Talking with Authors: Jenna Fischer “The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide”

    St. Louis native Jenna Fischer became a household name by playing Pam Beesly on NBC’s “The Office.” But, don’t think landing that role was easy. Despite a theatre degree, her “Nerinx Hall” grit and some good ole Mid-western tenacity, it took eight years in Hollywood to land that gig. Fischer talks about her missteps along the way – including how she almost became a part of a high price call girl ring – and how it takes a lot more than just “being cute and talented” to make it in Hollywood.

    Buy “The Actor’s Life”

    Host:

    First, welcome back to St Louis.

    Jenna Fischer:

    Thank you. Thanks so much.

    Host:

    When you come to town, do you find that there are so many friends and family there’s just not enough time? I think we all feel like that when we go home.

    Fischer:

    There’s never enough time and a lot of times when I come to St Louis it’s for an event or a special occasion and so, so much of the time and the energy go into that special occasion. So, for example, the reason that I’m here for this trip was because my niece just celebrated her first communion and I’m her godmother and so, because of that, then I don’t necessarily have time to have dinner with all my old high school friends.

    Host:

    It just times up perfectly that you’re here promoting your book as well, right?

    Fischer:

    Yes, so I just had a book come out and the book is literally about my journey from St Louis to Hollywood. I graduated with a theater degree and I went out to Hollywood and I thought, I’m a trained actor, I think I’ve got some natural talent, I’ve got my Nerinx Hall grit. I’m going to make in six months and it was not six months. I mean, six months later, I was actually in debt, barely had a day job, didn’t have an agent, had horrible head shots. So there was so much that I had to learn about the process and the behind the scenes aspect of how the Hollywood business machine works. And I want to give that advice to young actors now. And I think it’s a great book for parents to read if they have a kid who might want to go into acting because I think it could help parents kind of direct their kids in a more realistic way. Because it’s not just about being cute and talented, it’s not enough. You have to have a good business sense I think in order to really make your way.

    Host:

    Well, and also helping them understand what you’re wanting, because I think you wrote that your parents talked you into getting a minor in journalism because they thought, “Oh, well that way you can be on TV.”

    Fischer:

    Yes, I think a lot of people think that actors like the showy part of the job, that the reason we became actors is because we’re show offs or we were the class clown, or we like being in front of the camera. But most actors I know are very shy, are introverts. I’m an introvert. I don’t like being the center of attention. I like being at a small intimate dinner party with people I know very well much more than a big party. I didn’t go to a single fraternity or sorority party when I was in college. That would give me social anxiety. So, for me, the thing that I love about acting is actually turning into other people, into figuring out how to replicate feelings of love, of shame, of jealousy, in a realistic way and tell a story.

    So I think when my parents were like, “Oh, get a minor in journalism because then you can be on TV.” It’s like, well, that in no way scratches the itch, that is in no way what I love about acting. I love acting so much that I would want to continue to do it no matter what the venue, so even if it didn’t get attached to fame and success. My goal really was to make a living doing what I loved and I did that for many years. For many years, I was an anonymous actor who popped up in various roles and that’s how I made my living but nobody knew who I was.

    Host:

    And that’s you kind of debunking those myths kind of throughout your book. I mean, I think you even wrote that if you’re going into it for fame and fortune, the Screen Actor’s Guild, The Median Acting income is $52,000 a year.

    Fischer:

    And you don’t get to keep $52,000 dollars a year. You have to give 10% to your agent, 10% to your manager. Then you have to give away your money to taxes and that is what the average working union actor makes per year. So you have to love it. You have to love it. Only something like 5% of working actors make over $100,000 dollars a year.

    Host:

    Now you know those things but back then, like you said, is there something that you wish you kind of had to go, “Okay, it’s fine. Everything’s fine”?

    Fischer:

    Well, because there are certain union rules. So, a union actor who does a big starring guest role on a television, that would be like you come on for one episode, you have to get paid $6,000 dollars. So when you see that number, when I saw that number, I thought, “$6,000 dollars for a week! That’s amazing!” But what you don’t realize is you only get three of those jobs a year.

    Host:

    Right.

