Jenna Elfman is best known for her role as Dharma in the hit sitcom Dharma and Greg, for which she won a Golden Globe, three Emmy nominations and two TV Guide Awards.
In the new comedy Friends with Benefits she plays Annie, the sister of a successful art director named Dylan (Justin Timberlake). Annie is a single mother, who is also the caregiver to their father (Richard Jenkins) who is suffering from the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease.
During a holiday weekend, Dylan visits the family with is friend Jamie (Mila Kunis). They are enjoying a relationship of ‘sex without emotions’ – ie: they are friends with benefits.
I spoke with Jenna about her role, which in some aspects mirrored her life.
You and Justin had an immediate brother-sister chemistry. Had you met him before?
I had met him in passing once on a studio lot. I was invited to partake in a table read of this film to help out, so the producers and the studio could hear the script. The way it was written it came easily. I think that was the starting point, the script was written in a way that facilitated an easy segue into the relationship.
Then on the set, they had been filming a month and a half before I started so it’s like, ‘What am I walking into?’ because the family dynamic was already created on set. Justin was immediately funny and welcoming with me, teasing me in the hair and makeup room. I was like, ‘We’re good to go.’ I knew it immediately.
Were you not offered the role before the table read?
No, I was just helping out. Then I got offered the role.
Did you feel like you were auditioning?
I couldn’t think that way because then I’d have some other agenda rather than just doing a great job telling the story. I had so much fun playing the role because I loved the writing. I didn’t even know I could get cast from it. I didn’t know if they had [somebody for the role], I didn’t even ask.
Are there romantic comedies you like to watch?
I have a staple of films I always watch over and over anytime I’m getting ready to do a movie. It’s It Happened One Night, Philadelphia Story, Born Yesterday and His Girl Friday. Those are part of my cellular makeup as an actor.
What attracted you to the character?
I responded to the fact that I could have a sense of humor with Justin, love him and care for him, and smack him around all in the same scene. I thought, that’s how a relationship really is, because you’re loving someone in the same moment you’re like, ‘F-k you.’
Can you talk about working with Richard Jenkins?
I had never met him before. It’s intimate taking care of your father and I had just gone through something with my father that was very intimate. He’s totally fine now, but he had to have his cancerous kidney removed. And I was the one of the ground [working] with him, seeing parts of his body I had never seen before.
I was lucky with Richard. I had tears coming to my eyes in the scene, just giving him love the way I would love my own father, and he permitted it; I was loving him and trying not to break down into tears at the fact that he’s absent, because when you love someone and you don’t see them, it’s enough to throw you into the fetal position crying. It’s such a loss.
You have to have a sense of humor and find the right things that are happening and celebrate the good parts. Richard was so responsive to me, that it made it easy.
Are you the voice of reason in real life?
In real life, I’m not a warm fuzzy person, I don’t think. I get impatient with people with the truth. I’m kind of obsessed with the truth. I love all kinds of people as long as they are being decent and kind.
You’re a classical dancer, how has that training affected you?
Thank you for asking that. When I’m on set, my work ethic is really good. I’m very disciplined. I try to be very professional. I see fellow actors who were not raised in any discipline and it shows.
Their personal ethics on a professional level just aren’t tight. They’re late. They don’t always know their lines. They don’t have a sense that we were all part of a group and we’re all trying to do something together. I feel like these are old fashion concepts, but they are vital to production.
When will you be dancing again?
I actually have a live dance show for the theatre. It’s a passion project I’ve been working on, but I have to get back into dance shape so that I can start it. And I’ve always wanted to do a variety show like The Carol Burnett Show, with great musical artists and dancers. I’m foraying into that. We will see if the networks are interested.
Is there a modern romantic comedy you like?
That’s a great question. Pretty Woman, which was about something at its core. The ones that blow by don’t have anything important at their core. You have to have a story at the core that people can relate to.
Do you feel the family dynamic in this movie is the core of it?
Justin’s character coming back and being around his family starts to wake him up, because you can’t take things for granted. At its core, that’s what this movie’s really about.