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Jenna Fischer, Keeping It Real at 'The Office'

Jenna Fischer, who's perhaps best known as Pam the receptionist on NBC's The Office, stars in The Promotion, a new comedy about two midlevel supermarket employees bucking for a manager's job.

41:38

Other segments from the episode on June 3, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 3, 2008: Interview with Jenna Fischer; Interview with Anne d'Harnoncourt.

Transcript

DATE June 3, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Jenna Fischer, from "The Office" and "Blades of Glory,"
discusses her various roles, auditions and her movie "The
Promotion"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Jenna Fischer is best known for her role on the NBC series "The
Office." She plays Pam, the receptionist, one of the most real characters in
this comedy series. I think if you've ever worked in a clerical position in
an alienating office, you can relate to what she goes through. Fischer also
co-stared in the film comedies "Blades of Glory" and "Walk Hard: The Dewey
Cox Story." Her new film, "The Promotion," opens in select cities this Friday.
Fischer plays a nurse in Chicago married to a supermarket assistant manager.
He's competing for a promotion to store manager at the chain's new property.
Sean William Scott plays the husband, John C. Reilly plays his chief
competitor for the new job. Here's a scene from the film featuring Fischer
and Scott. Their characters live in a small apartment and are hoping to find
a house they can afford. In this scene, they're on their bed with the
newspaper looking through the real estate ads.

(Soundbite from "The Promotion")

Mr. SEAN WILLIAM SCOTT: (As Doug) We should go get that house this week,
because I'm going to get that job. And I feel really great about things.

Ms. JENNA FISCHER: (In character) Me, too. Maybe we should wait, though.

Mr. SCOTT: (As Doug) I'm a shoe-in. And someone's going to snag that house.
Let's do it.

Ms. FISCHER: (In character) Shoe-in?

Mr. SCOTT: (As Doug) Yeah.

Ms. FISCHER: (In character) All right, let's do it.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Jenna Fischer, welcome to FRESH AIR. How did you get the part in "The
Promotion"?

Ms. FISCHER: I had to audition for "The Promotion." I had been cast in "The
Office," and "The Office" had been on the air, but I hadn't had any films come
out yet. So I read the script, and I went into meet with the director to do
an audition. And, you know, my role in this movie, I play a nurse in the city
of Chicago and I live in a studio apartment with my husband, and he's trying
to get a promotion at his new job so that we can have a better life. And we
really live paycheck to paycheck, so I went into this audition trying to, you
know, look like a struggling nurse from Chicago. And after the audition, they
told me that they really loved my performance, I was their top choice, but
the, you know, the big studio producers of this movie weren't 100 percent sure
that I had the charisma of a movie star. It hadn't been proven yet. So they
asked me to come back in and do the same performance, but to look really,
really hot, like a movie star would.

Which I thought was crazy because I thought, `Well, I'm a struggling Chicago
nurse. I wouldn't look like that.' But luckily, the day of my callback, I was
shooting the sexy lingerie scene in "Blades of Glory," and I asked the hair
and makeup artists to help me out. And I had on tan body makeup and fake
eyelashes, and I wore this low-cut blouse. And I went into this audition and
did the same performance, but looking, I felt, like a prostitute. I mean, I
looked ridiculous. And they told me that the studio heads watched it on their
private jet and approved.

GROSS: They liked the prostitute thing.

Ms. FISCHER: They were jetting--yeah, I really did. I felt, oh, I just--it
felt so wrong, you know, but it was such an example of how
it's--unfortunately, you know, it's not just your performance. You know, they
have to believe they're a movie star. And then, of course, when they made the
movie, I don't look like that in the movie. I look like a real Chicago nurse
who's struggling from paycheck to paycheck.

GROSS: But the funny thing is by the time the movie did come out, you were a
star because of "The Office."

Ms. FISCHER: Yes. By the time the movie came out, "The Office" was very
popular, and "Blades of Glory" came out and, you know, the Judd Apatow movie
"Walk Hard" had come out. So by the time this film eventually hit the
screens, you know, I had this resume that I didn't have when I walked in the
door for the audition.

