Jenna Fischer Details Years of Rejection Before Landing 'The Office' in New Book

It was a case of art imitating life, as Fischer's real-life experience as an office assistant helped develop her breakout role as Pam Beesly.
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Jenna Fischer

Jenna Fischer, the Emmy-nominated star who brought Pam Beesly to life on the NBC comedy The Office, was not cast in her breakout role overnight. It took eight "grueling years” and plenty of rejection before she landed a part on the hit show that would go on to air for nine seasons.  

In her new book, The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide, Fischer details the highs (crashing an SNL party) and lows (riding a Jurassic Park water ride for 12 hours straight as an extra) of her journey to becoming a fan-favorite on a network television show.

From accidentally auditioning to be a high-priced call girl to losing roles to Alyson Hannigan, Fischer gets candid about her experiences to serve a larger purpose: to be the mentor she wishes she had when she first started out in the business. As a fresh college graduate in the 1990s, Fischer “completely expected to be a rich and famous actress” within the first six months of moving to the Sunshine State.

In 1996, she said goodbye to her hometown in Missouri, where she was raised by her father, a plastics engineer, and her mother, a teacher. But she endured six years of “small successes, followed by heaps of rejection,” while accumulating debt and living in “crappy” apartments; she describes one as a “cave,” furnished with cardboard nightstands that were so depressing her cat licked out patches of his fur.  

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Fischer about the roadblocks she faced in her 20s, the advice she would give aspiring actors today and what the casting process was like for The Office

How did you push through any feelings of depression or anxiety in your early years in Hollywood and what do you recommend to others starting out who might feel the same?  
 
Financial stress can really add to the feelings of depression and anxiety when you are a struggling actor or really as you are a struggling anything. The path to financial security as an actor is a very, very long one and a very unpredictable one. My first piece of advice: try to start your acting career debt-free or with very little debt. Then, don't spend your paycheck. Save as much as you can. I talk about the stressful moments where I had to decide between a low-paying acting job to further my career or a better-paying temp job to pay off my credit card debt or get new headshots that I really needed. It was definitely, definitely stressful.  
 
One piece of advice you give is “know what you are selling” as an actor. Can you elaborate?  

You are enough. How you are is enough. You don’t need to pretend to be someone else. You don’t need to lose weight or gain weight or dress a certain way or be a certain way because the most interesting people to watch are the people who are being like a fully expressed authentic version of themselves and you create a niche and then you fill it. That is really my advice: don’t go into an agent’s office thinking you have to be what they want you to be. The more self-realized you can be, I think the more expressive you can be in bringing that self to the character you are being asked to play and the more layered the character will become.  

Among the various day jobs you held in Los Angeles, one of your first roles was that of an office assistant — a position that would later help you develop The Office character Pam Beesly. What was most valuable during that time in shaping Pam?  

I could never have anticipated that I was going to end up playing a receptionist or a secretary on a television show at the time. But ultimately, having worked in an office I think gave me details to my character and world that I wouldn’t have had if I’d never worked in an actual office.  

I earned my living as an administrative assistant for seven years as a struggling actress, so I had many office jobs. When I got my job on The Office, one of the things that I did was I went to an office supply store and I bought my own pot for my desk and I bought the things that I used to really like having on my desk when I was a real administrative assistant. And I think that it just made the whole world feel more real, because I had that real-life experience when I got The Office job. 

You write of the moment in which you first met John Krasinski during The Office casting process. You had a gut reaction that he was perfect for Jim, and he felt the same about you playing Pam. What do you think made you two so sure about being perfect for the pair?
 
I can’t speak to why he thought I should be cast, but I’ve been in situations of what you’d call the chemistry read with another actor. They sort of boil a role down to a few choices. And then they ask you to come in and read with other actors. I did chemistry reads with the various people they wanted to cast as Karen as well, so I read with a couple of actors. 
 
When I met John and I was reading with John, everything was easy. It was effortless. I just felt the most like Pam in the easiest way. All of our work together felt so honest. And I had the same reaction when I did my chemistry read with Rashida Jones. I was like, "That’s Karen. This is her." And the producers asked me my opinion after the chemistry read. They didn’t ask me in my initial audition with John. I just had to keep my fingers crossed. But then once I was on the show and they had me read with the Karens, I just said, "It’s Rashida! I don’t know, what did you guys feel?" And they were like, "Well, that’s what we think, but it’s confirmed." Chemistry between actors, it’s a very elusive thing. To me what it means is it’s easy and effortless to access your character with that other actor. I did feel that immediately with Jim. I mean with John! I was relieved that they cast John because it made my job so much easier. 
 
What were your first impressions meeting Rainn Wilson [Dwight Schrute] and Steve Carell [Michael Scott] during casting? [Carell writes the foreword of Fischer’s book.]
 
