Fiona Gubelmann, of FX’s recently launched comedy Wilfred, took some time to talk about her role as friendly next door neighbor Jenna. She spills some juicy plot developments and talks about working with co-stars Elijah Wood and Jason Gann.
Wilfred is a quirky dark comedy now only three episodes into its first season. Wood stars as a depressed man on the edge of an existential crisis, who suddenly perceives his neighbor’s dog Wilfred (Gann) as an obnoxious Australian man dressed up in a dog suit.
Gubelmann plays Wilfred’s owner Jenna, the cute neighbor and possible love interest. Gubelmann is an experienced TV actress who has made appearances on several comedy and drama shows including Californication, The Paul Reiser Show, and The Closer. She’s been acting since she was a child, and got her start in a Cabbage Patch Kids play.
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.
The script at first had Gubelmann wondering what the whole “guy in the dog suit” thing was, but she loved it. Every episode concentrates on one lesson or problem for main character Ryan, and Gubelmann talked about how much she liked the fact that the show has a message, beyond being a comedy.
…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.
What’s really incredible about the show is that at first glance you see, oh it’s a silly comedy. There is a guy in a dog suit with witty lines being thrown about, but what’s really neat is every lesson—or every episode has its own lesson. And I love how at the beginning of each episode there is the quote, and then it fades away and then there’s one word that that episode kind of focuses on. And I think the overall lesson or, I guess, thing that can be learned from the show is just about pursuing what you love in life, pursuing your dreams and really living life to the fullest, and that’s something that I strongly live my life by. I was raised to pursue my passions and pursue the things that I love and to just live life to the fullest, and I think that that is a very prominent message throughout the show and throughout the season.
The show is certainly a dark comedy, which centers on a depressed man who is trying to commit suicide in the first episode. There is a bizarre play between the ridiculous comic elements and the deeper messages which makes it a layered comedy. Gubelmann mentioned balancing between the two elements and her character acting as a foil to Ryan’s.
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.
Gubelmann said she did have a lot of input in her characters, and that is wasn’t so fleshed out in the script that she didn’t have any wiggle room as far as shaping who Jenna was a little bit. Wilfred is an American remake of the original Australian TV show, and Gublemann said that the U.S. Wilfred was trying to go in a different direction than the Australian. Even so, Gann played Wilfred on the original version, and Gublemann says that he was always there if she needed to ask him questions about her character.
You know I actually haven’t seen much of the Australian version. We’re trying to create a completely different show and we didn’t want to be influenced by the Australian version…I wanted to wait until I finished shooting the first season to watch it because our show is very different and we knew we were creating something very different so I didn’t want to be influenced by that show. That being said, I do know that the Australian version focuses on the relationship of the Wilfred/Ryan/Jenna characters, while the American one is more of a buddy comedy between Wilfred and Ryan, so I know that’s a difference there.
You know, I wouldn’t say that he tries to give me pointers in the sense that he’s like, ‘Well this is how we did it before’ on the other show because he really is trying to create something different here, but I definitely—I feel like we collaborate, all of us, on set. I definitely feel—like I grew up doing theater so I’m used to working with people where you can definitely ask another person a question or advice or, ‘Hey, let’s try it this way’ or ‘What do you think if I did it this way?’ and so I definitely feel that we have that collaboration there and I can run things by him or—we’ll run stuff by each other and I really look up to him. I think he’s an incredible artist. He’s so funny, and so I definitely will ask him stuff in terms of, ‘Oh, how do you think this plays?’ or if I’m having—if I’m struggling with something I’ll definitely feel like I can turn to him but he never is like bossing me around or telling me what to do. I mean, it’s definitely—he’s there when I need him for that kind of stuff so it’s great.
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.
Since the show does have such a unique concept, Gubelmann talked about her concerns early on about its acceptance, especially now that it has received such positive reviews.
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.
About working with Wood and Gann, Gubelmann only had good things to say. She also gave a little away regarding upcoming plot, telling us that there would definitely be something developing between her character Jenna and Ryan.
Yes, you definitely will see a relationship forming between Ryan and Jenna. There’s definitely chemistry there. But I think part of Jenna’s journey throughout the series is she has everything together in her professional life, like she’s very focused on what she wants, but when it comes to her personal life she has some growing to do and she really has some decisions to make and things to figure out.
Without giving too much away I can say that there’s going to be a lot of funny interactions between Drew and Ryan. There’s definitely going to be some competition going on and some fun things that are going to happen as a result of that. And I think you’re also going to see Jenna realizing that she doesn’t quite know what she wants and she doesn’t quite have as good of a grasp on her personal life as she thought she had and she’s going to have to make some tough decisions. And whether or not she makes the right decisions is really yet to be seen.
Jason is a very fascinating person. Jason, he’s a creative genius and a complete goofball. When I first met him we instantly hit it off. We have a lot in common and we’re both, we both work with cat rescue and we both have a dark sense of humor, so we quickly became good friends and … instantly felt comfortable.
So Jason and I, we instantly hit it off and became great friends. You know, there’s a lot of banter between us and he’s very witty. He’s constantly being silly and making jokes, but at the same time he’s a really, really good person. He’s got a great heart and he cares a lot about people, so it’s so much fun getting to work with him and just getting to hang out with him too. I mean he’s got a lot of sides to him and you know whether he likes going hiking or he’ll love to go out dancing, he’s got a lot of interests and a lot of passions and I’ve learned a lot from him in that aspect.
And it’s great too, I think our chemistry really shows in the relationship between Jenna and Wilfred. You know, he calls me his older little sister and I think we definitely have fun messing with each other on set. And between him, me, and Elijah there’s a lot of banter on set and … never had brothers growing up, but I feel like Jason and Elijah are my brothers.
Elijah is a beautiful 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…when we rehearse, he fully commits to the rehearsal and is in there and is taking it as an opportunity to try things out, 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 sets this incredible tone on set and every day was just a joy working with him.
We’d like to thank Fiona Gubelmann for her time. Make sure to keep your eye on the site for our weekly recaps.
Wilfred airs on FX on Thursday nights.