GROSS: So how is "The Office" affecting your movie career?

Ms. FISCHER: It's opened a lot of doors. I mean, I think that the thing
that was happening to me when I was out here and I struggling and trying to
make it, I would get very far and it was sort of similar to the story of
getting the job for "The Promotion." It was, you know, I'd go in and I'd do my
best, but I'd be in a room full of famous faces. And they would cast a famous
face because they needed someone for the poster. So "The Office" has given me
a famous face, so now I can compete with some of those other actresses.

GROSS: Well, how'd you get the role on "The Office"? And I think just about
everyone in "The Office," maybe not Rainn Wilson and certainly not Steve
Carell, but, you know, most of the people in "The Office" were unknown when
they were cast and have since, you know, become very well known. So I guess
that wasn't a big problem, being an unknown. But what did you have to do in
the audition?

Ms. 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.

GROSS: So in your one word answers, like, what did you say to the questions
you were asked in the audition?

Ms. 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, is completely different from my audition for
"The Promotion" that, you know, they said, `We need to you look as hot as
possible.' She said to me, `You know, Jenna, I'm always telling you, you know,
look really hot.' 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, 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 into 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 any more than that. And they
started laughing, and then they asked me a few more questions. I mean, my
answers were really nothing. They were just yes and no answers. And I felt
like the comedy would come in watching me think about what I wasn't going to
say instead of what was said.

GROSS: Right. And that's classic "The Office" because, you know, one of the
premises of "The Office" is that they're somewheres between a reality TV show
and a documentary being shot in the office, so the characters are always
either directly talking to the camera, or glancing sideways at the camera
while the action's going on and often giving very pained looks because their
boss, Michael, is behaving so badly. And you have classic pained looks that
you give the camera.

Ms. FISCHER: Well, my character of Pam is really stuck. I mean, she's a
subordinate in this office, and so I think that, for her, the only way she can
express herself is in the silences, but you can say so much by not saying
anything.

GROSS: So when you're giving one of your pained looks or one of your `this is
absurd' looks to the camera, who's the cameraperson? Is there an actor behind
there that you can kind of interact with or is it just like the camera with a
cameraperson?

Ms. 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 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. So it sounds like you're very emotionally
involved in your character Pam's life.

Ms. FISCHER: Yeah. Oh, I get--I'm so attached to her journey. I really
love playing this character so, so much.

GROSS: Now, how were you cast opposite John Krazinski? 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 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 Krazinski character, 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?

Ms. FISCHER: 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 I got the job, I said, `Please tell me that
John Krazinski 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?

Ms. 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: My guest is Jenna Fischer. She plays Pam the receptionist on the NBC
series "The Office." Her new movie, "The Promotion," opens in select cities
Friday. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jenna Fischer, and she plays
Pam on "The Office." Her movies include "Blades of Glory" and "Walk Hard," and
she co-stars in the new film, "The Promotion."

One of the things that happens on "The Office" often is that you or Jim
instigate a joke, and sometimes it's an in joke just between the two of you,
sometimes it's a larger joke within the whole office, and I want to play one
of those classic moments where you instigate the joke, and this is a scene
from an episode in which Michael, the Steve Carell character, the boss in the
office, your supervisor, he's lost somebody who was a former colleague. This
former colleague has died. So he decides to--it's so Michael, he decides to
gather everybody from the office in a circle and have everybody talk about
somebody that they've lost and what it meant to them. And it's an incredibly
inappropriate thing to do in the office, of course, and he has like a ball, a
grief ball, and he tosses it to the person who he wants to speak next.

(Soundbite from "The Office")

Mr. STEVE CARELL: (As Michael) OK, why don't you throw the ball to somebody
else?

Mr. LESLIE DAVID BAKER: (As Stanley) Nope.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) Oh, yes. Stanley, come on. Your turn. You have
to go.

Mr. BAKER: (As Stanley) I will not.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) K. I'm going to toss the ball to Pam.

Ms. FISCHER: (As Pam) Let's see. I had an aunt that I was really close to.
She was this amazing female boxer. Anyway, she was injured in a fight, and
she was paralyzed. So you can imagine how upset I was when I found out that
she asked her manager to remove her breathing tube so she could die.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) Wow. If you want to cry, that's OK.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's a scene from "The Office." My guest is Jenna Fischer, who plays
Pam.

