BURBANK, Calif. -- When actress Gillian Jacobs began studying at the Juilliard School at 17, she discovered she was a victim of her past.
Jacobs had been a successful and adored child actress, clinching her debut role at her very first audition and scaling the heights of Shakespeare at 16. So it was a big shock to learn that dutifully following instructions and regurgitating the director's orders was not acting.
"When you are a child actor, it's all about pleasing the director," she says in a small dressing room at NBC studios.
"It's not about having a dialogue with the director. It's about trying to do what they say to do to the best of your ability. And Juilliard was saying, 'That's NOT what it means to be an actor. What it means is to have opinions, to make choices, to be in a creative dialogue. Not to just try to please people.' So that was extremely challenging for me because it went against everything that I'd been taught."
At 28, Jacobs has learned her lesson. And after years of hauling her worldly possessions in her arms from one small apartment to another in New York, she's made her mark as the independent Britta on NBC's comedy hit, "Community."
But it wasn't easy getting there. "Even when I would work -- when you're doing independent movies or theater, you're still not earning a living -- so there was a time before 'Community' where I was working but I still had to count my pennies and try and figure out a way to get some free dinners."
Laughing, she says, "I had a friend in New York who was an actress in her 50s and I'd go to her house and say, 'Can we have dinner tonight?' And the family I used to baby-sit for, I'd get dinner from them. I've definitely slept on friends' couches and floors, and I'm really thankful for the generosity of the people in my life that allowed me to do this even when I wasn't earning a living."
As hard as it was, the Pittsburgh native had no choice.
"As a child, I had a flair for the dramatic, my mom would say. And I think I love the written word, so I think I fell in love with the literature aspect of theater as a kid. ... So for me it was a combination. Theater folk are the modern-day carnies. It's like running away to the circus. And they were really exciting, dynamic, funny people to be around as a kid."
The reason she started acting in the first place is that her teacher confided to her parents that Gillian had no friends and maybe some extracurricular activities might help.
Once she tried acting, she became a zealous convert. She remembers the threat of a flood made her mother suggest they not attend her first day of acting school. "You don't understand," she told her mom, "I HAVE to go."
Her father was a lawyer and investment banker. "I think maybe he had some thwarted acting ambitions as a kid, and my grandfather definitely thought that actors were basically circus folk and one step above prostitution. So I think my dad took a lot of pride in being able to encourage me where maybe his parents hadn't encouraged him," she says.
"For the last 10 years, Mom has worked at Carnegie Mellon in alumni relations. She also worked at the natural history museum when I was much littler, and she also ran a professional women's outreach program at this department store in Pittsburgh. I used to sleep in the pillow displays while my mom was working late at night. I definitely spent time in department stores after business hours, which is a strange experience for a kid."
Not married or in a relationship, she shakes her head, "I thankfully am not interested in actors as partners. They're lovely guys and make great friends, but I don't really have an interest in dating them. You basically have the same experiences. It would be nice to meet someone with different interests."
Though it was onerous learning she was not the golden child at school, she's glad she went. "I think it was good for me," she says with a nod.
"I went from having a teacher's pet relationship with authority figures to having a healthy bit of disdain and more questioning ... response to authority. I think that's part of growing up when you've been the 'gold star' student. I was forced to confront a lot of aspects of my personality that I might not have had I gone to a big state school. You don't have that one-on-one wrestling with a teacher when you're in a big lecture class. I probably learned a lot about myself."