Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey on Finding Creative Freedom in The Office
Or, How Angela Martin Became a “Crazy Cat Lady”
The following conversation is excerpted from The Office BFFs: Tales of The Office from Two Best Friends Who Were There by Jenna Fischer (who played Pam Beasley) and Angela Kinsey (who played Angela Martin).
Jenna: “Find a job you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life.” I remember hearing this phrase when I was a kid, and it pretty much describes my time working on The Office. A typical episode of The Office took one week to shoot. An average day of shooting was about 12 hours long. So… quick math… that’s about 60 hours on set each week. But it never felt like work.
Angela: Generally, when you’re shooting a movie or television show, you do a scene with one or two other actors, and then you go home or back to your trailer to wait to shoot another. But on The Office, our set was just one big room. Even if you weren’t speaking in a scene, you were still part of the background. Here is a photo I took of the “bullpen,” as we called it. With two cameras running at all times, you were always going to be on camera. There was no heading off to your trailer for a break—we were all in it together, all the time. The reality was that many of our work hours were spent in the background of our castmates’ scenes.
Jenna: And that was true for everyone, even the star of our show, Steve Carell. I remember once, after spending a particularly long time in the background, Steve came out of Michael’s office and said to me, “Oh my gosh, I understand why Michael is always coming out of his office to chat with people—it’s so lonely in there.” I understood. Pam’s desk was lonely too. I would look across the room and wish I had a deskmate. I spent a lot of my background time playing FreeCell. (Not really that different from what I did at my countless day jobs as a real receptionist.)
At that time, none of the computers on our desks had internet, but they were equipped with games. This led to some pretty fierce FreeCell competitions between the cast and crew. For those not familiar, FreeCell is basically solitaire, but all the cards are dealt face-up. The goal is to solve the deal in as few moves as possible. Playing this game became an obsession. The crew played during breaks, and the cast played while in the background of scenes. I think Kate Flannery holds the record for all-time best score with the fewest moves. But Phyllis was also pretty darn good.
Angela: In the pilot episode, everyone in the office is worried about rumored downsizing. I had two scripted lines: “I bet it’s gonna be me. Probably gonna be me.” In response, Kevin said, “Yeah, it’ll be you.” That was it. The rest of the week, I was only in the background. That meant I had a lot of time to kill. All that downtime gave birth to Sprinkles. As any fan of The Office knows, Sprinkles is my character Angela Martin’s beloved fluffy white cat. But what you might not know is that the entire Sprinkles story line was birthed on a single green Post-it note during the pilot episode.
Ken Kwapis, our director, asked some of the supporting cast to help fill out the background of scenes by doing busywork in various parts of the bullpen. If you rewatch the pilot, you’ll see a few of these moments. Kevin is going through packages at the mail cart, I make copies at the photocopier, and then there were people crossing behind the interviews in the conference room. The writers called the interviews between Dunder Mifflin employees and the documentarians “talking heads.” Ken was establishing the world of the mockumentary, and in those early days they wanted people crossing behind the talking heads to show the hustle and bustle of an office.
He asked me if I would make a big loop through the bullpen passing out papers. I was so thrilled to have something to do. I asked him what he wanted me to give out. He told me it didn’t matter. Clearly, this was not a plot-propelling moment. Earlier, while at my desk, I had doodled a little cat on a Post-it note. This gave me an idea. I made a bunch more and wrote on each one, “It’s Sprinkles’s 3rd Birthday! Come celebrate! Tuesday in the parking lot.” I had the idea that Angela found a cat in the parking lot and adopted it. Its third birthday was coming up, and she was going to make sure everyone acknowledged it properly. While filming my pivotal background walk behind the talking heads, I handed out the invitations.
Everyone in the office received one… except Jim. I decided that Jim would probably say something sarcastic about the cat party, and Angela Martin was not having it. Sprinkles’s birthday was very important to her, and she wasn’t going to invite just anyone. Especially not a smart aleck. So Jim was out.
Jenna: When Angela gave me my invitation, I thought it was hilarious. I stuck it to my computer screen, as folks in offices do with random sticky notes. A few days later, I had to shoot a flirty scene between Jim and Pam at the reception desk. After a few takes, Ken came over and said the scene felt a little stiff, and he wanted us to improvise. He reminded us of an improvisation we’d done during the audition process, when they had me stand at the copier and directed John to walk over and start a conversation. John came up to me and said, “What are you copying right now? What is that?” And I responded with a flirty sass, “I’m working. I don’t know if you’re working, but I have work to do.” The dialogue we came up with wasn’t very clever, but underneath those boring words we played out a subtext of two people who were delighted to be standing close and saying anything to each other.
Ken suggested we try improvising in a similar way, telling us to talk about any mundane thing while the cameras rolled. And so, when the scene started, I saw the Post-it note on my computer. It gave me the idea to say the line “Are you going to Angela’s cat party on Sunday?” (I’m not sure why I said Sunday when the Post-it clearly says the party is on Tuesday.) As Angela predicted, John as Jim shot back, “Yeah, stop, that’s ridiculous.” And we giggled together. It was a great moment. And it made the cut. But not only that, the exchange planted the seed that Angela was a crazy cat lady. The writers went on to flesh out the story of Sprinkles for many seasons thereafter.
Angela: This is just one example of why our show was so creatively fulfilling. We were constantly given permission to participate in the creation of our characters’ backstories, personalities, and lives outside of work. I love that the writers and producers then took those little seeds and grew them into huge, wonderful story lines.
Adapted from THE OFFICE BFFS: Tales of The Office from Two Best Friends Who Were There by Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey. Copyright © 2022 by Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.