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?

Ms. 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, 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? 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.

GROSS: Are there any scenes from "The Office" that were too funny to get
through without laughing and you had to keep re-shooting them?

Ms. FISCHER: Oh, so many. So many. You know, what happens is, I seem to
every year get tickled by a new actor in a way where I just--I cannot do a
scene with them. The first year was Rainn Wilson. You know, Pam and Dwight
did not have a lot of interaction, and so any time we did have a scene one on
one, I just couldn't get through it. Rainn Wilson, he has this weird way that
he stands where he pushes his pelvis and his gut sort of out.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. FISCHER: And he breathes through his mouth. And so just to have him
approach me is funny. And there was a scene where Ed Helms' character of Andy
plays the banjo for Pam. He's trying to woo her. And so he plays her
"Rainbow Connection" on the banjo, but he sings it in pig Latin. And I could
not get through that. We shot that at 6:30 in the morning, and there's not a
whole lot that's hilarious to me at 6:30 in the morning since I'm not a
morning person, but that got me. That one, I could not stop laughing.

GROSS: So are there experiences that you've drawn on and have passed on to
the writers of "The Office" that they've actually used in the series?

Ms. FISCHER: Mm. Well, gosh, I remember early on they would ask me a lot of
things about my time in an office. And, you know, Angela Kinsey, who plays
the little prissy accountant on the show, she worked at 1-800-Dentist for a
long time, and she and I would go in the writer's room and they would ask us
questions about what it was like to work in a phone bank or in an office.

And I can't think of a specific story, but one time Angela and I were talking
over lunch, and she and I came up with the idea of having a Women in the
Workplace seminar. And so we went to the writers and we said, `We have an
idea for a show. We think that Jan should come in and have a Women in the
Workplace seminar. And Michael will get jealous and have his own Men in the
Workplace seminar. And they'll have like these competing workshops.' And the
writers said, `Oh, we love that. That's great. So then what happens?' And we
said, `I don't know. That's all we got.' And they did actually end up writing
that episode.

GROSS: Here's a scene from the episode she was just describing, "Women in the
Workplace." It starts with Jan, a supervisor from corporate headquarters.

(Soundbite from "The Office")

Ms. MELORA HARDIN: (As Jan) So, I'm happy to be here. It's very nice to see
all of you. You're all looking well.

Ms. FISCHER: (As Pam) Today's a women in the workplace thing. Jan's coming
in from corporate to talk to all the women about--I don't really know what,
but Michael's not allowed in. She said that about five times.

Ms. HARDIN: (As Jan) Women today, though we have the same options as men, we
often face a very different set of obstacles in getting there.

(Soundbite of knock on door)

Ms. HARDIN: (As Jan) So...

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) Hey. What's going on?

Ms. HARDIN: (As Jan) Michael, I...

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) Yeah. I--you know what?

Ms. HARDIN: (As Jan) I thought we agreed that you wouldn't be here.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) I just--I--I--I thought about it. I just have a
few things I want to say.

(Soundbite of throat being cleared)

Ms. HARDIN: (As Jan) What are you doing?

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) Just hear me out.

(Soundbite of throat clearing)

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) What is more important than quality? Equality.
Now studies show that today's woman, the Ally McBeal woman, as I call her, is
at a crossroads.

Ms. HARDIN: (As Jan) Michael.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) And--no, just--I--you have come a long way, baby,
but I just--just want to keep it within reason.

Ms. HARDIN: (As Jan) Michael.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) They did this up in Albany.

Ms. HARDIN: (As Jan) You are not allowed...

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) And they ended up turning the break room into a
lactation room.

Ms. HARDIN: (As Jan) OK.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) Which is disgusting, so...

Ms. HARDIN: (As Jan) Now you're really not allowed in this session.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) Well, I'm their boss. So I feel like...

Ms. HARDIN: (As Jan) I'm your boss.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael) Anybody want any coffee or anything?