    Fischer:

    You’re not earning $6,000 dollars every single week, but when you get your paycheck the government thinks you are so they take out taxes as if you are earning $6,000 dollars a week. Now you’ll get a return at the end of the year. This is the nitty gritty, folks. This is not what you thought and this is it. People think that Hollywood and being an actor is parties and red carpets and shmoozing and it’s not. It is a business, it is a small business like any small business.

    Host:

    I mean, even for those of us not in Hollywood, it’s really interesting to see what sets are like. I mean you talk about the food.

    Fischer:

    Oh yes, the food. I talk a lot about food in my book.

    Host:

    You do and not in a good way. It’s not appetizing.

    Fischer:

    Well, sometimes. I will say one of the best parts of being an actor is there is tons of free food. When you go on sets, they have a morning buffet, they’ve got a lunch buffet and these buffets, if you’re on a television production or a big movie production, these things rival a Vegas buffet. I mean, there’s a carving station, you’ve got seafood, you’ve got chicken. So you will eat and then the irony is that actors never eat, because we all have to stay a little teeny size to be on cameras but there’s tons of food surrounding you, it’s really torture. But as a starving artist, I would go and try to figure out all the ways that I could take food home. So I’d work one day on a set and I’d leave with a little to go packet because that was the best food I could get. That was the best way to eat.

    But then when you’re in a scene, when you’re working, and you see people eating dinner in a scene, that food is gross. So the food surrounding you is good but the food when you’re actually working is gross. So if you have to eat chicken Parmesan in a scene, it’s cold. So they cook it and then they make it really cold so that throughout the day as it warms up under the lights it doesn’t make you sick and it takes hours to shoot a dinner scene and so, you just keep getting that same plate of food kind of back in front of you. So I always say if they give you a choice of what you’d like to eat in a scene, just say salad.

    Host:

    Not steak.

    Fischer:

    Don’t say steak. When I was starving artist the first time I got to work in a dinner scene they asked me what I wanted, it was at a restaurant, and they said, “Just pick something off the menu,” and I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m so hungry.” And I said, “Can I have steak and potatoes?” And they said, “Oh yeah sure!” Well, then they serve me cold steak and cold potatoes all day. I was like, “Oh shoot. That’s not what I was hoping for.”

    Host:

    And you have a lot of funny things that have happened to you. I mean, you’re not afraid of self depreciating moments in your book. I mean, there’s a lot that most people would have probably gone, “I’d rather forget about those things,” but you wrote them down.

    Fischer: 

    Well, that’s funny. I have a friend who’s a writer and I actually quote him in the book and he said, “One the problems with our industry is that people, there’s a term, they never show their breaststrokes.” So you see the final masterpiece of the painting and you think it just came out of the person like that or a script, you think it just poured out of them, or an acting performance. But the truth is there were so many brush strokes, so many mistakes, so many wrong places where we put color and then had to fix it, there’s so many corrections along the way before you get to the final masterpiece, so my book was the attempt to show all the brush strokes. Just show all my mistakes that hopefully people can learn from, that I learned from, because I didn’t just land in Los Angeles and not only did I not have the opportunities to get on a television show the minute I landed there, I wasn’t ready to be on a television show.

    And that’s a big message of the book, which is that you need seasoning. You need to learn how to be on a set. You need to learn the etiquette. You need to learn how to perform for a camera. You need to learn how to endure the days which have a lot of changes. I talk about in the book, I had a situation where I had this very long speech that I had to give, a medical speech, and so, I memorized it and memorized it, memorized it and I was so confident that I was bragging on set that we were going to be finished early because I was so prepared. Well, I missed an email where they sent me a rewrite of that speech, so when the camera started rolling I launched into my speech and director said, “Oh Jenna, did you not get the rewrite?” And I thought he was kidding with me. I thought he was joking because I had been bragging.

    Host:

    Right.

    Fischer:

    And said, “Oh ha-ha, come on, come on let’s do it.” And he goes,” No, we had some clearance issues and we had to rewrite it and it’s completely different.” And the whole crew is there ready to shoot and then I wasn’t prepared. So I talk about that. I talk about read every email. When you get to work, confirm you’re really doing the scenes, confirm you have the right material. Things change all the time.

