Jenna Fischer Dishes on Her New British Comedy-Drama
STL’s Jenna Fischer, the star best known for her role as a perennially shy secretary on “The Office,” will soon be bringing her comedic talents back to TV in the US—and in Europe, she and her character already have a running start.
In her new 10-episode British series, “Me, You and the Apocalypse,” which will air on NBC in early 2016, the end of the world is nigh, and Fischer has a role in it. Not in causing it, but she plays a former librarian who just might help determine the fate of humanity. Her character, Rhonda McNeil, is in jail for tampering with the NSA computer system, though the real hacker was her 15-year-old son. When news of the apocalypse hits, she breaks out of prison to get back to her family. It’s a dramatic situation begging to be lightened by the deadpan comedy that has made Fischer famous.
The series is a new direction for Fischer, an Emmy- nominated actress, author and mom who has more than a dozen movies under her belt. To film it, the St. Louis native packed up her family—husband Lee Kirk, 4-year-old son Weston and 18-month-old daughter Harper—and temporarily left her LA home for an overseas adventure.
ALIVE: Tell us about the new show.
Jenna Fischer: It’s a new British series, which has been good luck for me in the past, so I’m hoping it will be good luck again! “The Office” was a remake of a British series, but this is a re-airing of a British series. Sky 1 over in London called and offered me a role in this show with a mixed cast of British and American actors.
It opens with a group of people in a bunker, then flashes back to the day we all got the news that the world is ending. We survive by hiding in a bunker under Slough, England—which, ironically, is the city where the original “The Office” was set, so I’ve joked that I only do series with a reference to Slough.
ALIVE: How would you describe your role, going on the run after breaking out of jail?
JF: It’s this unlikely pairing. I have to rely on this racist criminal [Megan Mullally] to get me home. We end up relying on each other, and we both change along the way. It’s a really, really cool story, and that’s just my piece of it.
ALIVE: What was it like with a mix of British and American co-stars on a British series?
JF: Coming off “The Office,” I wanted a completely different experience, and that was one of the things that drew me to the show. It was not only the material and the character, it was also the fact that I could go live with my family in Europe. As an artist, it’s really important not to get stuck in a rut or to get too comfortable. Over there, they have a completely different system of working. Their shooting day is different; their union rules are different. That threw me off balance in a good way. I didn’t know what to expect each day, and I wanted that fresh approach.
Also, in “The Office” I was in a room with the same people for 10 years. In this show, I am on the road. Every day we were at a different location. We were doing stunts. We were in car chases and car crashes. I hold up a convenience store. I felt like this is what Tom Cruise must feel like when he goes to work every day.
ALIVE: You said once the whole cast of “The Office” rose to stardom together, but this time you’re working with household names like Rob Lowe and Mathew Baynton, who’s well known for TV and film comedy roles in England. How did that make this shoot a different experience?
JF: People don’t fawn over you in England. I didn’t feel like—nor was I treated like—any kind of star. [For example], in America, when you have lunch, they serve a Vegas-style buffet with every food you can imagine on TV and movie sets. Over there, you go up to a little mobile trailer and have a choice of three things: fish, chicken or vegetarian.
Likewise, on American sets there’s snacks all day. … Over there, this doesn’t exist. If you want a snack, you’d better pack it yourself. All they have is tea, coffee and water—except at 4pm. Someone comes around and they have tea cakes and tea sandwiches. They stop and have tea! It’s real! I was so charmed. All of that made me feel new to the business.
ALIVE: Was it a bonding experience for you Americans?
JF: Megan Mullally is such an actress—very grounded and interested in the work, never complains, totally prepared. We both were really intent on having this experience. We were in the trenches; we weren’t interested in the perks or the big fuss. This very famous actress, truly a hero of mine, just so quickly became ‘Megan, fellow actress.’
The other night we met up for dinner. Her husband is Nick Offerman, who is very famous for doing “Parks and Recreation” on NBC. As we were leaving, I told my husband, ‘I know I just shot an entire television series with her, but I can’t believe I just went out for dinner with Megan Mullally! I can’t believe I have her number in my phone!’ It’s so crazy sometimes how my life has turned out.
ALIVE: Is British comedy different?
JF: It’s drier and more cerebral, but there’s also sometimes a broader physical comedy that they do in combination with this containment. We play Americans, so we were able to have an American aesthetic. But doing a comedic scene with British actors, there was a difference in our rhythms.
ALIVE: You really value your time with your family. Were your husband and kids there in England the whole time?