Ms. HARDIN: (As Jan) We're fine, Michael. We just need you to leave,
please.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: A scene from "The Office." Jenna Fischer will be back in the second
half of the show. Her new movie, "The Promotion," opens in select cities this
Friday. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jenna Fischer. In the
NBC comedy series "The Office" she plays Pam the receptionist. She co-starred
in the film comedies "Blades of Glory" and "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story."
Her new movie "The Promotion" opens in select cities this Friday.

Would you tell the story of the time you were auditioning for a singing group
that was supposed to be like the Spice Girls?

Ms. FISCHER: Yes. Well, when I came to LA I was really willing to just
hustle and do whatever I had to. And, you know, this--actually I'll tell that
story, but there's another story that is an untold story.

My very first acting job that I got after moving to Los Angeles, I answered an
ad in the back of a newspaper, and it was--I got paid $100, and I was in a sex
education video for mental patients upon their release from UCLA Medical
Center.

GROSS: Wow.

Ms. FISCHER: Yeah. And I'm sure that tape exists somewhere. But I played a
girl who was going on a date and my older sister came in the bathroom and she
asked me, did I like this boy. And I said `Oh, yes, I really like him.' And
she said, `Well, are you bringing protection?' And I said, `Protection?
Protection from what?' And she said, `Well, if you decide to become sexually
active you need protection from pregnancy and STDs.' And she opens up our
bathroom drawer, and in our bathroom drawer is every contraceptive imaginable,
including an IUD, which like has to be implanted by your gynecologist. It's
hilarious. And she holds them each up one by one and describes the pros and
cons and how they work and if they protect against STDs or just against
pregnancy. And I sit and I listen very earnestly and then I say, `Thanks,
sis.' And then I go off to my date. That was my very first acting job.

GROSS: That is so great. Did you have to audition for it?

Ms. FISCHER: Yeah. I did. I did. I had to audition. I guess--you know,
again, most of that job was listening. So I have some career in being a good
listener or something.

GROSS: So tell the singing group story.

Ms. FISCHER: Yes. Well, a friend of mine found a listing in the back of a
newspaper that said there were auditions, open call auditions to try to find
the fifth member of an all-girl singing group that was being billed as "the
international Spice Girls," because the Spice Girls was very big at the time.
And my friend was a singer and she asked me if I would come to the audition
with her. And I said `oh, absolutely.' And just for fun I decided to sing as
well. I thought well, I'll audition while I'm there. And I am a--I'm not
even kidding you, I am a terrible singer. As proven by when I did the movie
"Walk Hard," they dubbed my voice with a professional singer because I
couldn't cut it. But for whatever reason, I got the job in the international
Spice Girls. I sang "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" at my audition, the
Nancy Sinatra song, because it only has like three notes in it and they're all
in the mid-C range which is about all my voice can handle.

And I got a call the next day that I had gotten the part. The producer was
very excited. He said he thought I was very wholesome looking and they were
going to sell me as a sweet country girl in this--I was going to be, you know,
very Americana as part of this international Spice Girls. And we were going
to sing on tour, and you know, was I ready. And he invited me to his
apartment for a rehearsal--which is, you know, when you've been out in the
business and you meet legitimate producers you realize that they don't hold
auditions or have meetings in their apartments. But I didn't know that. I
was new. I was fresh off the bus. Basically when I got to the producer's
apartment I noticed that there were other girls there, but they were all
walking around in lingerie as if they lived there. And he would sort of point
upstairs and he'd be like, `Oh there's, you know, Svetlana, you know, she's
our Russian girl.' And I would sort of wave to Svetlana.

What I didn't know about the international Spice Girls was that this was a
cover for a call girl operation, a high priced call girl operation. But I was
so naive that it took me about two weeks to figure it out. My first clue
should have been when the producer/manager of the group offered to take nude
photographs of me. But it did not clue me in. What he said to me was, you
know, `In addition to the singing group we will manage your acting career.
And what if you had to go on an audition where there was nudity required?
What would you do? You wouldn't want to have to get naked in the casting
director's office; instead, you can just show them this nude photograph that
we've taken of you.' And I was smart enough to know that no one asks you to
get nude in the casting director's office, that that's not legitimate. But I
just said to him, `I wouldn't want any roles where I have to be nude anyway.
So I wouldn't be going on those types of auditions. So I don't think we need
nude photographs of me.'

