Gillian Jacobs Says Failure Can Actually Inspire Confidence—and It's Good

Jillian Knox Finley
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Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images

I met Gillian Jacobs for the first time at a comedy school, and we mostly talked about failure. Known best of late for her roles in Netflix’s modern romantic dramedy Love and HBO’s Girls, Jacobs has a solid track record playing onscreen artists with their acts together. This summer, she stars alongside an ensemble cast of comedians in writer and stand-up comic Mike Birbiglia’s film Don’t Think Twice, which follows a New York City improv group on the verge of their big break as they navigate the delicate art of show business among friends. That’s where the comedy schooling came in.

In real life, Jacobs was no star student. In case you missed it, her rousingly candid Lenny letter essay chronicling her own stint on academic probation while at the prestigious Juilliard School is rife with self-deprecating humor, wry commentary, and tenacious optimism. So much so, it begs the question if being roundly dismissed as a non-contender by art-school faculty might be the very trappings of greatness.

I sat down with the actress to talk expanding her comedy chops for her role as an improv prodigy in Don’t Think Twice. It turns out Jacobs has a keen sense of humor for all things—especially professional setbacks. Refreshingly sincere and endearingly charming, her upbeat take on everything from critics to comfort zones is worth noting. Oh, and if you want her to help you draft a message on a dating app, she’s totally game.

MYDOMAINE: In Don’t Think Twice, you play Samantha, a former ballerina who finds her true passion after joining an improv comedy group in New York City. Do you have a background in improv prior to the film?

GILLIAN JACOBS: No, not at all.

MD: So was that terrifying?

GJ: Yes, totally terrifying. It would be one thing if my character was supposed to be the weak link in the group. I could say, “Well, I’m not good at improv, but my character’s not good at improv.” It was such high bar to play someone who is meant to be one of the best, the one that’s getting the big auditions.

MD: She’s the natural.

GJ: Yeah! So that felt really intimidating. We had about two weeks of classes. I got to perform with the people in the cast to get some groundwork. After that, I really had to just go for it.

MD: The film highlights a few of “the rules” of improv as a process. They’re pretty great. Did you ever find yourself applying them to anything beyond live theater?

GJ: You know, Mike was saying he really got back into improv because he realized the principles are what got him through directing his first film, Sleepwalk With Me. The rules being say yes, listen, be collaborative, be open to other people’s ideas. I don’t know if everybody practices them perfectly, but you could apply all those to life quite well. Especially listening.

MD: My favorite theme of the film was how important it is as an artist to recognize limitations yet also maintain a sense of confidence. Can you speak to that? Is that a constant artistic battle?

GJ: Yeah, I think it is. I struggled with the confidence thing for a long time. In the beginning of my career, I found auditions really scary and intimidating. Your body has bizarre stress responses that you can’t possibly know about until they are happening. For instance, when I first started testing for TV shows, my vision would go blurry. That was really shocking in the moment. You’re there in this room full of executives, and suddenly you can’t really see. The first thing I ever auditioned for after graduating from Juilliard, my knees literally shook. I didn’t know that’s what my body was going to do!

For a long time, I felt if I did well in the first audition, then I would blow the callback because I’d feel the pressure and the expectation. I was so unknown as an actor that going in, nobody really expected anything of me. All I could do was impress them. Once they liked me, I felt like all I could do was disappoint them. Eventually, I accepted the mind-set that they wanted me to do well. Ultimately, I think people want you to be good. That solves a problem for them. “Okay, we cast her in that part. Great! Done!” They want you to get the job. You get in your head.

MD: Speaking of your Juilliard days, in your Lenny Letter essay, I loved the story of the first time you brought in a comedic scene. You professor said, “Well, clearly you can do that, and—”

GJ: Never do that again! Yes!

MD: That’s incredible. What did you make of that?

