Picking apart a successful ensemble is a tricky business, but it’s hard to imagine how The Office would function without Jenna Fischer as Pam. Often the sole grounding force in a demolition derby of lunacy, she’s the straight woman par excellence, her stoic endurance lending credibility to the departed Steve Carell’s most outlandish behavior. Fischer doesn’t have the big-screen profile of her current and former showmates, but in A Little Help, she steps out on her own as a widowed single mother trying, and mostly failing, to reassemble her life. The movie makes room for comic flourishes—husband Chris O’Donnell survives a cardiac crisis, only to be knocked into his grave by Fischer’s killer blowjob—but it proceeds unrelentingly toward a surprisingly sobering conclusion. Here, it’s her heart, and not her deadpan, that keeps the movie afloat, the sense that beneath her quasi-alcoholic depression there’s something worth salvaging. Fischer spoke to The A.V. Club about A Little Help, channeling her inner “tragic misfit,” and what lies ahead for The Office.
The A.V. Club: You’ve said that your ambition growing up was to be part of an ensemble show like Cheers. How it is different for you to play an honest-to-goodness leading role? The last time you were on screen as often as you are in A Little Help was in the mockumentary you directed, Lollilove.
Jenna Fischer: Sure. [Laughs.] I studied theater in college, and I really wanted to be an actress and play a lot of different roles. Then I made landing on a television comedy my main focus. But when you become an actress, you want to play a variety of things, and doing this part was something that really brought me back to those theater roots, because it’s a really meaty role and really complex, and it was very exciting to me when I got cast.
AVC: I don’t want to be too glib about the connection, but if I’ve got the timing right, you were doing this movie the time you were getting divorced.
JF: That’s true.
AVC: Did that have anything to do with you relating to the character?
JF: It really did, actually. We made the movie several years ago, and of course now that the movie’s coming out, I’m remarried and have a baby on the way. I always worry that people are going to be very confused; sometimes timelines get confused with how movies get made. So when I say, “Oh, I made this movie when I was going through a divorce,” people think, “Oh no! She’s pregnant with a child and divorced?” But I think you’re right, at the time when I read the script, I was going through the divorce and I was able to really relate to the character of Laura from the point of view that she’s widowed unexpectedly and having to start her life over. You never go into a marriage expecting to get divorced. You go into a marriage expecting it’s going to last forever, and you have a lot of ways you dream about the future. You have all these expectations, and then you have to adjust those expectations, and it can be a very unnerving, confusing time. So I did pour a lot of that personal experience into Laura’s experience of being widowed early. The thing was, a marriage that she didn’t want to be in has ended because she’s widowed. She has both the relief of being in a new situation combined with the guilt of how she got to that new situation. She certainly never wanted her husband to die, but at the same time, it’s like she has this opportunity to start her life over again. I can only imagine she felt some relief and excitement, and at the same time she was feeling confused and jumbled.
AVC: That’s partly why she doesn’t want to go forward with the malpractice lawsuit against her late husband’s doctor. She doesn’t want to profit from his death.
JF: For sure. She’s not very good at self-reflection, and she’s also horrible at anticipating consequences. She’s a person who really lives in the moment, and a lot of the way she gets herself in trouble is lying in the moment to fix an immediate problem. She doesn’t think about how that lie is going to create even bigger problems five days from now. She’s a very interesting character and very different from me. This is the most different from me personally that I’ve ever played. I’m a very thoughtful, forward-thinking, planner kind of person. I love Excel spreadsheets and five-year-plans, and I love to review every year how my New Year’s resolutions went. I’m like that, and that is not Laura at all. [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s interesting to compare your character in A Little Help to Pam on The Office. Pam is similarly directionless, but she has a kind of indomitable core; she’s always getting ground down, but she recovers.