    Host:

    The friends that you made when you got out there, I think you write, a lot of them left after two years. Like, you know what? This is too much, it’s too hard. But you stuck it out, what’s the message of tenacity that anyone of us in any industry could use there and maybe even in the future that you hope your children can see if they were to read this book if they’re looking for a career?

    Fischer:

    You know when you go to those ball games and you’re down? Remember the World Series St Louis? Right? David Freese. Did we think that we were going to get out of that game? It happens. Why can’t it happen to you? I you can wait it out. I don’t know, that’s me though. I’m the girl who would sit on the courthouse steps for nine years to get my law passed and just break people down by just waiting them out. There’s a lot you can do by just refusing to leave and there’s lots of examples where the success came later in life. Every market is very saturated with 21 year olds who want to go out in the world and start that career and especially with acting, but if you’re in your 30s, a lot of the people leave. So I always tell actors, “Stick around because the competition goes down if you wait it out.” But also I think, if you don’t love it, if you don’t need it, if isn’t like oxygen to you, be something else.

    Host:

    You give a lot of advice in your book about what to take with you to auditions, what to do to prepare for auditions. You have in there what you should always bring when you go for a fitting for a role and you talk about undergarments, blue jeans. You don’t mention a shirt, which I wondered then. I saw you on Jimmy Kimmel in your towel but you had your jeans on, obviously undergarments, was that what happened there?

    Fischer:

    I should have, yes. No, so what happened was I was back stage getting ready and sort of luxuriating and I had this strappy kind of jumpsuit and I had put on a towel with my jeans because they had to put makeup and lotion on my arms. So I’m sitting back there in a towel and they bring around snacks and it was 5 o’clock and I was hungry and I was like, “Oh, I’ve got plenty of time. I’ve got plenty of time.” Well, then they were like, “You’re up next. Get dressed.” I’m like, “Okay, okay.” I go to get dressed and just like, ert, with the zipper and of course I had worn a shirt to Jimmy Kimmel. I was like, “What am I going to do? What am I going to do? What do we do? Oh my God, oh my God.” And someone said, “Just wear the towel, it looks adorable.” So the choice was towel, just go big and wear the towel and make a story out of it or frumpy shirt that I wore in from the street, which then is sort of like, why are you wearing that horrible T-shirt, that frumpy T-shirt?

    So I went with the towel.

    Host:

    It’s because you knew people at home watched that and they’re like, “Oh, that was a stunt.” That was not a stunt.

    Fischer:

    It was a stunt in the sense that probably we could have figured something out but, in the moment, it was a frenzy and they mic’d the towel and it was like, probably we could have gotten it on somehow but I was a little panicked. I hadn’t left at enough time and it was like, just go with it, just go with it. But it was not planned. That was not like I came from home with this plan to wear a towel, no. And I feel like I’m a little shaking and I was really nervous. I had to really be like, “Okay, okay, I can’t believe I’m about to do this. I can’t believe I’m about to do this.” And I was like, “Okay, okay.” So it was a little bit scary. But I made it through.

    Host:

    Well, I couldn’t tell you were nervous that’s why I thought that was shtick.

    Fischer:

    Oh.

    Host:

    So it worked.

    Fischer:

    Yeah, I guess because I was like, “Well, maybe if I walk out and I just have my hand down and we can get it on and it’ll be okay.” But there was a time thing too. It was like, “You’re next, you’re next, you’re next.”

    Host:

    So that’s the addendum. If you’re in a hurry, don’t sweat it, you can always wear a towel. That’s the addendum to the book.

    Fischer:

    Yeah, just go big. I think a little bit is just go big and fun with it. Roll with it.

    Host:

    You touched a little while ago about Nerinx Hall and going to school there. I mean, you just said you weren’t the class clown, you weren’t the extrovert, but I would have expected you to be the lead role at the shows. I mean, that’s what I envisioned opening up a book and seeing pictures of you in all these lead roles.

