The absence of that immediate gratification definitely stings,” says actor Chris Perfetti of appearing on ABC’s Emmy-nominated comedy Abbott Elementary. The classically trained actor, who cut his teeth onstage before landing the role of enthusiastic young teacher Jacob on the show created by (and starring) Quinta Brunson, admits that filming a television series is an entirely different beast than the theater, where he still finds himself most comfortable. “Onstage, actors are much more in control of the storytelling. TV is a series of pictures — the story is told by somebody else, largely in the editing bay.”
And yet, Perfetti admits this job has been an overwhelming experience — and one from which he has learned a lot about himself as a performer by watching the cast and crew he works alongside. “That’s what intrigues me the most,” he says. “I see people who are so great at it, and it’s inspiring and addictive to me.”
Perfetti didn’t have any expectations that Abbott Elementary would be a runaway hit when he first read the pilot in preparation for his audition to play Jacob, but at the same time, he was certain that the project was something special. “I could just see Jacob and who he was in the world,” he recalls. The show’s humor also struck him immediately — he remembers reading the script on public transportation in Atlanta, trying to stifle embarrassing laughs. “It was this alchemical thing that just felt right,” Perfetti explains. “I got this feeling of jealousy just thinking of someone else doing [the role].”
The actor also says that his co-stars — he and Lisa Ann Walter appear alongside Emmy nominees Brunson, Janelle James, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Tyler James Williams — all quickly found a familial rapport as an ensemble, not unlike the connection between a long-running theatrical troupe. “In theater, you spend a month in a room together to create your family,” says the 33-year-old actor, whose screen credits include In the Dark, Sound of Metal and Looking. “Working on Abbott was the most like that I’ve ever felt before [on TV]. It really is a gorgeous alignment of people at the right time in the right place. Everybody thinks they have the best cast, and they simply don’t — I do.”
While the show’s success has garnered more work — ABC has given the series a 22-episode order for its second season, up from 13 in its first — Perfetti has still found time to return to his first love: the stage. Between seasons, he appeared in Rajiv Joseph’s play King James, first at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and then at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum, about two lifelong friends united in their fandom of LeBron James. But he sees Abbott‘s success as his chance to reach a wide audience and bring the same caliber of thoughtfulness into a character.
“It’s inherent in the sitcom formula that our problems are relatively simple,” Perfetti says. “Zooming in on them is how we let you draw meaning about the rest of the world — and, hopefully, find its humor.”
This story first appeared in a July stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.