GJ: It’s funny. When you’re training as an actor, it’s all about pushing past what you’re good at and doing things you’re really bad at to get better at them. After that, in your career, it becomes about learning to play to your strengths. At times, that can feel as though you’re getting pigeonholed as a performer. It’s very, Oh, you do that well. We’ll just hire you to do only that.

MD: Which can be true of any creative field.

GJ: That’s an interesting thing. I think I graduated college not knowing what I was good at, and I spent the first 10 years figuring that out. Now I’m trying to push myself past what I feel comfortable doing into other things.

MD: That’s exciting. Where are you pushing off to?

GJ: Well, the Lenny Letter piece was terrifying to me. I’ve tried to write more. I’ve done two other pieces for them. I interviewed this all-girls robotics team from Bronx Science High School, and that was really fun. I want to direct more documentaries and just keep doing different things that I don’t feel qualified to do on paper—things I don’t have a degree in.

MD: Your character Sam in this film is very self-aware. She relies on her own instincts. She makes unexpected choices.

GJ: Yeah, she is not ambitious in the typical way. The world she is in is so tough. She’s someone who knows what makes her happy, even if it means saying no to what others might consider a huge opportunity. That feels like a different choice for a character to make—an unexpected choice.

MD: I think the best artists have a pronounced inner compass. They trust themselves to know if something is good without constantly succumbing to outside influence.

GJ: That’s a scary thing to not rely on external markers. Whether it’s, Is what I’m doing as an artist good or bad? or Am I successful or not? Did you ever live in New York?

MD: No, almost. I’ve spent quite a bit of time there.

GJ: Living in New York, you kind of hit this point where you just get tired of the grind. You get tired of being broke and having a shitty apartment. You sort of feel like the city is wearing you down. For my character to say, I’m not going to go for the job that would make me a lot of money and make my life more secure. I’m going to keep doing the thing that is more fulfilling—I admire that immensely. Personally, I don’t think I could do it.

MD: Do you relate to most of your characters?

GJ: Yes, always on some level. No matter what their external behavior is, I can understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s either something I have done myself or something I find to be a very human impulse.

MD: Speaking of very human impulses, I love talking to guys about your Netflix series, Love. In my experience, men and women have a very different viewing experience of that show.

GJ: I’m sure!

MD: Just the other night, a guy friend of mine was saying of your character, Mickey, “Gillian’s so good on the show because you can’t not like her. Mickey’s so nuts, and she’s so hot. Every guy totally gets it.”

GJ: He would be very disappointed to meet me! I am this very boring person in real life who is not very much like Mickey at all. I think I would underwhelm anyone who is really into Mickey!

MD: Is there any skill you’ve taken away from a character that you didn’t have before going into the roll?

GJ: That’s a great question. I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability and forgiveness lately. I have this notion that I must be forgiving of other people because I hope for that forgiveness for myself. I’m a flawed person who falls short of my own ideals, and I hope for forgiveness. I have to be willing to forgive others; otherwise, how can I ask for that in return? Maybe that’s a Mickey thing. She’s just like, I’m messed up! And I’m trying! I’m trying, and I’m messed up, and I’m still going to just keep trying. She makes a lot of mistakes, but she has a big heart and wears it on her sleeve. I’m a bit more private as a person. That’s a harder thing for me, which is why writing that essay for Lenny felt scary! That was far more revealing of me as a person than I normally would be. The response was so nice coming back. I dipped my toe in the water, and said, Oh, people got something out of that. It’s okay to be a little more vulnerable.

MD: Do you have any insights on modern dating after working on Love?

GJ: Just empathy! It’s a tough world out there. I don’t know how people do it.

MD: Have you ever used dating apps?

GJ: No.

MD: Same. Swipe culture gives me anxiety.

GJ: I love looking at my friends’ online dating accounts, though. I did some Cyrano de Bergerac–ing for the guys on the crew of Love. I wrote a lot of messages for them on dating apps.

MD: I’ve done that. Its pretty fun.

GJ: That was very fun. I got no skin in the game! I don’t even have to go on the dates. So I really enjoy that.