I remember meeting Rainn, but I didn’t meet him in the waiting room. I never met Rainn. I met Dwight. I was introduced to him during an audition, so I left that audition not knowing the real Rainn Wilson. Dwight is such a distinct character. It was hard for me to believe that the real guy could be different and he is. Rainn Wilson is very different from Dwight Schrute, but I think of all of us, Rainn nailed his character most thoroughly, most quickly. 
 
When I think of Steve I just think of the word precision. He is so precise in his ability to land a joke or to land an emotional beat, and yet it appears effortless. I don’t think you ever see him trying. It’s just a really beautiful quality, really a treat to get to work with him for so long and get to observe that. And I’m not sure if it’s something you can learn. You either just have that inherent sense of timing, or you don’t. He is a master of timing. 
 
In your book, you warn actors about working with people who may have dangerous intentions, writing, “There should be no shaming, no forcing you into things ... If you feel abused or harassed tell someone.” How would you say this book is especially relevant now, as more sexual harassment and misconduct allegations are surfacing? 
 
What I talk about in the book is that if you’re in a situation that’s making you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, get out of it as quickly as you can and report it to somebody. That can be difficult because often the person who’s making you uncomfortable is the person you would report things to. That’s the problem in general with sexual harassment in any industry, in any job. But in our industry, we also have a union so you could call your union rep. Call your agent. Call your manager. Call anybody. If it’s a crime, call the police. What’s wonderful about what’s happening right now in our culture is that I believe we’re creating a safer place for women and men who are being harassed to speak out. I hope that will continue. I hope we will continue in this direction of taking care of people who speak out. 
 
Most of the people that I’ve worked with and met in this industry, and I’ve been working now — you know working plus struggling — for 20 years, are good people and people of integrity. I’ve worked with more good people than bad people. While there are people who have been taking advantage of others, who have not been doing the right thing, I’m glad that we are weeding them out of the industry because there are a lot of good storytellers and creators and people to work with. 
 
How did you come to the decision of a no-nudity clause for yourself?  
 
Some people are very comfortable with nudity, and that's fine. I wasn’t. So I just didn't want to go to auditions that required it. When you do network television, there isn’t nudity. It’s just simply not allowed and that was really what I was aspiring to do, so I didn’t run into this problem. It wasn’t at odds with my ambition. But then when I started doing movies or maybe there was a cable show, and there’s a love scene or something is required, I stuck with that decision of no nudity and that just felt the most authentic thing for me. That is what made me most comfortable. 
 
I think that an actor just has to ask themselves, what makes you feel most safe? What makes you feel most expressed? What am I most comfortable with? And then do that thing. You might make a mistake! You might think, "I’m okay with nudity." And then you do a role with nudity and you realize, "Oh, guess what! I was wrong. I’m not okay with nudity."
 
How would you guide your readers in making a decision about their own nudity clauses?
 
There’re also different kinds of nudity on a set. Let’s say you have a scene where you have to step into a shower, well you might be almost nude in front of all the people on the crew. No nudity onscreen doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be wearing something very revealing in order to get the shot. I had to ask myself, "Okay, well what am I even comfortable with doing off-screen? How do I ask for the things that make me feel comfortable?" I learned to ask for a closed set, which means there are no visitors allowed. No photography allowed. Only the people who are essential to shooting the material are allowed to be in the room. So instead of 50 people seeing you walk into the shower, it’s seven. Then I’m okay. Those are things where every actor has to ask themselves. 
 
I worked with actors who do not ask for a closed set. They don’t care! They’re not modest. I’m a more modest person. And all of it is okay. I think that would be my message. All of it’s okay. You’re not being difficult to ask for a closed set. You’re not being difficult if you say, ‘I don’t want to do a part where I even have to make out with someone who isn’t my spouse.’ That’s okay! You can be who you are, and be an actor. You don’t have to be someone else. You can advocate for yourself. Don’t let anyone feel like you can’t.
 
You write that this book could have been called ‘Struggle, Struggle, Cry, Think-You-Should-Give-Up, Work, Repeat.’ What are your expectations for your career now? How would you say your career goals have evolved since becoming a wife and a mom? 
 
I’m very pragmatic about my work choices now. I really balance my ambition as an actress with my ambition as a parent, and I know a lot of people when they become parents they make different choices in their jobs. This is a lesson I learned from my dad. He turned down a lot of work opportunities that would have taken the family on the road or meant that we were moving all the time. He thwarted some of his work achievements and set his ego aside in favor of creating a stability for the family, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate and admire him for doing that. So I want to emulate that in my life. I want to be making choices that continue, even though this is a crazy business, to create stability and consistency in my children’s lives. So, I don’t take jobs that require me to be gone or require them to move and go to a new school. That means that there are fewer jobs that I’m eligible for because of my own rules. 
 
Fischer’s book is available now via paperback and Kindle. 
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