Chris Perfetti first read the script for “Abbott Elementary” in March 2021. He was filming another project in Atlanta and riding a MARTA bus from Piedmont Park to Buckhead. As a lifelong New Yorker, the first thing he does in a new city is familiarize himself with its public transportation.
“Usually my litmus test for if I’m vibing with something is, especially if it’s a pilot or if it’s a new play, I like to read it in a public place,” Perfetti said. “I find that if it’s good enough to distract me from the world around me, and if it makes me laugh out loud in a public place, that is a good sign.”
After reading the script, the 33-year-old actor said the idea of portraying Jacob Hill felt both exciting and challenging. Jacob, also referred to lovingly as “white boy” by his students, has become everyone’s favorite well-intentioned but overstepping white gay educator. He resembles the ex-Teach For America type we all know and love to rag on, the one who reminds us about their latest book club selection, “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo.
Perfetti and Jacob share a rambunctious and enthusiastic curiosity for the world, he said. He also had a sense of jealousy at the thought of someone else playing the character.
“I just felt like I knew who that person was, like he was already in my life, or the writing was such that I felt like it was very specific,” he said.
Fast-forward to today — and it’s clear Perfetti’s instincts were correct. “Abbott Elementary” has been celebrated the world over, with several Emmy wins to boot and a highly anticipated second season, which premieres Wednesday on ABC.
Perfetti said that when he learned the series had been renewed for Season 2, he was on cloud nine. “I left the first season feeling like I would kill for an opportunity to do it again,” he said. Perfetti says that in Season 2, the “Abbott Elementary” writers room, led by Quinta Brunson, is “subverting expectations” and “steering clear of plotlines and tropes” that are predictable or repetitive.
“This season is an extremely specific kind of uncanny series of conundrums. We are zooming in on aspects of school life that maybe people aren’t expecting,” he said. “We’re going to dig deeper into the lives of these characters when they’re not at school. Hopefully last year, we laid the groundwork, and you are somewhat invested in what these people are up to. Now, we get to see why they are the way that they are.”
In the Season 2 premiere, “Development Day,” the gang is back at Willard R. Abbott Public School for development week, a prep period before the students’ first day of school. Janine Teagues (Brunson) and her scrub — err, aspiring rap star — boyfriend Tariq (Zack Fox) have parted ways, but post-breakup, she convinces herself that all is well and she has successfully left her problems at home.
That being said, Janine delves headfirst into packing her already overwhelmed schedule with planning a faculty mixer and organizing a special celebrity surprise for the kids’ first day. However, astute, nosy, and caring Jacob is one of the first people to identify that appearances are deceiving.
“This season, after surviving his second year at Abbott, Jacob is really steadfast and headlong in his belief that he can change the world, as teachers invariably have the potential to do,” Perfetti said. “Jacob’s is just, like, dialed up to an 11. Obviously given his naïveté and penchant for the dramatic, it’s hopefully going to be a recipe for disaster and humor.”
Perfetti comes from a theater background, spending the last 10 years doing plays on and off Broadway, such as Steppenwolf’s production of “King James.” He has mastered the art of allowing the audience to absorb every move he makes.
The ABC sitcom is intentional in giving the illusion that audiences are watching mayhem transpire in real time, with cameras rolling from every angle at every second. Filmed in a mockumentary format, “Abbott Elementary” capitalizes on the classic direct stares into the camera, eyes locking in agreement, and puzzled looks between actors.
“There’s definitely some crossover there,” said Perfetti, describing the contrast between TV and theater. “I feel like inherent in Jacob’s personality is a performative quality. I think Jacob is thrilled that this documentary is being made about Abbott, I think he thinks he’s, at times, the star of it, or at least a strong supporting character.”
Similar to how Jacob is portrayed, Perfetti said his own mother would have described his younger self as “always interested in being the center of attention or performing in some way.” With the help of a supportive English teacher recognizing his potential and handing him Tennessee Williams’ plays, Perfetti said he fell into acting and music in high school.
