Jim and Pam’s relationship may grab all of the headlines, but any real fan of The Office knows that the show’s true power couple is Michael Scott and Jan Levinson. Playing Jan on the show is Melora Hardin, who luckily is much more grounded than her character, who continues to spiral out of control. We recently talked with Hardin about The Office, the writers’ strike and what it feels like to have almost been Marty McFly’s girlfriend.
Where are you originally from and where do you call home now?
I was born in Houston, Texas and I live in Las Angeles, California.
We know that you began acting at a young age. How did you get into acting and what are some of the biggest challenges of being a child actor?
I started acting professionally when I was six. My parents are both actors and my mom and dad would go into their commercial agents and take in new headshots and things like that. One day, I went with my father, I was about five, and his agent said, “Oh, aren’t you cute? Do you want to do this?” and that put the idea into my head. From then on, I was tugging on their sleeve begging and begging and begging until they finally said okay. And they secretly had a plan that they would let me go on 10 auditions and then if I didn’t get anything, they would ease me out of it, but I got the first thing I went on, so their plan was promptly ruined.
We always hear about the crazy stage parents, but you had the opposite.
I did, I did. (Laughs.) Because they know what it’s like because they were actors, you know? But they were always really working actors. My dad is a well-known character actor, his name is Jerry Hardin. As a good friend of mine said, they call him “That Guy,” you know, when you see a movie and you go, “Oh, that’s that guy.” (Laughs.) So you definitely recognize him, he’s definitely a That Guy.
And my mom was an actress, that’s how they met – they met doing regional theatre together and then moved to LA and my mom quit acting and became sort of my stage mom and then took her with me to work and stuff. Also, she then became an acting teacher and became quite well-known as an acting teacher for young people. She had Molly Ringwald and all of the Phoenix kids and Ross Malinger and Kellie Martin. She just returned to acting for the first time in 30 years to be in my film that I just directed
We heard a rumor that you were originally cast to play Jennifer Parker on Back to the Future. Is that true?
Yeah, I was. It was a real small part in the first one and then a bigger role in the second one that Elisabeth Shue ended up playing. When I got it, it was a two picture deal, so it was going to be both films and Eric Stoltz was originally cast to play McFly, so I was going to play his girlfriend. And then they let Eric Stoltz go and I was too tall for Michael J. Fox. They called me in very regretfully and said that it wasn’t going to work out, which was sad. I was like 17 and, of course, shed some tears over that.
Now that it has become such an iconic movie, do you ever wonder what would it have been like to have been in it?
Sure. I guess it had the potential to kind of change everything for me, but I don’t know. It didn’t really do anything for the girl who played the small part and then was recast.
Especially since she’s “the girl who played the small part.”
(Laughs.) Exactly. So, I don’t know. I don’t think it would have been bad for me, that’s for sure. But who knows how good it would have been.
It definitely would have been a different movie with Eric Stoltz instead of Michael J. Fox.
It sure would have.
You were cast as Trudy Monk on the show Monk. Will you be appearing on Monk again in future episodes?
I just did another episode; let’s see – six or seven days ago, so yes. I will be. (Laughs.)
Do you have any theories on who murdered your character?
I just like to be on that show, I love working with Tony Shalub. He’s such a nice guy. I don’t know. I’m curious, just like everyone is, but I guess I’ll find out when everyone else does.
How did you land the role of Jan on The Office, and how was the character explained to you initially?
Well, it was on the pilot and it was a guest star possible recurring character at the time. I went in and I got the material and I read it and I felt like, “I can connect to this.” So, I did it, I could feel in the room that they really liked me. I got the part and I guess when I was on the set, it was kind of like – they had taken that character from the BBC version and Greg Daniels, he’s our exec producer and creator of the show as it stands here in America, he didn’t want it to be the same character. He wanted it to be the character that I had created and I had never seen the BBC show until I got The Office – he didn’t want us to look at it until a little later, so I didn’t really watch the BBC show until sort of the end of the first season.
