By ALLISON KUGEL
In AMC’s hit series, Fear The Walking Dead, the post-apocalyptic spin-off series of The Walking Dead, now in its sixth season, actress Jenna Elfman delivers a tour de force performance as former ICU nurse and apocalypse survivor, June Dorie. Her character carries significant trauma, and Elfman plays each note to perfection amid a flawless ensemble cast. Having come into our homes in the late 1990s and early 2000s as spirited Dharma Finkelstein on Dharma & Greg, and later in romantic comedy films like Keeping The Faith and EDtv, audiences came to know the funny platinum blonde livewire that embodied a younger Jenna Elfman. As Jenna puts it during our conversation, “young ingenue” roles were her lane for many years; whether playing opposite Matthew McConaughey or Ben Stiller, her characters were somebody’s wife or somebody’s girlfriend. Elfman yearned to tackle the kind of self-contained, multi-dimensional character work she now enjoys with her role in Fear the Walking Dead.
What parallels do you draw between the year 2020 and Fear of The Walking Dead?
We really got to see what people do when their survival is threatened! You see the ones that tend to help, and you see the ones that tend to hoard, and everything in between. I think with the extreme example of what we do on Fear, which portrays a true apocalypse setting, it is an extreme version of the homeopathic dose we saw manifest among ourselves last year.
And your take on our current society and culture?
Changing, and hopefully evolving…
What do you think the upside would be if we needed to rebuild our society from the ground up, like in Fear?
There is always a greater opportunity for harmony and tolerance, and a broader and enlightened sense of each other, and respect. I would always hope that as a culture changes, it would improve in those ways so that we could [collectively] expand our culture in a way that is safer and more fun to live within.
I first became aware of you years ago in Dharma And Greg. I remember seeing you in different settings, on red carpets, and thinking, “What’s the deal with this woman? Why is she so happy?” I don’t know if that is your 24/7 being, or if that is what you portrayed publicly. But there is a lightness to you. Where does that come from?
I love living life. I think life is fun and people are interesting, I have always been that way. I don’t know if it is my 24/7. I certainly move through all the human emotions like a normal person, but I do, as a general living condition, enjoy living life. Even the problems I tend to enjoy because I like to try to solve them. You feel so kickass when you solve problems, and that’s part of the adventure and I enjoy that. I also genuinely enjoy and love people.
Did you want to take the role of June in Fear the Walking Dead to explore a darker, grittier side of yourself? Is that what attracted you to this show?
As an artist, I was craving a new opportunity to express myself in a different way. I love comedy! Comedy always comes from, to me, a sense of the tragic and the absurd. That comedy is a result of tragedy and exposing the humour of it. There is a certain kinetic rhythm to comedy which I love, but I was craving a change and I was craving a way to express myself as an artist, in a different way, and looking for that opportunity. Then Fear came along and offered me this great role, and it was exactly what I was craving. I also wanted to express myself in a more mature way than how I had been seen, previously. I felt the bulk of my career had been expressing myself kind of through a young ingenue’s viewpoint. Having aged a bit and lived life, and had so many experiences, I now wanted to express myself, artistically, through the viewpoint of a woman and bring that to my work.
I get that. This show is heavy and intense at times. Do you bring parts of it home with you?
I do not bring parts of it home. It’s not a very mushy psychological situation for me. When the cameras are rolling, I am June. All my preparation at home, spending hours working on the script, researching it, and working through the scenes prepares me for when the cameras are rolling so I can wholly and fully be that character. When they say cut, I’m back to Jenna. For me, the story lives in me, as just that, a story. I am always contemplating the story and how I want to play tomorrow’s scenes as far as understanding my character more deeply. But I don’t bring the character home. I have too many hats to wear at home as it is, and that would make things way too difficult!
Is there a fellow actor who has given you great advice?
Garret Dillahunt and Lennie James. When I first came on the show and I was in Lennie’s trailer, we were talking about this job and about the mythology of the storyline. He said, “What I’ve learned is you can’t play the whole thing all at once. You cannot play the whole of the apocalypse, the whole of the mythology. It’s always there, but you can’t play all of that at once.” As an actor, getting to know this mythology and this universe I was in, that advice was very helpful to me.
What has been your greatest triumph, to date?
Bringing children into this world. I think that is a huge triumph, and the most rewarding endeavour I have ever tackled.
And what has been your greatest lesson, and how have you used that lesson in your life?
