'Abbott Elementary' star Chris Perfetti feels at home with 'King James'

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Chris Perfetti poses for a portrait on Tuesday, June 6, 2023, in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

NEW YORK – Chances are you won’t find Chris Perfetti fiercely debating on social media if LeBron James is indeed the GOAT, nor will you find him waiting hours outside of hotels, hoping to get an autograph or selfie from the basketball legend — but you wouldn’t know it from watching his latest play, “King James.”

“I grew up in a very heavy sports household. But I knew early on that that was not going to be my thing … it’s why I want to be an actor. I want to do things that are that are different from me,” the 34-year-old thespian and “Abbott Elementary” star said in a recent interview.

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“King James,” a Manhattan Theater Club production in New York closing Sunday, is a two-man play written by Pulitzer finalist Rajiv Joseph that co-stars Glenn Davis. It revolves around a friendship born from a fanaticism over the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

Directed by Tony Award-winner Kenny Leon, the off-Broadway production — which previously played in Chicago and Los Angeles with both actors — uses basketball as a vehicle to talk about life and relationship throughout a 12-year time period.

“To me, the play is this sort of platonic love story. It’s about what guys are talking about when they’re talking about sports. It’s about male friendship,” Perfetti explained. “It’s really about how life kind of hardens you and changes you and tosses you around.”

Recently, Perfetti's life has changed for the better. He’s best known to the masses as Jacob Hill in ABC’s megahit comedy, “Abbott Elementary,” starring and created by Quinta Brunson. The Emmy Award-winning mockumentary, also featuring Sheryl Lee Ralph and Tyler James Williams, follows the lives of teachers operating in an underfunded, predominately Black public school in Philadelphia.

Perfetti’s character, nicknamed “Mr. C” (for “corny”), is a loveable, optimistic and, at times, awkward and teacher who navigates being a white educator who wants to make a difference and find commonality with his students. The success of the show, he says, rests on “the fact that so many things are operating so well at the same time.”

“That just doesn’t usually happen,” he said. “The overwhelming feeling I have about ‘Abbott’ now is just immense sort of gratitude, and trying to soak it in because it’s very easy. It’s not simple, but it’s easy to do, and I’m only realizing now how rare that is.”

According to Perfetti, it all starts at the top with Brunson, who has her hand in nearly everything that touches the show.

“I think she’s written something that exhibits a serious amount of bravery,” he said. “If people don’t understand it or if people don’t like the jokes, it seems like she doesn’t really care. And I find that incredibly admirable.”

“As it relates to Jacob, she introduces that this character is queer, like very far into the first season. And she does it by sort of not addressing it at all. And I feel like even a few years ago, there would have been this impetus to have a coming out episode or something, or like making it a bigger deal than it is,” he continued. “She’s just sort of asking everybody to catch up, which I think for a network sitcom is kind of revolutionary.”

Perfetti grew up in Rochester, New York. After graduating from drama school at SUNY Purchase College, he had worked on and off Broadway over the last decade before landing his role on “Abbott.” He calls the stage “home,” though he says the wide gap between his preference between theater and scripted TV is narrowing.

“Actors are way more in control of the storytelling when it comes to theater. The story is largely being told by an editor and a director in an editing bay for TV and film,” he said. “And that’s not to say that your job is pointless, but I, for the two hours that you are in my house, when you come to see the play that I’m working on, I’m just thrilled by that experience.”

Currently, like many shows in production, the third season of “Abbott” is on hold amid the ongoing Hollywood writers’ strike. However, Perfetti, who supports the writers, is remaining positive.

“It is a terrifying and beautiful moment. It sort of feels like the engine to the boat has been turned off and we’re just sort of coasting and there’s a lot of information to gather here. But yeah, I’m remaining optimistic,” he said of the strike. “We are all going to sort of get back on the same page and this is sort of a necessary evil of life.” ___

Follow Associated Press journalist Gary Gerard Hamilton at @GaryGHamilton on all his social media platforms.

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