JF: Pam is someone who’s more going to suffer in silence. She can be a real trouper. She can carry a big burden. But there are a lot of ways that Pam is more similar to Laura than I am to Laura. Pam is also filled with a lot of fear, she doesn’t have a lot of ambition, it’s hard for her to move from one situation to another situation, and yet those qualities manifest themselves differently. Pam does seem to have more coping skills, whereas Laura clearly has some substance-abuse problems and self-medicates. The difference, I think, is in their backstory. Pam was a wallflower from the beginning. She’s always been an average student in the world and never really got much attention, whereas Laura was a pretty girl in school and had things handed to her; life was made very easy for her. Struggle is not a thing Laura knows a lot about, and I think Pam knows a lot about struggle.
AVC: In a lot ways, endurance is Pam’s main survival skill. She knows how to keep her head down.
JF: I think so, definitely. Staying out of the way, you know, “If you don’t notice me then maybe I won’t succeed, but I also won’t totally fail.” So she rides the mid-line.
AVC: Your character in Solitary Man is something of a departure. There, you’re the grownup, and your father, Michael Douglas, is the one who has issues with adult responsibility.
JF: That character, not in terms of her relationship with the father, because that’s definitely nothing like my dad, but in terms of inherent personality, that character is probably most like me in real life: a solid person who has a good head on her shoulders and is very driven and practical, and not afraid to set boundaries. That’s sort of my center. I come from the same place as the character in Solitary Man.
AVC: If you’re not much personally like Pam or like Laura, do you have a sense of why you’re good at playing that kind of character, or why people might see you in that role?
JF: I think that there is a tragic misfit at the core of me, and I’ve just done a lot of work on myself. I love a good self-help book; I’ve read a ton of them. I love self-help seminars and therapy and all that. I think that probably, at my core, if I had done no work on myself, I would probably be Laura, but I worked hard to be a more stable person because that’s what I wanted out of my life. Without those tools, that’s probably who I would be, so I think I enjoy regressing. There’s a part of living like that that’s really fun. It’s like there’s no consequences: If you want to drink, you drink; if you’re hungover the next day and you’re late to work, who cares? There’s something very appealing about having no accountability in life, but it’s just not a way that I had the energy to live forever. I think that’s why I’m drawn to her. It is part of me; I could definitely be that if I wanted to, I just choose not to. I mean, I am an actress at my core, and I think we’re all a little crazy.
AVC: You get to act that life out on the set, but not have to go home to a house full of dirty laundry and empty beer bottles.
JF: Exactly. You get to play that out, you get to play the fantasy of it. You don’t have to live the real consequences of that life, which is nice.
AVC: You’re friends with the cartoonist Joe Matt, right?
JF: I know Joe, yeah! Do you know Joe?
AVC: I’ve interviewed him. It seems like there must be some tragic misfit in you for you two to get along.
JF: Exactly, that’s why I love his work so much, because I can totally relate to that. That’s such a huge calling in me, I think in any artist. It’s so romantic when you think about living like that. Maybe it’s just part of growing up, but it’s like, I’m in my 30s now, and I don’t want to feel that way anymore. But I get it, I think I do. I love his stuff.
AVC: The Office is in pre-production now?
JF: Yeah, we start shooting again in two weeks.
AVC: So you’re doing table reads and costume fittings, that sort of thing?
JF: We have our first table read next week, and then we start the following Monday shooting.
AVC: It’s too early to ask how the dynamic has shifted on set without Steve Carrell around, but do you have a sense of whether his departure might change the balance of the show?
JF: You know James Spader’s not coming in to replace Steve, he’s not the manager?
AVC: Yes, I do.
JF: I’m mentioning it because the manager is going to be someone else. I’m just saying that because people have been confused because they think that James Spader is going to be the new manager of the office.
AVC: However it shifts, do you think it will affect how the stories are weighted?
JF: Well, I haven’t read any scripts yet. I won’t get to see them until next week. But I did call my showrunners in anticipation of doing all this press, because I knew everyone was going to ask me things about the show. So I asked them, “What are we doing with the show?” and they told me all these things. They told me all these plot lines for Pam, really great stuff, they told me stuff about James Spader, they told me stuff about all the different characters, they told me who the new manager is going to be, and then they told me I couldn’t say anything. It was very exciting, because I feel like I got the scoop two weeks before the rest of my castmates, and then I was sworn to secrecy. But I will say, on a selfish level, I’m really excited about James Spader coming to the show, because I didn’t get to have any scenes with him when he shot the finale, and I thought he was so brilliant. They’ve told me there’s this whole storyline that Pam will have with that character in the upcoming season.
