A chat with Community’s Yvette Nichole Brown

NBC’s Community is about a band of misfits attending Greendale Community College. Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), a lawyer whose degree was revoked, brings them all together to form a study group, where they learn more about themselves than their coursework.

Yvette Nicole Brown, seen on shows like Drake & Josh and Rules of Engagement, has her first starring role on Community as Shirley, a sassy divorcee.

The Oakland Post: For our readers who haven’t watched Community yet, could you describe your character Shirley in your own words?

Yvette Nicole Brown: Shirley is a single mom of two boys who is coming back to community college to rebuild her life after divorce. She’s loving, but she always has a very short fuse so she can go from being completely sweet to being psychotic in a nano-second, so you have to watch your back when you’re with Shirley. She loves the Lord, and she loves telling people what to do, and that’s either a good thing or a horrible thing, depending on the person she’s saying it to. She’s a cool character to play – that’s Shirley in a nutshell.

OP: Are there any similarities between you and Shirley?

Brown: Shirley and I are both Christians. And we both call people “pumpkin” and “sweetie”. “That’s nice” is actually something that I say – I ad-lib’d it during the pilot and it’s kind of become Shirley’s catch-phrase but it’s kind of something that I say, so those are the similarities. I hope that I don’t have that short of a fuse and I hope that I’m not as judgmental in my faith as Shirley is, but other than that, we’re pretty much kind of the same person.

OP: The second season of the show recently premiered; what should viewers expect to see this season that is different from the first?

Brown: There’s going to be a lot more episodes like the Paintball and Chicken Fingers episodes. Those were the episodes that the viewers seemed to like the most, and the creator of our show and the producers of the show decided to make more episodes like that rather than fewer. Expect to see more big spectacle-type shows, I mean that in a good way, throughout the episodes, instead of just one special episode at the end. We have a Halloween episode coming up with zombies, and that’s going to be great. There’s a couple of things to look forward to that make the show a little more exciting than maybe the first season. But we still have the smaller, self-contained episodes, because that’s where our show has the most heart, but there will be these other extravaganza shows to keep everyone excited.

OP: What is a typical day like for you on the set?

Brown: I get there around 5 o’clock in the morning and go right to hair and makeup. After hair and makeup you go rehearse the scene you’re about to do, then you shoot it for like five or six hours. And you do that throughout the day until you finish, and we usually do a 14 to 16 hour day, five days a week. So that’s a day on Community.

OP: How does the cast get along with one another?

Brown: The same camaraderie you see on the show and in any televised interviews with us is basically the same interaction we have off-camera. We’re just really fun, silly people and we enjoy each other. And it’s not just the cast – the crew are silly, wonderful people as well, and the group, all 100 of us on any given day, all have a great time.

OP: Where do you look for inspiration for your role as Shirley?

Brown: My mom is a single mom – she raised me and my brother on her own. She’s a woman of faith and she’s got a great heart. And my mom has two sides. She can shift from being really sweet to being really stubborn, like Shirley does. My mom is not as violent as Shirley appears to be, but she does have both of those sides, so I draw a lot from my mom when I’m playing Shirley.

OP: What does she think about the show?

Brown: My mom loves the show. She’s actually become like our show mascot. She comes to the set quite often and she knows everybody on the set. I think she might be even more popular on the set than I am. She’s that kind of woman, she’s very lovable. So she loves the shows and she thinks it’s hilarious.

OP: What’s your favorite aspect of working on the show?

Brown: I just love that I’ve landed. I did a lot of commercials and a lot of guest-stars on TV shows and I have been in quite a few movies, but this is the first time I’ve had a job that I know every Monday, I’ll be going somewhere. That’s the beautiful thing; it’s a gift. I think that’s the best part of the show, just knowing that I have a job. In this economy, not even as an actor, just to have a job, period, is a blessing. But to have a job doing what you love is even better. So that’s the best aspect, coming from me.

OP: How does your role on Community compare to things that you’ve worked on in the past?

Brown: The actual character is different than most other things that I’ve played. I think this is the first Christian that I’ve played. This is the first time I’ve gotten to bring my real-life faith to work with me everyday and portray that through someone else. It’s also the first time, like I said, that I’ve gotten to play a character continually. I did Drake & Josh for a few years, and I did quite a few episodes of that, but it wasn’t every single day. This is every single day, playing the same character, so I really get to figure out who she is and get to the crux of who she is, and that’s what’s different, I would say.

OP: How much control do you have over your character’s development and how you portray her?

Brown: I have complete control over how I play her. I get to decide how I’m going to say the lines and what emotions I give to the line, usually. I have no control over her development, that is completely in the hands of executive producers and the writers. We are allowed to speak up if there is something that they have written that doesn’t, in our opinion, ring true to what the character would say or do, but ultimately it’s their decision whether they take our feedback and work it in. So they write the words and we have complete control over how we say the words and perform the words – that’s how it breaks down.

OP: What do you think people like so much about the show?

Brown: I think that whoever you are, whether you’re in college or if you’ve never gone to college, every character on this show is just like either you or somebody you know. Everybody knows someone like Shirley. Everybody knows, or is, someone like Annie, an overachiever. Or, you know, Jeff is kind of like a slacker who pretends that he doesn’t care, but he really does care. These are our types – these are people that are in the world right now, so I think that you can watch the show and go, “Oh, that’s just like my Aunt Sally,” or “That’s like that guy I used to work with at McDonald’s,” or whatever. There’s somebody there that you can relate to, which is what makes our show universal.

OP: What is it you like about being an actor?

Brown: I like making people laugh. I like that the way the world is now, there’s so many bad things happening, all in the world, so I think it’s cool to be on a show that people can turn to just forget about what happened that day and just be like “Ok, let’s see what’s happening in Greendale. Let’s set this stuff aside for a second and see wacky people experience what’s going on in their lives.” It’s a gift to be able to lighten somebody’s load, with television or even in life in general. In television you’re able to do it for millions of people at a time and I think that’s such a gift, so that’s the best part of being an actor, for me, being able to give back in that way.

OP: Where do you find the humor for Shirley’s character?

Brown: I think Shirley’s absurd in a lot of ways. I think that her reactions to things are just silly. I think that’s what people click in on, “Why did she react that way? Why did she say that? Why did she do that?” And she always feels that she’s right. It’s all funny to see someone who is obviously wrong, think that they’re right all the time, so I think that might be something about her. And her voice is funny – why is her voice so high? Little things like that I think make her funny.

OP: What has been your favorite episode thus far?

Brown: My favorite episode to watch, as a fan of the show, was the paintball episode. My favorite episode to shoot was one where Alison [Brie] and I were campus cops. I got to drive the cart and we got to work closely with Danny Pudi and Jim Rash, who plays the Dean and is my favorite character on the show, so anytime I can watch Jim Rash work or get to play with Danny, it’s a great day. So me and Alison both had a ball shooting that episode.

OP: What are some activities that you like when you’re not busy working?

Brown: I’m a really big napper; I really like naps. And I really love TV. I’m not one of those actors that says that they don’t have a TV, no, I have a few TVs, I have a few TiVos. I’m a fan of entertainment, so when I have time off I either nap or clean off my TiVo. Which means a whole bunch of episodes of Chuck and a whole bunch of episodes of Law and Order, all 27 of them, all the versions. I really enjoy that.

Community airs on Thursdays at 8 p.m. EST on NBC.