So I guess it was sort of like she was his boss and she was kind of a tightly-wound boss, she needed to be a great “straight man” for Steve Carell. I hooked into her really well and that’s kind of how we played her, but we knew on the pilot that there was something special about the connection between Jan and Michael and just sort of the chemistry, I guess, that works with Steve and I because we made jokes. Steve Carell, Greg Daniels and I were sitting around having lunch one day and kind of making jokes about, “Wouldn’t it be funny if this thing goes to see Jan and Michael hook up at a convention or something?”
So it was that early on that you talked about a romance between the two characters?
Yeah, I think we just knew. We just felt it that there was something going there. So that was kind of what we did, we went down that road – I think hilariously. I think just the way she has unraveled is kind of like the writers seeing something in me that I bring to the part and then me taking what they give me and being surprised by what they give me and it’s a wonderful dance, kind of a collaborative little dance that we do together.
Where do you see Jan going from here? Do you think she will eventually get her life together and have a new career or will she continue to unravel?
I think she’s going to have to eventually get it together again and get herself back in the work world, but I don’t really know in what respect that’s going to happen, but she definitely has to do that.
Do you have a favorite episode so far? If so, why is it your favorite?
I love the “Cocktails” episode. I thought it was really awesome when they go to the boss’ house for cocktails. I thought it was really, really interesting to see Jan kind of be both repelled and drawn to him for his bad behavior. I thought that was really good. And then, also, the director was J.J. Abrams and I loved working with him. And just a lot of good meat on the bones for me to sink my teeth into.
How often do you get recognized in public and what types of people approach you?
I would say quite often, but people are very – like, I was walking out of California Pizza Kitchen yesterday and I saw this girl look at her boyfriend and gesture as I was walking towards them and he very casually looked at me. They obviously recognized me from the show, but they were pretty mellow about it and I guess if I hadn’t been looking right at them, I probably wouldn’t have known that. But yeah, I think that most people are very casual about it, maybe excited. They like the show, people really love the show, so I think that when they see me, that makes them think of the show that they love.
You recently attended a convention for The Office in Scranton, Pennsylvania. What was it like to be around so many fans of The Office and do you see these conventions becoming regular occurrences, like Star Trek conventions?
It was pretty intense. I mean, we were shuttled around with police escorts all through the town, sirens blaring, bodyguards from the limo to the hotel, screaming fans on the side of the street, people waving, 4,000 fans at a Q&A that hung on our every word and then on Saturday night I sang in front of 1,500 screaming fans, so it was pretty surreal to be honest.
But people are just really into the show. They stood in line for almost an hour and a half to do autograph signings and you know, just very respectful, there was like no pushing and shoving of each other. They were very sweet to each other and they were very excited to meet us. There were only a few that were shaking so much that they could barely shake our hand, but for the most part everybody was pretty grounded and really excited about the show and really excited about meeting us.
Do you think that like Star Trek conventions, 30 years from now you will still be signing autographs at Office conventions?
(Laughs.) God, I don’t know. Thirty years? Well, I guess Star Trek conventions; those have been going on forever. I mean, SciFi has a way of generating itself because there is always some new SciFi show that everyone is in love with. So, I don’t know. The Office is pretty unique. I don’t know if there’s going to be enough for it to go for 30 years, but I do think it will go for a few years for sure and if it does go for 30 years, that would be pretty miraculous. I guess I’d be shocked and pleased by that.
The Office has shut down production because of the writer’s strike. What is it like to suddenly find yourself in such an unsettling situation and what do you see happening with the show once the strike is resolved?
I think it’s a really important thing that the writers are doing, which would come up for the directors and the producers and the actors anyway. And we, as The Office, have seen the future in the sense that we have webisodes right now that are streaming on broadband on the Internet that people can go and watch and they are calling that promotional material, but they’re running ads on it and they’re making money off of that – NBC and the studio. And we were paid zero dollars for that. We also won an Emmy for that. So that’s the kind of stuff that they’re making revenue on that and we’re not seeing any of it and they wanted us to do more of that, calling it promotional material and that’s just not what it is.
