Janelle James on ‘Abbott Elementary’ Season 3 & Playing the Bad Guy

Janelle James is used to a more solitary existence. For a decade, she worked as a stand-up comedian, with no one to contend with but herself. Then she received a script that was good enough to warrant answering to a boss—it was Quinta Brunson’s pilot for Abbott Elementary. “I read a lot of pilots and I’ve tried to write some of my own—it’s very hard,” she tells W over Zoom. “It’s rare to come across a comedy that makes you laugh out loud on paper.” Her decision to sign on to Abbott Elementary, now in its third season (which debuts February 7) on ABC, changed everything. She went from basement stand-up shows to being a Los Angeles-based Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated actress, starring in one of the biggest series on network television. James is quick to credit Brunson—Abbott’s creator, head writer, and star—for the show’s success, but James herself brings immense charm to the ensemble as Ava Coleman.

Principal by day, hustler and doomsday prepper by night, Ava is the waggish heart of Abbott. A comedic foil to Brunson’s Janine, Ava perfectly balances the tone of the show, throwing in a brutal one-liner just as the story starts to verge on cheesy. Over two seasons, James has mastered the art of playing the lovable villain, a self-centered, outspoken rake who seems more focused on flirting with DILFs than educating their children. But just when you think there’s no hope for Ava, James sneaks in a touch of humanity and keeps us rooting for her success, no matter how misdirected it may be.

Does it feel different, playing Ava from season-to-season? Or is it like putting on an old sweater at this point?

This season, because of the strike, it took all of us a minute to get back to work. For a second it was like, “What am I doing? Who am I?” It didn’t really click until we had our first group scene in the break room. That’s when we found our rhythm.

Do you feel like, in order to find Ava, you have to really bounce off the other characters around her?

I think that’s true for everyone on the show, and that’s the mark of a true ensemble. The characters are so well drawn that when a Barbara line bounces to me or a Jacob line, I know exactly how Ava would respond to each one.

We don’t learn a lot about Ava’s personal life in the show. Have you come up with a backstory for her yourself?

Not so much a backstory, but motivation. I think she’s a product of the same school system that she’s now working in, and she sees that things have not gotten better. She’s a hustler who knows you have to circumnavigate the rules to get things done. That’s why she has all her little side gigs. I want to say she chooses herself, but that’s not great when you’re in charge of so many kids. She’s the person who is like, “Nobody has helped me, so I’m going to help myself.” We’ve only shot five episodes of season three so far, but she is definitely changing this season.

You once said you hope Ava never has a redemption arc. Do you still feel that way?

A lot of the storylines are driven by her doing things wrong. Ava and Quinta’s character, Janine, are two sides of the coin in that a lot of the chaos is caused by Janine trying to be a good person or Ava being a bad person. So if Ava changes, where’s the story coming from? It’s all heartwarming—who wants that? Not me. I didn’t sign up for that.

Do people have trouble separating you from Ava when they meet you in real life?

Yeah. People think I’m more outgoing, a party animal, and that I actually hate kids. At first, I was like, “You can’t tell TV from reality?” But now that I’ve sat in it for a bit, I understand that’s expected. People don’t know who I am. This is my first television role and I’m kind of reclusive. So they only have Ava to identify with. Now, I’m taking it as, “I’m doing such a good job that people think I’m actually Ava.”

Okay, let’s move on to the Culture Diet questions. What are some other shows that make you laugh out loud?

I’m still into It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I love that show and that ensemble. They just keep coming out with crazy shit. But I actually don’t watch comedies that much. I did just watch Jennifer Lawrence in No Hard Feelings, though. She killed that shit. It was very funny.

What do you like to watch?

I’m trying to get through Yellowstone. I have a very short attention span nowadays. The show is good and I recognize it’s good, but I just keep falling asleep.

Mostly, I watch YouTube. During the pandemic I started watching all the YouTube girlies and their “get ready with me” videos. I just like watching young women living for themselves and traveling.

Who are some of your favorite people to watch?

The OG is KarenBritChick. I’ve been following her since she had a blog. She’s one of the first people that I remember doing street style videos. There’s another girl, Monroe Steele, who I’ve been watching since she started—I’ve seen her go from her tiny apartment in Brooklyn to owning houses in New York and Miami. And then there’s Keltie O’Connor. She does challenges like, “I’m going to run a marathon this year,” and I’ll just follow her for the whole year. I’m not going to run with her, but I love seeing her do it!

Now that you live in L.A., would you ever start a YouTube channel?

My little sister has been trying to convince me to do that. Like I said, I’m a recluse. The idea of doing something exciting and then saying, “Wait, let me set up a camera”—that never clicks in my head. I was thinking about starting a podcast again—I had a podcast during the pandemic that I really enjoyed doing. I might do that because it’s faceless. I just don’t see myself doing the “Hey guys!” thing. If I could figure out a different way, a more “me” way into doing a vlog, though, I would.

Do you listen to a lot of podcasts?

I used to. Now I just listen to one: The Read with Kid Fury and Crissle West. I’ve been listening to them for, like, 10 years. I was listening to all the murder podcasts, but I stopped. I’m anxious enough.

What about music? What have you been listening to lately?

I just got a record player and that’s been my obsession for the last three months. The first album I bought for it was Alanis Morissette: MTV Unplugged. I bought this album by Ike Quebec called Bossa Nova Soul Samba just based on the description of it. It makes me feel very, “Hey, come have some cocktails and we can talk about art.” I put on my best robe with the feather sleeves and I smoke a joint and listen to that. I’m just trying to relax, girl. That’s my focus this year and every year. It’s not a thing I used to do, but I’m in a position now where I have money for the first time in my life and I can rest.

That’s a great point to be at in life.

And a lot of people don’t get there, so I’m like, why waste it?

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