Jenna Fischer has turned in the drab pencil skirts and cardigans for a yellow prison jumpsuit.
Three years after ending her nine-season run as everyone's favorite receptionist on "The Office," Fischer returns to NBC in the daffy dramedy "You, Me and the Apocalypse."
As the title hints, the sci-fi series centers on a an eclectic group of characters (which include Rob Lowe as a priest and Megan Mullally as a white supremacist convict) around the world whose lives intersect in unexpected ways as they struggle with the impending apocalypse after a comet is predicted to hit Earth.
Fischer plays Rhonda, a librarian who finds herself in prison and the unlikely sidekick to Mullally's Leanne.
The miniseries is a co-production from NBC and Britain’s Sky 1 network. After debuting in the U.K. almost four months ago, it is now its second week into its stateside launch. The series airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.
The Times spoke to Fischer this week during a break from her filming of a guest arc on "Mysteries of Laura." (She'll also soon appear on Lowe's Fox series, "The Grinder"). Read on to see what she had to say about her initial impression of "You, Me and the Apocalypse," and her thoughts on how her statements regarding "The Office's" Jim and Pam spun out of control.
Tell me, Jenna, that when you hear a premise like the one for “You, Me and the Apocalypse,” the initial reaction is,”um, what?" -- am I right?
Right? I had taken a long break because after “The Office” I did some off-Broadway theater in New York. Then I got pregnant with my daughter and took a long maternity leave, you know, to enjoy that time with her. Then I sort of put the word out that I was looking for work and I got sent this script and I read it and I remember telling my husband, "this is the weirdest show I’ve ever read … but I love it." He asked me to explain it to him, so I started to — "well, there’s this guy, but he also has an evil twin; then there’s this priest at the Vatican and an Italian nun; I play a convict, but I didn’t really do it; then there’s a white supremacist convict who shackled herself to my leg." My husband was like, “what are you talking about? This is the wackiest thing I’ve ever heard.” It was like how you meet somebody at a party and you have a small conversation with them and you can’t stop thinking about them — I got a little crush on this show.
I have to admit, it was hard for me at first. You don’t strike me as a Rhonda.
I know, it was a little weird. I’ve been identified as Pam for so many years, so it was weird to be called another character name. It was always weird when I would be doing movies and I would play someone whose name wasn’t Pam or Jenna. So, yeah, Rhonda.
The show is an hour long — did it feel any different? Or not so much since it’s broken up and you don’t have to worry about serving as background?
This was far less work than “The Office.” The nature of how we produced those shows, we were in every scene. We worked about 12-13 hours each day because even if you weren’t speaking in a scene, you were seen in the background. It was a heavy work week. But with this show, because there are so many people and so many different stories that if you weren’t shooting your storyline, you had time off. It was very often that I only worked one or two days at a time. And also, I would have weeks off at a time. When they were shooting all the scenes at the Vatican, I’m not there. I had something like five weeks off to just be in London and enjoy my family. When I was younger and single and not a mother, I would pick work that was most exciting to me on a creative level. Well, now, for me, the first filter is, is this a healthy, exciting choice for me and my family, and then is it an exciting, creative opportunity.
On first meeting, once we realize why she’s in prison, Rhonda seems very in keeping with what people identify you with. But I imagine that might change?
Yeah, as the series goes on, she’s going to do a lot of things that I don’t normally get cast to play. I’m going to do a lot of illegal and immoral things because it’s the end of the world and when the world is going to end, reasonable people do unreasonable things when they have a goal. And my goal is very intense: I want to see my son and my husband before we all die. And I’m willing to do anything to make that all happen. I get to do stunts and be in shootouts. I take someone hostage at one point. I never get asked to do stuff like that because no one wants to see Pam doing that! So it was fun. And I’m traveling with a bad influence, a person who is very wishy washy about law breaking. So she’s going to rub off on me a little bit. There are actually going to be times when Megan’s character is going to be the voice of reason.
I want some fan fiction that features Rhonda and the cast of “Orange is the New Black.”
