‘Abbott Elementary’: Janelle James on Her Villainous Principle Coleman

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SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not seen “Step Class,” Episode 9 of “Abbott Elementary.”

Janelle James punctuates everything she says with a long, loud laugh.

She knows she’s funny. Her career trajectory proves it: Her standup career has earned her spots in Netflix specials including “The Comedy Lineup” and “The Standups,” and she’s written on the acclaimed TV series “Central Park” and “Black Monday,” also playing small acting roles in each. In 2020, she made Variety’s list of 10 Comics to Watch, saying, “I’m a woman, when else do I get a room full of people to listen to me? I get to do that all the time and charge people money for it. It’s like I’m a motivational speaker without all the bullshit. Without all the cheerfulness.”

Her most recent gig is her role as the unabashedly selfish principal Ava Coleman in “Abbott Elementary” — a fan-favorite character on a fan-favorite show. Ava is the foil to second grade teacher Janine Teagues, who, played by series creator Quinta Brunson, is young and full of optimism about what she can do for their under-resourced school. While Janine pulls from her own pocket to get her kids the things they need, Ava neglects responsibility — and has as much fun as she possibly can with her job, going so far as to funnel much-needed funds into a massive banner of her own face.

In “Step Class,” the ninth episode of “Abbott Elementary,” Ava surprises her staff by stepping up to the plate for once. Upon realizing that Janine has set up a step class for students to participate in after school, she volunteers her own dance expertise and even begins co-teaching. The other teachers warn Janine not to trust Ava, but against her better judgment, she welcomes Ava into the fold. Unsurprisingly, Ava’s flaky tendencies reemerge, and she disappears when it’s time for the students’ final performance. But right as Janine loses all hope in Ava’s ability to change, she learns a secret: Ava has been taking care of her elderly, ailing grandmother, which regularly causes her to abandon her responsibilities at school.

James told Variety about the surprising arc in “Step Class” and why she thinks Ava is perfect as she is.

Janelle James: So this isn’t a video interview?

No, this will be a written piece.

You’re telling me I went and put on lipstick for nothing?

Oh, you didn’t have to do that!

Well, I surprisingly hate being on camera, so that’s cool. Great!

Tell me how you get into character as Ava. Are there any crazy school principals in your past that you’re basing her off of?

No. I mean, I don’t remember any of my principals. Maybe that’s funny in its own way? I don’t remember them, so I’m not basing her on any principals. I don’t think that this character is a principal. She is any bad boss in a power position in any industry you can think of. You could put her in advertising, a school, a restaurant, whatever. She’s just a bad boss. That’s what I’m drawing from, because we’ve all had those. It’s a mixture of a couple of bad bosses I’ve had plus, every sister-girl-auntie that we all, as Black people, have in our life. It’s a combination of all those people. And me!

I don’t want to get you in trouble, but can you tell me anything about those bad bosses you’ve had?

Like who they are? That’s not gonna happen. But a whole lot of toxic positivity. I’ve had a boss like that, where the things they’re saying and doing are awful, but they say it and do it with a smile on their face, which is almost more damaging to you. Because then you think you’re crazy!

Education isn’t necessarily a passion for Ava, but as we learn in “Step Class,” she does have a heart. So why do you think she’s in this line of work? Does she care about the kids?

No. I mean, there was a second in one of the episodes where I did tell Janine that we’ve got to take care of our own. But I don’t know if that was for the kids or for her reputation as a principal at the school.

I always say that nobody’s all one thing. Nobody’s all good and nobody’s all bad. So of course, she has some redeeming qualities. Does she care about kids at all? Maybe not the small ones. Maybe the ones that can speak to her on her level, pre-teen and up. That can compliment her sincerely on her outfits. So I don’t know if that means she cares about the kids, but she cares about her reflection in the eyes of the kids. You know?

Talk about working with the child actors on the show.

The kids are so cool. It’s supposedly difficult to work with kids, but if you just remember that they’re kids, you’re chill. The show was so fun to shoot, especially [since] we shot this straight out of quarantine. I hadn’t seen anybody but my own kids for a year. So [I loved] to be around that energy, and how Quinta made a decision to style the kids in uniforms, clean and pressed, natural hair… brown babies! It was calming, which is not something you would think about working with kids, but it was just such a good feeling to be around all that adorableness.

Second grade teacher Janine Teagues (Quinta Brunson) and Principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James) in “Step Class.”

What’s the funniest thing a kid said to you on set?

Someone said I’m the next Martin Lawrence, which… I didn’t even know she was old enough to know who that was. That was super odd. Or they would say, “Oh, I liked that wig you had yesterday, but this one is better!” Kids are just very blunt. “I like that outfit! But I didn’t like that skirt yesterday.” And Ava’s blunt too, so that’s cool. We’re both saying whatever we want without thinking.