So now I'm starting to get suspicious. I'm thinking, there's something here
that's not right. And then my second clue was that every time I went to a
quote, unquote "rehearsal," the other girls in the group were just sort of
lounging around in lingerie in this penthouse apartment. And no one was doing
any singing or dancing except me. I was the only one practicing a song. And
finally the producer said to me, `OK, will you have your first show?' He
called it a show. And he said, `It's on Friday and it's going to be for a
group of traveling Japanese businessmen,' which is so cliche--so cliche, but
true. And he said, `And, you know, after the show it would be very nice if
you provided these gentlemen with some companionship, and you only have to do
as much as you want to do. But some of the girls have found this is a really
wonderful way to make some extra income.' And that was when I finally
realized...

GROSS: So what did you say to him?

Ms. FISCHER: ...that this was not a singing group. I actually became sort
of frightened because I was in his apartment when he told me this. And so I
nodded and I said `Oh, OK, OK, that sounds good. That sounds really good.'
And then I went home and I changed my contact information.. You know, I
changed my phone numbers, actually, and I just sort of dropped on the face of
the planet so that he couldn't reach me or find me again, because he did not
know where I lived. He only had like a beeper number. That was in the time
of beepers. He had my beeper number, so I got a new beeper. And I had a
boyfriend at the time who was furious and very protective.

GROSS: My guest is Jenna Fischer. She plays Pam the receptionist on the NBC
series "The Office." Her new movie "The Promotion" opens in select cities
Friday. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is actress Jenna Fischer. On the NBC series "The Office" she
plays Pam the receptionist. She co-stars in the new film "The Promotion."

Where did you grow up?

Ms. FISCHER: I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri.

GROSS: How did you get to LA?

Ms. FISCHER: I drove here in a little beat up Mazda 323 hatchback with my
futon mattress strapped to the top and my now--my cat is now 16 years old, but
he was five at the time and he was in a little cat carrier in the backseat.
And we drove here together for three days. And that's how I got to LA.

I knew ever since I was a little girl that I wanted to be an actress. And
when I was a girl I was very disappointed that my mother wasn't a stage
mother. It really frustrated me. I was part of a dance troupe or part of
theater companies. And it was very clear that the mothers who came around a
lot and sewed costumes and badgered the directors, that those girls would get
lead roles. And my mom would not do that. And I just--oh, I used to think
`Oh, she doesn't support this for me.' But now that I'm an adult I realize how
very wise she is.

And they always encouraged me to be an actress. They always said it was fine.
They let me sign up for whatever I wanted to sign up for. But she told me
that being a professional actress was something that I could do when it was
time for me to be an adult and get an adult job, that that would be my career,
and that my childhood was my childhood and it was important for me to have
that as well. And, of course, as a kid you don't want to hear that. I always
thought that time was ticking and, you know, I'm never going to make it. And
when I graduated from high school I wanted to move to Los Angeles immediately.
And I graduated early. I was 17. I wanted to move to LA at 17, and my
parents said no. They said, `You can move to Los Angeles after college.' And
they said, `You can go to college, you can major in theater if you want, but
you have to go to college and complete college.' It's a very important time,
they felt, in going from child to adulthood and a really great way to sort of
baby step into the responsibilities of being an adult.

And, of course, they're right, they were right. And I thank them so much for
that because, you know, had I moved here at 17 I probably would have become a
member of the international Spice Girls. And I would have been too naive to
take care of myself because even, you know, listen, even at 23 I was
challenged.

GROSS: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Ms. FISCHER: So I'm grateful to them now. But I didn't know anybody. I
didn't have any contacts. I had a few people from college who were living out
here and I moved in with them.

GROSS: So, although you impressed the producer of the prostitution ring with
your singing, when you were in "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," you were
dubbed. And "Dewey Cox" is a movie biography of a fictional singer named
Dewey Cox. And it's a parody of films like "Walk the Line" and "Ray." And you
play his second wife, a kind of June Carter Cash character.

