Interview: Jenna Fischer on A Little Help, Dinner Theater, and Breaking the Pam Mold

The Office's sitcom sweetheart Jenna Fischer recently premiered her new dramedy, A Little Help, at the Seattle International Film Festival. Her dramatic debut as Laura -- a beer-chugging, cigarette-smoking wife and mother at her wit's end -- is more serious than her prior roles yet still shows off her comic chops. Laura, once a pretty, popular high school girl, has grown up to be a dental hygienist dealing with a distant husband (Bob, aka Chris O'Donnell) and a testy tween son. Add to that a disapproving mother, a jealous sister, and a brother-in-law (Paul, aka Rob Benedict) who's smitten with her. (A Little Help is also King of Queens writer/director Michael J. Weithorn's first feature film.)

We caught up with Jenna at Seattle's swanky W Hotel for a brief interview. Slim and stylish with auburn curls, she was just as affable, humble, and -- in a word -- nice as you'd imagine she'd be after watching her play Dunder Mifflin secretary turned paper salesperson, Pam. She even dished on her dinner theater roots when asked if she'd been to Seattle before.

Jenna Fischer: Yes, yeah! I was here about 16 years ago. I worked with a group in Missouri that did murder mystery dinner theater, and we went on tour and one of our stops was Seattle.

Christine Champ: So how was this movie different than doing murder mystery dinner theater? Just kidding.

JF: [laughs] Murder mystery dinner theater has a lot of improvisation; this movie's very different.

CC: So why is playing Laura in A Little Help breaking out of the Pam mold?

JF: Well, the women are completely different. I feel like Pam is a lot more of a deliberate person, she's more thoughtful ... Laura is very impulsive. She's a bit of a train wreck and she's not very self aware ...she's one of those people that, like, if she were bowling she would just throw the ball as hard as she could and the pins go where they go -- there's no precision about her.

CC: Is doing a serious comedy different than sillier roles you've tackled in films like Walk Hard or Blades of Glory?

JF: It's a really fine line because there's a lot of really serious subject matter in this movie. There's infidelity and death. Some of the subject matter with my character and my son -- it's pretty heavy stuff, but we do it with a little bit of a light touch. But you don't want to make it jokey, you don't want to go for punch lines, and there are no real jokes. The humor has to come out of the sort of relatability of the person's struggle. I'm already sort of geared that way with the characters I play. I always try to make them very real people and not make them too cartoony. But with this I just had to go even deeper and make sure that she had all those layers. And that first and foremost, she was this rounded human being having a real experience and that the humor came second.

CC: When you first decided to become an actress were you thinking comic or dramatic actress?

JF: I just wanted to do anything. But I did find that in theater school and college I tended to get cast in the comedies more. So you know, that's the universe kinda telling me something. And then when I got to L.A. I was trying to do anything I could and I met my manager, Naomi Odenkirk, and she said, "I would really like to represent you and I think you could have a real future in television comedy, and that's the way that I'd like to focus you." But growing up I'd always wanted to be on a television show like Cheers, an ensemble comedy where every person was a unique character. So I feel like I really hit the jackpot with The Office -- that was my real dream come true. The OfficeAnd then the fact that The Office has given me the opportunity to explore these other movie roles. I'm very lucky -- very, very lucky. 'Cause it's really hard, it's hard to be an actor. I know so many amazing actors who don't get work ... and then there are a bunch of real duds that work all the time. The industry is just not fair in that way. And I feel really fortunate, because with The Office they were specifically looking for unknowns and that is so rare. They're always looking for a name, they're always looking for a star.

CC: Who would you have wanted to play on Cheers?

JF: Oh Diane, definitely, of course! Shelley Long is like, the best ever in that role. I just think that's one of the all-time great roles ... and Patricia Heaton on Everybody Loves Raymond. I think those two characters for women in sitcom history are just amazing, and of course Roseanne. Every woman on Roseanne is amazing.

CC: Do you plan to pursue more serious roles after this film or stick with comedy?

JF: Yeah, you know I don't ever see myself doing a super-gritty, hard-core drama. Like, I don't ever see myself playing a drug addict, or a rape victim, or anything like that, mostly because I really carry around the energy of my project with me. I carried around the energy of this woman [Laura]. It was uncomfortable to walk around with her impulsiveness and her disorder because I'm a pretty orderly person ... I think that if I did a really, really heavy drama I just don't want to carry that around. I really admire actors who can go there ... but I feel like you really have to escape from your own life in order to do that. I like my life so I don't really want to have to disappear from it for six months and then have to find my way back. Life is too short. So maybe as an artist that will limit me in some way -- but I hope not. But I do love getting to do roles like this because it's just far enough, it's just dark enough, and it has a little bit of comedy ... I think it would be really hard for me to play someone super serious 'cause I just am not super serious.

CC: So you wouldn't be interested in playing a raging alcoholic, unlike Laura, on the extreme end of the spectrum, like Tilda Swinton in Julia?

Tilda SwintonJF: Tilda Swinton is a great example of a person who completely disappears into a role. Daniel Day-Lewis, Tilda Swinton, and Russell Crowe -- these people, they are 100% these characters and they're such an enigma in life to me. I don't know if I have that in me, necessarily, but maybe that'll change. Maybe I'll get older and that'll be a challenge I'll want to take on. It's hard to say. It's all so fluid.

CC: What did you identify with then, with Laura?

JF: I was married for almost eight years, and I was going through a divorce at the time that I read this script. Getting a divorce really shakes up everything you thought your life was going to be. So I really identified with what happens to the character of Laura. She was on this track. She thought she was going to be married, she thought she was going to grow old with this man, and he dies suddenly. There's also for her this real guilt that she has to carry around because she was unhappy in her marriage. She probably wished she could get out. Her life was probably better for being out of it, yet she never wanted him to die. She didn't mean to get this freedom in this way ... I don't know if you've ever been divorced but it's really similar. It's like, "I'm so happy to have made the decision to go another way with my life and yet I have such guilt about the people I disappointed and even myself -- my disappointments." So I felt like I just kind of got it. I kind of got some of those elements, so I brought that into the role. And it was actually really therapeutic. It was a good thing.

CC: The scene where Laura screams, "You are such an asshole to me!" to her son is a line I bet many moms will cheer. Do you have a favorite scene or line in the film?

JF: The "you suck scene" is what we would call it [laughs]. That was one of my favorite scenes. I couldn't wait to film it. I thought it was so brave to have a mom tell her son that he's an asshole in that way, but she really means it. But moms have wanted to say that, right? They've wanted to say, "You are such an asshole to me -- why?" I think because she's not saying, "You are an asshole," she's saying "You're such an asshole to me." She's so vulnerable in that moment that she's saying, "I can't pretend anymore like it doesn't hurt my feelings when you're jerky to me." So I love that scene. That felt like that Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore moment where she's like, "Here's your pen! You write down all your problems! Just start writin'! You just write 'em out!" I love that scene, so that was one that really attracted me to the movie.

CC: What's next?

JF: Well, I have a movie that opened yesterday called Solitary Man with Susan Sarandon and Michael Douglas [the tale of an indiscreet car magnate whose life hits the skids]. And I just finished filming a movie called Hall Pass with Owen Wilson, Christina Applegate, and Jason Sudeikis and it comes out next April [a Farrelly brother farce about what happens when a wife allows her hubby to cheat]. Solitary Man's a drama and then Hall Pass -- big comedy! [laughs]