I’ve never seen “Orange is the New Black,” but I read the book. I read the book when I got cast in this show because it’s such a perfect handbook to explain what prison might be like for a person like Rhonda. Rhonda is trying very hard to follow the advice of that book — not aligning with a group that’s too extreme. She’s not doing very well, is she? I’m trying to figure out who is the Red in this show. I need my Red.
I also wonder, if this was in the same universe as “The Office,” how would the folks at Scranton react? Like, you know Dwight is so ready for the apocalypse.
Oh, this is right in Dwight’s wheelhouse. I’m certain he has an underground bunker. But I’m also certain that, like, Michael is not wanting us to leave work. He’s somehow wanting us all to be contained so we can all be best friends when the end of the world comes.
Would you want to know if the end was imminent? I don’t think I could handle it.
It’s so hard to say. I think yes, I think I would. Because I think I would want to be with the people I love the most at the very end. If there was any circumstance where, for whatever reason, you don’t want to grab that cup of coffee or drop your kid off at school, if the world is going to end in two hours. So, yeah, I think I would want to know so we could all be together.
Do you find that you think about it more since being on the show — like, what you would do?
You know what makes me think more about it is my son is really into space and science. We took a tour of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and learning a lot more things about the asteroid belt and dwarf planets and various moons and gravity and gravitational pull and like, why doesn’t the moon fall on us—
Oh, see, all that stuff freaks me out when you really stop to think about it. But it’s so fascinating and you just keep reading and searching all night long.
Exactly! I think this idea that a meteor could come to Earth — that it is possible, it’s kind of freaky if you think about it too much.
There’s the possibility that this could come for a second season, right? It’s not a limited series.
Yes, there’s definitely the opportunity for a second season— there may not be an opportunity for the world to exist in that second season, but there’s definitely room for more seasons.
And I have to ask, because I saw your appearance on “Watch What Happens Live,” and I did not understand why your statements about John Krasinski and the Jim-Pam relationship became this huge thing. Were you surprised by how that became such a thing?
Oh my gosh. Right? I don’t really want to talk about that anymore because I just … it was strange. I’ve been asked what I thought about the chemistry so many times. People are always very curious about the chemistry between John and I and the love story between Jim and Pam. All I was trying to say is the love that all the viewers felt at home between Jim and Pam, we felt it too. Everyone on set felt it. We knew that we had something special — that Jim and Pam were something special. That’s all I was really trying to say. It’s so funny because I did an interview with Terry Gross on NPR and I answered the question the same way and I did a talk show when “The Office” wrapped and I answered the question the same way, so I don’t know what happened this time. It’s hard to explain how actors can make it look a certain way but then in real life, it’s not that way. And so I was just trying to say how it was possible. Because you really do put yourself into the role, but it’s not your real life at the same time. It’s a hard question to answer in one sentence because it’s complicated. But, yeah, the words I chose to explain it were easily misconstrued.
Well, when we ask you for a revival of “The Office” in 10 years, you can put it all back to use — because you know we’ll be asking for it.
That would be so cute. It might be the Cece and Philip show.
You know, when was in London, we didn’t have a television. We had Netflix. Remember that “Dinner Party” episode? Michael has this teeny, tiny television set mounted in his living room. I got to London and in my trailer they had mounted a teeny, tiny television set up on the wall just like in “Dinner Party.” I took a picture of it and I sent it to the cast of “The Office.” I was like, “Guys, It’s ‘Dinner Party’ in real life!’ We were all making jokes about the episode in this big group email. So when I went home that night, I was like, “I gotta Netflix that.” So I watched it, and it was like so weird and powerful to me. As I was watching it, I was thinking, “I can’t believe that’s really me. I can’t believe I was there.” It’s just so funny and it brought back so many memories of us cracking up behind the scenes. So I too, catch old episodes of “The Office.” And now I’m hoping this lightning in a bottle thing can happen again. I mean, I’m on a show with Rob Lowe and Megan Mullally.
I tweet about TV (and other things) here: @villarrealy