The sitcom star tells 'Variety' why she she prefers being a mystery and why she hopes 'Abbott Elementary's reign doesn't last too long.
Despite being one of the breakout stars of ABC's critically acclaimed sitcom, Abbott Elementary star Janelle James is a woman of mystery that prefers to keep it that way. In conversation with Variety for the cover of its latest issue, the comedian explained that there are many facts about her life that she doesn't believe people need to know, like her age.
"I'm grown. I have a 20-year-old son. I'm not ashamed of my age or anything like that. But for women -- and everybody knows it and acts like they don't -- it gives an idea of what you are in people's heads," she says.
James has two sons and the actress declines to reveal the age of her other child, saying she doesn’t see the point in sharing that. She says that the downside of being famous -- whether it's Newly Famous as her current comedy tour dubs her or not -- is that the more people learn about her, the more they try to fix her into a box.
"People have this idea of motherhood, the same way they have an idea of women as we reach a certain age. Each age group, people have an idea in your head of what it is. I don't want that to prevent me from doing anything, because I can do everything," she declares.
She has similar thoughts on the show that's made her a household name, admitting that despite loving her work as Abbott's incompetent yet insightful principal Ava Coleman, she doesn't want people to pigeonhole her as the character. "I want people to see me outside of the character of Ava. I am not Ava; I am acting. I'm not ashamed to be Ava, but when people say, 'You're just like your character,' that's an insult," she says. "I'm doing a lot of work to bring this b**ch to life."
Ava was one of the only two roles James pursued in 2020, which she did after opening for Chris Rock on his 2017 Total Blackout Tour, landing her first writing job on The Rundown With Robin Thede and finally working as a staff writer on Showtime's 2019 comedy series Black Monday, which starred Don Cheadle as an '80s stockbroker.
Abbott Elementary creator and star Quinta Brunson tells Variety that she only knew James as a comedian and had been excited to see the tape she submitted. "It was just perfect. It was just exactly what I was looking for," Brunson recalls. "You couldn't get me off the Janelle train. Once I saw her, it was case closed."
The critically acclaimed series, which returned for its second season on Sept. 21, has been lauded for its realistic and heartwarming depiction of life for teachers struggling against a negligent system to provide their students with the best possible education. The cast has been showered with rightfully earned accolades, including an Emmy nomination for James herself.
Much of that success is due to the 10-person writers' room that James credits for being diverse enough to get every character's voice right.
"It makes things more natural to have people who get how a Black woman would speak," she says. "You have to know a person like Ava to be able to write for her. And if they don't know someone like her -- because we do have white writers -- it's good to have a Black person in charge, so when I say, 'Ava would never say this,' I'm listened to." She adds, "There's some places where it will be a white person telling you that they can write for Black people better than you can. That's wild! But the diversity of our writers' room gives the show its authenticity, and we come off as real people."
Abbott has already been renewed for its third season but James notes that she doesn't expect the series to last forever, and she doesn't want it to. "Quinta has mad s**t to do. She's not gonna want this to go forever. That's what I'm hoping," she says. "I don't know what ABC wants, but I'm confident that she is smart enough and prolific enough that she's going to want to do other projects."
And if ABC has plans for more seasons than James is interested in, she muses that the network could continue with a staff change where Ava gets fired. "I think that'd be better than a redemption arc where she becomes a good person all of a sudden," she says. "That's when I quit."
Abbott Elementary's season 2 finale, titled "Franklin Institute," airs tonight at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.