The actress talks about playing the iconic character, her career and the most important thing she's learned in show business
Jenna Elfman has made a very successful career out of taking opportunities and not looking back. She has taken roles knowing that she's going to be working with top notch actors (see Keeping the Faith with Edward Norton and Ben Stiller), and she's also taken roles and found out later that she's going to be working with top notch actors (check out Krippendorf's Tribe with Richard Dreyfuss).
This karmic sense to take the right role at the right time seems to perfectly meld with the Dharma Finklestein persona that she embodied in the hit TV show Dharma & Greg. Playing a free spirit married to a lawyer from a wealthy family, this show's mix of charm and good natured zaniness was rewarded with a healthy five year run.
On the eve of the Dharma & Greg: Season One DVD release, Jenna Elfman sat down with us to discuss playing Dharma, her career and what she's currently up to now.
What did you think of the Dharma character when you first given the script for the show?
Jenna Elfman: It's mainly... when I heard the pitch, because I was given a development deal and I heard this pitch from Chuck Lorre and Dottie Dartland who created it. They had this idea for a character. I had a deal at Twentieth Century Fox, they had a deal with Twentieth Century Fox. I was given a list of writers... "Here's our list of writers meet with whoever you want, have any of them create a show for you." I was like, "Wow!" So I met with them and heard the pitch and knew instantly this was the character for me. I didn't go consult anyone. I didn't ask my agent, I didn't ask my husband, I said, 'Yes.' And we shook over our egg breakfast and that was the deal.
Did you ever doubt that? Lets say maybe five minutes after you shook hands on the deal, or did you just know that this was what you needed to do?
Jenna Elfman: Amazingly enough, I shook on it and never looked back. I knew from that instant this was the role for me. I never had one doubt ever. Never, not once. Nothing. It's amazing, I'm even surprised. People are like, "Were you nervous? You're carrying a show...?" It didn't even cross my mind. You know when something is just totally right? And everything goes into alignment around it? It was just one of those things where it was just right and everything went into alignment.
Seeing as how you were a producer on the show you must've had a decent amount of input on the Dharma character. Can you talk at all about creating an episode of Dharma & Greg?
Jenna Elfman: Not to belittle my role as a producer on the show but that title came in much later in the series. It was definitely... I wasn't involved in the creative writing or development of any episode ever; (laughs) on that show. I definitely had free reign to play with my character in any way I chose. I was never really one to improv lines but I did create moments and beats and certain things that were not in the script. Getting a producer title was part of my first step of expanding myself at that time. You know what I mean?
Because I was like an actress for hire when I got that show! I didn't even have an agent for six months when I got Dharma & Greg. So it was like I met, I heard the pitch, I shook on it and they went and wrote it. That was it and then I showed up at the table read. I'd come and see Chuck sometimes while he was writing and hang out and have a cup of coffee... I was really not involved (laughs) that much.
Did you have any idea when you were making Dharma & Greg that it was going to be as popular as it was?
Jenna Elfman: Yes! Again, it was one of those things, I said, "This is gonna work and people are gonna love this show." It just is. It just felt so right to me, you know? I don't mean to sound so much like Dharma at the moment but it was just right. It was like there wasn't anything but rightness about it. There was never, "God, what about this? What about that?" I think I was probably extremely naive but that worked for me at that time; that was on my side.
How much of your own personality would you say actually exists in the Dharma character?
Jenna Elfman: I think that her joyfulness and irreverence and the humor is definitely me. I think the energy of her, you know? The life force of it comes from me. In terms of literalness like "Welcoming anyone into my home," that's definitely not me. Even before I was famous that was not me. I was having so much fun on the show and I think that's what came through; her joy. I just felt very relaxed in the character and it felt very organic to me, and I was having a frigging blast.
It certainly seemed like it throughout the entire run.
Jenna Elfman: Totally.
When you are doing a new tv show like Courting Alex, because Dharma & Greg was such a big hit is that something that you think about? Or, is that something that never crosses your mind?
Jenna Elfman: No, this time around it was different and I did... I had a huge learning experience with Courting Alex, and I did feel like, "Wow! My first time back after Dharma & Greg...." I did definitely feel more pressure. Now that Courting Alex is over and I did a new deal with CBS, I actually feel like that entire experience called Courting Alex was like a pilot program for me. Of getting back into the world of television now and the universe of television which has changed a bit since I was doing Dharma & Greg.
I kinda had to get my sea legs back. Not acting wise per se but just the dynamic of television... it is a different condition that I'm in now. It was an experience for me to calibrate myself. I feel kind of well oriented now to go back at it for another try and see how it goes. I'm kind of really excited about it, actually.
Do you have a preference for doing TV or movies? How do you decide what roles you are or aren't going to take on?
Jenna Elfman: I try to do... if I find some part of it that excites me. Like Keeping the Faith, I was like, "Wow, Ben Stiller and Edward Norton? Yeah! Definitely." Like when I did Krippendorf's Tribe, I didn't even know if Dharma & Greg was picked up when I did Krippendorf's Tribe. I had just shot the pilot and it was my first movie offer I'd ever gotten. I auditioned for it and I got the offer and it's starring opposite Richard Dreyfuss. It's like, "Yes!" So there's usually some reason of why I would want to do stuff.
I've learned from other things I've done. I'm like, "Wow, maybe I did it for that reason? I should've stuck to my guns more here." So we all learn from our experiences. I learn from everything.
Thus far in your career what do you think is the most important thing that you have learned?
Jenna Elfman: Never compromise with my own reality. When I keep that intact I tend to do good and my dreams realize themselves.
That's a very Dharma like phrase...
Jenna Elfman: I know! It's a workable one, believe me.
What are you currently working on now?
Jenna Elfman: There's a couple of films I'm looking to attach myself too. I've attached myself to one but it's still too early to talk about. I'm gonna develop a new show for CBS so that's really exciting. I'm starting to meet with writers this week and it's cool. I'm excited!
Dharma & Greg: Season One is available on DVD through Fox Home Entertainment.