Janelle James Doesn't Live to Work

Three seasons in, the ‘Abbott Elementary’ actress has turned Principal Ava into a fan-favorite. But James knows there’s so much more to her than her on-screen career.

janelle james
(Image credit: Andre L Johnson, Magna Minutiae LLC)

Janelle James is the first person who will tell you that she and her Abbott Elementary character are very different people. While James has been a regular in Hollywood writers’ rooms—previously working on shows like Black Monday, The Rundown With Robin Thede, and History of the World: Part II—she catapulted to fame (and earned an Emmy nod) in her breakout role as scheming principal Ava Coleman. But James arrived on primetime after spending a decade hustling in the stand-up world, and she approaches her newfound fame with a solid sense of self that can only come from lived experience. When asked if she ever channels unflappable Ava in real life, James tells Marie Claire, “Maybe sadly to [fans], I'm never thinking about her when I'm being myself. I am such a strong character myself that I don't really need to channel anybody else when I'm out and about.”

Taking time out from a busy filming day to hop on a Zoom with MC, James explains how she balances the recognition playing Ava brings with her decision to keep her personal life private. (Though she has spoken about being a mom in her stand-up specials, James doesn't disclose her age and most details about her family in interviews.) She has an extremely grounded approach to her success, and credits the pre-social media way of fame as her inspiration. “Once you give people something, they want to know even more, or they feel like they're entitled to parts of my life. That's not what I signed up for,” she says. “I signed up to play a character that's hilarious. And I feel like I'm killing it at that.”

ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” stars Janelle James as Ava.

Janelle James on Ava's eye-catching style: "I feel like Ava does basics with some flair."

(Image credit: Disney/Pamela Littky)

Here, James chats about the workplace sitcom’s inept yet lovable antagonist, performing a “mini twerk” for Abbott’s season 3 premiere, and the advice she has for people who find success later in life.

Marie Claire: I am so curious about Ava's fashion. Her outfit in the season 3 premiere was still Ava but kind of muted. How involved were you in deciding her buttoned-up, “Harvard-educated” principal style?

Janelle James: I'm very involved in my look, mostly because my weight fluctuates day to day. Usually they just bring me a whole cart of selections, and then I put it together based on what's happening and how I'm feeling. I knew [in the premiere episode] I would be dancing, so that skirt was a stretchy material. Who doesn't love a high-waist and the classic business-lady silk blouse? I feel like Ava does basics with some flair. 

How did you navigate doing that dance sequence?

JJ: I knew about the dance a couple weeks before we started shooting. Quinta [Brunson] very nicely told me, ‘By the way, you're going to be dancing to "Back That Azz Up" on the premiere. I thought you should know.’ She appeared at a party, told me that, and disappeared.

Just like everything that happens on TV, for 30 seconds of material, I danced for three hours. I know how we [usually] dance to "Back That Azz Up," but I also know this is a family show with kids. So I was trying to do a midway point of ratchet, and that's what she's doing as ‘Business Woman Ava.’ She's a midway point of respectability and ratchetness. A little mini twerk. A tiny twerk.

One thing that I do on this show is I'm always wearing heels. I just think it's a good visual gag. I like to be tall, especially when I'm standing next to Quinta in any way. It just makes Ava look like more of a bully to be this giant person, and I like being tall in my real life. 

She's a midway point of respectability and ratchetness.

When you pull out the heels and looks for a red carpet, do you like to channel a bit of Ava Energy?

JJ: No. It's transformed on the show—the character is dressing more like me now. The costume designer has seen what I wear, and I know what looks good on my body. So season two with sweater dresses, that used to be my thing. Easy to throw on; it's a whole outfit. You change up your shoe, put on an accessory, and it's good to go. But then Ava started getting all these sweater dresses, so I don't wear them anymore in my real life.

I'm also super curious about the five months we missed in Abbott World. I don't know if the season's going to continue to flash back and forth like the premiere did. Did Ava completely go back to her old ways after "Back That Azz Up," or did she level up a little bit as a principal?

JJ: The show doesn't go back and forth. I think the pilot very cleverly explained where the time went, and now we're there and it's moving forward. Does Ava change? No, she does not, and I don't want her to. The experiment of her being a good principal and a good person showed that that's not what they want anyway. Not only that, it seems like the teachers get more done when she's not on their ass. People think they want rules. 

a group of teachers (played by Lisa Ann Walter, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Tyler James Williams, and Janelle James, talk around a round table in a school lunchroom

In the season 3 premiere, "Harvard grad" Ava (James, far right) lays down the law about her new policies at Abbott.

(Image credit: Disney/Gilles Mingasson)

I did really love how Ava rediscovered her love of learning in Jacob's class in the “Valentine’s Day” episode in season 2. How do you decide to play those moments where we see Ava’s more compassionate side? Similarly with her grandma and when she was teaching Janine's class?

