SLIFF 2010 Spotlight | Jenna Fischer Offers “A Little Help”

The former St. Louisan and star of The Office discusses her new film A Little Help, life as an up-and-coming actor in St. Louis, and why she loves producing.


Most people only know Jenna Fischer from her role as Pam Beesly, the receptionist turned paper saleswoman at the heart of one of the sweetest TV love stories of the last decade on NBC’s The Office. But during her seven seasons on the hit sitcom, the St. Louis native has also built up an impressive filmography, from her starring turn in 2004’s LolliLove to supporting roles in comedies like Blades of Glory, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and The Promotion. Fischer stretched her dramatic muscles as Michael Douglas’ frustratedly put-upon daughter in this year’s Solitary Man, but her latest, A Little Help, marks her first major dramatic leading role.
Fischer plays Laura, a young woman who Fischer describes as “sort of a chain-smoking alcoholic who is not always great at seeing the long term consequences of her immediate choices.” For years, Laura has skated by on her charm and good looks, but she finds herself adrift when her husband (Chris O’Donnell) dies unexpectedly, leaving her to raise her eight-year-old son, Dennis (Daniel Yelsky), while at the same time struggling with her attraction to her sister’s husband, Paul (Rob Benedict). Things get even more complicated for Laura when her son Dennis tries to make friends at his new school by claiming his father was a firefighter who died on 9/11. “The story is dramatic," says Fischer, "but it has a lot of comedic elements, so it’s not a heavy, droning, difficult story to get through, there’s a lot of humor.” The humor comes courtesy of writer and director Michael J. Weithorn, a veteran television writer and producer (Family Ties, King of Queens) making his feature directorial debut. “It’s a very big departure from the role of Pam,” Fischer reports, proudly, “or really anything else I’ve ever done.”
We caught up with Fischer by phone from Los Angeles, shortly before her trip to St. Louis to accept the Charles Guggenheim Cinema St. Louis Award at this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival.
A Little Help screens Sunday, November 21st at 4 PM at the Hi-Pointe Theatre.
A Little Help is your first leading role in a film since Lollilove. Was that a conscious decision on your part? Were you specifically on the hunt for a leading role?
A little bit. I was definitely open to it. I hadn’t taken anything like that on before, partially because I wanted to really…gosh, it’s hard to explain, but doing a supporting role or being part of an ensemble, I always really like that atmosphere. I didn’t want to take a leading role until I felt like I could deliver.
I hope that I was able to do that in this movie. I had to call on a lot of my old theater training and character work, and it was a big undertaking, but I felt like I had been working enough that I was ready to at least try.
I certainly thought you delivered. I saw the film last night and I thought you did a spectacular job in it.
Oh, thanks, thanks! Of course, I watch it and there’s always little things that I pick apart, but I think that the film turned out really nicely.
How would you compare playing the role of a frustrated mother to playing the frustrated daughter in Solitary Man?
The characters are very different, because the character in Solitary Man is a lot like I am: very practical and thoughtful. I generally enjoy structure, and I’m pretty forward-thinking: when I make a decision, I think of all the different ways it could go, all the permutations or consequences of that decision.
But this character in A Little Help, she is very impulsive, very spontaneous. I’m not sure that I would necessarily call her “frustrated” as much as “frazzled.” She’s her own undoing. The reason that she’s having all these troubles is 100% because she makes horrible decisions. In some ways, my character in A Little Help is a lot like Michael Douglas’ character in Solitary Man: a person struggling against their own bad decision-making.
I can see that. Although I think Michael Douglas’ character made arguably far worse decisions.
Well, that’s true! But you know, seducing your sister’s husband isn’t a great decision. [laughs]
One of my favorite scenes in the film is the one where Laura’s relationship with her son reaches its breaking point. And what I loved so much about it is you have her acting like a child toward her child, screaming “No, you suck!”, which is inherently funny, but the circumstances give it a tragic feel at the same time. How difficult was it to find that zone where you could capture both the comedy and the drama of a situation like that?
