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Jenna Fischer on The Giant Mechanical Man, Falling in Love on Set, and How Much She’s Like Pam Beesly

Jenna Fischer had a son last September, but you could argue that her new film, The Giant Mechanical Man, is another child in itself. That’s because The Office star fell in love with her husband, Lee Kirk, the film’s writer and director, on set. The movie, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens in theaters this weekend (it’s also available On Demand), tells the understated and quirky story of street performer Tim Tucker (Chris Messina), who dresses up in silver paint and pretends to be — you guessed it — a giant mechanical man, and the reserved, lovesick woman (Fischer, of course) with whom he begins to develop a friendship and eventually falls in love. Needless to say, the real-life resonances are bewildering, and Fischer graciously spoke about her true love story when she sat down with us recently.

So, this story about how you and Lee fell in love is very adorable.

It is very adorable. And it all really started when I decided I really wanted to produce a film. I was interested in the idea of being with a movie from its inception and seeing the whole movie-making process from the very beginning …

But hadn’t you directed your own feature film before, with Lollilove, which starred you and Judy Greer and Jason Segel, among others?

Well, kind of. I wrote and directed that movie years ago, and I basically made it in my own house with my friends, and it was mostly improvised. It didn’t really feel like a movie, though. No, I wanted to have to do things like negotiate with teamsters and procure financing and help develop a script. So I took a bunch of meetings with writers I had met along the way. I’d met Lee before: I had been paired up with him at a short film festival where they picked names out of a hat, and I was picked to do his movie. I was also in a music video that he wrote. But we didn’t know each other that well. So I met with him, and he pitched me the idea of a silver-painted street performer and the idea of exploring what compels this character to do that. And I said, “Well, I’d love to know what kind of a woman falls in love with someone like that.” I liked that idea. Like, how do you explain to your parents what your boyfriend does for a living?

So, at what point did you guys actually fall in love?

Well, I attached myself as producer and actor to the movie. Then, for the next six or eight months or so, Lee was writing the movie, and he would turn in different drafts, and I would give him my thoughts. Very slowly, over those months, our meetings started turning into dates. I was hesitant to tell him that I was developing feelings for him because this is my first producing job. I wanted to be professional! And here I am, falling in love with the writer.

It kind of sounds like a movie.

It is a romantic comedy in itself. And what if we dated for three months and then it fell apart? I loved the movie so much that I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize it. But after eight months of doing this, we finally confessed that we had feelings for each other. It was so great, because we had fallen in love. And that sort of thing is usually not in your dating life. You don’t get to spend that much time with someone before becoming romantic with them. It was very romantic and sweet. It was a lot of dinners with wine and going to see movies, while pretending like we were developing a movie when in fact we were essentially developing a relationship.

And you have a child now …

And we have a child now! We started this process about four years ago, and we like to say that only in Hollywood is it easier to fall in love, get married, and have a child before you can get your independent movie made. And believe me, there were a lot of times when it felt like the movie wasn’t going to happen. We actually had to pay for the first two weeks of preproduction with our own credit cards.

I’m curious. Once you were actually going out, did the nature of your feedback change on the script? Was it harder to collaborate then?

Actually, I think it made the movie richer. Over these dinners, I told him so much about my life, and so much of my life wound up in this movie. He could ask me questions about my life that, in another situation, might be awkward to share so much. And we’d talk about things like: What is love? What is a relationship? What does it mean to fall in love? What does a man want out of a relationship, what does a woman want? There are a lot of things in the movie that come from real life: The recurring dreams my character has about her teeth falling out — I totally have those dreams. Or those temp jobs that she has — I had those temp jobs. In a way, I think the movie helped us fall in love, and our falling in love helped the movie.

You’ve gotten kind of a reputation for playing these very reserved, shy characters. And yet your biography suggests that you’re a very driven, determined person. You went to L.A. to become an actor, and you did. You decided you were going to produce a movie, and you did.

I think that the root of me as a person is still this type of woman. Early Pam Beesley, or Janice in this movie. In my own life, I have to work against these impulses. But I am very driven and ambitious, and I accomplish a lot of things if I set my mind to it. I spent my formative years as kind of a wallflower, very invisible, very shy, wondering how am I ever going to make my dreams come true. I just feel that, in your life, whatever your story ends up being, the person you carry around inside you is whoever you were in middle school. At least, for me, that’s true. I’m always fighting against that voice in my head that tells me I can’t make it. It’s very easy for me to access that person, and I’m good at bringing that person to life. I love that girl. And I want to help her achieve whatever her dream is, whether it’s to marry Jim Halpert or fall in love with a guy like Tim Tucker.

You mentioned that Lollilove, the film you directed, was largely improvised. Did doing that help you with your part on The Office?

It did. I had actually seen the British version of The Office, and I was so taken with that mock-documentary style — not mockumentary, but sort of as if it’s a real documentary — and I wanted to try that. And as I was making that film, I got the call to audition for the American version of The Office. I think that, 100 percent, the fact that I had been trying this at home, improvising for this other film, really helped give me an edge during that audition.

So, how much do you guys improvise on The Office?

Not as much as you’d think. We do improvise a bit, but for the most part all those pauses and looks to camera are scripted. It’s actually very elaborate. It’s funny — it looks like the camera is swinging to catch something that it doesn’t know is coming, and it totally knows it’s coming. Sometimes the cameraman waits a beat before swinging, or they’ll say, “Before you say your line, can you just say, ‘Um,’ or something, so there’s a reason for me to swing the camera?” Because they don’t want it to seem like they’re anticipating the line. So it’s all very choreographed, actually. It kind of has to be.

Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images