Ms. FISCHER: Yes.

GROSS: And you sing duets with your husband, who's played by John C. Reilly.

Ms. FISCHER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So let me play a clip of your first meeting, you and Dewey Cox, and
here it is.

(Soundbite from "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story")

Ms. FISCHER: (As Darlene Madison) Mr. Cox, I heard you were looking for a
new backup singer for your new duet.

Mr. JOHN C. REILLY: (As Dewey Cox) You heard right.

Ms. FISCHER: (As Darlene Madison) I was wondering if you might like to give
me a try.

Mr. REILLY: (As Dewey Cox) I reckon I might.

Ms. FISCHER: (As Darlene Madison) I've been singing in my church choir since
I was a girl.

Mr. REILLY: (As Dewey Cox) I like the sound of that.

Ms. FISCHER: (As Darlene Madison) Darlene Madison.

Mr. REILLY: (As Dewey Cox) Dewey Cox.

(Singing) Hello, Darlene.

Ms. FISCHER: (As Darlene Madison) (Singing) Hello, Mr. Cox.

Mr. REILLY: (As Dewey Cox) (Singing) You ready to sing one?

Ms. FISCHER: (As Darlene Madison) (Singing) I'm always ready.

Mr. REILLY: (As Dewey Cox) (Singing) Well, all right
In my dreams you're blowing me
Some kisses

Ms. FISCHER: (As Darlene Madison) (Singing) That's one of my favorite things
to do

Mr. REILLY: (As Dewey Cox) (Singing) You and I could go down
In history.

Ms. FISCHER: (As Darlene Madison) (Singing) That's what I'm praying to do
with you.

Mr. REILLY and Ms. FISCHER: (As Dewey Cox and Darlene Madison) (Singing
in unison) Let's duet
In ways that make us feel good
Let's duet...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Jenna Fischer and John C. Reilly in a scene from "Walk Hard:
The Dewey Cox Story."

Now, the song that we just heard an excerpt of is so funny. It's just like
one double entendre after another. Was it hard to just keep a straight face
while shooting that?

Ms. FISCHER: It really was. That whole movie was fun in that way. I love
satirical comedy. One of my favorite movies growing up was "Airplane!" And I
love that, you know, very straight faced, very earnest, honest readings of
these ridiculous lines and being in these weird situations but playing it
totally, totally straight.

GROSS: And you're so good at it.

Ms. FISCHER: It makes me laugh. That's my sense of humor. So I guess I
feel pretty lucky that I've gotten to work on projects that are things I would
want to see.

GROSS: Now, I think it was about three days after you filmed "Walk Hard" that
you feel down a flight of marble stairs and fractured four vertebrae. Do I
have that right?

Ms. FISCHER: That's right, yeah. Four transverse vertebrae in my back.

GROSS: That sounds so--ugh. How much pain was that?

Ms. FISCHER: You know, I was walking down a set of stairs and I just lost my
footing. And as I was falling I just knew that I was falling farther and
longer than was going to be safe. I could just feel it in that moment. And
when I hit the stairs I had this pain that I'd never experienced before. I've
never broken a bone before. But the pain was so overwhelming and
instantaneous that it made me dizzy and nauseas.

And my friend Angela Kinsey from the show found me, and one of the producers
from the show because we were at a work event. And they said, you know, `We
think you need to go to the hospital.' They lifted up my shirt and I had, in
addition to breaking bones, I had cut myself. The impact of the fall had, you
know, cut my skin and I was bleeding. And so they called an ambulance and
they took me to the hospital.

And I really thought, while I was going to the hospital, I really thought that
the doctor was going to X-ray me and all this sort of stuff and he was going
to come back and say, `Well, Miss, you have got a nasty bruise and you're
going to be in some pain.' You know maybe like the equivalent of a car
accident, some whiplash or something. But he came back and he said, `Well, I
have some good news and some bad news.' He said, `The good news is you will
walk again.'

GROSS: Oh, God.

