'Imaginary Mary' Star Jenna Elfman on Imaginary Friends, Kids, and Loving TV
Jenna Elfman is letting you get in her head.
In her new sitcom, "Imaginary Mary," Elfman's character, Alice, is having a bit of reverse quandary: faced with falling for a guy with three kids of his own, the child-phobic career woman's mind unleashes the inner id from her childhood, her indulgent and mischievous imaginary friend Mary (voiced by Rachel Dratch), who tries to help her navigate her anxieties. In essence, what's in her head is invading her world.
Elfman's a far more serene and centered presence, possessed of both a long and fruitful Hollywood career, most notably with her breakout sitcom "Dharma & Greg," and an enduring family life with husband Bodhi Elfman and their two son, Elias and Easton. And while she's never been given to flights of outrageous fantasy like her new TV alter ego, she's a big believer in the power of imagination, as she reveals to Moviefone.
Moviefone: What did you use your childhood imagination for? Where was happening in your head when you were a kid?
Jenna Elfman: This is going to sound so lame. This is so, like, not funny and really earnest. I was really, as a kid, troubled by seeing people struggle, and watching humanity be emotionally in pain. I just hated it. I hated seeing people suffer, and I was always thinking about, how could it be better for people? How could people be happier?
I don't like seeing people sad. I felt very empathetic to human struggles when I was a child. So I always wanted to just make people feel better. So I think that's probably what led me to want to make people laugh.
I always loved make-believe. It seems like when people get too serious about life, it starts to get too painful. I think having a sense of frivolity and joy helps keep life tolerable.
What has it meant to you to stay connected to that make believe-loving kid that you were all the way until now?
I feel really lucky that my job is very make believe and childlike. I feel like now I'm doing what I did as a kid, but I get to get paid for it and feed my family with my sense of play. It's kind of amazing, actually, and I feel very fortunate that I am allowed to do that. I don't take it for granted, because it's an amazing gig.
I also like acting because you get to live all these lives in one life, in a way. You get to get your feet wet in all these different words of human beings, and I just think it's interesting.
This role gives you an opportunity to play even a little bit more, because of the fantastical element of it.
Yeah, we have a lot to manage in this show.
Tell me about figuring out how you were going to come at that for this one, dealing with scenes where you're working with a character that's not actually physically there, and then scenes where you know people are perceiving you working with somebody that's not there.
I thought, "Wow, this is a great show for me to like use all of my tools as an actress and as a comedian," and it really was like an up-your-game moment. I thought, "I'm ready for this. This is good. This is like a good time for me to like challenge all of my tools in my tool kit." It's like tapping your head and rubbing your tummy -- which, look, I can do! [She demonstrates skillfully] I've honed that skill, of staying in the moment ... Pretty good, right? I can do it repeatedly too. I think I can even switch hands.
Wow -- impressive!
I know! I'm so awesome with that. That's, like, my big offering. But to maintain the beats, and the belief, and the comedy, and the romance, and the heart, and the believability in the scenes with the real actors, while managing physical comedy, emotional beats and mental comedy, with an imaginary character in the same scene, and not have the real actors ever know that's happening – that was a really great challenge, and besides all of the talented people involved, that was one of the big draws for me, is I went, "Oh my God, this is a good challenge."
I don't want to just do things that come easy. You want to challenge yourself in any occupation you want to be challenged, so this was just the perfect challenge. I like that I can have leading lady moments of romance, I like that it had real human warmth, it had family elements, it's got physical comedy, it's got fanciful, imaginary elements.
It's just like a really full show, and I thought, "Wow, that's fresh, we haven't seen this before" -- and that's also something that's hard to come by, something you haven't seen before in network comedies, and I just thought it was well-executed.
Was there a point where you felt like it was a good idea to sit down with Rachel Dratch and figure out your characters' dynamics?
We didn't even get to. We never, ever got to. We never did! I have a wonderful actress on set, who's a comedy actress in Vancouver, and she acts Mary with me, so that I have a nice push and pull comedically with somebody, and that's really helpful. I couldn't do it without her.
It'd be great to find a way to get her on the show, too, in some creative way.
She did! She got to do it. She got a role in the last episode. Yeah. She plays a flight attendant.
Your character's ambivalence at first about being around the kids --
A total terror. I don't even think she's got that, like, classiness of ambivalence. She's an absolute terror.
Were you ever like that?