A writer had to write that, actors had to come in and get in makeup and hair and wardrobe to act that and learn their lines and a director had to direct that and a DP (director of photography) had to shoot that and lights had to be turned on – that means crew had to come. A lot of stuff had to happen for those webisodes to get made and nobody made a cent on it. That’s just not the way it should be. So, I do agree with them that they need to be looking at the web because the web is the future of this business and nobody really knows exactly how deep those pockets are going to get, but eventually things are going to change and the way that we watch television today is virtually over soon.
In any case, I think everybody is running scared and everybody is pissed off at each other and unfortunately they are miles apart right now. So, I just hope that they can get closer together and resolve this. It will be resolved eventually and I hope it gets resolved in favor of the writers for the web. I think the writers have taken everything else off the table except for the web and that really is the most important issue. And I think that the studios need to be reasonable about it.
What they are saying right now is, “We don’t know.” Well, I feel like, if you don’t know, then make a date for the next 10 years, “We’ll meet once a year for the next 10 years and reconsider this issue every single year for 10 years.” I just think that would be very, very reasonable, very fair and I think that they don’t want to do that because they’re a big business and they want to make as much money as they can and they don’t care about how it affects everyone else.
I feel like the strike is really unfortunate because I think it affects all of the people who are not affected by the reason for the strike, but are affected by being out of work like the hair and makeup people and the craft service people and the loaders and all of the crew. It’s just really unfortunate for them and it could be really damaging for them if it goes on for too long.
So I guess I’m not really too worried about myself in the sense that I know the show will come back. I know that we are one of their biggest hits on NBC. They’re not about to just throw us in the trash. I think they are definitely very aware of the revenue we are bringing in and the fact that we are well-loved and critically-acclaimed and bringing them Emmys and bringing them awards. You know, it’s bringing a lot of class and a lot of clout to their network. So, I’m sure that whenever the strike’s over, we’ll be back to work and hopefully, I think everybody hopes, the writers included, that it will be sooner than later.
With the strike going on and The Office shut down, are you suddenly left sitting at home or do you have other projects lined up?
I have a singing act that I’m doing in January at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood, so I’m working on that. I’m also a singer and a songwriter. And I have a big Broadway director that’s directing me in that named Richard G. Alexander, who just got back from directing Barbara Streisand’s European tour and has directed Bette Midler in Carnegie Hall and Bernadette Peters in Carnegie Hall – major, major people. So he’s directing me and we’ve already sunk money into publicity for this and so forth. I know some fans have already bought tickets to come out and see me – airline tickets, literally flying from other places to come see it. So I’m working very hard on that and making that the best it can be. It’s coming right up now on the fourth, fifth and sixth of January.
And there are other things that are percolating because there were things that were written before. So, if one of those things comes through and I end up working during the strike, that would be great to.
What can fans expect from your musical performance?
Well, they’ll get to know me a little bit. I’ll talk a little bit and I’ll be singing a lot. I’ll sing four or five of my original songs and I’ll sing songs that they might potentially recognize and it’s going to be a really fun night. I think it will be really beautiful music and a little bit of talking and good food and I think a good time.
What are some of your musical influences in your show? What type of songs do you perform?
The stuff that I write is stuff that sounds kind of old, kind of like 50s stuff, that sounds a little bit like Doris Day, Julie London, that kind of vibe. But it’s all original stuff. And so, it will have that and there will probably be some other recognizable things, maybe something from Broadway or a couple of things from Broadway, maybe a couple of things from the pop world. So, sort of a little milieu of things.
You recently directed the one-woman show Strip Search and the movie You. What made you decide to try your hand at directing and do you see yourself doing more of it in the future?
The one-woman show thing happened because my friend Adria Tennor wrote a show. We actually met in a writing class probably 10 years ago – a one-person show writing class – and we remained friends and I liked her writing, she liked mine. So she continued on with her one-woman show, writing it over the next nine years I think and would invite me to these little showcases she would have for each piece as it kind of came to life and the last one that I came to was sort of the show finished writing-wise, but she kind of stood up and just said it, did it and at the end she asked for comments and I gave her some comments. She called me the next morning and said, “I loved your comments. I thought they were amazing and I wonder if you would consider directing my show.” And I said I would actually. I thought about it and I said, “Absolutely, I’d love to direct your show.” So that was how that happened.
