When Jenna Fischer wrote her book, The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide, she wanted it to read like we were out to coffee with her. It did. And interviewing her felt the same way. It’s no secret she has boundless knowledge about acting, but the way she speaks about it is uniquely accessible and compelling. Even with all she’s achieved, Fischer remains grounded and genuine. She’s also one of the few actors I’ve spoken to so willing to paint a complete picture of their journey: from struggling artist to successful one. She details it all in The Actor’s Life, which I had the pleasure of speaking with her about and more. In this interview learn about what drove Fischer to write her “survival guide,” how she tries to live like an artist, and the audition tools she used to land her iconic role of Pam.
When did you catch the acting bug?
You know, it’s funny. I wanted to try to put in the book, “What was the moment I decided I wanted to pursue acting?” I really didn’t have a lightning bolt moment. For as long as I can remember I wanted to be an actor. I was always drawn to performing and school plays. So much of my imaginative playtime as a kid was writing my own plays and performing them for my family. I cast my little sister in various roles. My parents would joke with me that I always gave myself the lead role in all the plays I made up. I’d say, “My sister is five years younger! I have to take a more leading part.” One time, I turned the book of Jack and the Beanstalk into a play. I cast my little sister as Jack. The story ended up getting told more from my character the giant’s perspective [Jenna laughs]. All of that play and make believe I did as a kid never left me as I grew up. It’s the thing I’ve always done.
Was there anyone or any work in particular that inspired you to pursue acting as a career?
There were some things I saw first hand. My mom used to do plays up at our church. I used to love watching my mom do her plays and play practice. I loved watching these people who I’d seen at church service now suddenly pretending to be different people. They did comedies a lot. I loved watching these adults, who had seemed somewhat intimidating and stuffy to me, now being so loose and carefree. I loved helping my mom run lines. My mom participating in the church plays was a fun annual event. It was super cool.
Also, growing up, I remember seeing certain performances where I thought, “Oh my gosh, I want to do that.” I remember seeing Sally Field in Places in the Heart. There was Shelley Long on Cheers. When I started getting more serious and started researching performances I discovered people like Annette Bening and Nicole Kidman. I was always drawn to what they were doing. Like, Nicole Kidman in To Die For and Dead Calm. I loved those performances. Kate Winslet was another [actor I admired]. She was so good in Beautiful Creatures, and then she was so different in Titanic. I loved Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment and Urban Cowboy. Also, Debra Winger in Legal Eagle with Robert Redford [Jenna laughs]. I always thought, “If I could be as amazingly emotionally specific, free, natural, and charismatic as Debra Winger, that was the goal.”
You’re a huge proponent of going to college and getting training before venturing into professional acting. How did taking your time to train at Truman State University help set you up for success?
I didn’t want to go to college. I wanted to come to Los Angeles right after high school. I was so eager to get started on my acting career and I didn’t see what I needed to learn. But my parents insisted I go to college and I’m really glad I went for two reasons. One, because I ended up majoring in theater and getting real acting training, which I think is essential to having a successful career as a working actor. You can certainly do it without training, but it’s a very competitive business. The people with training tend to be the people who work more frequently and sooner than others. The stories of people who have no training and become super famous, you hear those stories a lot. But when you’re in the trenches where most of the working actors are—not the superstars but the working actors who are doing the blood and guts acting on different projects—they’re trained. You’re more likely to be in that group of actors than anywhere else, so training is really important. I’m really glad that I have it.
The other piece of college that’s very important is simply that it’s such a crucial time developmentally and emotionally. It’s a place where you can go and figure out who you are separate from your parents, separate from your upbringing. You get to decide what you believe in. What are your politics? What’s your moral compass? It’s a great place to do all sorts of experimentation. The place where you shouldn’t be figuring out who you are and doing experimentation is Hollywood. I don’t think Hollywood is a great place for a 17 or 18 year old kid to be figuring out who they are. That’s just my personal opinion. I think that an acting conservatory or college is a great place to grow up and get the type of maturity you need to survive in Hollywood.
Part of living an artistic lifestyle is giving yourself permission to look silly or be silly. It’s so important to remove judgment from yourself and other artists. To remove competition amongst each other is essential.
I think college is also a great place to explore two important practices you detail in your book: being a joiner and living an artistic lifestyle. How have you been able to maintain those things as your career has progressed? Also, how do you live an artistic lifestyle in an unpretentious way?
Well, first of all, you have to remove the judgment that living like an artist is pretentious. You have to accept that sometimes you might be pretentious and that’s okay. An artistic lifestyle is a constant experiment. I did many pretentious things in my journey of living an artistic lifestyle. I went through a phase where I was sure that silent film was the only authentic expression of filmmaking. I would study them and I would speak about them super pretentiously. That’s fine. Is it a little embarrassing now when I look back on it? Yes. [Jenna laughs] It’s okay. Part of living an artistic lifestyle is giving yourself permission to look silly or be silly. It’s so important to remove judgment from yourself and other artists. To remove competition and judgment amongst each other is essential.
