Fiona Gubelmann has been making her mark as a guest star in such shows as Californication, The Paul Reiser Show and The Closer. The new FX show, Wilfred is her first starring role and when she got the part, she told me that she “fell on the floor. It was one of the most incredible moments in my life.”
Wilfred is about a depressed man (Elijah Wood) who suddenly perceives his neighbor’s dog Wilfred (Jason Gann) as an obnoxious Australian guy dressed up in a dog suit. Fiona plays Jenna, Wilfred’s owner and possible future love interest.
I talk to Fiona in a conference call where she talked about the show, how she got the part and her audition process and that fateful call from her agent.
For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes
Wilfred airs on Thursdays at 10 on FX.
How did you get involved with Wilfred? What the audition process was like?
Fiona Gubelmann: I got involved through my agents. They actually sent me the audition appointment. So it was just a regular audition and the night before my audition, when I first read the script, I just absolutely fell in love with it. I thought it was so—it was just hilarious. And I didn’t quite get the whole guy in the dog suit thing so I went online and watched some of the Australian version of the show, and then I was like, “Oh my God, this is amazing!”
So I went back and reread the script and then the next day went in and had my first audition, and over the period of about three and a half weeks I kept going back and auditioning and eventually did a chemistry test between me, Elijah, and Jason and then tested for the part and was extremely lucky and I booked the show.
How did you get started acting?
Fiona Gubelmann: I got started in acting when I was actually in preschool. I was really into dance and performing and so my mom had me in dance classes, and then I got involved in a local theater company. My first play was The Cabbage Patch Kids, and it was a play/ballet and I didn’t quite do much there, but I grew up doing community theater and doing drama camp in the summers and being active in the drama department at my school.
And then I went to UCLA, actually as pre-med, and when I was there my freshman year I auditioned for a play and got in and I was so passionate and I just loved acting so much that I decided to switch majors and pursue acting, just kind of—I was young, not married, didn’t have kids and I was like, why not just try for something now and just see what happens while nothing’s tying me down. And I’ve been fortunate since I graduated to work in the industry and keep on working.
What do you find the most challenging about your role?
Fiona Gubelmann: I would say what I find most challenging about my role is just making sure
that I’m aware of my relationship to Wilfred and that I am treating him like an actual dog. At first it was difficult because I had to tune out Jason, not hear what he was saying, and just keep focused on Elijah and our conversation. But as the season progressed we would all become such good friends that it was so hard to keep a straight face and not crack up when Jason is trying to distract me or he’s asking questions, so I would definitely say that would be the most challenging part.
You’ve done a lot of work in the comedy genre with stars like Paul Reiser on his show and David Duchovny on Californication. But you’ve also worked on dramas like CSI New York and The Closer. Do you prefer comedy over drama?
Fiona Gubelmann: That’s a tough one. I definitely prefer working in comedy over drama, but at the same time when it comes to comedy I tend to prefer comedies that have a great sense of truth to them and come from an honest place. I have a dark sense of humor and I definitely like to work on stuff like that. I do enjoy working in comedies where I can create a fun and broad character, but as far as a job that I like to do over a long period of time, I tend to like it to be more of a—I tend to prefer the comedy …. One of my favorite comedies is Groundhog Day or Scrooged—I mean, I love Bill Murray and I think he’s a great example of an actor who is funny but he ….
The show’s premiered now and people are watching and really enjoying it, but were you concerned early on that maybe people wouldn’t get it? Because it is kind of a unique concept and definitely takes a little imagination.
Fiona Gubelmann: Yes, I was definitely nervous—or I shouldn’t say nervous. I was very excited and anxious to see how people would react to Wilfred. Well the first time I read the script—or when I first read the script I thought it was amazing. I thought it was hilarious and brilliant, unique; unlike anything out there. And I was just drawn to it, and I just was very curious to see how people reacted to it because I love it. When I saw the pilot I couldn’t stop laughing and I knew we had created something incredible, but at the same time how that would be received was something that I definitely have had some anxiety about and just nerves. And you know, when you love something so much you want to see it do well. And sometimes the most incredible shows don’t do well because they’re ahead of their time or people just don’t get into it quickly enough. Arrested Development was one of my favorite shows and that only lasted three seasons, and so I was definitely a little nervous about that.
But it’s also been really exciting. I love seeing how people react to the show, love seeing their excitement and their curiosity and it’s so much fun relating to people on Twitter because I get to really interact with people right as they’re watching it and I get to see the lines and the moments that they find funny, and it’s also interesting when people are like, “I don’t get it. Is it like this or like that?” And my only advice to people is just don’t take it too … enjoy it and just—I hope they—
What have you learned from working with Elijah?
Fiona Gubelmann: Elijah is a brilliant and radiant human being. I have learned countless lessons from him, not only as an actor, but as a human being and just as a leader on set. He has so much grace, and he handles tough situations beautifully. He has patience with people. He’s so funny. He always brings this great sense of life and energy and excitement to set and I just—on a professional level he has worked a ton so I see him—when we rehearse, he fully commits to the rehearsal and is in there and is taking it as an opportunity to try out things so that way when we’re ready to shoot, he’s ready to go. So I learned a lot from him in that aspect and it’s great. When you’re on a show and you have—everyone is working long hours and they’re tired and you have the lead actor who is just as exhausted if not more, being positive all the time; taking the time to learn everyone’s name, you know, he really set this incredible tone on set and every day was just a joy working with him.
