, so she's evolving in that way, figuring out that she is smart, and she does love to learn. And then as the show goes on more scenes, the good part about being in an ensemble is you get to get paired up in different ways. So we haven't had an Ava and [William Stanford Davis'] Mr. Johnson caper yet, or Ava and [Chris Perfetti's] Jacob, so those have been the exciting things that are happening for this character.

I really appreciated how the writers are finding ways to show that Ava is giving back to the kids in her own way, even if she can come off as selfish at first.

James: But I think in this episode, we see that, yeah, she is selfish, but she's doing it in a way that makes things happen. Things will not happen if she does just a little subversion around the rules. I hope that's what people are figuring out, like, the rules are not contributing to the educational environment for the kids. It's just arbitrary rules, and now she's going around it for her own means, but in the meantime, the kids are benefiting, [as well as] the teachers. The teachers are able to do more of what they do, which is teach without her being on their back enforcing these rules that mean nothing at the end of the day.

This season is not unlike the first in the sense that you have to tell a really contained story with fewer episodes. What can you preview about what is to come at Abbott this season?

James: I really feel like this season is edgy. I feel like some of the subject matter we're doing, some level of dialogue, is very edgy to me. We just shot a scene before I got on the phone, and I was like, "Ooh, this is kinda spicy." So I think not only because of the direction Quinta wants to go, but because we have a shorter season, she felt more free to just do real punchy, standalone episodes, and it's been fun.

In between seasons, you're still working as a stand-up comedian. What has working in that space done for you in terms of helping you with your delivery on Abbott?

James: I try to keep it separate because I'm not Ava, so I always consider my stand-up as me representing myself. I will say that it's not that Ava is helping my stand-up. Stand-up has helped me perform Ava in that this is my first TV show, this is my first role, this is my first foray into this whole Hollywood thing. But doing stand up for 12 years — if you can stand up in front of strangers and tell jokes from the depths of your brain, nothing is scary. So I came with a confidence that I may not have had if I was just an actress who had been auditioning and finally hit a role. Stand-up gave that to me. I know I'm funny. I know how to perform. I know how to hit a joke.

Abbott Elementary airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on ABC. Episodes stream the next day on Hulu.