Living an artistic lifestyle gets harder and harder. It’s hard to have kids, stability, a grounded life, and also be an artist. They’re a little bit counterintuitive. You just find ways. It’s very easy to live an artist’s life in college. College is a very carefree time—or it can be. It can be very stressful if the way you’re paying for college is by holding down two jobs. But you are devoid of full adult responsibilities when you’re in college. Being in school you get to start practicing that artistic lifestyle. You can take that with you when you enter into the real world with real responsibilities like rent, health insurance, mortgages, car insurance, utility bills. All of that stuff makes it hard to be carefree. And not that carefree means artistic. I just think college is a really great space to set the groundwork for that artistic life.
I also think college is a great place to meet likeminded people. The way that you become successful in this business is by finding other artists at your level, banding together, and making work together. It’s not by glomming onto people who are five steps ahead of you and hoping they’ll give you a job in their project. It’s about making work with people with similar voices and similar status to you. You rise together and you hold each other up. In my experience, that’s what I’ve seen to be true. That’s Amy Poehler and Tina Fey right there. Amy Poehler started Upright Citizens Brigade. She didn’t start it after she was on SNL and she didn’t start it with successful comedians. She started it with her rag tag group of friends. Together they created a voice to be reckoned with.
While it’s so important for artists to create work with a community of similar people, it’s very meaningful when seasoned performers offer encouragement and advice. Molly Shannon did that for you when you met her early in your career and you’re doing it now with The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide.
My experience with Molly Shannon that I talk about in the book, she really just took a moment to be encouraging. When I was first starting out and struggling those experiences were so rare. That’s why it was so impactful when she did what she did. I told myself that if I was ever in a position to pay it forward, I would. It’s true, there is a big divide between actors who are working and actors who are aspiring: the working end of the business and the people who are trying to get into the working end of the business. What I tried to do with the book was give all the advice I wish a person had given me when I was getting started. I wanted the book to feel like you and I went out to coffee and you asked me every question you could think of and I gave you all the answers I could.
The book 100% felt that way. It’s so accessible and relatable because you take us through all the ups and downs of making a career. In general, it seems like there’s such a divide between actors trying to break into the business and the ones who have already made it. As someone who struggled in the beginning and then found success, do you see ways to bridge that gap?
It’s an interesting thing. What you can’t expect is that you’ll meet someone who’s more established and they’ll say, “You know what, let me introduce you to my agent,” because you’re probably not ready for their agent. Don’t expect someone to say, “I’m gonna get you a job on my show.” First of all, actors don’t have that kind of clout. We really don’t. When I was working on The Office I tried to get many friends of mine—talented actors who were sometimes working sometimes not—onto the show. I would read a script and go to the producers and say, “Oh my friend would be so good for this guest spot. You should see them.” They would say, “Oh sure, talk to the casting director.” I would call Allison Jones, she’d call [my friends] in and put them on tape like everybody else. They’d get an audition with Allison Jones. Only two times in the entire 10 years did I have friends who ended up getting cast on the show out of the many, many times I went in and asked. But in all of those instances, Allison did call them in. But I couldn’t get them a job on the show even though I was one of the stars. It was not my decision to cast them. I think that’s something some people don’t realize…I had that misconception. I was like, “I know someone with a commercial agent. They’re just going to tell their commercial agent about me. I’m good. I’m talented. So the agent will probably take me on.” No, they didn’t. What can happen sometimes when you do get in touch with someone more established is that it gives you this false sense of something happening.
But I can tell you, when my husband and I were doing a play we needed someone to run the box office. We produced a play in Los Angeles. I went to Robert D’Avanzo’s acting class and asked for volunteers for anyone who wanted to work with us. This one guy volunteered. He was so fun and cool Later, I was producing a film and one of the producers needed an assistant. And I said, “I know someone who would be great!” Now, this guy was not out here to work in a box office or be a producing assistant. He wanted to be an actor. But, we called him up. It was a paid job. He was like, “Yeah sign me up!” So he became her assistant just for the period of the movie. He would house sit for us sometimes. We just really liked this guy.
Recently, I ran into him again and he was like, “I just did my first lead role in an independent film!” We were talking all about it and I’m so excited for him. He’s older now. He looks great. I have to say that now he’s on my mind. If we ever need someone like him, I’m going to use him. On my new television show [Splitting Up Together] I’m going to suggest him if there’s a part he would be right for. It’s a combination of knowing him and also knowing he’s ready now. When I first met him, he wasn’t ready for me to suggest him for an acting role yet. He was still seasoning. But if he’d never volunteered for the box office or said, “Yes,” to those other things, he wouldn’t be in my thoughts. I wouldn’t know him. I wouldn’t know that now’s the time for me to do this. I know that if I recommend him to a casting director and he auditions—whether he gets the part or not—he’ll be great. That’s more the reality of how “networking” works. We’ve known him for seven years.
