Since her breakthrough role as Dharma on the hit TV show Dharma & Greg, Jenna Elfman has been a ray of sunshine that brightened up virtually every project in which she appeared. While she does the same for the new film Friends With Benefits, about two young adults (played by Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis) struggling to maintain a balance between sex, friendship and love, she actually lends a grounding influence to the main story, playing Justin's older sister and the daughter of an Alzheimer's stricken parent (Richard Jenkins). Boxoffice sat down with Elfman at the recent Los Angeles press day for Friends With Benefits, where she talked about developing the familial relationships the explored in the film, as well as the challenges of finding roles that offer her new, different and interesting opportunities.
How much do you have to think about the entirety of the film when you're appearing in just one section of the story?
I think you always have to have an awareness of the whole film that you're in, so that you understand your role in the storytelling and you can contribute to the overall storytelling with your actions. And definitely, the section of the film that I'm in takes a turn. It was nice for me [because] they had been filming for like a month by the time I had come in so they put together a little sizzle reel so that I could sort of see tonally what this movie had become. Because I was part of the table read, just initially to help out, and then I got the role based on the table read. But a table read is much different than when you've been filming for a month, creating the tone of the film. And I'd just had my second kid and I was like, great—I get to go film at the beach with Richard Jenkins and Justin Timberlake in a supporting role; I don't have to be the driving force of the comedy. So it was great for me to come in and bring some of the heart of the film and partake in the foundation of the storytelling. It was a good time (laughs).
What sort of preparation did you do to create a sense of familiarity with Justin and Richard?
Well, that's the thing—you never know what you're going to get when you show up on set in the middle of their whole adventure of filming. I'd never met Richard Jenkins before, I met Justin at the table read but that's very cursory and brief and you kind of get to the point of reading the script. And I'm supposed to in minutes without much rehearsal create a lifelong chemistry of being someone's daughter and sister. So luckily, from the second we started in the hair and make-up trailer, Justin was immediately communicative and talking to me and teasing me, and I could just see, oh, this guy's available. Because I wasn't sure if he was going to be aloof or unavailable, and he was totally available and super cool, and I went, okay, I totally let it rip and in the scenes there's not going to be an awkwardness if I'm going to really reach in and tease him.
And it was the same with Richard Jenkins. I adore my father in real life and I can't imagine having to tend to a parent that has Alzheimer's, and then as a single mother, which in its own right I can't even imagine the challenge of that, and she's there by herself having to raise her kid as a single mother and take care of her father who has Alzheimer's, which is the most daunting thing ever. And she's so happy to have her brother come back and have a man around and she also doesn't want him to mess this relationship up, because none of us have workable relationships. Someone in this family's got to have one, and if you have one, I can live vicariously through yours. But to be able to flow that love to Richard in the scenes, because there's not a lot of rehearsal time, I was just going to love him and care for him the way I do my own father, and he was just so emotionally receptive to that and so permitted me to reach in there and in accepting that you now have a dynamic.
So I just felt so lucky that I had two actors who are so emotionally responsive and available to exchange familial type of emotion like that, and I think that's how you can accomplish that so quickly. And also with writing that facilitates those kind of exchanges.
How much were those characters defined in the script—how much work was done for you on the page?
It was on the page to begin with for sure, but then it was just so greatly enhanced while we were filming, and Will's direction was very precise at illuminating and adding an expanded dimension to what was already on the page.
When you have a movie like this that's sort of deconstructing romantic comedy conventions, How hard is it to sort of have your cake and eat it too—to acknowledge certain genre hallmarks and then use them later? Do you still play everything straight?
Well, the section that I'm in, yes. I think through the whole romp section in New York, that might be a different answer to your question, but I'm not in that so I can't totally answer to that. But the part I'm in I don't think there was very much mocking of the clichés of romantic comedies; I was trying to play the truth of the family dynamic, which I really enjoyed. So I think I was off the hook on that (laughs).
How much are you thinking about the difference in opportunities between TV and film?
I'm open to everything. I'm interested in everything. I think our business and industry right now luckily offers abundant opportunities in every area. There's so much amazing writing on cable, and there's so much interesting web stuff happening. There's films. I just feel like it's all open right now, which I love. And I feel like film people are doing television—amazing film writers are going to television, and television is going to film. Will was a television writer and he's doing film. It's like I love it; I love the state of our industry right now.
Do you see the different mediums demanding different creative efforts? In one you have to get it right once, and in the other you get to refine a character over the course of a series, but have to sustain energy and creativity.
It's just less acute. Like when you have a film, whether it's an independent film that shoots for three weeks or a big-budget film that has the luxury of shooting for three months or more, it's still an acute amount of time with a finite ending to get that done. That I love; it's so intense. And with a series, it's kind of like an ongoing opportunity to evolve, because with a film, once you shoot it, that's it, and with a series, you can adjust and mold as you go throughout the years and months and episodes. It's sort of always a little more room for improvement as you go, and there's a more gentle learning curve, if the networks hang in there enough. But with a film it's like once it's done with that month with that character, it's done. Forever. Which is exciting. It's just that the stakes are different; they're both high, but just in different ways.
Do you find that you're given a variety of different opportunities? As a result of doing certain characters well, it seems like you might be offered similar ones and give you less chances to do different things.
It hasn't been a huge barrier. It's really only been this last sort of eight months where I've been going after comedies that I said I'm going to leave myself completely open. Because I love drama, so I want to leave myself open to all networks, all formats, all writers, because I feel like there's so many talents out there in televisions and I want to avail myself to all of them. Because all I care about is a really interesting character that I know I can occupy with a writer who knows what they're doing. That's my standard, whether it's a drama or a comedy. Half-hour, single-camera, multi-camera, one hour drama, one hour dramedy, I just want quality. So that's what I'm leaving myself open to—and there hasn't been a scarcity of opportunity. It's just timing, et cetera. There's a lot of factors that go into television.
How much does the intimidation factor—that something seems a little scary - drive the decision-making process for you? How appealing is taking on something that might be outside of your wheelhouse?
I'm never scared to play anything. Ever. Because that's what's stimulating—that's why I do it. But there's a business thing that you have to be aware of, because it has to make sense, you know? There's a time for sole artistry, and there's a time for making sure there's a balance between artistry and business.
How do you decide between the two?
Art never scares me. I think you can't predict business. I feel like I'm more in control of my art aspect, but I feel like I can't control the business side. So part of me feels like I should be attentive to the business factor just so I feel like I have some ounce of determination over it. But creatively, I'm always game to play anything. But I don't want to do something that feels so non sequitur to audiences that they're not going to come, because they can't place it. So if I do a drama, it's got to have some humor, because I don't know why you would cast me. Unless I can bring some humor—it doesn't have to be a huge comedy, but it just seems like it would be a stupid use of someone who can bring some humor to a situation.