Saturday Special: In Conversation with Jenna Elfman

Saturday Special: In Conversation with Jenna Elfman
Saturday Special: In Conversation with Jenna Elfman

In AMC’s hit series, Fear the Walking Dead, the post-apocalyptic spin-off series of The Walking Dead, now in the second half of its sixth season, actress Jenna Elfman brings a tour de force performance as a 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.

What makes Jenna Elfman so interesting to watch on screen are her exotic blue eyes that dance wildly in comedic roles, and simmer with intent during heavier, more dramatic onscreen moments.

Having come into our homes in the late 1990s and early 2000s as spirited Dharma Finkelstein on the Chuck Lorre created sitcom, Dharma & Greg, and later in romantic comedy films like Keeping the Faith and EDtv, audiences got 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.

Jenna Elfman yearned to tackle the kind of self-contained, multi-dimensional character work she now enjoys with her role in Fear the Walking Dead.

Allison Kugel: What parallels do you draw between the year 2020 and your apocalyptic show, Fear of The Walking Dead?

Jenna Elfman: Good question. We really got to see what people do when their survival is threatened (laugh). 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 amongst ourselves last year.

Allison Kugel: What do you think the upside would be if we needed to rebuild our society from the ground up, like in Fear

Jenna Elfman: 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. 

Allison Kugel: I first became aware of you years ago from your sitcom, 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?

Jenna Elfman: 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. 

Allison Kugel: 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?

Jenna Elfman: 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 humor. 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. 

Allison Kugel: What has been your greatest triumph, to date?   

Jenna Elfman: Bringing children into this world. I think that is a huge triumph, and the most rewarding endeavor I have ever tackled.

Allison Kugel: And what has been your greatest lesson, and how have you used that lesson in your life?

Jenna Elfman: 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 on rumors, hearsay, or things I’ve read. I refuse to, because it is almost always wrong, and you are shortchanging 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 behaviors. It is much more exciting to allow someone to show you who they are in the present moment, and then make decisions based on that. 

Allison Kugel: You recently moved from California to Texas, where Fear the Walking Dead shoots? Do you miss L.A.?

Jenna Elfman: 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 L.A. right now because it had gotten pretty dark there. It feels kind of apocalyptic in L.A. right now. I grew up in L.A., I was born and raised there and it’s not the city I grew up in right now, but it will revive itself. 

Allison Kugel: What do you think you came into this life to learn, and what do you think you came here to teach? 

Jenna Elfman: 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 realize 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.

Allison Kugel: What do you think you are here to teach?

Jenna Elfman: 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.  

Allison Kugel: I like that. What item still remains on your bucket list? 

Jenna Elfman: 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. 

Allison Kugel: What would you still like to attempt in your career?

Jenna Elfman: 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. 

Allison Kugel: Lastly, what is in store for your character June as this new season progresses.

Jenna Elfman: There are some big June stories coming. We are going to see this new strong, but challenged, side to her and she has more story to go through. I think viewers are really going to enjoy it.

Photos Courtesy of AMC/Ryan Green, Ray Katchatorian

Season 6B of Fear the Walking Dead is out now on AMC Network. Catch up on seasons 1 through 5 on Hulu. 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.