This interview was originally broadcast on June 3, 2008.
For nearly a decade, Jenna Fischer has played Pam, one of The Office's most recognizably real characters.
If you've ever worked in a clerical position in an alienating office, you'll relate to what Pam goes through. In this interview, Fischer tells Terry Gross about creating all those pained looks and knowing smiles — and about how her five years as an office temp helped to prepare her for the role.
Fischer also costarred in the film comedies Blades of Glory and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. And in the new film The Promotion, opening in select cities June 6, Fischer plays a Chicago nurse married to a supermarket assistant manager — who's competing for a promotion to store manager at the chain's newest property.
Fischer tells Terry Gross that she went into the audition "trying to look like a struggling nurse from Chicago" — only to hear later that producers didn't think she had enough Hollywood-style glamour. So she went in for a callback, tarted up in a low-cut blouse, tan body makeup and false eyelashes (courtesy of the hair-and-makeup crew from Blades of Glory). "I looked like a prostitute," she says, but she gave the same performance in that second audition. She got the part.
Glamour isn't all Hollywood execs look for in candidates, she says. Famous faces, blown up larger-than-life-size on movie posters, help sell tickets. Luckily, Fischer says, "The Office has given me a famous face, and I can compete" nowadays in ways that were harder earlier in her career.
Fischer talks to Fresh Air about her abortive career as a member of an all-girl singing group (which turned out to be a front for a high-priced call-girl ring), and about her very first screen role — in a sex-education film made especially for just-released mental-health patients.
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DAVE BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. The NBC sitcom, "The Office," concludes next week after an eight-year run. Let's continue our salute to the show with two of its two key supporting actors. In a little while, we'll hear from Rainn Wilson, who plays Dwight Schrute. But first, we'll listen back to a 2008 interview Terry conducted with Jenna Fischer, who plays Pam. She's been with the show from the very start. And when she auditioned for the role of the receptionist she hadn't memorized any lines, she couldn't.
JENNA FISCHER: My very first audition for "The Office," I had to sit in a chair, and the producer interviewed me in character. There was no script. He just said, we want you to act like Pam, or your idea of Pam. And we're going to interview you like a documentary film crew might. And they asked me a lot of questions about - did I like working at a paper company? How long had I lived in Scranton? How did I feel about being filmed by a documentary crew?
And my take on the character of Pam was that she didn't have any media training, so she didn't know how to be a good interview. And also, she didn't care about this interview. And so, I gave very short one-word answers. And I tried very hard not to be funny or clever, because I thought that the comedy would come out of just, you know, the real human reactions to the situation. And it was great. It was great. We clicked quickly. And they liked that take on it.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
So, in your one-word answers - like what did you say to the questions you were asked in the audition?
FISCHER: Well, it's funny. The casting director before I went in - I had known her for a few years and she had called me in for other jobs. And she gave me some coaching on the phone. What she said was, don't come in looking pretty; which, you know, a lot of times, when you go in on an audition, they want you to look inappropriately sexy or hot for the role. And I used to get called in to play things like, oh, like, a third-grade schoolteacher but look really hot. And so, in this instance, the - when I went in for "The Office," the casting director said to me, she said, please look normal. Don't make yourself all pretty, and dare to bore me with your audition. Those were her words. Dare to bore me.
She said, please do not come in and do a bunch of shtick and try to be funny and clever, because it's not that kind of show. So, when I went in to the audition, the first question that they asked me in the character of Pam - they said, do you like working as a receptionist? And I said, no. And that was it. I didn't speak anymore than that. And they started laughing.
And then, they asked me a few more questions. My - I mean, my answers were really nothing. They were just yes and no answers. They - and I felt like the comedy would come in watching me think about what I wasn't going to say instead of being what was said.
GROSS: Right. So, when you're giving one of your pained looks or one of your: this is absurd, looks to the camera, who's the camera person? Is there an actor behind there that you can kind of, like, interact with? Or is it just, like, the camera with a camera person?
