[09/12/08 - 12:01 AM]
Interview: "The Office" Co-Stars Paul Lieberstein & Amy Ryan
By Jim Halterman (TFC)

Dunder Mifflin is back open for business as NBC's long running sitcom "The Office" returns on September 25 with a special hour-long season premiere. Paul Lieberstein, who plays Toby as well as being executive producer and writer, and Amy Ryan, who plays HR exec Holly Flax, shared what to expect with the new crop of episodes.

After being Oscar nominated earlier this year, Ryan made clear that it wasn't "The Office" that did the pursuing for her role. "I asked my agent and manager [that] the one job that I'd like I'd get if I weren't nominated [was] to be on 'The Office.' They ["The Office" producers] all laughed at me when I told them that story. They said I shot too low but I disagree. I think it's one of the best shows on TV."

Coming onto the set on the first day was nerve wracking for Ryan. She admits, "it's quite intimidating especially when you enter a show that you're a fan of and that you have great admiration for and you have take a moment to allow yourself to join them." She was also surprised about the lack of ego on the set. "It's quite an extraordinary group. Everyone is really supportive and very down-to-earth which is kind of staggering. You rarely see that when a group has a great success. [Laughs.] There's always one. I'm glad to report that everyone was so gracious and generous and the staff made the greatest welcome to me."

Lieberstein's character of Toby, besides being verbally beaten by Michael (Steve Carell) and is also secretly holding strong feelings for receptionist Pam (Jenna Fischer). Since Toby left at the end of last season to live in Costa Rica, Lieberstein shared some details about Toby's eminent return. "I think what brings him back is failure to escape. There was a friend of mine who actually is one of the writers here who, about ten years ago had collected enough money to live poor in Hawaii and he was going to just do it and surf because he loved to surf. He made a big deal of it, a going away party and he was back in two weeks. He was lonely. Nobody talked to him. He was robbed on the beach and that was it. That was our model for that."

With Holly appearing in six episodes this season, could the budding romance that was hinted at in last season's finale come to fruition this season? And what about Holly's incorrect assumption that Kevin (Brian Baumgartner) is mentally challenged? "Holly and Kevin is probably a little bit more a misunderstanding. If you can imagine her misunderstanding that he's mentally handicapped that will probably show its truth pretty soon. With Michael and Holly I think it gives us all hope that there's a lid for every pot, or I like to say a lid for every crackpot out there so everyone has a chance at some form of love." Since she was only signed for six episodes, Ryan says that there are no plans to have her back but she adds, "I suppose never say never."

Asked how he ended up in front of the camera when he's primarily a comedy writer, Lieberstein shares that "I think it got started as a bit of a practical joke or just Greg Daniels wanting the writers to have a little in-front-of camera experience to inform the writing and see what it's like. And then Kevin Reilly was President of NBC at the time and he was watching dailies and I think he forgot he knew me as a writer and said, 'That red-headed guy is kinda funny. More of him.' It kind of got around town as a joke in itself and I ended up in most episodes." However, if he had to choose between acting and writing, it's an obvious choice for Lieberstein. "I think we have such incredible actors on the show that when I write a line or a joke and I see them doing it awesomely I think that's my greatest joy on the show. We have such a talented cast, we can kind of really reach great heights."

However, as a writer/executive producer on "The Office," Lieberstein also knows that in terms of servicing the many relationship stories, all the writers are aware of delving too far into that terrain. "Yeah, it's a great question and we talk about it a lot. We always need a balance. We'll never go into an episode saying this is the episode about a relationship because there's always something happening. One of our episodes is a robbery in an office and there is ethics training but... I guess that's the way we answer it, that relationships are really the B story.

Though Lieberstein said that it was always part of the plan to keep Ryan around for a handful of episodes, it wasn't until the actress was on set that her character really took shape. "It really crystallized in the episode you saw on set when we started to see this really silly side that Amy brought to the character and found almost like a junior Michael in her and we all saw it and knew what we had."

Since her feature career is sure to grow due to her Oscar nomination, the obvious question is whether Ryan prefers television work to film. Ryan offers, "I mix it up but I'd say that the constant - at least something I strive towards is just great writing. I believe actors are really only as good as the writing that they're given so that's what led me to shows like "The Office" and "The Wire" and so that's where that formula comes from in my mind."

She adds that, "It's a wonderful departure to be in the world of comedy. Most of my career I feel like has mostly been these heavy dramas, rooting for the underdog on the lowest scale of the financial world. Showing up for work to do a comedy and you're guaranteed three fits of hysterical laughter a day, it feels really good. And not that dramas don't because they can be satisfying in their own way but there's something -- it's like being a like a kid, more so like getting together with your friends and just playing... play acting. It was a nice split."

And speaking of the impact the strike had on "The Office" last season, Lieberstein sums it up by offering, "I think it affected it really positively. It gave us a chance to do a reasonable group in the fall and then take a break, see how those episodes came out, edit them and really respond. I think in the spring came a group of our strongest episodes so I think it's a model of how HBO and 'The Wire' will do twelve or thirteen in a row and they'll come out so strong and I think it let us do two groups of twelve and - instead of this giant block where we have to kind of guess how things will come out. Creatively I was very happy with it."

"The Office" also boasts a stellar list of directors and this season is no different. Lieberstein shared that besides directing a few episodes in the coming season, "Juno" director Jason Reitman has signed to helm an episode and Stephen Merchant, who co-created the British and American version of "The Office," is directing the Halloween episode. Asked what it was like to have Merchant around, Lieberstein obviously had a positive experience. He shares that Merchant "was in the writers room with us rewriting [the script] over the last several days so it was really exciting having him there. He brings with him a bit of that initial integrity of the documentary that the British [version] had so he calls us out every once in awhile. [Lieberstein adopts a British accent] 'How are they going to do that with a little documentary?' When we seem to go a little too far or get too personal with them like to set a scene in the bathroom and he says, 'Really, I don't think they'd follow them in there.' He's extremely funny and it's been great working with him.

Finally, on the subject of cast member Craig Robinson recently having felony drug charges brought against him, Lieberstein revealed that Robinson (who plays Darryl) has, "been completely available to us and completely professional when he's here. It was a surprise to us but we saw no evidence of it and it's never impacted a single moment of work."

"The Office" returns for its fifth season with an hour-long episode on September 25 at 9:00/8:00c on NBC.

  [september 2008]  


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