At the entry level, there’s no meeting someone at a party. I thought that’s what it was, too. I thought it was about who you know. So I thought I just had to meet people. I thought it was about being “discovered.” It’s just not about that. It’s about creating a consistent body of work in small performances over a long period of time. It’s consistently showing up at a casting director’s office and doing a great job whether you get the part or not. It’s about having a great reel that shows that you’re constantly working. It’s about being a good person to work with. That’s the reputation that gets around town. Not, “Oh my gosh they were so funny at this party.” Also, there are no parties. These parties don’t exist. If you’re not getting invited to these parties, it’s because they don’t exists [Jenna laughs]. There aren’t networking parties that are real!
What you just said about going into auditions and creating a consistent body of work, I can’t help but think of the section of the book where you describe doing test shoots for The Office. You wrote about how Rainn Wilson stayed in character the whole time. I imagine that was terrifying to meet someone for the first time and they’re behaving like Dwight Schrute. Obviously you want to give the best performance possible at an audition, but you also want to make sure the people who are hiring know you’re normal and can work well with others. How do you strike that balance?
That’s interesting. I’m not really sure. If you’re playing a weird character you don’t want people to think you’re such a weird person that you’ll be uncomfortable to work with. I didn’t necessarily stay in the character of Pam when I was auditioning for Pam, but I certainly stayed close to her. That’s an easy one because Pam seems like a reasonable person to be around. But I made a point not to be my usual, chatty, friendly self in the waiting room because I didn’t want to worry about switching back into the more interior personality of Pam. I don’t know if I would call that staying in character or not. I certainly stayed kind of in character. I guess I just felt like ultimately the most important thing was what people saw in the performance. I mean if you’re playing a criminal in something, you probably don’t want to go in and terrify people while you’re sitting in the waiting room of the audition. But there’s a version of that, right? If the character you’re auditioning for is kind of intense, there’s a pulled back version of it. It can help keep you in that zone without communicating that you’re actually terrifying. You can do a 50% version of the character while you’re sitting in the waiting room, if that helps you.
But there are other actors who really don’t need to stay in character or feed on the very opposite. You have to know what you need in order to give the best performance. I have an actress friend who I’ve worked with. Literally right up until action she will be telling me a story. She’ll be like, “I went to this store and they had the most amazing collection of dresses!” And the minute they call action she can instantly be crying. I don’t know how she does it. Me, I’d be off listening to sad music, recalling horrors of my life, in order to do this crying scene. She doesn’t need that. She can be her chatty, outgoing self and the minute they call action she’s instantly in character. We’re all different. Maybe if she spent 15 minutes trying to get sad, it wouldn’t be as spontaneous for her or as authentic. We all find ways into our performances differently. That’s part of the artistic lifestyle, too: experimenting with those things and finding what works for you in different scenarios.
You’re in Clint Eastwood’s new movie The 15:17 to Paris, which comes out in February and you’re shooting your new TV show Splitting up Together. What criteria do you have for picking projects?
Now that I have a family, I look for work that’s happening in Los Angeles, number one. But then the other criteria is, “Who do I get to work with?” I really just want to work with great people. I feel like the more often you get to work with really, really good people, it makes you better. Also, the project in general, “Is it something I would want to watch and something I would want to do?” Then there are things like, “Who wants me? Who will hire me? Who will give me money?” Sometimes there’s a really cool indie film with great people but it’s shooting in Louisiana for six weeks. As much as I would like to go create with that group of people, I can’t leave my family for six weeks. And I can’t really bring them with me because it’s so expensive to relocate a family. That is probably a very unsatisfying answer, but that’s the truth. I have a very pragmatic approach to work now.
The trailer for Jenna Fischer’s new show Splitting Up Together
Your whole book is full of advice for aspiring actors. What’s one piece of advice you can leave readers with now?
My big piece of advice is to create your own work. That can be in the form of anything. It doesn’t have to be directly acting related. I write in the book about how I drew an autobiographical comic book. I write in the book about how I did a comedic magic show. Create any type of expression of art in your life while you’re pursuing acting. All of it helps. It will give you perspective on parts of the business that are important as well. Write and produce your own play. Work with a group of people and create content for your own YouTube channel. It’ll force you to learn how to edit. It’ll force you to learn how to upload things. Do what you’re doing: start something that’s a resource for other actors. Get together with all your friends and have a play reading night once a month. I still do that. We do that in our house with our friends. We get together and read a contemporary play. It’s so, so fun. You get to cast yourself. You get to play a great role for one night. The readings are always so good. Anyway you can constantly be creating your own work is my best advice. Ultimately, you can’t control all of your opportunities, but you can control your readiness.
Steve Martin has a great line. People ask him, “How do you make it? How do you make it in Hollywood?” He says, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” You have to keep getting better. Keep becoming more ready. I think actors spend a lot of their time trying to get an agent, trying to get an audition, trying to get seen. That is a big part of it. You have to be seen, as well. But if you’re not ready, then all of those efforts are for nothing. I would just say, spend 80% of your time on the readiness and 20% of your time on the opportunities. Eventually they will come and you will be ready. ♦