Debby Ryan from the new movie “Life of the Party” has taken only a few college classes over the years because she’s been so busy working on TV and film projects since she was 13. Her co-star Gillian Jacobs not only graduated from Julliard, but a major hunk of her acting career had her in “Community” college.
But both stress how they got to share in an acting master class while working with Melissa McCarthy on the comedy directed by her husband, Ben Falcone. In it, a middle-aged mom (McCarthy) goes back to get her college degree after her husband asks for a divorce.
Ryan and Jacobs play very different college students. Ryan portrays Jennifer, the school tyrant who rules with an iron social fist and thinks every other classmate is her inferior. Jacobs plays Helen, a woman who enrolled in college after waking from a long, long coma that left her just a little off her mental game.
They agree that working with McCarthy was a wonderfully comfortable experience and a great opportunity to watch someone who has had so much success perform.
“She is so smart and gorgeous and hilarious and warm,” Ryan said. “It requires a lot of power to do all she does with such grace and balance.
“It would be very easy to be intimidated by her because she is so unstoppable and such a legend, but the second you meet her, she has a way of breaking that down so you only have more respect for her.”
Jacobs said, “She really cares about the other actors and their talent. She has this rare ability to be both this powerhouse performer and a really kind and generous co-star. They don’t come much nicer than Melissa.”
This role’s a big change for Ryan, who tends to get cast in nice girl roles, such as in the 2011-15 Disney Channel series “Jessie.” The Alabama native said she’s happy to play a queen bee. “It shows that they believed in my abilities and that I have that kind of range,” she said.
“It showed they knew I could bring this character to life. Most of the character was on the paper. But when I had the second audition with Ben and Melissa, I was encouraged to play a little bit and improvise to make her my own.”
Being able to make changes to the character is important when working with Falcone and McCarthy. Ryan got to watch how they would start with the script but then improvise lines and actions in an effort to make a scene better. Everyone else in the scene got the same opportunity to tweak their work to stay in comedic step.
Jacobs has been working in TV and film since 2005 but said she started getting comfortable with improvising only after landing the role of Britta on “Community” in 2009. She knew there would be a lot of room to go away from the “Life of the Party” script because Jacobs had accepted an invitation from “Community” co-star Jim Rash years ago to be part of a night of improv with the Los Angeles comedy theater and school the Groundlings. McCarthy was also there that night, and Jacobs recalls how as soon as she saw her on stage, she knew McCarthy would be a big star.
Jacobs plays one of the quirkiest characters in “Life of the Party.” Much of the way Helen acts came directly from the script, but Jacobs was happy that she also “got to be my weird self.”
Getting to be in the film took some schedule juggling for Jacobs as the film was shot between the end of the second season of her series “Love” and the start of the filming of the third and final season. The romantic comedy web series created by Judd Apatow is available through Netflix.
Although Ryan and Jacobs play characters who travel in polar opposite social circles, they do have a big scene together.
Ryan called the sequence fun and scary. She got past her fears because of getting to work so closely with Jacobs.
“She’s incredible, and I’ve been a fan of her for years,” Ryan said.