A chat with Melora Hardin
As Jan Levinson on “The Office,” Melora Hardin has found herself with one of the more multifaceted female characters on television today…and by “multifaceted,” we of course mean that when she’s in a stressful situation, she comes across as about eight shades of crazy. Fortunately, this is comedy, not drama, so it’s okay to laugh…and there’s been quite a lot of laughing going on during the show's first three seasons, with Season 4 maintaining the status quo. Hardin was kind enough to find a few minutes to chat with Bullz-Eye in conjunction with the high placing of the show in our TV Power Rankings, and we had a chance to discuss the character of Jan, her work with Steve Carell and the other members of the ensemble, the recent “Office” convention in Scranton, PA, and, of course, her role as Baby on the “Dirty Dancing” TV series. What’s that? You didn’t even know there was a “Dirty Dancing” TV series? Well, then, you’d best read on, hadn’t you?
Melora Hardin: Hi, is this Will?
BE: Yes, it is.
MH: Hi, it’s Melora Hardin!
BE: Hi, how are you?
MH: I’m good! How are you?
BE: I’m good, and I’m glad you could fit me in today. (Writer’s note: That’s what he said.)
BE: Well, we’re big fans of “The Office” here at Bullz-Eye…and, in fact, the show is actually the top comedy in our latest TV Power Rankings.
MH: That’s so awesome!
BE: Yeah, as far as we’re concerned, it’s just done nothing but get better.
MH: Oh, I love hearing that.
BE: Now, when you first came aboard the show, were you familiar with the original British version?
MH: I wasn’t. Well, I mean, I was familiar in the sense that I had seen Ricky Gervais win the Golden Globe, but I didn’t know the show, per se. And Greg Daniels, our executive producer, was, like, “Well, don’t watch it; just get inside it, and then watch it later.” So I did. I waited to watch it.
BE: When the show started, were you and the other actors aware of the feedback from people about how the scripts were so unabashedly similar to the British version?
MH: Oh, yeah. We knew what we were doing…basically, the first couple of episodes were exactly the same, and I think that was sort of the idea… (Laughs) …y’know, to make hay with what was already shining brightly in England. And, then, we found our own voice, the actors and the writers.
BE: So is it fun playing one of the craziest women on television?
MH: (Laughs) Absolutely. Jan is one of the greatest characters I’ve ever seen on television. You know, you just so rarely get a character who’s so multidimensional and with so many wonderful flaws, and with all of her messy seams showing. It’s just a really exciting character to play, so much meat to sink my teeth into.
BE: At times, I feel like she’s borrowing from some problem women I’ve known…or maybe I’ve just heard stories about them.
MH: Well, I don’t know; I think she’s so unique. I don’t really think there’s another character like her on television. I guess we’ve seen a lot of different neurotic people, different neurotic women, doing their thing, but she just is a very interesting example of a modern day woman, as far as what works and what doesn’t work, and how she’s trying to find her femininity through this functional/dysfunctional relationship. It’s very interesting.
BE: Was it a challenge to come in and learn how to play off Steve Carell, or did you have an immediate chemistry together?
MH: No, we had an immediate chemistry, and I think that that’s part of where the relationship spawned from, that there was an immediate spark. Even in the pilot episode. Steve Carell, Greg Daniels, and I were having lunch one day, and we were laughing and saying, “Wouldn’t it funny if these two characters hooked up?” Because there was an immediate chemistry and tension between them that was so interesting to watch and to feel and to play that we all, I think, thought that would be an interesting road to take.
BE: Did you anticipate that the relationship would end up lasting as long as it has?
MH: You know, it’s funny. Once we got into it, I think we realized that there was something special about it, in the sense that it’s one of those wonderful television relationships that can never be completely wrapped up. In the sense that…well, I came up with this analogy the other day that Jan and Michael are oil and water, and they separate, but if you have a really good whisk, and you just, y’know, whisk them, they make a really nice salad dressing together. (Laughs) But as soon as that tension is gone, as soon as there’s that energy, and that whisk is out of it, they’ll start to separate apart again. So I think that that’s really the magic of their relationship: that they crash together and explode apart, and it’s just this wonderful, churning energy that makes for an incredible passion between them…and, also, probably sort of a dysfunction. And, yet, I think that there’s potential for them, ultimately, to grow together. You really feel like there’s potential there.
BE: You mentioned passion, and I was going to ask if it’s ever uncomfortable when you have to play those passionate scenes with Steve, or if he just makes it fun.
MH: (Laughs) No, we have a good time. I mean, we like each other. I think that if we really couldn’t stand each other, that would be hard. But we like each other, and I think we enjoy each other, and we have a good time acting together, certainly. So, no, it’s not hard to do that stuff.
BE: You don’t really get to interact onscreen with the other members of the ensemble that often, but beyond Steve, who are some of your other favorites that Jan’s had scenes with?
MH: Um…I really did enjoy that scene with John Krasinski, when Jim and Jan had a little moment together outside, in the season finale last year, in the casino night. That was very interesting, to have that. I also had a really nice scene with Dwight, too, in the coffee shop, and that was also great. So, yeah, I think I enjoy any of those little interactions that I have…even the stuff with Pam, where I’m threatening her not to look at my man or to take my man. (Laughs) That’s fun stuff.