Ms. FISCHER: `You have no spinal cord damage.' And I thought, wow, if
they're starting with that's the good news, now I'm scared. I was terrified.
And I was holding Angela's hand, and he said, `You have fractured four of the
transverse vertebrae in your back.' And I didn't know what that meant. And I
just looked at Angela and we shared this moment. And it was like the most
pure sort of moment of like fear that I've ever shared with another person.
And I don't remember what the doctor said after that.

And eventually a specialist came in and explained that my injury was
actually--was, as far as back injuries go, it's the only one that has
absolutely no lasting damage. And he said, `You'll be walking in the next
three days,' you know, `you're going to be stiff but you need to walk every
day.' And it's very similar to breaking your ribs. It's very painful, but
there's nothing you can do except to wait for the bone to heal, and that
takes, you know, up to four months for bone to be completely healed. But you
also have to be mobile. So I would have to walk every day, and I was stuck in
New York City for three and a half weeks recuperating.

GROSS: Wow. I'm glad that you had a full recovery from that. You're in a
studio in LA. I'm in a studio in Philadelphia. I have no idea how you're
dressed or what you look like. On a scale of the babe that they used to want
you to dress like at auditions and Pam when she was just wearing like baggy
shirts and cardigans, how do you dress when you're out as yourself?

Ms. FISCHER: Oh, well, I would sort of describe my style as mother of three
without the children. So very comfort based, low-effort dressing. Although
today, since I had to, I wanted to appear somewhat professional, I did put on
a pair of jeans and a nice blazer and some high heels. But this is a special
occasion. Usually you'll find me in some version of sweatpants and a hoodie
and flip-flops.

GROSS: Thanks for dressing up for our invisible medium of radio.

Ms. FISCHER: You're welcome.

GROSS: It's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Ms. FISCHER: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: Jenna Fischer plays Pam the receptionist on "The Office." Her new film
"The Promotion" opens in select cities Friday.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: A 1987 interview with now-deceased museum director
Anne d'Harnoncourt
TERRY GROSS, host:

One of the institutions that my city, Philadelphia, is proudest of is the
Philadelphia Museum of Art. Yeah, it's the museum whose steps were made
famous by "Rocky." But it's the art inside that makes it great. And the
person most responsible for transforming the museum into a great museum was
Anne d'Harnoncourt. She died Sunday at the age of 64. She'd come home after
minor surgery and then suffered cardiac arrest. Her death has shocked
Philadelphia and the art world.

D'Harnoncourt became the Philadelphia Museum of Art's curator of 20th century
art in 1972. Ten years later she became the first woman to head a major
American museum when she was named director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
One of her areas of specialization was the work of Marcel Duchamp. The museum
has the most complete collection of his work. I spoke with D'Harnoncourt
about Duchamp in 1987 when the museum celebrated the centennial of his birth.

Marcel Duchamp first shocked the art world in 1913 when he displayed his
painting "Nude Descending a Staircase" at the Armory Show in New York. That
show introduced European modern art to America. He continued to shock the art
world with his sculptures and his found objects, which he called ready mades.
His art and his ideas made him perhaps the most influential avant garde artist
of the 20th century.

Do you think it's fair to say that Marcel Duchamp's greatest contributions
weren't necessarily his art objects, but his ideas about art?

Ms. ANNE D'HARNONCOURT: I do think that's probably fair to say, although any
time you make a firm statement like that about Duchamp, usually you have to
turn around and make the reverse, because in a sense his art objects, to an
extraordinary degree and more than almost any other artist I can think of,
embody his ideas. He was terrifically interested in the whole problem, as he
put it, of putting art once again at the service of the mind.

GROSS: After a few years as a painter he gave up painting. Why did he do
that?

Ms. D'HARNONCOURT: Every time he reached something that satisfied him like
the "Nude Descending the Staircase" he would turn around and try to do
something altogether different. He always said that he tried to contradict
himself as much as possible in order to avoid conforming to his own taste.
And so when he'd finished with the "Nude Descending the Staircase" he made a
few more studies in paint, but they were studies directed towards this amazing
project which took him over 10 years to do called "The Bride Stripped Bare By
Her Bachelors, Even," a wonderful and mysterious title. And it's all played
out on two large panes of glass in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and also in
a bunch of notes that Duchamp wrote to himself.