    Fischer:

    No, there’s actually four pictures of me in the dance chorus in high school. I never had a lead role. In college, I was not in a single main stage show. I only got cast in the lab productions that were student run productions but they were the best ones. And the best education came from that because nobody gives you lead roles when you land in Hollywood. You have to do it yourself. You have to create your own work. You have to band together with your friends, get your own experience. You have to be a person who can generate work for yourself in this business and all through the business. That never goes away and so, the best thing that I got, I went to Truman State, was the fact that no one gave me a lead role because I had to decide that it didn’t matter and that I was going to get in my own productions. I was going to make my own way and I really credit Nerinx Hall with that fiery spirit. I mean, the Sisters Of Loretto, pioneer women. They rode and covered wagons to educate the poor. That’s determination and so, that is my heritage that I come from.

    Now at Nerinx, I was fiery and outspoken but about social justice issues. So probably people at Nerinx would have thought maybe that I would have gone into maybe politics or political science. I was very big on the ways in which advertising had subliminal messaging that kept women down. I gave presentations on that in school. So that was my focus in high school, a little bit more in terms of where I broke out of my shy shell and it wasn’t in the theater productions.

    Host:

    Do you ever feel like you wanted to keep doing any of that or is that high school Jenna or do have some of that still?

    Fischer:

    No, I mean, I carry that with me all the time. We have this Me Too movement that’s going on right now, right? And something that I got from Nerinx was the fearlessness to speak up. I just always say, “Don’t mess with a Nerinx girl and don’t tell a Nerinx girl she can’t do something because we don’t put up with that.”

    Host:

    Because you brought up the Me Too thing, I mean, there’s so many stories from Hollywood. I know you talk about where you were in a situation where you went to a couple places that could have been kind of dangerous, like there was high price call girl ring?

    Fischer:

    Yes, yes.

    Host:

    I know that’s a completely different situation.

    Fischer:

    That’s such a hard story to tell in this interview but yes, I feel like I have to tell it now that you said that.

    Host:

    Because it kind of opens a door.

    Fischer:

    It does. No, I didn’t know that you shouldn’t go to auditions in people’s apartments. I mean something horrible could have happened to me. I’m just lucky, frankly. That’s not being a Nerinx girl, that’s just luck that nothing happened to me. But then as soon as I did I realized, “You’re not supposed to do that.” No, there was a call for an all girls singing group, an open call, and I went with my friend and we waited in line and it seemed legitimate and then I got cast in the singing group.

    Host:

    Which you’re not a singer.

    Fischer: 

    I’m not a singer but I thought, well Madonna’s not a singer I must have a lot of charisma. Of course, no. I was an easy target. I was naïve and it turned out that what it was, was a singing group that was actually an escort service. And as soon as I figured that out, I was out the door. I kept wondering why we weren’t having rehearsals. I would say, “I haven’t learned any of my harmonies, I do not feel prepared.” And it turns out you didn’t actually have to sing at the gigs.

    Host:

    Did you tell your parents these stories?

    Fischer: 

    Gosh, I can’t remember if I told them that story. I didn’t want them to worry.

    Host:

    Right.

    Fischer:

    But I can’t remember. Well now they know because they read the book but no, that could have really been a scary situation. Now, that’s a little different than the Me Too movement. I’ve experienced sexual harassment in other industries, not in Hollywood. When I was working as a secretary for many years, I had a coworker who, at the Christmas party, got drunk and lifted up my skirt in front of everyone and showed them my underwear. And I filed a complaint. I think that I was scared. I felt like I could have been fired. I was a secretary, this was an executive. And I think one of the things that gave me the courage to file the complaint was that I almost didn’t care if I would be fired because I was like, “I don’t want this job anyway. But I’ll tell you what you’re not going to do to women.” But if I needed that job for my livelihood and it was the only thing I had, that’s why women have a hard time speaking up because they feel trapped.

    Host:

    Right.

    Fischer:                    

    And people, in general, who are experiencing harassment. So I’ve experienced that in life like I think any woman who walks on this earth has experienced it and it’s not exclusive to Hollywood. It’s in every industry and what I’m hoping will happen now is a cultural shift, a shift where we believe people when they speak up or we say, “It’s important that you’ve spoken up and it’s important that we change this.” That’s what I’m hoping we’ll see.

