Jenna Elfman’s come a long way since the kooky Dharma in Dharma and Greg and it seems her latest sitcom mom role in Growing Up Fisher is a perfect fit, writes Luaine Lee
Its been a while since Jenna Elfman graced our small screens, but whenever she has, she’s always brought a wide-eyed, kooky sort of charm. In her latest series, Growing Up Fisher, Elfman plays the mother of 11-year-old Henry (Eli Baker) and teenage daughter Katie (Ava Deluca-Verley).
Growing Up Fisher, which premieres on M-Net Series Showcase at 7.30pm on Friday, tells an odd tale. The protagonists are a family brought closer together by divorce, the anything-but-typical Fishers. Take Mel Fisher (JK Simmons, The Closer, Law & Order), for example. He’s chopping down trees, showing his daughter how to drive, and playing football with his son… except that Mel’s blind. Then there’s Joyce (Jenna Elfman) who is your typical teenager – really into fashion, busy with school – but the problem is she’s Mom.
That makes it difficult for her actual teenage daughter, Katie, whose advice (and clothes) Joyce is always seeking. At the centre of all this is Henry.
Having always been his dad’s eyes and wingman, Henry is less than thrilled when his job is outsourced to Mel’s new guide dog, Elvis.
While the boy is at first reluctant to accept the changes that Elvis brings, adult Henry (voice-over by Jason Bateman, Arrested Development, Identity Thief) realises, upon reflection, that his parents’ split has finally allowed the |Fishers to become one happy (divorced) family.
There was one time in her life when Jenna Elfman considered quitting acting. “Sometimes when I’ve gotten overwhelmed trying to do acting and motherhood, I’ve wanted to quit acting so I could just be a mom,” she says in the busy lobby lounge of a hotel.
“But then I say, ‘You know what I’m missing? I’m really not managing my time properly.’ So I’ll just crank up my game on time management. And I handle it.”
She has been handling it ever since she was four and first told her mother that she was going to be a “famous person on TV some day”.
That happened when Elfman captured the role of the kooky Dharma in the long-running series Dharma & Greg. Since then, she has appeared in multiple projects, including Damages,1600 Penn and the forthcoming film Big Stone Gap. But she’s back in series comedy now, with Growing Up Fisher. For this role, Elfman didn’t need drama school – she’d already logged a lifetime of training.
“My mom would babysit. We always took care of babies, so I felt oriented to child care,” says Elfman, who has two sons, aged four and six.
“My mom was always welcoming babies, so I would feed babies bottles and change diapers, so it was in my life.
“I felt confident going into motherhood because I had an example set for me. So that makes me really want to set an example for my children, especially as men – to be oriented to child care so they’re not disconnected to that,” she says.
“I’ve always felt pretty confident as a mother for the most part when they were babies – once they start talking back, that’s when I feel challenged.
“So I’m constantly checking myself. If you get tired, you’re short tempered and I don’t want to feel like I’m betraying them by being frustrated or anything like that.”
Elfman spent 14 years studying ballet before she tried acting.
“It never felt like I was off track doing dance,” says Elfman, who has kicked off her high heels and is sitting barefoot in a black vinyl club chair.
“I just knew it was good training and I loved doing it. It’s art and it’s creative and it taught me having a work ethic. It taught me the importance of creativity and diligence toward a goal. It was great training. I still love dancing.”
But it was her appearance on the Academy Awards in 1991 that set her on a quest for acting. “I was like an inch tall on screen and one of 30 (dancers) when I said, ‘I really want to impact the world somehow,’ and I didn’t feel like I could do it in that capacity. That’s when I transitioned into acting. I was 19 and had been working doing what I love so I’d already proved to myself that I could do it. So then it was just, ‘Okay, let’s try this.’”
She continued dancing while she landed some commercials that supplemented her waitressing job. “I mainly was able to pay my bills doing commercials, and every now|and then I’d have to go stuff some envelopes for some extra cash or I’d make some jewellery just to get gas money to get to acting class. That was fun,” she says.
“I definitely worked from the bottom and I think that’s given me confidence in my career because if it all went away, I’ve done it once, I could do it again. So I’ve never been afraid of failing because I’ve already proved myself. I can work hard and create a career for myself. I’ve had stress definitely, but not fear.”
She was 19 when she met her husband, Bodhi. They’ve been married for 19 years. She says: “I moved out of my parents’ house and in with Bodhi – that was a big change, to go from child to girlfriend, friend, quest-of-adventure, partner. Being with Bodhi has definitely changed my life because he’s very aware, and he demanded of me to sort of increase my awareness as well of life and people and things.”
Pausing, she adds, “He’s very astute. And I was always very fun and charming, but I wasn’t very astute. He’s better-read than me and has a more refined point of view.”
She thinks the secret to their lasting marriage is communication. “We do not keep secrets,” she says, tucking her feet under her.
“So we make it really safe for the other person to come clean if they need to come clean – if they’ve broken an agreement or violated something. We don’t cheat on each other. Neither of us has ever cheated on the other. We really keep that agreement, and there are times when you kind of flirt a little bit. We tell each other. We don’t keep it a secret. I think secrets are what drive people away. If you say, ‘I kind of got flirtatious with…’ he says, ‘I understand. I’ve done the same thing.’ And you just move on.” – Washington Post