I am so happy to hear you point out that scene. That scene is why I wanted to do this movie. That was my favorite scene in the movie, I looked forward to doing it for all the reasons that you just said. I loved that it was a parent who was acting more childlike than their child, but I also liked that I felt like it was something that parents want to say to their kids all the time. She says to him, “You’re such an asshole to me.” I think parents sometimes want to look at their kids and say “I do everything [for you], my whole life is geared around you, and you’re such a jerk to me!” As a parent, you’re just not supposed to say that. Well, she does. And it’s not great parenting, but I think it is going to resonate with parents.
But what’s sad about that scene, like you said, is that he was trying to help her and she’s not able to see [that]. It’s these two people that are trying to connect, but the way they’re trying to connect, they’re not able to do it. She thinks that if she just sings in the car with him then everything will be like it was when he was 5 or 6 and loved singing in the car, but that’s not the way to reach him anymore. And he thinks that by helping to get rid of this dog next door, then his mom will be happy, but instead it creates problems and she ends up screaming at him. That’s one of the beautiful things about the movie, I think: these people, they’re trying to connect but they just keep missing each other.
The little kid, played by Daniel Yelsky, is so great. We became such good friends on this movie, and we still email each other. He’s such a great kid. Every time I had scenes with him, it was such a pleasure.
In one of the scenes, I scared him when I yelled at him. I could tell. I came on a little too strong. And it broke my heart. I just gave him a big hug after it was over and told him that I thought he was great and I loved him and we were friends. But besides that, we were able to do all of the scenes. There was one scene where I kind of lunged at him when I screamed at him and he got really scared, and I told him I’d never hurt him, it was just acting, and he got it, he was okay. But they were intense scenes, it was a lot.
Both yourself and the writer and director of the film, Michael J. Weithorn, have extensive television backgrounds. Did you find any parallels between your experience making the movie and making a TV show?
Not really…in fact, it was kind of cool because we would always be talking about the differences [between] making a movie and making a TV show, and we were able to connect on that level. In my TV show, you’re allowed to look at the camera, and on his TV show [King of Queens], you have to pause for laughs. So we were talking about how, when we would do a scene and he would say it was a comedy scene, then nobody would laugh and he would get really nervous, but then he remembered that you’re not allowed to laugh on the set of a movie. You do all this funny stuff, but if somebody laughs, then it ruins the take. He said he had to get it into his head that it was okay that he didn’t hear laughter at the end of jokes. And I said “That’s alright, I have to get used to not looking at the camera at the end of a joke!”
You did get to do that a few times in the scenes shot from the perspective of your dental patients, though!
That’s true, I did!
One of the themes of the film is the effect that lies can have on our lives, even lies that are told with good motives or to spare someone’s feelings. I’m betting you probably didn’t have anything as extreme as claiming your father died in 9/11, but do you remember any lies from when you were a kid that you tried to pull over, and how long you were able to get away with it?
It’s very silly, but when I was in grade school, it was sort of cool to have braces or a retainer. All the girls were kind of competing to get them, and I didn’t have one. So what I did was I took some gum and I pushed it up onto the roof of my mouth, then I put it in the freezer and I froze it. I basically made a homemade retainer using gum and a paperclip, and I wore it to school and tried to convince people that I had a retainer.
Well, obviously, no one believed it. And of course, I had all this lie about how, “Oh no, this is, like, a new kind of retainer!” And it was clearly—clearly—a paperclip and gum. I would even wear it at home and just look in the mirror and see how I looked with this retainer.
Eventually, I got braces, and then [when] it was time for me to get my retainer, they gave me one of these, like, ugly plastic mouth guard things. So I never had the retainer that I wanted, I never had that cute little silver line that went across your teeth that all the popular girls did, with their feathered hair and their little retainers.
So I guess I know what it’s like as a kid to obsess about one thing and want to fit in. And I really thought that having a retainer would be the answer to all my popularity woes when I was in grade school, that I went so far as to make a fake one.
Congratulations on the Cinema St. Louis Award that you’ll be receiving this weekend. What are your memories of being an actor in St. Louis, and do you think this is a good place for an up-and-coming actor to start a career?