The greatest lesson that I have ultimately taken along my journey is that I do not, as a policy, make assumptions about people at all anymore. Until I have had ample time with them, and I have shared experiences with them where they define who they are to me. I do not make decisions based off rumour, hearsay, or things I’ve read. I refuse to, because it is almost always wrong, and you are short-changing somebody. Also, people change and grow and learn. If I make a snap assumption and a decision about someone, that is prejudice. I am pre-judging somebody before I’ve ever met them and before they have had the opportunity to show me who they are. So, I don’t do that at all anymore and I know that I have changed and grown, and I would certainly like others to give me the opportunity to show and be who I am through my current actions and behaviours. It is much more exciting to allow someone to show you who they are in the present moment, and then make decisions based off that.
If you could travel back in time and alter one historical event, where would you go and what would you attempt to change?
I would have prevented the ability to make nuclear bombs. I would have tried to subvert that and used the atomic and nuclear knowledge and ability for other things, not for the destruction of mankind. So, if I could go back in time, I would have drawn a hard line in the sand on what they are allowed to do with that technology, and I would eradicate all nuclear arms from the face of the earth, as opposed to their ability to eradicate mankind from the face of the earth.
You and your husband just celebrated your 26th wedding anniversary. How do you get to 26 years? What do you attribute it to?
I think there are three things. One, we started off as best friends and we are still best friends. That means we don’t keep secrets. We’re friends and we support each other. We don’t compete against each other, except for who’s more tired! That’s always a fun game. That is really the only area of competition. It’s about friendship and humour. Humour has always been a big part of our relationship. We love to laugh and be silly, and we love to make each other laugh.
Were you platonic friends for a long time before you became a couple?
I was 19 and he was 21, so the platonic-ness lasted maybe a month. Then we were boyfriend and girlfriend. The third thing, I would say, is communication. We talk everything through. Even if we are having a fight and feeling like, “I don’t want to talk to you.” We’ll take a break to collective ourselves, but we always come back and talk it out. It’s not like we haven’t gone through trials and tribulations. It’s that we always communicate our way through it. That is the only way you come to a solution or greater understanding with anything. No problem solves itself. Communication is kind of the lube for problem solving, so you have to be able to communicate. The fact that we are friends and have that foundation and we are faithful to each other. We don’t betray each other. We don’t cheat on each other. we really have kept that tight and clean and respectful.
You recently moved from California to Texas, where Fear the Walking Dead shoots? Do you miss LA?
Yes, I used to commute to Austin every week or every two weeks where we film the show, and with Covid happening, that commuting was not going to be a reality anymore, and now that I’m homeschooling my kids, it was like, “Okay, why not?” Austin is a great city, the people are super-friendly, and the food is outstanding. We found a great neighborhood in a cul-de-sac and everybody is so nice. I don’t miss LA right now because it had gotten pretty dark there. It feels kind of apocalyptic in LA right now. I grew up in LA, I was born and raised there and it’s not the city I grew up in right now, but it will revive itself.
What do you think you came into this life to learn, and what do you think you came here to teach?
I think there are so many facets to life. I feel like I am always learning and you kind of don’t know what you don’t know until you start to learn about it. Then you realise how much you don’t know. I think the benefit of our information age is how much you can learn, and how quickly you can learn it and increase your rate of knowledge. We can now access history and stories of mankind so easily. That has been one of the cool things about homeschooling my kids, is curating the stuff they are learning.
What do you think you are here to teach?
I would hope to impact people by inspiring them to have a healthy curiosity about the world. I think to be curious about the world and life, and about other people. I hope I would inspire others to be curious and interested in life, and always reaching into life and not backing away from it. Be brave, be interested, and don’t be scared to communicate.
I like that. What item still remains on your bucket list?
I really want to go to Greece. There was five years of my early education where I went to a Greek Orthodox school in our neighborhood, and we got to learn about Greek culture and religion. We learned the Greek language and I love Greek people so much. There is just something incredibly special to me about Greece, and I’ve always wanted to go to there to experience and fully immerse myself in that beautiful culture.
What would you still like to attempt in your career?
I would like to continue the opportunity of character work. That is what I love about acting so much, is the ability to live many lives in one lifetime through these characters. I am really kind of obsessed with the journey of acting and growing as an actor. That is really my jam right now. I love and will always do comedy, but I accomplished a lot in comedy. I’m on this new journey of becoming a dramatic actress and expanding my abilities in that way. I’m craving the opportunity to play more characters and to work with great artists to grow and learn from working with them.
Photos Courtesy of AMC/Ryan Green, Ray Katchatorian
Follow Jenna Elfman at JennaElfman.com and on Instagram and Twitter @jennaelfman
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture columnist and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.