    Host:

    So I have to ask, I know you jokingly said in the book that people should pick up your next book, How To Stop Being Annoying, but, I mean, have you thought about writing another book and what it might be about or is this it?

    Fischer:                    

    I haven’t. I mean I’ve had this idea stuck in my craw seriously since I got to LA. I’d be like, “Why isn’t there a handbook for people? Where can I get advice? Why is there not someone in the industry telling people how to do this? This is ridiculous.” So I feel like I’m solving a problem in my opinion. I’m just trying to fill a void. So I don’t know. Maybe if there was something in conjunction with this but not right now, no. This is it. One book.

    Host:

    It took quite some time, seven years?

    Fischer:                    

    From the time that I first had the idea and first told my manager about it, it was seven years before the book was published. So, again, it’s like I didn’t just sit down and write a book and then a book came out.

    Host:

    So if people are wanting to read more of yours or see more of you, I mean, you’re in ABC sitcom Splitting Up Together where you play Lena.

    Fischer:                    

    Yes. So I finally went back to television. I took a look break. The Office has been off the air for five years and I’ve done a lot of things in that time but a little more maybe off the big television radar. I did a play in New York and then I was in the world premiere of Steve Martin’s new comedy Meteor Shower, which moved to Broadway but I didn’t move to Broadway, Amy Shumer did a very good job on Broadway. And I wanted to do that theater because I just think part of being an artist is making yourself scared again and not just doing the thing you think you’re the best at. So I did some theater, which was terrifying but I did it and I’m really proud of that and then I television show that was in London. Again, I thought I want to get out of the American television system. Let’s go live in London, let’s do a television show in London and that was an amazing experience. And I had two babies in that time too.

    Host:

    A lot going on.

    Fischer:                    

    Now everybody’s in school and those were all short term jobs, which are great for being a mom, being a parent, just part-time a set amount of time and it’s over. So a television show, you sign a seven year contract and so, it could go on and on. So I didn’t want to kind of take that on until I felt like as a family we were all ready but I did and I could not be more excited. So, the show is Splitting Up Together, that was such a preamble.

    Host:

    It’s okay.

    Fischer:                    

    So the show is Splitting Up Together, it’s for ABC. It stars me and Oliver Hudson and we play a couple who’s recently divorced who is still trying to co-parent and raise our kids. One of us lives in the detached garage each week and the other lives in the house with the kids. So the idea is the kids don’t pack a bag and go to different houses, the parent packs the bag and just sort of goes in the garage. So we’re still kind of on top of each other, navigating a divorce and kids and running household.

    Host:

    And this is something that people are actually doing I read.

    Fischer:                    

    Yes, it’s called bird nesting.

    Host:

    Crazy, I didn’t know that. That’s really interesting.

    Fischer:                    

    Yes, yes.

    Host:

    And this character Lena, I’ve read somewhere that you guys have some issues together, some control, spontaneity issues, that you share.

    Fischer:                    

    You mean issues of being terrific? Yes. We do. No, it’s interesting. I felt like Pam was such a great role for me because it was such an expression of where I was at that time, which was I was literally working as a receptionist hoping that something would come along where I could live an artistic life. I mean, that’s Pam. Pam wanted to be a painter but she was working as a receptionist and not really having my full voice artistically or even as a woman. And so, it all really was perfect and Pam’s journey of finding her voice was very similar to my journey on that show. But I have to say now, I’m not that person anymore, right? I’m married, I have two kids. I have this whole other sort of part of me that is as much me but that has so far gone unexpressed.

    So now I get to express it in this character and that is the person who runs a household, who makes lists, who plans ahead, who speaks up. That was one part of Pam that was the most different from me, which is that, if I had a crush on Jim, it would not take that long for him to know. And if I wanted something it would not take me that long to speak it. It takes a long time to achieve things but I’m far more driven than Pam and that part of my personality gets to come out in this character.

    Host:

    In Lena.

    Fischer:  

    And I get to make fun of that part of myself and I get to amplify that part of myself.

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