JF: My family was there for the entire shoot, six months. Since the show has so many storylines and it’s a large cast, I only worked one or two days a week. And sometimes I had two or three weeks off in between. I was being paid to live in London and be a mom. I took my kids to museums. We rode the train to the countryside; we did everything. We had lunch on the lawn in front of Buckingham Palace. It was great!
ALIVE: So now I have to ask: What St. Louis things do you show your kids when you’re here?
JF: I obviously feed my son Imo’s pizza! [Laughs.] This summer, I brought my son home and we went to Lake of the Ozarks, and I loved sharing that with him. He got to ride on the boat. We went to Ozark Bar-B-Que. He got to feed the ducks off the dock. I loved being able to give him that experience, because that is very distinctly Missouri to me.
I always take my kids to The Magic House when we are in St. Louis. It is the best children’s museum I’ve ever been to and I’ve been going there since I was a kid myself. Incidentally, my parents both work there. My mom, a former history teacher, leads field trips on the US government. My father, a retired engineer, builds exhibits. He was part of the team that built the recent China exhibit.
ALIVE: When will you know if you get to go back to England for another season of filming?
JF: We’re waiting to find out. The show is airing there now, and ratings are good. They will decide in mid-December if they will pick it up for a second season. They’re already working on writing it, so it’s looking pretty good.
ALIVE: It started airing at the end of September on Sky 1. When do we finally get to see it in America?
JF: It’s scheduled for January or February. NBC hasn’t locked in a date yet. Weirdly, we’ll know if we’re making a second season before the first one airs here.
ALIVE: What projects do you have lined up while you wait?
JF: Right now I’m writing a book of advice for aspiring actors. I keep regular daytime office hours, which gives me plenty of time to be a mom, do school drop-off and pick-up, make dinner and eat as a family. It’s a hard industry—it can become very demanding and consuming if you let it, so we work very hard to push back against that.
ALIVE: So what’s the book’s angle? Personal experiences or observations of others?
JF: A combination. It’s all of the things I wish I could have known when I packed up my car [in 1996] and drove from St. Louis to LA. If only I’d had an industry professional give me some advice or insider tips. I wanted to create a little transparency around the business.
Also, it’s really hard to be an aspiring actor. You don’t find that there are a lot of cheerleaders in your life. I think if you’re talented and work hard, you can do it. If there’s anything about my experiences and observations that can make it a little easier for the next person, I want to help.
ALIVE: When does the book come out?
JF: It is spring of 2017. It’s due in seven months. It’s a lot harder to write a book than I thought! I knew it would be hard, but it’s been a cool challenge. I’ve been enjoying the process, even when it’s painful.
ALIVE: Can you give us a sneak peek at any of the advice?
JF: My big piece of advice for anyone who wants to become a working actor is: Get training. I don’t recommend that kids move to New York or LA right after high school. Those college years are important for personal development. You learn how to grow up, live away from home, make macaroni, have your first love—all these things in life you should do out of the spotlight, not in Hollywood.
ALIVE: Has the industry changed a lot since you came to Los Angeles?
JF: Oh, definitely, and mostly because of the internet. It’s so easy now to create your own content. You can make a movie or TV show or sketch on your iPhone. If you wanted to get noticed when I was starting, you had to cobble together some money and rent a theater and do a showcase. There was no sending a link of a polished short film that you made over the weekend. In that way, it’s really different. But in the other sense, the world is so saturated with content that it’s hard to stand out without resorting to being crude or shocking or really weird. … I’ve interviewed a lot of up-and-coming actors so that my book portrays what the industry is like today.
ALIVE: Have you met many of the other St. Louisans in the industry?
JF: All the people from St. Louis are as nice as you hope they are. Jon Hamm, Ellie Kemper, Bob Costas, Andy Cohen, John Goodman—I’ve had the pleasure of meeting them, and they really are nice people. … Oh, and Annie Wersching and Phyllis Smith. Phyllis was on “The Office” and she’s the best!
ALIVE: But you didn’t have those connections when you moved to LA, right?
JF: I really came out here knowing nobody. … The way to get noticed is by doing great work, because people really don’t respond to ‘Hey, will you do me a favor?’ but they respond to ‘Hey, you’re really talented, I want to help you out.’ Steve Martin said it best: ‘Be so great they can’t ignore you.’ People should spend most of their time getting really good. That means taking classes, practicing, improving yourself. I believe you’ll get noticed if you’re good.