A Little Help is a poignant dramedy that examines a period of upheaval for dental hygienist Laura Pehlke (Jenna Fischer). Having previously relied on her good looks and effortless charisma, Laura’s life is collapsing. Her marriage to real estate agent Bob Pehlke (Chris O’Donnell) has become tense and loveless, with working late hours and suspicions of cheating, and her relationship with her 12-year-old son Dennis (Daniel Yelsky) has become strained. So, when her husband dies suddenly, Laura is left to fend for herself with her intrusive mother (Lesley Ann Warren) and sister (Brooke Smith), and she struggles to stay afloat while connecting to the one person she can communicate with – her sister’s sensitive and understanding husband, Paul (Rob Benedict).
At the film’s press day, actress Jenna Fischer talked about how scary it was to do a film where she was the lead actress, playing the mother of a teenaged son, how she used her own life experiences, having just gone through a divorce, in finding the emotions of this character, and how, now that she’s pregnant with her own child, she hopes to get to play a mother again. She also talked about the addition of James Spader to The Office, how she’ll miss sharing stories of their summer with Steve Carell, that she knows who the new office manager will be (and is keeping the secret!), and how her pregnancy is being written into the show. Check out what she had to say after the jump:
Question: How exciting is it to get to do a film that you’re carrying?
JENNA FISCHER: It’s scary! Actually, when I got done with this movie, I went into work, after the summer, and I said, “Steve [Carell], I have a new-found respect for what you do.” I always knew how hard he worked, but it’s more than that. As the lead of a movie, you really set the tone off-camera as well, and that’s a really big responsibility. I had never had that responsibility before. But, the more easygoing you are, the more easy the day goes. That energy really starts from you. So, on a personal level, that was new for me because I’ve only ever been a follower of the energy. I’ve never had to set the energy. And then, when you’re in every scene and you have to drive every scene with your dialogue, it wasn’t just a movie of reacting anymore. It was a movie of being in the driver’s seat, and that was new for me, and a different kind of exhausting.
You want to be a team player, and you also want to be fast and get it. You want to keep the energy up because on day 20 of these six-day weeks of pretty grueling conditions, people get testy and you have to try to fight against it. And, I don’t know if I was successful all the time. I wouldn’t say that I’m a natural trooper in life. I’m not sure that everyone is like, “That Jenna Fischer, what a trooper,” but I tried my best. I realized how important it is to build up that muscle ‘cause it makes such a big difference. But, when I watch the movie, it’s really hard. When I go see other movies, where I have a supporting role, if I feel nervous or anxious about my performance, there will be a good 20 minutes that I’m not in it and I can just relax. With this, I can’t ever relax. I can’t get away from it.
You’ve played such likeable characters in the past, but it’s hard to like Laura through much of this film. How much of a challenge was that for you?
FISCHER: This character was the biggest departure from my actual personality than any one I’ve ever played before, so that was a challenge. I don’t know if I approached it from a likeable/unlikeable place, but everything about Laura’s backstory is different than my backstory. The fact that she was a very popular girl in high school, that she readily commanded the attention of male suitors, that people wanted to give her things, and that things came easily for her was not my experience growing up. I was a very shy, wallflower type. I was not a nerd, but not popular. I was just invisible, like that person you probably didn’t know you were in school with. That was such a new concept for me to take on – the idea of being this pretty girl, who all these things came naturally and easily for. And then, in her current story, she’s a total train wreck. She 100% lives in the moment, she’s not a planner and she anticipates nothing, and I am completely the opposite. I’m a lover of lists and five-year plans and Excel spreadsheets. Any way that I can have any control over the direction my life is going, I gravitate towards that. I had to rewrite my own personal history and suppress all my natural instincts, when I took on this character.
How was it to play a mother of a nearly teenaged son?
FISCHER: That was crazy. When I read the script, I thought, “No one will believe I have this child. I’m too young for that.” But, the truth is that all my friends who didn’t move out to Hollywood after high school, got married out of college and they have eight, nine and 10-year-old kids. I just started on that a little later. That was very interesting. What was great about it was that my total lack of knowledge about being a mom worked really well on this movie because my character has a total lack of knowledge about being a mom. I think that worked in my favor. But, it was weird to imagine that it was completely possible that I could have a kid that age, at my age. I didn’t feel at all ready for that idea. She was probably a really great mom to a little baby and to a toddler because it was about singing songs and playing with Play-Doh and just being sweet. She’s having a harder time, as he transitions into young adulthood. She ends up regressing, herself, because of the tragedy that happens in her life, and she becomes like a 13-year-old. It’s really like these two 13-year-olds raising each other, instead of a mom raising her son.
What was it like to work with the young actor who played your son?
FISCHER: It was great! He and I got along really well. As an actor, they always warn you not to work with kids and animals because they’ll drive you crazy, but I had the opposite experience. We had a great time. I regressed a little bit, like my character, and I became a big kid with him. On this movie, they actually ended up having two 13-year-olds for part of the time.
How was it to work with Rob Benedict?
FISCHER: I read with Rob. They asked me to read with a few guys, and after he read with me, my comment was, “He makes me feel most like Laura.” He made me naturally feel like the character, so we connected right away. We had a really good chemistry. He’s similar to his character. He’s maybe not as much of a smart aleck as his character is, but he has that very calming presence. The thing that he does for Laura in the movie is a quality that he carries around in his life. He’s very easy to like.
