It wasn't easy getting NBC's The Office off the ground in 2005. Sure, the show had an extraordinary creative team, including executive producer-director-writer Greg Daniels (The Simpsons), director Ken Kwapis (Freaks and Geeks, The Larry Sanders Show), and a star, Steve Carell, whose success with that year's The 40-Year-Old Virgin gave him a boost in the household-name category. But execs didn't know whether an American version of Ricky Gervais' hit British series of the same name would fly -- or die, as the U.S. remake of Coupling had in 2003 on the same network.
Two years and an Emmy for outstanding comedy series later, the U.S. Office has become a hit without the need for laugh tracks. The show's success is largely due to its tight-knit ensemble, each member of which is perfectly at home with the show's sometimes dark, cringe-inducing humor.
Back Stage talked with some of the cast members about how they landed their roles, how much of the show is improvised, real-life office nightmares, and how they get The Office's specific tone just right.
Back Stage: What was the casting process like?
Angela Kinsey ("Angela"): I was brought in for the role of Pam. It does totally seem weird. I felt so good about my audition, but I was surprised that they laughed in places that I hadn't counted on. The feedback I got was that they really liked me but that my Pam was probably a little too feisty.
Brian Baumgartner ("Kevin"): I went to the callbacks to read for Stanley, actually. I was not very smart but smart enough to know that that was not the part that they were going to cast me as. The role of Keith from the British version that they were calling "Kevin" was really where I felt like I had a legitimate shot.
Kinsey: It wasn't conventional casting. For once, not being a prominent face on TV was a help. I feel like a lot of times I would go to auditions and sitting across from me was a girl who was a series regular on another show at one time. And this time, there were no recognizable faces. It just made it feel to everyone who watched it like they were discovering these people for the first time, as well. Leslie David Baker ("Stanley"): You don't want an office where everybody is 20 years old. It's unrealistic. The Office looks like real offices. Everybody is not looking like they just stepped off the cover of Vogue.
Kate Flannery ("Meredith"): I think there are many more Merediths in the world than somebody from Friends. I think we're done with that: the false reality, the false studio-style audience and laugh track. I hope we're done.
Baumgartner: They really wanted these people to be real, that they existed in this paper company in Scranton, Pa. That was a big thing. They did not want it to seem like a joke.
Back Stage: Why do some of the characters have the same first names as the actors?
Kinsey: Most of us are new characters to the BBC version. Phyllis, Oscar, Creed, and myself were all new characters, and so we have our own names. As far as I knew, I was going to have three lines in the pilot. When the pilot got picked up, I had no idea if I was going to be in any subsequent episodes. And then when I showed up to work, my character's name was Angela. I thought that was hilarious.
Back Stage: Did you feel the show would be successful from the start, especially because the original version was such a hit?
Baker: We got a lot of naysayers saying, "This isn't going to work. It's not going to be good. Remember what happened with Coupling." And something happened with this combination of actors: Magic happened, which rarely does happen. Especially when it's a show that's been done already and has been as successful as the original.
Oscar Nunez ("Oscar"): When I went [to audition], I thought, "Oh, The Office. Well, that's another thing that'll fail because it won't translate." And then I found out that Steve Carell was going to play the lead. Then I got excited. I thought, "This has a chance."
Melora Hardin ("Jan"): When we first did it, everyone was like, "Oh, God, is this going to be a mushy, glossed-over, Americanized version of a British show?" I think what we realized is it's in the right hands. Greg gets it that it has to push those boundaries. It has to keep being on the verge of too much or too little.
Back Stage: The cast and crew spends 60 hours a week on-set together, which is not unlike working in a real office. How does that affect your acting?
Jenna Fischer ("Pam"): I might sit at my desk for three hours before my scene. That's very different from when you're doing a movie and you leave your trailer only to say your lines. I sit at my desk in my pantyhose for 10 to 12 hours a day. That's going to make you feel kind of glum.
Rainn Wilson ("Dwight"): It gets so claustrophobic, especially in that damn conference room. You pick up a script, and you see, "Oh, geez, we've got the next five pages involving 11 people sitting in this conference room. We're going to be here from 7:15 in the morning until probably 5:45 at night, and it's under fluorescent lights. Brutal."
Baumgartner: We are there so much, most of the time we see the people we're working with more than our own families. I don't think there are a lot of shows that are like this, and I think it is because we're all there all the time. There is such communication with the editors and the writing staff and the executives. We're just always there. They can't avoid us.
Fischer: We always get really excited when Melora or David Denman [who plays Roy] comes, because they're, like, a new person. It was so exciting, too, to have Ed [Helms, who plays Andy] and Rashida [Jones, who plays Karen] from [the office in] Stamford. They were the new kids in the class.
Back Stage: Melora, your character appears only occasionally. Is it difficult to come into this tight-knit group?
Hardin: Just as any group would welcome fresh blood, that's sort of how I feel most of the time. It's a different vibe, a different person, different energy. It kind of shakes things up a little, and Jan kind of does that. I work a few days a week...three days, maybe four at the most.
Back Stage: What do you do at your desk while you're waiting to film a scene?
Baker: I like to read [the website] Television Without Pity to see what they're saying about the show. I also like to send Phyllis [Smith, who plays Phyllis] emails to make her laugh when she's trying to keep a straight face. She sits right across from me, so if I can make her crack up when she's not supposed to, then my work is done.
Flannery: Sometimes I'm on MySpace talking to fans. But I actually write other stuff, too. I wrote a short story that's getting published.
