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Skating on thick ice

Times Staff Writer

AFTER graduating from Missouri’s Truman State University in 1995 with a degree in theater, Jenna Fischer gave herself a deadline when she had to leave her home in St. Louis and move to Los Angeles to pursue acting.

“I had a goal,” she said. “I had to move in May 1996 or [earn] $10,000, whichever came first. I moved back home for about 10 months [after graduating] and worked full time as a secretary. May came around and I made it $8,000. So I said, ‘I guess I’m moving.’ I drove out here in my little Mazda hatchback with my cat.”

And now, 11 years later, the 33-year-old actress is one of the stars of the Emmy Award-winning NBC comedy series “The Office.” Her latest film, the comedy “Blades of Glory,” opens Friday -- and, coincidentally, that’s when she reports to work on her next feature comedy, “Walk Hard,” with John C. Reilly.

She’s also been happily married for nearly seven years to writer-director James Gunn (“Slither”). They share their Studio City home with a cat named Andy -- the same feline who accompanied her to Los Angeles -- and a 3-year-old pooch named Wesley.

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Fischer wasn’t an overnight success. She worked as a secretary -- she says she can type 85 words per minute with 90% accuracy -- for several years in Los Angeles before she hit her stride as an actress.

Even when she got married, she didn’t give up her secretarial job because she wanted to make a financial contribution to the family. “Finally, my husband convinced me to quit and concentrate full time on acting,” she said.

Producers and directors love her because “she’s very subtle and very smart and makes very interesting comic choices,” says “Office” executive producer Greg Daniels. “She thinks through everything. She’s very prepared. It’s weird. She has the brain of a great British comedy actor in a beautiful woman’s body.”

“She’s beautiful, she’s totally relatable and likable, yet she’s got the mind of a nerdy comedy guy,” added Will Speck, who co-directed “Blades of Glory” with Josh Gordon.

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Fischer also seems incredibly sweet. Over a recent breakfast in Studio City, the actress talked as passionately about her love for animals -- she fostered some 12 cats for Kitten Rescue a few years back -- as she did about her profession.

Her pleasantness infuses the characters she plays, such as Pam Beesly, the quiet, shy receptionist at the Dunder Mifflin paper supply company on “The Office.” With just a simple smile or a slight raise of her eyebrow, Pam comments on the craziness surrounding her, especially the off-color attempts at humor by her obnoxious boss Michael (Steve Carell).

Fischer also captures the inherent sadness of Pam’s character -- she’s a painter but can’t get anyone in the office to respect her as an artist -- as well as her awkward relationship with the company’s nice-guy sales rep, Jim Halpert (John Krasinski), who harbors a not-so-secret crush on her.

“With Pam, I feel like her whole story is that she has no idea how transparent she is,” Fischer said. “Rather than cry, she is going to try really hard not to, and ultimately, that’s more heartbreaking.”

“She’s the perfect foil to Steve Carell, who is loud and abrasive,” Daniels said. “She’s sweet and suffering.”

Her character in “Blades of Glory,” Katie Van Waldenberg, is cut from Pam Beesly’s cloth. Katie is the little sister of egotistical ice-skating pairs champions Stranz (Will Arnett) and Fairchild (Amy Poehler). The skaters blame Katie for the death of their parents in a car crash and have made her their slave.

Katie ends up falling in with the equally emotionally stunted ice skater Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder). The highlight of her performance is the painful first kiss between Katie and Jimmy.

“Neither of them had kissed anyone before,” Fischer explained. “They are adults, but they never sort of went through that awkward finding out about their sexuality because they were in this weird ice skating world without the opportunity to do so. We thought, ‘This can’t be a good kiss.’ ”

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Not good? The directors wanted even more. “Will [Speck] and I really wanted to have that kiss be the worst kiss ever put on screen,” Gordon said. So Fischer and Heder spent an entire rehearsal trying to get the perfect awkward kiss. They came up with a doozy.

But the capper is that neither acknowledges the kiss; they simply continue with their date. Fischer approved.

“I had a pretty bad first kiss,” she recalled. “I was 16 or something like that. I remember I didn’t like it. It was very sloppy and wet and gross. But I didn’t say anything.

“I think [my date] knew it was my first kiss and he asked how it was, and I said ‘great.’ I wanted to have that same thing happen after the [movie] kiss as well.”

AS a child, Fischer was either putting on plays in her garage or rescuing stray animals. “I mostly imitated musical theater,” she said. “I loved dancing and singing and performing in that way.”

By the time she went to college, she had set her sights on coming to Los Angeles to pursue acting -- although, she acknowledged, “I went there as a pre-law history major,” explaining: “My parents wanted me to have something to fall back on, like getting a law degree was a fallback job!”

She gravitated to the theater department and, in her junior year, officially switched to a theater major. Before long, she discovered she had a real knack for comedy.

“I was just getting cast more and more in the comedies,” she said. “I didn’t get cast in the main stage shows. I got cast in the student lab productions that were created and conceived by students.”

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Because there wasn’t a film/TV department at Truman State, Fischer and a few other students got a camcorder and started writing and editing shows that they would then present on the college’s TV station.

“We started creating a whole television division ourselves,” she said. “It was almost the best thing about college -- how little film and television they had to offer -- because it forced us to be innovative and create it.”

The experience paid off handsomely. “When you come out to L.A., no one hands you your career; you have to create it yourself,” Fischer said. “I had four years of training of being unstoppable and creating things out of thin air.”

susan.king@latimes.com


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