I think what is most important that I’ve found, that I’ve drawn on in my acting career, is having my very good, very normal childhood. I wasn’t a child actor. I didn’t have a child agent. I was in the musicals in high school, I did a couple community theater projects and I went to some acting workshops, but then I went to college and I got a college degree. And I think that all of those real life experiences were most useful to me as an actor now, because I think that, when you’re groomed from an early age to be an actor, sometimes that puts you really out of touch with most people, and most characters are regular people.
Does that make sense? When I play a character like Laura, I know what it’s like to go to a family barbecue, and I know what it’s like to have all these conversations and struggles of a family and of just growing up in a house in the Midwest, or whatever it is: I have those experiences to go to. There’s something about making your own way that’s very useful to an artist. That element of growing up in St. Louis, of having to figure out how to do it on your own, is really valuable. And I think that St. Louis is a great city, we have so many arts that we have access to: you can go to the Muny, you can go to the Rep, there’s Webster University, there’s a great acting conservatory. You have all the tools you need, but you still have to do the work, and I think that those two things are a great combination.
That’s a great ad for your old hometown there! [laughs]
I mean, I think growing up in Los Angeles could be a disservice, you know, because there’s too much opportunity. St. Louis has the exact right mix of opportunity and the fact that you have to do some work on your own, if that makes sense.
Our publication interviewed you back when Lollilove made its appearance at SLIFF five or six years ago, and when we interviewed you then, you said “The directing was exhausting and the writing was painful” because of all the added responsibilities of making props, serving lunch, and all that while you’re trying to get into character, and you concluded with “I think I’ll stick to acting.” Do you still feel that way, or are you ever tempted to get back to writing or directing?
I am tempted in no way, make no mistake about it. I am tempted in no way to write or direct anything again in my entire life. I stand by my last conversation with you 100%. [laughs]
Fair enough! [laughs]
Nothing has changed for me in that regard. I am, however, now producing a film that I’m also starring in. It’s called The Giant Mechanical Man, and it starts shooting later this month in Detroit. And I love producing. I love it! It is fantastic! It is so much harder than I thought it would be, but it 100% fits into my brain and skill set. It is all about spreadsheets, problem solving, multitasking, managing different personalities, doing things like reading legal documents…I love it, I love it.
On the scale of businesswoman to scattered artist, I swing a little bit more toward the business side. I love the acting part, I absolutely love becoming a character, researching a character, but I cannot create things from nothing. I don’t have a visual sense that a director needs to have and I just can’t do the writing part, but I absolutely love taking a project and doing the practical work that it takes to bring it to the screen, which is the producing angle. And I love being a part of some of the creative decisions that go with that. There’s a lot of creativity to producing as well.
I’m working with a couple of other producers on the movie, and they’re very good at the social aspect of producing, which I’m not good at. I don’t like going to parties and shaking hands and having drinks. They do that part and I stay home and fill out forms and spreadsheets and make calls to the bank…and I love it. It’s fantastic.
It’s probably only a very specific personality type that loves that part of it, too. [laughs]
I’m sure! Well, it works out great because they do all the social networking part and I do all the gruntwork, and it’s awesome. I’d love to get to keep producing. I hope that this movie does well because I would like it to be a stepping stone to producing more things.
If I can squeeze in one question about The Office, there has been a lot of speculation as to what direction the show will take with Steve Carell leaving at the end of the season. What’s the most outlandish suggestion or rumor that you’ve heard so far?
I think the craziest one that we heard was that Harvey Keitel was going to take over. I think that was just a rumor, but I remember being on the set and reading that on the internet, and we were like, “Is Harvey Keitel taking over? That’s kind of genius!” That would be sort of amazing if Harvey Keitel would do our show! But I’m pretty sure he has other things that he’s doing, I can’t imagine that he’s really going to do it, but that was one of the rumors.
I’ll tell you, I don’t know at all what’s going on. They’re really working hard to keep it a secret and keep it a surprise, so they’re even keeping the cast in the dark. It very well could be Harvey Keitel for all I know, which I think would be sort of awesome. I mean, can you imagine? | Jason Green


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