Wilson: I try and catch up on blogs for Dwight on the NBC website. But [Dwight] would never do it on work hours. He would get up at 4:30, milk the cows, fertilize the beet fields, then he'd go write his blog. Then he'd come into work an hour and a half early.
Fischer: I do all kinds of things. Last year, I did all my Christmas shopping online from my desk. I have a MySpace account, so I'll write a blog or check messages. We found this online Boggle game that we could all play at the same time from our desks. We've played pretty much every online game there is. A lot of the guys on our set are in a Fantasy Football league. So a lot of times they're online checking stats and making trades. John Krasinski [who plays Jim] went around and set up all of our computers with instant message, and so now we can IM each other.
Back Stage: Do you ever communicate with each other in character?
Fischer: Angela is almost the closest person to me because we share a divider, and she would pass me notes in character. One time, she passed me a note that said, "I would be honored if you would join me on Saturday for the birthday party of my cat Sprinkles. Please RSVP by the end of the day. I mean it." We created this world sort of organically, and then these little things end up in the episode. Flannery: We have a lot of fake paperwork. It's so crazy and bizarre. [The props department] literally made up these Dunder-Mifflin worksheets.
Nunez: There is a lot of paperwork there. I don't know what decade we're in. Nowadays, everything's on the computer. Sometimes I catch myself sitting there with reams of paper, and I'm like, "What am I, Dickens or something?"
Fischer: Phyllis used to sit at her desk and make fake sales calls. I kid you not, one time the director yelled "cut," and people started getting up and milling around, and she finished her call. She hadn't made the sale yet. She kept going.
Back Stage: Do the writers look to you for input on your characters: who they are, what happens to them outside Dunder-Mifflin?
Baker: We were never really told who our characters were in terms of their hopes, wishes, dreams, ambitions, hobbies. We are able to add those ingredients to our characters as we go along. That makes a big difference.
Fischer: It's so inclusive and collaborative. That's very unique. Other things that I've done, it's definitely that the actor is hired to say the material that's given to them. When we first started the show, Greg came up to me and said, "Jenna, tomorrow we're going to do some talking heads about you and Roy [Pam's then-fiancé, played by Denman]. I just want you to think about how you think that relationship got started and why do you think you're with him, and maybe a little bit about his family." That's never happened to me before. Usually it's the actor saying, "I need motivation; what's my motivation here?"
Back Stage: How much of the dialogue is scripted, and how much is improvised?
Baumgartner: It's 100 percent written and then 100 percent improvised, which means that everything is always written, and we shoot like a one-hour drama of those scenes, essentially verbatim, and then it's always shot as an alternative way. [The director says,] "Okay, you guys, go ahead and do what you want to do."
Kinsey: We have frickin' awesome writers. I just think we're so lucky to have this group of people: They're smart and they're funny. So, our show is 100 percent written, even down to, "Angela gives Dwight a glare."
Wilson: The important thing is it's going to have the feel of improv. There's a lot of time I feel like I could say anything, but I really choose to say the writers' lines because those are the best and the funniest lines.
Hardin: The kind of improvisation that I come from, which is different from most of the people in the cast, is not a real comedy improv but more of the improv coming out of the truth of the moment and letting the humor come out of that. And that works really well for our show.
Fischer: A good example of improv that paid off was in our episode "The Gay Witch Hunt" [Season 3, Episode 1]. That kiss between Oscar and Steve [Carell] was not scripted. And all of our reactions are the real reactions. It speaks so much to Oscar's professionalism that he did not break.
Nunez: I do not break. You can write that down. He wasn't supposed to kiss me. We did it a couple of times, and he wasn't kissing me. And then that once, I see his lips coming closer and closer; I'm like, "Dear God, he's going to kiss me." And sure enough, he planted one on my face.
Fischer: In the moment you don't know. It's like, "Did we just go too far?" But it was so great! And then Rainn got up and tried to kiss Oscar, and we all lost it. Back Stage: The humor is very unique and subtle -- full of awkward pauses and long silences. Was that difficult to master?
Wilson: We have to allow the comedy to come from the characters and the situations and not from jokes.
Baumgartner: It's much funnier to be the undercurrent beneath the joke. I think that's what was very effective about the style of the show that was created even in the British version. Oftentimes the thing that makes you laugh the loudest is not what somebody says or does, but it's that moment right after what they say or do where the camera finds somebody's reaction in the office. I mean, nothing, really, is happening. The comedy comes from you getting to know and see these characters.
Baker: Plus, it doesn't have a laugh track. Most shows, they tell you, "Laugh here, only here." With our show, you can see one episode several times, and each time you'll see something that you may have missed the last time.
Back Stage: Many actors have worked office jobs. Have you ever had co-workers similar to Office characters?
Kinsey: I've definitely worked with a few people similar to my character. I totally now realize that it all has a purpose.
Nunez: I did have a boss like Michael [Carell]. He was insane. He had a Napoleonic complex.
Flannery: I used to do temp work in Chicago. Every day felt like it was three days.
Fischer: I worked for many years as an administrative assistant. It's funny because those years of drudgery and going to those receptionist jobs, I always sort of wondered, "What is the purpose of this?" And then it turns out it was the most elaborate research I could've ever done. It was perfectly planned.
Baker: I've run into a bunch of Stanleys, I've run into a bunch of Michaels and Phyllises. We all have. I think that's why America identifies with the show so much.
Wilson: I think people wouldn't identify with the show and feel so strongly about it if it didn't resonate with them in some way. It touches on something very real about the human condition. There's a certain kind of suffering that happens in the office that doesn't happen anywhere else.