Starring in a new Off-Broadway play by Neil LaBute is a daunting task. It's even more daunting when that starring role not only marks your professional theater debut and your first-ever job in New York, but also your first major role after nine seasons on a beloved sitcom. But Jenna Fischer, best known as Pam on NBC's recently concluded comedy The Office, is trying not to let that faze her.
In Reasons to Be Happy, an MCC Theater production running at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through June 29, Fischer plays Steph, a young married woman who still hasn't really gotten over Greg (Josh Hamilton), her indecisive former boyfriend. A sequel to LaBute's Tony Award-nominated Reasons to Be Pretty, she takes on the role in the footsteps of Alison Pill, who originated it at the MCC Theater in 2008, and Marin Ireland, who earned a Tony nomination when the play moved to Broadway.
Days before Reasons to Be Happy opened, we chatted with Fischer about how this role came about, the future she imagines for The Office characters Pam and Jim, and the things that really make her happy.
Has the "I'm in New York, making my theatrical debut in a play by Neil LaBute" thought hit you yet?
I try not to think about it! Especially since I'm doing this play with Josh Hamilton who is so seasoned and experienced and has a long history on stage. Backstage we'll share stories and he'll have so many and I'm experiencing my first…I definitely feel like a newbie in a way.
How did this role come about for you?
Neil [LaBute] called me and we had a conversation and he offered me the role. I was so pleasantly surprised, and I love his work. He's so different from his work. I didn't know what to expect. Having him direct was a big deal as well. I just couldn't believe I was being offered a role.
Does that happen often?
It's about fifty-fifty. I still audition for a lot of things. Half the time I'll be offered something based on my body of work. I never take offense to being asked to audition. It's a great part of the process of getting to form an ensemble.
And acclimating to New York with your husband and son went well?
Amazingly. New York is a great place to have a family. I think it's exciting; I am practically a full-time mom. I only miss a couple hours each evening. I get to be a mom all day, and my husband works, and he comes home and takes over.
The weather has finally settled down, too. It was rainy and cold for a while when you were first starting previews.
Being from L.A., the rain is exciting to us. Buying my son a raincoat and watching him stomp in puddles is exciting. We haven't been able to do that in L.A. When it rains in L.A., it's often really cold. It's like that's our winter. Here, to have this warm summer rain is so fun. We walk around in the rain!
Did you see Reasons to Be Pretty? No, I was in Los Angeles working on the show. In retrospect, I'm happy that I didn't. I don't think I would have wanted Alison Pill or Marin Ireland's performances in my head. They're both amazing.
How would you describe your character, Steph?
Steph is just me in my twenties [laughs]. You're just watching a version of myself before I wised up, for certain. This role may seem like it's a big departure from Pam, but she's not far from me. I'm just feeling from an honest place in myself.
I loved how both Pretty and Happy open with a knockdown, drag-out argument between Steph and Greg.
It's a great way to open a play. The show just takes off like a rocket — two people in the heat of an argument. Doing it in front of the audience, screaming and shaking, nobody sees how nervous you are.
Do you get nervous?
Every night I get nervous.
What was the night of your first preview like? It was the same night that final episode of The Office aired.
My cast was all back in Los Angeles watching the series finale together, but BJ Novak [who plays Ryan] was in town and came to the preview, so we were together. He was very supportive and sweet. It was terrifying. I just tried to set the bar very low for myself the first night: Just say the lines and don't fall down. I managed to do both things. I didn't fall down and I remembered my words.
Were you happy with the way The Office ended? Very. I loved it. I got to be up in the writers room and contributed ideas to how it ended. Ultimately we trusted Greg Daniels and Ken Kwapis, who came back to direct the finale. He directed our pilot. It was very emotional.
What do you think happens to Jim and Pam?
For some reason, I think Jim and Pam are these people where…Don't you think they'd have a surprise third baby?
You know, that wouldn't shock me.
I don't know why, I just feel like that stuff happens to them. This year, they found themselves. They grew up together. They took that extra step. And I love how Jim changed this year. I loved seeing him at a job where he was really good. You saw his natural charisma at work.
Tell me your reasons to be happy.
[A long pause.] My son's voice first thing in the morning makes me happy. The mixture of security and adventure my husband brings to my life makes me happy. A really, really good bacon cheeseburger makes me happy. I would say warm summer rain. I love a good warm summer rain. And my sister makes me happy. She's such a good person. It's people, really; my friends, my family. There's other simple things, like getting twenty minutes to sip a hot cup of coffee and read The New Yorker.