What was it like to work with Brooke Smith and Lesley Ann Warren, in some of the more heightened scenes?
FISCHER: Well, I don’t know if this is true of everyone, but I have this relationship with my parents where, despite however mature or articulate or grown-up I think I’ve become, as soon as I go home, I turn into this petulant 13-year-old, especially with the tone of my voice. They’ll say something to me that, if another adult said it to me, I would be perfectly kind in my response, but with them, I take on that irritated tone and am like, “Mom, seriously?” And, I hate it! Every time I hear myself doing it, I’m mad at myself ‘cause I’m like, “I am an adult woman. I need to act like an adult.” So, I used that, in my scenes with them. I hate that side of me that comes out, where I just regress. I stay in their house for two days and I’m 17 again. I was 17 when I left home, and I think I just turn into that age again, when I come home. I haven’t grown out of it, and I hate it. So, I brought that quality to the character. And then, Lesley Ann Warren, who is such a shrew to me in this movie, we were best girlfriends off-camera. She and I just had the best time together. We giggled. That was a dream come true to work with her. I’ve had Susan Sarandon play my mom, and now Lesley Ann Warren has played my mom, so if I could have Debra Winger play my mom, then I would have the trifecta of my favorite actresses playing my mother. That’s my next goal.
How difficult was it to bring out the emotions in this role?
FISCHER: I had gone through a really big, life-altering event myself, shortly before I agreed to do this movie, which was that I got divorced, after having been married for almost eight years. That is a very life-altering experience. At least it was for me. There’s a period of time that you go through, where you’re having to adjust to knowing yourself and knowing who you are from being a couple to being an individual again. Laura’s journey, in that way, was very similar to mine. The idea of dating again, Laura goes through that.
It’s very interesting to live one life out, where you have every expectation that it’s going to be that way forever, and then it’s not and you have to recreate your expectations, your life and your future. You write a story in your heard, with this person and this partner, and then they aren’t there anymore. Even though Laura was unhappy and she didn’t want to be married anymore, she also didn’t want to be widowed. She didn’t want that to be the way that she got out of the marriage. Although, I have to imagine that there were nights when she thought, “Maybe it would be a relief, if he didn’t come home.” And then, he doesn’t come home and there’s the guilt.
It was very complex, and I liked that. I didn’t think that the movie shied away from some of the gritty reality of that for her. But, I drew on my own experience of feeling lost and not knowing who I was. I remember moving into my own place suddenly, after having lived with someone for eight years, and being like, “Oh, I’m the only person who has to like these plates. Just me. I don’t have to compromise, in any way.” It was weird. I was so used to sharing, so I felt a little lost when it was just me. My new husband likes the plates, so that’s good. We have the same plates, as the ones that I bought when I was by myself.
You can play a mother without having had the experience, but once you are a mother, having that experience is going to have an impact on the choices that you make. Now that you know you’re about to be a mother, have you thought about that?
FISCHER: I would love the opportunity to play a mother, in the future. It’s different. Intellectualizing or guessing at what those feelings are like is so different than experiencing them. Even just being pregnant, the understanding that I have of my own parents is so much bigger. It’s so funny because it’s unexplainable. You’re suddenly a member of a club and you didn’t even know how that club was run. Luckily, in this movie, my character isn’t as connected to being a mom, so some of what I just couldn’t possibly know about being a mom worked in my favor for this character. But, I feel like I do have a whole new set of skills now, going into this real-life experience, that I couldn’t have had before and that I’ll draw on in the future, for sure.
Did you learn anything from playing Laura?
FISCHER: Well, I think this movie is a what not to do guide to parenthood, for sure. She’s taking the friend first, parent second track, and I’m definitely the opposite of that. I’m a believer in the parent first, friend second philosophy, and trying to find that balance. But, she didn’t have a lot of balance there.
How do you feel about the addition of James Spader to The Office, and what are you looking forward to, in working with him?
FISCHER: I’m excited about it. I think it’s great. There’s been some confusion with some people thinking he’s taking Steve’s role, but he’s not. He’s taking Kathy Bates’ role. He’s not going to be the new manager, but I’m excited. I’m going to miss Kathy because she was a hoot. Oh my gosh, she was amazing! But, James is great, too. I think that it’s going to be really good.
Honestly, right now, the only thing that I’m really sad about with Steve leaving is that we would get our hair and make-up done next to each other. When I imagine going back to work in two weeks, I’m going to be so sad that he’s not going to be sitting there and he’s not going to tell me what he did this summer and ask me what I did this summer, which is what we did, like kids coming back from summer vacation. So, I might have to drive to his house and ask him what he did this summer ‘cause I really want to do.
I’m not allowed to say, but I know who they manager is. It’s a secret. They haven’t revealed it yet, but it’s a great choice and I think it’s going to be neat. We’re being forced to shake things up, which is a nice thing. We won’t be repeating ourselves this year, that’s for sure. It will be different.
Are they going to incorporate your pregnancy into your character?
FISCHER: They are, yes. Pam will be pregnant. If you remember, Pam and Jim had sex in the office on Valentine’s Day, and it turns out that they conceived a child. Apparently, they are very good at getting pregnant on accident.