Gillian Jacobs On Working With Chris Pine In The Contractor, Directing More Than Robots, And More [Interview]

Gillian Jacobs has been busy. From co-starring in Tarik Saleh's new thriller "The Contractor" to making her feature directorial debut with "More Than Robots" to appearing in the forthcoming Netflix series "Transatlantic" (currently shooting in France), her recent filmography is littered with an eclectic array of unique and wonderful pieces. In "The Contractor," she plays a woman whose ex-Special Forces husband gets drawn into the shady world of military contracting, while "More Than Robots" covers four teams of teenagers who prepare to build robots for the 2020 FIRST® Robotics Competition.

I sat down with the director/actress for a wide-ranging discussion that spans all these diverse projects. We talked about where her "The Contractor" character Brianne stands on the film's central issues, the inspirational kids at the heart of the "More Than Robots" documentary, learning French for the "Transatlantic" shoot, and more.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

'It was really the collaboration of working with Chris and Tarik that made the experience so great'

"The Contractor" has a lot of action and thriller elements, but it's way more critical about the contracting world, the military, what it does with veterans, than a lot of other films. What drew you to the project specifically?

I think the opportunity to work with Chris Pine was the thing that drew me to this project the most, because I just think he's an amazing actor. I have been a fan of his for a long time. I think he is one of the most truthful, grounded actors I've ever worked with, and I think he made me better. So my instincts that I would love working with Chris Pine were correct. I had an amazing time working with him. And then Tarik, the director, I also loved the experience of working with him. [...] He and Chris very smartly decided to have rehearsals with the three of us, and we got to sit in a room and talk and that is not standard practice with movies. I loved that experience of getting to work with them, and Tarik and I, it turned out we have a shared love of Ingmar Bergman, so we film nerd emailed back and forth about movies. It was really the collaboration of working with Chris and Tarik that made the experience so great.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Tarik as well. He was wonderful.

He's really cool! I just loved listening to him talk about how he was shooting the scenes, why he was shooting them that way, and he's just such a lovely, kind person. I can't say enough nice things about him.

Absolutely. So your character in the film, Brianne, she's seen too many funerals. She doesn't want our protagonist to do contracting and to get into that world. Let's talk about that.

I think her point is that he knows, as well. It's not that she knows something he doesn't know, but I think that he feels this obligation, this responsibility ... this has been his life for so long. So I think she's trying to get him to acknowledge what he actually does know, which is, I think, the heart of the conflict between the two of them as husband and wife. But it's also grounded with real love and affection for each other, and that they also do genuinely get along, love each other. It's really difficult to be apart [and] have these periods of separation, because there is such love there.

'I think it's a valuable message for all of us, not just for the kids'

Recently you directed "More Than Robots," your feature-length documentary debut. What drew you to the project?

So, despite the fact that I know nothing about science and technology, really, or computing, I have had this weird kind of parallel career in STEM documentary-interview-things for like six, seven — I don't even know how long at this point. Over the course of doing all these other interviews with people — I've gotten to interview astronauts, and people who study volcanoes, and paleontologists — I've gotten to talk to all kinds of amazing people within the world of STEM, knowing nothing really about what they do beyond a surface level. I became aware of this robotics competition and I thought it would make a great documentary, and I had just done this other documentary for this series called "Marvel 616." I directed an episode of that, and so through that, I found out that Lucasfilm was sponsoring this robotics competition.

I was like, "Oh, this is kind of like perfect for me, I weirdly know about this competition already." But I didn't really, because I knew a little about it but I didn't know it in-depth. I had a lot to learn in a short period of time, and the thing that impressed me the most was that it's a competition that doesn't really value or reward ruthless competition. It's not a "Win at all costs" kind of competition, it's a "Help out the other team" and "What can you do to make your community a better place?" sort of competition, which I found really refreshing. [It] made me fall in love with it even more, because it wasn't just about smart kids who are really high achieving, but they're also compassionate and thoughtful and kind.

I actually was going to ask you a question about that, because its ethos is more, as the creator says, "Coop-ertition."

Yes, coop-ertition!

That's a really healthy approach to kids' sports. Do you think that it's going to make a difference?

I think so. I see it in these kids, and not to spoil my own film, but in the third act of the film, you see really what an impact those values have had on the kids. I related to it, too, because I felt equally passionate about acting as a kid, and being in plays. Being in a play is really that same sort of feeling of "This is all of us, in it together." When you're on stage with someone and something goes wrong, you all have to work together to get through it in that moment. So I related to it a lot, and I think that it was an amazing thing to see. I could see that it had an impact on the adults who were mentoring, too ... it's a great reminder for me as an adult. All these values in the ethos of this competition, I think it's a valuable message for all of us, not just for the kids. I learned a lot. I was inspired by this competition.

'I love that the most prestigious award you get isn't for building the best robot'

I also liked that the founder's vision for it was explicitly to give it the positive aspects of other sports' culture, like mascots and a halftime show. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Oh my God. It's so much fun! I only got to go to one competition because of Covid, but even that one, they kept telling me, "Oh, this is tiny. Wait until you go to Worlds — it's like this times a thousand." They truly have mascots. They're singing songs. They're doing dances. They all make buttons for their team and they give it out, and the kids are wearing all the other team's buttons. And they like to wear capes, which I just loved! It made me so happy. So many of the teams, they wear capes, and they've got the capes covered in buttons from all the other teams. And it really is this exciting, energized, cool, fun environment. And the parents and the other siblings are out, and all the kids on the team are sitting in the stands.

It was really amazing! I never went to a single sporting event in my high school, so I have no idea what a high school sporting event is like. I went to a college that was an arts conservatory and had zero sports, so I don't have a lot of experience with it, but to me it was kind of one of the coolest experiences I'd been a part of and everyone just seemed like they're having a great time. And I love that the most prestigious award you get isn't for building the best robot. It's like "Who did the most for their community," really. That's pretty amazing for a robotics competition to say, "No, the most important award isn't for the best robot, it's for who can bring the spirit, the ethos of this competition to their community to help other people."

I also appreciated the fact that it was a robotic competition that tried really hard not to be classist, because schools have different resources. It's really important.

Yeah. I agree.

So you're in France right now. What are you in the middle of?

I'm working on this project. It's a limited series for Netflix called "Transatlantic," so we are shooting that currently. This is really exciting for me! I'm really working hard to try and learn French, and the crew has been so patient and gracious because my pronunciation is very bad, so I have daily lessons with the crew. I think I'm improving.

Is this an exclusive that you are learning French for "Transatlantic?"

Well, it's not even necessarily for the project as much as it is for me really wanting to be able to order in a restaurant, or know what people are saying to me, and just to try and get my vowel sounds correctly — get my "R" correct. It's really important to me that by the time I leave France, my French Rs are correct.

Although it's early, is there anything you can tell me about the new project?

I'm trying to remember the press release in my head so I don't tell you anything that's not in the press release. It's got an amazing cast, I can say that. Corey Stoll, Corey Michael Smith, and so many amazing actors from across Europe. So I'm meeting so many terrific people. I think this is one of the nicest groups of people I've ever had the pleasure of working with, and I've gotten to work with a lot of nice people. So I don't know if that's, like, an exclusive, but it's a nice fun fact for my life.

"The Contractor" is in theaters now, and "More Than Robots" is streaming on Disney+.