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Jenna Fischer finally gets her moment

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When Jenna Fischer showed up to one of her final auditions for the role of The Office‘s knowing but downtrodden receptionist Pam Beesly in 2003, she made an unusual acting choice: Sit there and do absolutely nothing. Casting directors had narrowed the pool down to Fischer and three other actresses, and the then-struggling 29-year-old was reading for a scene opposite Rainn Wilson’s oddball lackey Dwight, who was awkwardly trying to pick her up. ”Pam suffers in silence,” explains Fischer. ”If Pam can’t think of anything nice to say, she doesn’t say anything at all. So I just kept looking at the camera and smirking, or showing a wounded look.”

By now, fans of NBC’s Emmy-winning comedy are very familiar with those modest, meaningful glances, which have turned Fischer into an unlikely sex symbol and one-half of TV’s most talked-about non-couple. If you didn’t get at least one goose bump while watching Dunder Mifflin paper salesman Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) pledge his love to the then-engaged Pam during May’s season finale, you may not have a heart.

Fischer isn’t one of those actresses who abandon their on-air persona at the end of the day. Sporting jeans and a gray Office hoodie outside a coffee shop near her Los Angeles home, she speaks with endearing sincerity about Pam’s plight: Her engagement to the lunkish Roy (David Denman) may be over, but her lovelorn potential soul mate Jim has transferred to the Stamford branch. ”This is a real opportunity [for Pam] to figure out who she is,” says Fischer, launching into the elaborate backstory she’s envisioned for her plain-Jane alter ego. ”I imagine she’s curling her hair at night just to see how it would look, and experimenting with makeup. She’s watching a lot of Trading Spaces and definitely daydreaming about Jim. She’s trying to figure out how she can make that happen — because he’s definitely the one.”

It’s that attention to detail — both on screen and off — that has made Pam more than just another put-upon sitcom secretary. ”Jenna’s so particular and specific,” says costar Krasinski. (In fact, the duo spent two weeks analyzing their characters’ emotions before filming that season-ending kiss.)”There’s so much going on in her eyes and her movements. She knows how to harness Pam in a nondepressing way.” Adds exec producer Greg Daniels, ”My favorite moment in the first season was when Jim was going on a date with an attractive woman. Pam felt a little drab, so she tried to freshen her makeup and got caught by the camera. I don’t know if that was in the script, but she made that moment. What she does is so small — but so great.”

And so convincing that Fischer sometimes has a hard time separating fantasy from reality during the show’s most emotional moments. One story line — Jim’s budding romance with new co-worker Karen (Rashida Jones) — is particularly painful for Fischer to watch: ”In [the Oct. 5] episode, when Jim threw that [fake] grenade and [Karen’s] paper clips went flying, that was improvised. It was so charming. The Pam in me was heartbroken.”

If Fischer understands her character eerily well, it’s only because, as she says, ”I sort of was Pam for five years.” After moving from St. Louis to Los Angeles to become an actress in 1996, Fischer attended auditions while toiling away at spectacularly blah assistant gigs at investment firms, a medical office, an audio store, and a bottling company. ”I had this whole wardrobe of ill-fitting but comfortable corporate clothes,” she says. ”I know about that deep desire to have a change in your life.”

For every small TV and film gig she landed (”Waitresses, schoolteachers, secretaries, and stewardesses…I played a lot of pleasant-looking people”), more substantial opportunities passed her by. After auditioning for the role of Sydney Bristow on Alias, she was told, ”Amazing, emotional performance. Great acting, but just not hot enough.” (She agrees — sort of: ”It wouldn’t have been the right fit. I’m not ambitious enough to get up at four in the morning and kickbox.”) By that point, Fischer was so desperate for a meaty role that she spent $2,000 to shoot LolliLove, a hilariously wry mockumentary about a self-obsessed couple — Fischer and her real-life husband, writer-director James Gunn (Slither) — who start a lollipop-donating charity for the homeless. ”I wanted to play a narcissistic, unlikable woman and go to the root of every dark thought I’d ever had,” she says. The film was ultimately released on DVD, but Fischer dispels the notion that it helped along her career: ”Every house in America would have to own a copy before I made a penny back.”

Fischer’s luck changed when a casting director she knew called with word of a new series based on Ricky Gervais’ BBC hit about a suburban paper-supply company. ”She said, ‘Dare to bore me,”’ recalls Fischer. ”I was thinking, ‘I’m going to go in and be boring. I wonder if I’ll get the job.”’ Daniels, in turn, was overwhelmed by her underwhelming take. ”It was like watching a magic trick,” he says. ”I really thought I was watching an actual receptionist.”

The sleight of hand worked wonders: These days, when she’s not imagining Pam’s offscreen life or penning a popular MySpace blog filled with behind-the-scenes Office tidbits, Fischer is thumbing through a newfound bounty of film scripts. This summer, she shot three upcoming movies: Blades of Glory (the Will Ferrell-Jon Heder figure-skating comedy, in which she plays Will Arnett’s kid sister), Quebec (as the loyal wife of a grocery store assistant manager played by Seann William Scott), and The Brothers Solomon (she’s got a cameo role as a girl who goes on a dreadful date with, again, Will Arnett). Says Solomon director Bob Odenkirk: ”She reminds me of Diane Keaton with that ability to be smart, have dignity, and be as funny as any guy.”

In a very un-Pam-like show of initiative, Fischer is already narrowing down possible projects, including a horror film, for next summer’s hiatus. Until then, she’s got high hopes for her two-month fall break, which starts in November. ”I’m going to visit my family in St. Louis. Maybe we’ll finally put a porch on the back of my house. I’ll clean out my closet and organize the junk drawer. That kind of stuff has me excited right now.” She takes a sip of coffee and, channeling Pam, produces an adorably sheepish look. ”Is that boring?”

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