Were you given a lot of freedom shaping who Jenna is or was she pretty much fleshed out in the script?
Fiona Gubelmann: No, I definitely feel like I was given a lot of freedom in creating Jenna. Originally I think they wanted—I feel like—well my take on Jenna was I think different than what they originally wanted, and throughout the audition process they ended up changing certain lines and phrasing for me in particular, so I know that like I was—they ended up changing where my character was from. They still kind of brought the Midwest tendencies to my character so they—in the audition process I was saying different things than some of the other girls even. And it was great because I had the show runner and the director, I was working with them, and they really liked my take on her. And I know when it came down to the final testing between me and Dorian for the part of Jenna we were very, very different. We had two completely different takes, so I was definitely given a lot of freedom in creating Jenna.
The show goes to a lot of dark places and of its absurdity. Can you talk a little bit about that, maintaining that fine balance between humor and darkness.
Fiona Gubelmann: Well I think it was –you know if you look at a really well written drama, I mean if you get a play by Chekhov I think when it’s done right, three-quarters of it is funny because then when you have the dark moments and you have the hard times they’re even more powerful. And if you look at, like Jenna is a perfect foil to Ryan. She’s pursuing her passions, she’s excited, she’s effervescent, she’s full of life. And in terms of certain aspects she really knows what she wants. And I think that that really helps add a lightness to the show because otherwise it just—it would be too dark. And I think the darkness in the show – there’s darkness in the humor but there’s also darkness in the depths of what people are going through and I think that the balance between the humor and the darkness is just brilliantly crafted by our writers. We are so lucky to have such talented and brilliant writers on staff.
Will we ever see Jenna kind of go towards that dark and vulgar side?
Fiona Gubelmann: You know, I love just playing and finding different unique ways to relate to Wilfred as Jenna because I personally am like that with my animals, and I enjoy watching the way that people react to the show, in that aspect, when they’re like, “Oh my God, that’s how I am with my dog” or “That’s how I am with my cat.” That’s, I think, where a lot of her humor comes from.
From the time you got the very first call to audition to the time you got the part, how many times did you have to go in to read?
Fiona Gubelmann: I had about six or seven auditions. Between my first and last, yes. And it was—it was a marathon of auditions, I must say.
How long did it take? I mean like weeks or–?
Fiona Gubelmann: It took about three and a half, four weeks to actually—from my first audition to when I finally booked it. And it felt, in that four weeks, like a year had passed.
And what is that phone call like? The one that tells you you got the part?
Fiona Gubelmann: Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. Receiving the news that I had booked the part was just overwhelming and exciting and surreal. I had my final audition on Friday and I was told that I wouldn’t know until the following Friday. So over the weekend I was very anxious and stressed out, and Monday morning I was at the gym and I fell off a treadmill and just cut up my leg and I was bleeding and all embarrassed and I was like, “Oh, that’s the universe. It’s telling me I’m not going to get the part.” And I was really, really upset. And I got home and it was 11:30 on Monday and I – and keep in mind I wasn’t supposed to hear anything until Friday – and my agents and managers call and they were totally pretending to be upset and down and they were totally messing with me and they’re like, “You got the part.” And I just fell on the floor. I fell on the floor and I was speechless and I was crying and laughing and I was just—it was one of the most incredible moments in my life. Just utter surprise and excitement.
Working with Elijah and Jason, what was the first scene you filmed together? Were you really nervous going into that or did you find it easy?
Fiona Gubelmann: Well you know the first time I actually interacted with Jason and Elijah was in a chemistry read where we worked for an hour, during the audition process, and rehearsed the scenes with the director and the show runner and kind of blocked it out for the final network test. And I was really nervous before I got there, but Jason and Elijah were so kind and so helpful that my nerves just went away and there was such a great sense of play and fun. And we were instantly like—it felt like little kids on the first day of school. We were just like asking each other questions and just having so much fun and politely teasing each other, and it was great.
So the first day of shooting I was terrified. I still couldn’t believe that I had booked the show and that it was all really happening, but at the same time it was so much fun. And the scene we shot was one of my audition scenes that I had worked on for a month, and then we rehearsed it in rehearsals before shooting the pilot, so we’d worked on it a bazillion times but it was still just so—it was so fun.
And during the shoot, you know we were so excited and Jason and I kept missing our marks. And it was so funny because, you know, we both had nerves and we were both excited and they kept having to reshoot this one take because we wouldn’t hit our lines and then we would just start cracking each other up. After we finished that scene I just had this overwhelming wave of excitement and I was like, “This is real. This is really happening” and that was probably my favorite scene to shoot, and it was my favorite day of shooting because everything felt real and like this was really happening, so—
Do you have any advice for actors, or people who want to be an actor?
Fiona Gubelmann: Any advice? I have so much advice. If you want to pursue acting I think one of the most important things to remember is to just be yourself and to stay honest to yourself and your ideas and your creativity and just remember who you are, and to bring that to your work. Because it’s so easy to not do that.