This episode reveals that Ava is so flaky and distracted partially because she’s struggling to take care of her grandmother. Did you know about that backstory before you signed on? Did you think she’d stay a villain?

The characters are so fleshed out and well-written from the first episode, I knew she would have to have an arc. Again, nobody’s all one thing. She got a life outside the school obviously, she tells you all the time, but you just don’t know what it is. So it was nice that it shows that she has, like you said, a heart. And some responsibility, real responsibility that she handles correctly outside of school.

But I had no idea. I’m watching the show with y’all. Even though I read the scripts, I don’t remember. So when I’m seeing stuff, especially if I wasn’t in the scene, I have no idea what it looked like and what happened. I’ve already forgotten, so I’m delighted when everybody else sees. Like yes, this is a good story right here!

How was shooting all the dancing in “Step Class”? Had you ever stepped before?

No! I feel like Black people think that we’re all supposed to know how to step. I had never!

I haven’t either.

You don’t, right? So [Janine] in the episode is not good at it, but [Quinta’s] actually really good at it. It’s major acting on her part to act like she doesn’t know what she’s doing. And I was super gung ho like I am for everything. Like, I’ll learn it. But unfortunately, we didn’t have too much time for me to learn huge choreography and everything. So it’s kind of played away from me dancing, but it was cool to try and be around that.

With characters like Janine and Gregory, it’s easier to guess where they might ends up in their careers and personal lives. But do you have any goals for Ava? Is there anything you want for her?

It’s weird, because I don’t have any goals for her, because I think she’s perfect. I love that she’s hilarious and inappropriate. And I hope she stays principal for a long time. It’s not good for the kids, but it’s good for the show. My character brings what she brings, and I think it’s needed you know. So maybe another little cutie substitute. I don’t have a goal like, ‘Oh, I hope she becomes a great principal.’ That’s not her character. I hope she keeps doing what she’s doing.

Maybe she’ll get on Gregory, get a couple of dates going. Not necessarily a boyfriend — I see Ava as a woman of the world. So her infatuation with Gregory, I don’t see as necessarily that she’s even really that into him. That’s a power move. This is her doing yet another thing because she can. So if there are more men to play my moves on that’d be great. I like that.

I’m doing stuff in this I hadn’t really done before. Physical comedy and just being a real freaking clown. So I’m just ready for more of the same. I think she’s so great. She don’t need to change. You know, the first couple episodes were where people didn’t like me, I knew they would come around. By episode three: “Got ‘em!” Everybody’s not funny, even though they think they are. It’s a gift. She’s so charming.

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Second grade teacher Janine Teagues (Quinta Brunson) and Principal Ava Coleman in “Step Class.”

Quinta has said that she went to bat for you when ABC was unsure of casting such an unknown actor. How did that make you feel, and what has it been like to work with Quinta?

I felt amazing. I believe she said I was the only one, after all the auditions, that they even submitted [to ABC as Ava]. They were like, “This is it.” So without that, who knows who would have gotten the part, because like you said, I’m not a “name” person. But Quinta is very smart in all ways. Especially in the ways of knowing exactly what she wants, and knowing what kind of shoulders she wanted it to be on. And when you do a new sitcom, it’s usually unknown people. You’re not going to throw Janet Jackson in as a teacher all of a sudden. You’re not! Because then that takes away from whatever character it is that you’re playing. It’s like, “Oh, Janet Jackson is hilarious!” Not “Ava’s hilarious.” So I think she’s very smart in giving people new faces. It’s such a good mix; there’s known and unknown. Everybody doesn’t have to be someone you’ve known before. Everybody started somewhere.

And my relationship with Quinta, I just look up to her. We were both stand ups. She’s an L.A. comic, and I’m New York. We’re like the Sharks and the Jets, so we don’t really mix too much. But I’ve always admired her and knew she was hilarious. And even more after working on the show with her. She’s an excellent boss. She got that shit together. She’s doing it. She knows what she wants. And it’s evident in the product that we’re putting out.

You’ve been a standup comic and a TV writer for years, but this is the biggest acting role you’ve had so far. Had you been trying to transition into this kind of work for awhile?

I wasn’t an aspiring actress. I’ve always been a standup. But when I read [the “Abbot Elementary pilot script], I was like, let me give it a shot. Because I knew it was gonna be good, whether I got it or not. I wanted to be in it.

All of this happened during the height of the pandemic. I hadn’t been auditioning for anything. I get a couple of auditions a week from my agents and stuff, but I was in the middle of the terror of Corona, so I wasn’t doing much. But I read this one for whatever reason. I wasn’t even reading the stuff that I was [being sent]. I was like, I’m not doing this. What is life? I’m not doing auditions right now. And for whatever reason — probably because it was Quinta — I read it and was like, oh, shit. Let me set up my lights and build a camera and set up the computer. It’s a whole thing to do an audition in the middle of a pandemic.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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