BE: When the producers told you that Jan was going to be fired, did you think, “Oh, crap,” or did you just figure, “Eh, it had to happen eventually”?
MH: Well, I think knew that she was going to get a boob job, and the boob job happened in the episode that she got fired in, so I wasn’t really…I guess I knew that I wasn’t going anywhere, but I didn’t know that I was going to be fired. So it was definitely, “Whoa, okay, where are we going with this?” (Laughs) But I think it was the right choice, because it makes for us to get a little bit…for the audience to see her out of the workplace, struggling to find her personal space and her personal self. And as I said, I think her femininity, her womanliness was in question. For herself, she didn’t even know herself as a woman, as a partner, as a companion. And I think this relationship with Michael, and her trying her hand at homemaker bliss has been, um, challenging. And very interesting for her as a person. And what I like so much, too, about the show and about this character is that you really get a sense that so much of Jan, so much of her evolution, happens off-camera. But for some reason, when you see her on camera, you get a sense of where she’s come from and where she’s going. She comes in with so much all the time, and I love that about her, and I love that the audience seems to really…they seem to get it. They seem to really ride the ride with her. I get a lot of e-mails from people on my MySpace page and my website where they’re saying, “Wow, we love Jan, and we love her because of all the stuff that’s happening to her,” and it’s stuff that hasn’t even really been in the episodes! But they feel it, and they’re right along with it, and it’s very exciting to feel that the fans are with you that much and watching that closely.
BE: At the point when Jan finally does get another job, do you think that the relationship will endure, or do you think that she’s enjoying it so much right now because he’s there for her?
MH: I think that they will probably have a long future of breaking up and getting back together. I think that’s going to be their road to hoe. I can’t see that they would just be blissful…in either state, apart or together. So I think that that’s a long journey for them. (Laughs) But, yeah, she’ll have to somehow get back into the workplace. Somehow. I don’t quite know how that’s going to happen.
BE: Have you yourself ever had to deal with sudden unemployment like that?
MH: Well, I was hired to be in “Back to the Future”…
BE: (Laughs) Yeah, I read about that!
MH: Yeah, but Michael J. Fox said I was too tall for him…as opposed to when Eric Stoltz had been hired as the original Marty McFly. But, no, besides that, knock on wood… (Laughs) …I haven’t had that experience. But, then, I haven’t had an office job, either!
BE: How was the “Office” convention?
MH: Oh, my gosh, it was just outrageous! And absolutely surreal…and crazy…and wonderful. You know, 4,000 people sitting there for the Q&A session, hanging on our every word, laughing at our every word, and just loving every minute of it. And I’m a singer, too, so I sang in front of 1,500 screaming fans on Saturday night. That was pretty awesome; I felt like Mick Jagger for a night. (Laughs)
BE: Did you get the impression that some of them didn’t even know that you sang?
MH: Oh, most of them didn’t know. Yeah, I think they were very shocked…and pleasantly surprised…and probably a little overwhelmed, because I think I have…I don’t know. Music and I…music feels very hot and sexy to me. Creed (Batton) actually said to me, “Omigod, you were so sexy, I’m gonna start calling you ‘Torch.’ That’s gonna be your new nickname: ‘Torch.’” (Laughs) Yeah, so that was funny. And then he said, “And I think you scared the shit out of some people, you were so sexy!” I was, like, “Oh, God.”
BE: I think that’s a compliment, though.
MH: (Laughs) Yeah, I think it was. I think it was a compliment. He’s very funny; he’s kind of out there just as much as his character, but in a whole different way. But I love Creed.
BE: So you’re in “The Comebacks.”
BE: How was that to work on?
MH: It was fun! David Koechner is fun and funny, and I’d worked with Tom Brady, the director, before. He and I did “The Hot Chick” together a few years ago. So that was fun, to get back in the saddle with him, as it were. He’s a fun director to work with, because he makes a lot of space for play, and we have a good time. I love all the physical comedy. I love being knocked over and trampled; I think that’s really fun stuff to do. (Laughs)
BE: And you’d worked with David on “The Office,” at least to a certain extent.
MH: Yeah, because he plays Todd Packer. Yeah, so it was kind of a fun, serendipitous thing that we ended up playing husband and wife.
BE: Do you have one particular favorite episode of “The Office”?
MH: Well, I love “Cocktails,” which was a great episode for my character. I thought it was pretty revelatory as far as her character evolution; it was really interesting in that episode. You got to see her so turned off by him, but then so turned on, and you just got to see her sadness and her confusion, and her ability to go barreling through, even though all is falling apart. She has quite a bit of tenacity, I have to say.
BE: Do you draw either from personal experiences or the experiences of friends when you’re playing Jan?
MH: Um…I don’t know! I do hook into a place with her, and I often describe creating a character by saying that, as actors, we are our own tools and our own toolset. And a lot of times, it’s interesting to find a little place in yourself…it can be a tiny half-inch by half-inch square that resides somewhere in your body…but you find it, hook into it, and explode it into your entire self, your entire being, and that becomes the character. And I feel that there’s a tiny place in me that I hook into for Jan…and, uh, Jan comes from there. (Laughs)
BE: I’ll start to wrap up here, because I know you have to get back, but is there a TV project you’ve worked on in the past that didn’t do as well as you felt like it should have?