FISCHER: Well, there's two different scenarios. When we're just shooting the show and it's a scene, the camera operator is this man named Randall Einhorn. And he's our director of photography. And we will look at him, we'll give him the look, or we'll look into the camera at him. And he's become another character or another actor on the show to us. So, we do actually act with him.
And it's really cute - whenever Pam smiles at the camera, Randall can't help but smile back. The man, Randall, smiles at you while he's holding the camera. And there are scenes that we've done that have been really touching. And you'll look at Randall, and he'll be, you know, sort of teared up.
And when we shoot our talking heads - our interview segments - the director of the episode serves as our documentarian for that week. Some of the directors, we have them back again, and again, and again. And one director we're particularly attached to is Ken Kwapis. He directed our very first episode, and he comes back every year and directs a couple of episodes. And last year, he directed the finale. And he's always taken a particular interest in Pam and her journey. So, I feel very close to him.
And in that moment, when Jim burst into the conference room while Pam's giving an interview, and he finally asks her out on a date, I turned to the camera. And in the moment that they used, I'm sort of tearing up. And the reason that I teared up was because when I looked back at the camera, I saw Ken Kwapis. And he - his eyes were full of tears. And he smiled at me and gave me a little wink, like, that's right. You finally got what you wanted, sweetie.
And it just, oh, it was a really powerful moment between me and the director. So it's interesting. There's a lot of acting that happens on the show that is with our crew members or, you know, people - that doesn't normally happen when you're making a movie or a television show.
GROSS: That's really nice. Now, how were you cast opposite John Krasinski? Did you have to do a scene together before you were both cast to make sure that there was chemistry between you? And for anyone who doesn't watch "The Office," I should mention that he's one of the people who works in the office. And you had a long period of flirtation.
FISCHER: But, you know, when "The office" starts, you're engaged to somebody else, and even though things aren't working out between you two, you still feel like, you know, you're involved in this relationship and you can't get involved with the John Krasinski character of Jim. But eventually, you do get together. So, there has to be this chemistry between you. So, were you tested out together during the audition?
Yes. When it came down to the end of the audition process, they took four Pams and four Jims and four Dwights and four Michaels, and they brought us into a real office. And they filmed us with a camera for two days, mixing and matching us. And over the course of that two days, I was mixed and matched with John several times. And after the second day, we were walking out of a scene, and he turned to me and he said, you're my favorite Pam. I hope you get this job.
And I smiled really big, and I said, I'm so glad you said that because you're my favorite Jim, and I don't think anyone could do it except for you. And when they called and told me that I got the job I said, please tell me that John Krasinski is playing Jim. And they said, he is and we're so glad to hear you say that because we thought you two had amazing chemistry. And we're glad you think so, too. So...
GROSS: Are you friends off the set?
FISCHER: We are, yeah. It is the strangest thing to have a long-term fictional love interest. It's a type of relationship that is very intimate, and it's very powerful, but it's fictional. I mean, there is a part of me that is Pam, and there's a part of him that is Jim, and that part of me is in love with that part of him. But in real life, we are just friends.
GROSS: Do you have a favorite example of one of the times when Michael, the Steve Carell character, came up to your desk and did really bad shtick?
FISCHER: Oh, gosh. Well, my favorite Pam-Michael moment from the entire series happens in season one, actually. He comes up to my desk, and he wads up a piece of paper, and he goes to throw it into the trash can behind me, and but instead it hits me in the head. And Pam looks at Michael and she says, please don't throw garbage at me. And I loved that moment because I thought here's a girl who actually has to say to her boss, please don't throw garbage at me. It's like such a known thing, you know?
FISCHER: It's just, like, such a thing that any normal person would know not to do. But I felt like that summed up their entire relationship - that Pam is constantly having to educate Michael on simple human interaction.
BIANCULLI: Jenna Fischer, speaking to Terry Gross in 2008.
Coming up, Rainn Wilson, who plays Dwight. This is FRESH AIR.
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