And, I’m also a dancer and it’s sort of about a woman finding her sexuality and becoming a woman through taking this strip class. I thought that we had a lot of different things that we could kind of come together on and I helped her choreograph the dance that she ultimately does in the show. We just had a lot of fun, we were a good team, I think.
The movie You came about because many, many years ago I did a little independent movie and the director just happened to be horrific and I kind of was helping out with some things because this director was so bad. So the producer kind of came up to me in the middle of it and said, “Wow, you’re really amazing at this. You should really direct.”
I said, “Oh, uh – I don’t know.”
He said, “No, you have a real gift. You have an iron fist and a velvet glove. That’s a thing a director needs and you really have that.”
So I said, “That’s lovely.”
That was many, many years ago. And my husband is a writer and has written many scripts and he’s also an actor and he came back from being on location doing a show and had written this script over three days, which is very unusual for him. He usually writes things over many months, if not years. And I took it with me to I think get a manicure-pedicure or something and I was reading it and I had to leave because I was crying. Tears were streaming down my face as I was reading it. So I came home and I said, “This is an amazing script and I need to direct this if you’ll allow me to.”
And, he’s like, “Well, it probably needs a rewrite.”
I’m like, “Nope, I don’t want you to change anything thing, it’s perfect the way it is and I want to direct it and I want make it.”
And he said, “Great.”
So that was that. And we kind of went through many incarnations about how we were going to get it made and we ultimately did it ourselves and it’s finally finished as of about a week ago and I definitely plan on directing more. I have to say it was a hugely fulfilling and satisfying experience to feel like all of your gifts are needed and wanted and required in every moment of every day. It’s kind of a good feeling to feel used up at the end of a day or the end of a movie. (Laughs.) So that was great and I definitely plan on making more movies and my husband and I plan on making more movies together and I’d like to direct more. But I’m not going to really pursue a television directing career and that kind of stuff. I would like to direct an episode of The Office, but I’m not really that interested in having a full on directing career.
What do you do to unwind when you are not working?
I’m a dancer. So I take dance classes and I hang out with my kids, I have two little kids – two and a half and six. I spend a lot of time with them; they’re a lot of fun. We do crafts together and we play and they dance for me and we dance together and go for walks. And I like to see movies, I love movies. But that’s kind of it. And hang out with my husband.
Would you like to see your kids end up as actors someday?
I don’t really care. If they would do that and that would make them happy, then I would say for sure do it. But I wouldn’t ever push it on them. I really do think it’s a tough career. I think it’s a perfect career for me, but I’ve seen a lot of people have a lot of hardship with it. I always say to people, “If there’s anything else you can do and be happy, do it. If this is the only thing you can do and be happy, then that’s the reason to do it. Otherwise, don’t do it.” So I would say if they were just so passionate that they feel like this is their path and they have to do this, then I would say do it. For sure, I’d support it 100 percent.
Both our daughters are in our movie. My daughter Rory was four at the time and she actually has quite a big part and she’s fabulous in the movie. So she’s already a little actress. And the little one was a baby when we did it, so she didn’t really know what she was doing. (Laughs.)
What would you do for a living if you never got into acting?
Probably, I did consider at one time being a choreographer – having a dance company. I also considered – I sort of like the idea of traveling the world and being a writer, sort of writing about wherever I go. Kind of being like a real-life gypsy. I thought that would be very interesting. But probably, I also like psychology or therapy; I might have been a psychologist of a therapist of some kind potentially.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
There’s probably a lot of things. I don’t know. I guess that I like to hang out at home with no makeup and my sweats, t-shirts. I like to do housework and clean and be with my family.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy, November 2007. For more information on Melora Hardin or to purchase tickets for her singing act “At The Water Cooler” or copies of her CDs, visit Melora.com