MH: Yes, there was. I did a series called “Second Family Tree” when I was about 15 that starred James Spader as my brother, Martin Hewlett as my other brother, Ann Archer played my mother, and Frank Converse was my stepfather, and it was just really wonderful actors, and it was from the creators and writers of “Family,” if you remember that show. But it was so well written, and it was a really, really lovely show. I think we made about six episodes. But it was wonderful actors, and there was a lot of great energy there, but it just was in a time when nobody wanted family drama, you know?
BE: Out of curiosity, when you were doing the “Dirty Dancing” series, did you think that it really had a chance, or did you just think, “Oh, they’re just hoping to catch lightning in a bottle twice”?
MH: I thought it had a chance. Steve Tisch was producing it, and he was a really big producer. He is a big producer. He’d made some amazing movies and was kind of moving into TV, and he and I had made a movie together right before that called “Soul Man,” and I think that Steve…I thought Steve had really great taste, and I felt like it could make a good series, and it was such a huge hit as a movie. And I was excited about it because I’m a dancer as well, so I was excited that I was potentially going to be able to be dancing on a series, and it was going to be a lot of fun for me to use two of my skill sets at once. So I thought it did have a chance, but it didn’t seem to really take off. But I got really good reviews for it, however they did comment that I didn’t really look Jewish. (Laughs)
BE: Well, that’ll happen.
MH: Yeah, but, you know, there are a lot of people out there who don’t necessarily look Jewish and are Jewish, so I don’t even really know what that means. (Laughs) But I had a good time doing it, and it was a fun show to work on.
BE: And last question: was there any one point as you were doing “The Office” when you realized that it was actually a hit, or going to be a hit?
MH: Uh, I don’t think I ever thought it was going to be a hit until it was a hit. Because I’ve done so many pilots and failed series in my career…something like 13…that I think I was…no, I was definitely the last cast member to really believe it. And I don’t think I really believed it until we won the SAG Award, and I got to take that trophy home. Because when you win for Best Comedy, the producers get to take the Emmy home, but when you win for Best Ensemble at the SAG Awards, every actor gets a statue. And I think it was just something about having that concrete thing in my hand all night, and that is so heavy that, literally, I had a sore muscle in my arm the next morning. But it was just something about the physical reminder of the evening, and having it sitting there on my piano where I look at it every day, and then my plaque arriving. It was just sort of, like, “Oh. Okay. I guess it’s real. I guess it really is a hit. I guess it’s gonna…I guess it’s going to be a hit. It’s a hit. I guess it’s a hit!” And everyone had to keep pinching me. And even Kate Flannery, who plays Meredith on the show, at the Scranton convention, she looked over at me when we were in the green room, and she said, “You don’t believe it, do you?” And I said, “No, I guess I do.” And she said, “No, you don’t. You don’t believe it. Melora, it’s real. It’s a phenomenon. It’s really happening. This show is a huge, huge hit.” And I was, like, “Ooooooookay, if you say so, Kate.” (Laughs) so I still have my moments, I guess, but I’m very excited about it, and I’m excited to be a part of it, and I hope this writer’s strike gets over soon so we can get over with it.
BE: Right, and I was going to ask how many episodes you guys have in the can.
MH: I think we have about three or four…and we’re not having much luck shooting this one this week. I’m actually sitting in my dressing room, and I think we’re going to be shut down in just a few minutes.
BE: Yeah, I was reading a little bit about that online. I guess Greg went to the picket line…?
MH: Yeah, and he’s on the picket line today. And we’re contractually obligated to show up for work…but there really wasn’t any reason for me to come today.
BE: Oh, well. But, hey, at least you got to talk to me.
MH: Yeah! So I’m glad we got to do that in the quiet of my dressing room. (Laughs)
BE: Well, as soon as this is live, I’ll be sure to send the link to you via your MySpace page, having just added myself as one of our friends.
MH: Oh, thank you! And I’d also love if you’d link to my website, which is Melora.com.
BE: Consider it done.
MH: That’d be awesome, because my website has my CD, and people can buy my CD there. And, also, I’m doing this singing gig in January at the Catalina Jazz Club, which is pretty exciting. It’ll be with a big Broadway presence directing it: Richard Jay-Alexander, who also directed Barbra Streisand’s European tour and Brian Stokes Mitchell at Carnegie Hall. So he’s this big, big dude. And I would love it if people would come out and see that, so I’d love it if you’d mention it…or at least mention my website, so people can find out about it.
BE: I can do both!
MH: Thank you so much!
BE: Is that going to be out in L.A.?
MH: Yes, it’s gonna be January 4th, 5th, and 6th, at the Catalina Jazz Club, in Hollywood. So, yeah, that would be awesome if you could mention it!
BE: Not a problem. Good luck with the show…both shows...and I hope that the writer’s strike ends sooner than later.
MH: Thank you so much, Will! Nice talking to you!