“There’s this real kind of karmic, come-to-Jesus moment of me playing a teacher knowing that there are probably more teachers than I can count on two hands whose lives I temporarily made hell,” Perfetti said. “To be completely frank, grade school was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I knew that there was gold to be mined from certain teachers, certain activities and fields of study, but I also knew that regurgitating facts didn’t interest me. School for me was very much a stage and a runway and there were definitely teachers who changed the course of my life.”
Like lead character Janine, his extroverted-introvert of a character was in the gifted program as a child. A gardener, perfectionist and peak type-A educator, Jacob is determined to change the world through teaching, to make sure he’s well-liked by students, and has been voted by one real-life TikTok user as a staff member they’d feel most comfortable coming out to. Perfetti, though, hasn’t seen the videos; he’s very intentional about how he consumes online feedback.
“I love that somebody would choose Jacob as the teacher they would most want to come out to,” Perfetti said. “What I can control is what I think Jacob’s hopes, dreams, desires, wants, fears and insecurities are. Those are the things that are interesting to me as an actor. Quinta, early on, described Jacob as sort of the best friend or sibling that everybody wishes they had. I think Jacob would try and befriend somebody that’s mugging him.”
He continued: “Jacob is ferociously loyal and well-intentioned, often to a fault. He is a social puppy, and an overachiever. I kind of view him as a Shakespearean clown. I think his function in this cast is very clear. That being said, I think our writers have done a tremendous job of not making him a device or two-dimensional in any way. It’s very clear to me why Jacob acts the way that he does. I’m very happy to occupy that space, because I feel like I don’t get to do so much in my real life.”
The third episode of Season 2, titled “Story Samurai,” is about what happens when Jacob’s old traveling storytelling troupe visits Abbott Elementary. When he decides to join them onstage, of course, snickers ensue. The episode airs Oct. 5, and Jacob wrestles with nostalgia, his corniness, and his preoccupation with his colleagues’ and students’ opinions of him.
“203 is a brilliant bit of writing,” Perfetti said. “There’s a bit of catharsis and recognition on his part and I think that’s gonna blow open a whole world of possibility for him in the future. I think the episode is, on a macro level, hopefully, talking about how we tolerate people who are different from us and how we have compassion and respect for people. I know it’s done in a subtle and hilarious way that only our show can do.”
That is one of many lessons Perfetti has gleaned from portraying Jacob, from empathy to examining his own relationship to service. Perfetti said that, in Season 2, audiences may find themselves sympathizing with characters they didn’t last season. He hopes people are laughing with and at Jacob. Although the response to “Abbott Elementary” has been overwhelming, Perfetti says, he hopes the show is just what people need right now.
“I have never worked on a show where I felt like every department is firing on all cylinders in the way that it is,” he said. “The sheer level of genius that is being vomited out by our crew, cast, and writers is very, very cool to behold.”
“Then I think there’s also just space for ‘Abbott’ right now,” Perfetti continued. “I think people want a place where they can laugh. I think people want a cast of characters that they can identify with and maybe haven’t seen before. More than anything, I hope people are laughing.”
Coming off a slew of historic Emmy Award wins and a sky-high Rotten Tomatoes rating, one would assume the cast feels pressure. However, Perfetti said the writers have no interest in “catering to any of the noise.” Although he believes the “Abbott Elementary” team is confident going into the second season, in many ways, Perfetti & Co. are picking up right where they left off.
“It’s been so nice to be able to bond over the way that people are reacting to the show. We are by no means letting our guard down, I feel like the invitation to make more of ‘Abbott’ is really like a challenge. It’s like, how do you make this better?” Perfetti asked. “It’s been hard to think about what would be next. I’m so obsessed with the job that I have right now that I haven’t let myself go there. I don’t want it to be done, which I feel is a rare thing. But I hope that ‘Abbott’ is nowhere near done.”