I think the intention is going to be that whoever ends up taking over as manager, the show is not going to be as structured around the manager position. It is going to be more of an ensemble show where someone happens to be the manager. I think there’s going to be a little more of a balance. Usually, you would have an A story, that was Michael, and then a B story, that was some other characters, and then some other little stories. These are going to feel more like two big B stories. That idea is the general philosophy behind going into the next season. I’m sad because I would sit by Steve in the mornings in the hair and makeup trailer, and I’m going to miss my friend in the hair and makeup trailer in the mornings, and I’m going to miss coming back after our summer break and asking him what he did over the summer, because that’s what we do, you know? But creatively, I kind of like that we’re not going to be repeating the same structure that we’ve been doing all these years. The analogy that I’ve been making is like, you know when you walk into your living room and you think, “I could really use a change, but I can’t afford to change everything,” so you move all of your furniture around, and you buy like two new things, and then you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I love it, but it still feels like home, but it feels new too”? That’s my hope for the show this season.
AVC: The underlying documentary conceit of The Office has technical ramifications in terms of handheld camera and lighting and so forth, but it also carries through into who was cast and how they look onscreen. On most shows, everyone tends to look like a supermodel.
JF: Yeah, we don’t look very polished. We use fluorescent lights for our lighting as well, so it’s the most unflattering light imaginable.
AVC: Did you take to that kind of acting right away? There’s not really anything else like it.
JF: It’s great. I have to say I love the low fuss of our show. When you know how it works to make a TV show or a movie, you know that you set up lights, and these lighting setups for each scene, they can take up to an hour. So actors have a lot of down time where they sit in their trailer for an hour, an hour and half. We are not like that. We are acting almost all the time. Our lighting setups are 10 minutes, because we have these set ceilings full of fluorescent lights, and once in a while they have to add a light to make sure someone isn’t completely in a shadow. They built this set with the idea that you could document us on it without a lot of fuss. And there are a lot of rules, too. All the walls are immovable. All the windows are immovable. That was something they did so that you couldn’t suddenly get this crazy artistic shot.
So all of that, I like it. It’s so easy to disappear into your character because there isn’t all this fuss around you, and we keep a closed set, and closed off to all crew members, even, unless we’re cut. A lot of times, you’re doing a scene in a movie and there are literally 35 people standing behind the camera all waiting to do their job, but here they have to be off the stage. On The Office, it is very much just the actors, a cameraman and a boom operator, like a real documentary, like we really are being documented. That’s what makes it such an exciting place to work, and such an exciting way to work as an actor. It’s really artistic, and you feel like you really do disappear into it.
It’s true, the clothes are low fuss. They have the wardrobe people shop at stores and buy clothes that our characters could afford, and they repeat clothes. Pam only has three or four skirts, I think—she doesn’t have 27 skirts. I think she has four skirts now, and a bunch of different tops that she mixes and matches. I think every year we get a new skirt or something like that, and then one disappears. We really try to stay authentic, even now. I like that I only spend an hour in hair and makeup every day, and if I were on a different kind of show, I would spend two hours getting my hair blown out, and tons of makeup on, and you’d have to touch up my lips every few seconds for that glamorous look.
But A Little Help was like that too, I have to say. We really shied away from too much hair or makeup fuss, and I don’t know if you noticed in the movie, but the more she unravels, the less she starts changing her clothes. She starts wearing the same jeans over and over and over again with the intention that all she can muster is to reach down to the side of the bed and pick up what was already there. She’s not even going in her closet anymore, she’s just picking up clothes from the floor because that’s what happens to you when you get that sort of depressed. I love roles like that where I’m not in fancypants stuff, because it makes it easier to access the character for me.