JJ: I'm doing the sweet side of it, but those moments are funny to me because I know it's just to humanize her a little bit. They're not my favorite; I like wild Ava. No person is all one thing. Just like Barbara isn't the upright Christian all the time. I feel like that's what the show has done, [where] not only Ava, but all the characters are very well-rounded. We're not one note. So we have those little flashes of humanity for Ava. And, you know, she's not a monster. That's what those moments are saying. Like, ‘Hey, she has a grandma. Hey, she can watch a class or two.’ She doesn't want to, but she will.

You make an active decision to stay private about certain parts of your life. Have you ever found that difficult to navigate in Hollywood or with fans online? 

JJ: I'm super new to Hollywood, so I haven't had to navigate it for long. I have realized that the more private you are, the more people will want to know, or maybe assume about you if they don't know who you are. I don't know if I owe anybody any more than I'm giving. I take that day-by-day and interview-by-interview how much I want to share. But my main goal is to do well at my job.

I like the old way of celebrity where you only saw them when they had projects to promote. You saw them do their work, and then that was it. The people that I admire live like that. Queen Latifah, you never see her unless she has something to sell or promote or doing some good deed. Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel [Washington], all the greats. They're not telling [the public] all their business, and I think that helps not only [as] an image thing, it's for peace of mind.

a woman (janelle james as ava coleman) puts her hand to her head while sitting at her desk, with a "hello" sign in front of her

Though Ava has her soft moments, James prefers her comedic scenes. "I like wild Ava," she tells Marie Claire.

(Image credit: Disney/Gilles Mingasson)

Would you ever develop a show or anything based on your life story in the future? Your organic come-up in comedy is very inspirational, and could be a source of inspiration for a whole bunch of people.

JJ: Watching Quinta handle all these roles that she's doing on [Abbott] seems very not fun and exhausting. She has even said she won't do it again. So I'm glad I got to see it in person to help me make that decision for myself. I'll maybe write a book—I wish people read more. But I don't know about developing and starring in a show myself. At this point that seems like a drag. I'm so tired doing just [acting]. It would have to be an ideal situation for me to be into that. Like Ava, I don't live to work.

I love that. That line was instantly iconic. Also, this is off-topic, but I've actually just realized that I have not thought that deeply about how old Ava is.

JJ: She’s timeless, is what you’re saying... I always feel like she does auntie jokes. People are like, ‘Oh, you're funny. Ava's funny. Do you have a similar sense of humor?’ I'm not as corny as Ava, I don't think. She does almost a female version of dad jokes sometimes, which I think is hilarious. But then she also is up on pop culture and TikTok and her fashions and stuff. It is kind of hard to know what age she is, but I would assume she's a millennial. She went to a Dru Hill concert. Just the things she pulls from, the pop culture references that she says…she was hanging out with Ghostface Killa in the ‘90s. You could kind of piece it together.

I feel like that's what the show has done, [where] not only Ava, but all the characters, are very well-rounded. We're not one note. So we have those little flashes of humanity for Ava.

You said in a previous interview that since you came into money later outside of your 20s, you don't spend it on stupid stuff. Do you have any advice for people who come into fame or professional success later in life on how to stay grounded?

JJ: Even if [success] is something you've chased, I don't think people realize what it is and how it is. To be somebody, like me, who does not come from money, and to be the one person in your family with money all of a sudden—like you said, I'm not a child—so I'm already looking [toward] how I'm going to retire and take care of my parents and all of those things. I don't really even have time to spend money on frivolous shit. I have to plan and be smart. Some people are like, ‘Well, I'm always going to be making money, so I'm just going to spend it.’ That's not necessarily how I think. I like to be prepared for the time, like Ava, when I don't want to work any more. A lot of people don't even get to get to that point where they can have that even be a thought. Most people work till they die, and I don't want to be in that situation. I watch my parents do that. I watch their parents do that. I watch my peers do it. And it doesn't look sexy to me.

One of the ways I stay grounded: I have my best friend of 10 years. We started comedy together; she has known me. I really just have kept around my friends that have known me before all of this happened. Miraculously, as they say, you stay in things long enough and you become successful. We're all kind of breaking out at the same time—Ayo [Edebiri] has been my friend for ages, [and] Ziwe. So many people that I started comedy with are now becoming names, and we're all still friends. We all talk about it and how crazy this all is, and we have each other's backs. The people that knew you before can tell you when you're changing.

What kind of projects do you hope to do in the future? 

JJ: I'm going to go back to stand-up [comedy]. That's where I feel the most me. As far as acting, I'd love to do a romantic comedy. I love that genre. I feel like every job I take prepares me for the next one, so I just try to stay open and ready and sharp. I'm in a position very luckily with this job that I'm not pressed. I hope to make good decisions, whatever comes my way. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Quinci LeGardye
Contributing Culture Editor

Quinci LeGardye is a Contributing Culture Editor who covers TV, movies, Korean entertainment, books, and pop culture. When she isn’t writing or checking Twitter, she’s probably watching the latest K-drama or giving a concert performance in her car.