Debby Ryan, Gillian Jacobs educated by ‘Life of the Party’


“Life of the Party”’s Debby Ryan only managed to find time to take 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 in the new comedy film, Gillian Jacobs, not only graduated from Julliard, but a major hunk of her acting career had her in “Community” college.

Despite the very different educational backgrounds for Ryan and Jacobs, they both stress how they got to share in a acting master class while working with Melissa McCarthy on the comedy directed by McCarthy’s husband, Ben Falcone. The story of a middle-aged mom (McCarthy) deciding to go back to get her college degree when he husband asks for a divorce opens Friday.

Ryan and Jacobs play college students, but they could not have more different roles to play. 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.

Both agree working with McCarthy was a wonderfully comfortable experience and a great opportunity to watch someone perform who has had so much success.

“She is so smart and gorgeous and hilarious and warm,” says Ryan. “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 echoes those sentiments by saying normally she is intimidated by most people, but found McCarthy to be such a welcoming person that she immediately felt at ease.

“She really cares about the other actors and their talent,” Jacobs says. “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 Disney Channel series “Jessie.” The Alabama native’s happy she was cast to play such a queen bee character.

“It shows that they believed in my abilities and that I have that kind of range,” Ryan says. “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.

“I like it when I have great writing because if we had done it word-for-word the film would have still been hilarious. That gives you a lot of comfort. Then when you get to know the actors’ voices it makes it easier to play.”

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 the scene better. Everyone else in the scene gets the same opportunity to tweak their work to stay in comedic step.

Jacobs has been working in TV and film since 2005 but only started getting comfortable with improvising 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, who had not become a household name yet, 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.

And Jacobs got to work with the big star in “Life of the Party” playing one of the quirkiest characters in the film. 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 season. The romantic comedy web television series created by Judd Apatow is available through Netflix.

“I am sad that we only got three seasons, but I am happy people have responded so strongly to it. I am glad we went out on a high note,” Jacobs says.

Although Ryan and Jacobs play characters who travel in polar opposite social circles, they do have a big scene together. The nature of that scene is being kept under wraps, but they both enjoyed getting to go head-to-head on screen.

Ryan called the sequence both 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 says. “Getting to work with her was a real blessing and a real treat. I would do anything with her. It goes back to the overall tone of working on the film because when you feel comfortable and get to play, it comes across on the screen.”

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