No, I've always wanted to be a mom, always loved kids. I love kids, I love babies. It's actually an area I feel like I know what I'm doing, as much as you can, because parenthood is so wild and wooly. I just cherish it. So what I did for this character, because I was like, "OK, how am I going to do this aspect of someone who has no clue, and fear and apprehension, and all of those things?" I went, "I'm just going to completely dive into the glorious selfishness of someone who's an accomplished career woman with no children," and how amazing that must feel as a self. I just would really, really, really just luxuriate in that.
So then when the kids enter the scene, and give me problems, it jars me. As a mother, you're always sacrificing yourself for your children, and that's something I've experienced in real life constantly. So I went, "OK, I have to totally pendulum-swing into total selfishness," which is kind of fun.
It's like a chick vacation to just like be super-selfish and get paid to do it, and that helped me kind of have that distraction and feel that jarring-ness of the kid dynamic on the show.
As a mom, you get to observe your own kids and their wild imaginations. What's been intriguing? I don't know if anything informed this show at all for you. What's been fun just about seeing how their individual imaginations work for them?
It just shows me that kids have no self-judgment. They're not invalidating themselves, or judging their level of imagination or their level of belief. They just are "100% yes," because why wouldn't they? Why shouldn't they just believe wholly in whatever they're imagining?
So I think having my experience of watching my kids, and I'm engaging with my kids constantly in play. It's like, you have carte blanche. The more you believe, truly, the more fun you have. I just sort of brought that permission to just believe freely and wholly to "Imaginary Mary."
Have they ever veered into the imaginary friend territory?
No, they don't. They have each other. My character was an only child and her parents were not there for her, so she sort of had to do that to survive and feel like there's a second -- it's like a buddy system living life. You need a buddy. Normally, you have a parent, a sibling, a relative of some sort, a friend to sort of give you that buddy system in life, and she didn't have it. So Mary was her buddy.
You mentioned tapping all your skill sets, and this is a very physical role. Tell me what's been different about the physicality of this role.
A lot of times doing the physical scenes with the air, but having to wrestle with Mary and push her off the bed and make it look like I'm not wrestling with her, and not pushing her off the bed when he walks in –-- to really do that, and also make it be like I'm wrestling with my own mind, I'm kind of hitting three targets at once. That I did find challenging in a good way. I loved it.
So there was a lot of that, and how my character is when I'm alone with Mary versus when I have to hide the fact that she's getting really loud for me in front of them. But I'm always a big fan of physical comedy, because I feel like all my dance training really gets to come into play. We have a great episode coming up that has a lot of musical stuff in it, and I get to kind of dance a little bit in that and have some fun, physically. Yeah, I'm always down. I just love physical comedy so much.
What's that little voice in your own head like? What do you hear inside?
I'm always navigating, what's the choice that helps the most? I feel, if you really look at your life, you can't find what's right about it. It's always easy to find what's wrong with things, but I always challenge myself to go, "What's right about this moment? How do I make it more right for as many aspects involved?"
That's always what my inner voice is, is how to make this even more right? What's right about this? How do I make it more right? I think there's plenty to find wrong in the world, of course. You can only truly navigate by finding what's right about yourself, and about others, and just trying to plow forward from that point of view.
Do you feel like you've always been able to trust what's going on in your mind?
It's a work in progress. I think you have to make wrong decisions to realize it was the wrong decision. I think everybody's always trying to make the right decision. I don't think people are walking around trying to not survive. But you have to blunder, and scratch yourself, and get your knees scratched, and stub your toe to like figure out what was the right thing to do. That's what hindsight is and that's how you learn.
As I'm having more experiences in life and guiding my children and having the ups and downs of life and learning from them, I'm really realizing it's kind of like the most important thing is to just stay true to your own goals and reality. Don't try to please anybody, and just stay true to yourself. If you make a mistake, then you can really learn from it.
If you do something based on someone else's wishes, and it fails, you can't be responsible for it, because it was like someone else. Then you feel lost. So if you just stay true to yourself, you can always navigate your way.
TV's been good to you, and you've been good to TV. Why do you think you and television click? Do you have any insight?
I don't know -- mine's more of a spiritual intuition, which when I was three, I told my mom "I'm going to be very famous on television." I think that's my jam, and I love people and I just like entertaining people. I like making people feel better. I think television is a great place to reach people to just lift their spirits, and it's just worked for me, I guess. So I just keep doing it because it's fun.
You don't watch much TV yourself though -- is there anything you sneak away to say like, "I want to see that?"
There's tons I'd love to sneak away to, but then I feel like I'm not raising my kids properly. So I just stick it out with them and try to keep them busy. Baseball and dance.
"Imaginary Mary" premieres tonight (March 29) on ABC.