MD: Competition among friends is another theme in Don’t Think Twice. Have you ever been in direct competition with friends in the industry? Is there such a thing as healthy competition among peers?

GJ: It’s a tough thing. As an actor, when it comes to auditioning, you don’t ever really know what somebody else did in the room. There is this air of mystery to it. A musician puts out a song, or a painter paints a painting—everyone sees it. As actors, we go into a room with the decision-makers and perform privately. You never know what combination of factors play into why another person gets something that you didn’t.

Being on the other side of those conversations is a new experience for me. On Love, as we auditioned actors I got to hear the writers, producers, and casting directors discuss things. Sometimes it’s decided the moment you walk in the door. It doesn’t mean you were good or bad. There may have been nothing you could have done to get the job. The more I can accept that and go, I didn’t get this one, but it doesn’t mean that I’m terrible. They still liked me, the less competitive I feel. Ultimately, feeling bitter about other people’s success isn’t going to get you anywhere. If I see that someone can do something that I can’t do, that inspires me to go out and work on that skill set, to acquire new skills.

MD: In any creative field, there’s so much rejection. Do you have any routines or rituals for recovery?

GJ: I try to let myself be upset for a finite point of time. If it’s a job I didn’t really care that much about, that might be an hour, or six hours, or a day.

MD: The point is to have an end point.

GJ: Yeah, and say, I’m gonna let myself be bummed about that! Maybe have a cry about it. Then you have to just keep moving. You can’t hold onto it.

MD: Were there any failures that you felt really contributed to your success down the line?

GJ: That’s a good question. I did a pilot years ago that I got recast in. After the show was picked up to series, my role went to another actress. I ran into the producers at an event. It was so embarrassing to see them after they had fired me. It didn’t kill me. I realized even though that was embarrassing to me, Hollywood at large did not get a memo. You know what I mean? It’s not as though anybody else noticed or cared.

I definitely felt like I needed to toughen up as a person to have the endurance to survive this career. You fail in little or big ways. If you pick yourself up and continue to do good work, people will respond to it. If, instead, you come in carrying the inner talk of I’m a failure, I’m a failure, I’m a failure, you only dig yourself deeper into that hole.

There was a point at Juilliard I definitely felt like the teachers didn’t like me. Then I realized no one in the profession was going to care what the teachers thought of me. I couldn’t carry Nobody really liked me at Juilliard into the professional world.

MD: Any critiques that still stand out?

GJ: I’ve gotten terrible reviews in plays. I looked up this review I got when I was 16. It was for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I played Titania, the fairy queen—not great casting for a 16-year-old girl who was emotionally probably 12. I got a bad review in my hometown paper.

MD: That’s brutal at 16.

GJ: It hurt. My acting teacher gave me this book called No Turn Unstoned by Diana Rigg. It is a collection of all these awful reviews of undeniably great actors.

MD: My sister has that book!

GJ: That is such a comforting book.

MD: Isn’t it?

GJ: My teacher gave me that book, and it clicked. Everybody gets decimated. Doing theater in New York, all of us doing Off-Broadway plays got lambasted by The New York Times at some point. It certainly stung. Maybe the play closed faster or the audience came in with their arms folded ready to hate it because they read a bad review in The Times, [but] it didn’t kill any of us. In fact, many of us have gone on to be very successful.

You have to take your lumps. When I see it really rattle people, that’s when it has an effect, only because it is echoing around in their head. Nobody is really remembering your failures a year or two down the line. Unless you can’t let something go, that’s the only time it becomes a real thing.

A friend said something great to me when I was going into a big audition. He said, “You’re steak, and either they want hamburger or they want steak.” I didn’t get the part. They didn’t want steak.

MD: Well, crème brûlée can never be Jell-O!

GJ: Hello!

Catch Jacobs in Don’t Think Twice (now in theaters) and Love (streaming on Netflix), and shop our favorite memoirs from fellow funny people below.

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