GROSS: Well, he says something about the large glass that you quote in the
museum show, and this is a running theme in his work, "The glass must not be
looked at in the aesthetic sense of the word."

Ms. D'HARNONCOURT: That's right. I think he was very much for divorcing--he
was against art with a capital A. He was all for artists. He was all for
people who made art one way and another. But it bothered him that people put
art on some kind of pedestal. And therefore I think he--because then he
thought they didn't think about it. And for him art was very much a practice
of the mind. It's why I think he was so--one of the reasons he was so
interested in chess, which he saw in some ways as an alternative to making
art, because chess, he thought of as a beautifully intellectual but sculptural
game. In other words, you play the game out in your mind and you almost--you
think of it in physical terms, in terms of where the pieces move and what the
pieces are. And he was really trying to get people to do that with works of
art.

GROSS: Duchamp gave up painting and then he said he'd given up art altogether
after the large glass. This was in about 1923, he made a statement that he'd
given up art. What were the public reasons that he gave for that?

Ms. D'HARNONCOURT: You know, I'm not absolutely sure that he ever said that
he'd given up art. I'm not sure it wasn't what everybody else said about him.
He was always very polite. He was always given to be happy to be interviewed
and to talk about what he was doing or what he was not doing. And very late
in his life, for example, he said, `of course, I've never been anything but an
artist.'

GROSS: Most people assume that Duchamp had given up making art. But after
his death it was discovered that he'd spent the last 20 years of his life
working on a major piece, a piece which is now on exhibit at the Philadelphia
Museum of Art called "Etant donnes." Why do you think that he contradicted
himself in saying that he wasn't really making art when, in fact, he was
working on this really major piece for over 20 years?

Ms. D'HARNONCOURT: Well, I don't know that we're ever going to quite know
the answer to that because he was so quiet, so secret about this piece that he
never talked about it to anybody. So we have no glimmer. I think, and it
seems to me, looking at, from hindsight, looking at the piece which in fact
you have to do through two little holes in an old wooden door, you see this
amazingly realistic scene of a nude woman holding up a little gas lamp, and
she's lying on a bed of twigs with a rather peaceful landscape in the
background and a little waterfall sparkling in the distance. If you look at
that as a work of art and you realize how odd it is in Duchamp's--not so much
in his career, because if you think about it, it makes lots of connections
with other works, but to do this very intensely realistic thing, particularly
that has some real erotic content, I don't think he would have had a moment's
peace if everybody knew he'd been working on it.

GROSS: You have access to Marcel Duchamp's greatest pieces of work. How
often do you like to go look at them? He never thought of his art as
aesthetic in that sense. Do you prefer to actually go and be with the work,
look at the work, or is it sufficient for you to think about it?

Ms. D'HARNONCOURT: Actually, that's one of the nice ironies about Duchamp's
work. I find that I go back again and again. And every time I go I see
something new. So it's not that Duchamp himself denied the pleasures of
vision or of the optical--be was certainly interested in them--but that he
gives you something to think about while you're looking.

GROSS: Has he changed your views of art?

Ms. D'HARNONCOURT: I'm sure he has. In a sense, I really--it's hard for me
to think of how I thought about art before I thought about Duchamp because I
thought about Duchamp just by that wonderful chance of coming to Philadelphia
first some 20 years ago and getting all tangled up in his work just as I was
thinking about early modern art in general. And, in fact, a lot of my
experience of contemporary art, of the art of our own time, has come since
then. So I'm really incapable of saying how I would look at art if it weren't
for Duchamp because he's simply somebody that I paid a lot of attention to
early on.

GROSS: Thanks very much for talking with us.

Ms. D'HARNONCOURT: Thank you.

GROSS: Anne D'Harnoncourt recorded in 1987 when the Philadelphia Museum of
Art was celebrating the centennial of Marcel Duchamp's birth. D'Harnoncourt
was the long-time director of the museum. She died Sunday at the age of 64.
She will be greatly missed in our city and the art world.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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