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Jenna Elfman at 50: ‘I Feel Younger Than I’ve Ever Been’

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Jenna Elfman has lived enough life in her 50 years to know that even the most well-intentioned plans change, especially when you’re fortunate enough to make your living as a working actor. In September 2020, she and her family—husband Bodhi and their two kids—moved to Austin where she had been working, playing June Dorie in AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead since 2018. “I had been commuting and then when the pandemic hit, I started homeschooling my kids [on top of that], which just became a lot,” Elfman says. “We thought, Let’s just try and simplify things. So we moved to Austin, and it was much easier.”

And then, plot twist: Production for season eight of the horror thriller is moving to Savannah, Georgia—a good 1,100 miles away. (Season seven just finished airing in early June  2022.) “So I have to start commuting again,” Elfman says with a bit of an exasperated laugh. “We’re just taking one year at a time and seeing where the adventure of life takes us. We’re happy in Austin and the boys love it, so for now we’re there.”

That easy-going mindset has served Elfman well since she started working regularly in the mid ’90s. Bit parts on Roseanne and NYPD Blue, plus a series-regular role on the short-lived ABC sitcom Townies (opposite Lauren Graham and Molly Ringwald) led to her Emmy-nominated breakout role as the free-spirited Dharma Freedom Finkelstein Montgomery opposite Thomas Gibson on Dharma & Greg. The series ran for five seasons on ABC from 1997 through 2002 and made Elfman a household name.

She’s been working ever since in both movies and TV, but the entertainment industry can be very unforgiving. In fact, right before Fear the Walking Dead came long, Elfman was in a bit of a creative funk. She’d starred in nearly a half dozen new sitcoms over the previous 15 years, but as is so often the norm in show business, none had made it past its first season. Understandably, Elfman wasn’t sure what was next. “I felt like I was going through a second puberty—artistically and businesswise,” she says.

But Elfman is proof that if you keep grinding, eventually things will change. With a juicy role on Fear the Walking Dead and two podcasts (Kicking and Screaming, with her husband, and All the Things, with her friend, Heather Dale) that keep her already busy schedule more than full, she’s feeling more fulfilled than ever, location changes be damned.

Here, she opens up about finding freedom in turning 50, fame in the ’90s, and the fashion choice she’s finally embracing.

<h1 class="title">Jenna-Elfman.jpg </h1><cite class="credit">Amanda Elkins</cite>

Jenna-Elfman.jpg

Amanda Elkins

Glamour: In prepping for our interview, the first thing that came up when I googled your name wasJenna Elfman height.” What do you make of that?

Jenna Elfman: Well, just because it’s the first thing on Google, I don’t know that it means it’s the most relevant thing in my personal life. I’m 5'10". It’s not like I’m 6'3". The only time I really hear about my height is two scenarios.

Okay, tell me.

If I’m wearing high heels, then I’m 6'2" and then everybody needs to comment on it. I can’t just be a girl and wear my high heels and have someone say, “Oh, you look great.” It’s, “Oh, my God, you’re tall.” So the high heels is kind of annoying because it becomes the subject of the evening.

Do you have a good comeback for that?

It depends on my mood. It depends on how much sleep I’ve had or if I’ve eaten enough. [Laughs.] It depends on the vibe I receive it in, as well. If it’s kind, I’m like, “Right? It’s the heels.” Or if they’re sort of being snarky, I go, “Well, very good observation skills. Well done.”

And the other one is they’re just surprised that I’m 5'10" because on TV I look smaller. I say, “Well, my costars recently tend to be taller than me so I look normal height.” Whatever normal is.

Listen, there’s worse things when if you google yourself and the word height comes next to it, but it is funny. I’m just happy that I’m a healthy person. I think I forget I’m on the taller side often, unless I’m wearing high heels, which I very much try to avoid because I find them very annoying since the pandemic. I’m not interested in high heels. I like my Birkenstocks, thank you.

Thomas Gibson, Jenna Elfman (not in her Birkenstocks) in Dharma &amp; Greg, from 1998

Dharma & Greg, Jenna Elfman

Thomas Gibson, Jenna Elfman (not in her Birkenstocks) in Dharma & Greg, from 1998
©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

When I interviewed Dharma & Greg cocreator Chuck Lorre recently, he talked about wanting to create a character like Dharma who was full of love and unconditionally kind compared with some of the more edgy and hardened characters he had previously written. Tell me about your experience on the show, which is now streaming on Hulu.

He told me that [he had come off some] challenging experiences [on previous shows] and that it was just fun creating Dharma and working backwards to figure out where she came from. I loved his writing for the show. I loved what he and Dottie Dartland created. It was genuinely a lot of fun, and that whole cast was spectacular. It was sincerely a blast.

What would fans say when they would meet you?

Still to this day, if I’m walking through an airport or in the grocery store or whatever, people’s faces light up with joy and then they say, “I love Dharma. I wanted to be her. I wanted to know her. I wanted to be friends with her.” And then they say, “I hope you’re like her because she was really cool.” How amazing is that? It just takes me back to the fun I had making it. A lot of them are now watching it with their daughters or granddaughters and forwarding it on.

I also got letters that said, “I was going to kill myself, but [thanks to] watching Dharma & Greg I’ve decided not to because I realized it’s okay to be different. It’s okay to be myself.”

Wow.

I got a lot of those, frankly. So it just feels like, on many levels, it was a special experience.

Do you think you were or are like Dharma?

Well, I do genuinely love people. I love talking with people, hearing people’s stories. I think it’s an innate human inclination to share stories with each other and in your own persona make people feel safe to express themselves, to tell you their story. I think that’s probably what I share. I love people and I do really enjoy life. I actually really enjoy my life.

You had such an iconic haircut on the show. Was that for the character, or did you have that look prior?

No, I had it. My friend Caroline Wiseman had been my stylist for a while, and that’s what I went in with. And then I kept changing it because I’m kind of hair obsessed and couldn’t stick with one look.

Did you have to ask for permission back then? Or could you do what you wanted?

I kind of did what I wanted until I wanted to cut it super short. Then I called and asked if that would be okay. And they said yeah. It was kind of a transition for Dharma and it made sense, I guess.

You had a memorable cameo in the 1998 film Can’t Hardly Wait, where you played a stripper angel. Tell me about that.

It was a one-night shoot and out in the Inland Empire of Los Angeles outside this café place. I just had so much fun. I loved the absurdity of a stripper who’s in an angel costume having a hard time getting a ride and then ends up having this super-poignant life-lesson conversation in the most unbelievably sincere way. The optics of sitting there in a bikini with wings, smoking a cigarette, and giving life advice to Ethan Embry’s character was really funny and fun to do. And it became this thing. I had a fan—a man—show up once in my costume, and then he had me sign the gold bra. It was hilarious.

Where did he show up?

At a fan convention thing that I was at for Fear the Walking Dead. Wings and everything.

That’s amazing. When you first tried on the costume on set, what did you think?

Oh, I loved it. I thought it was hysterical. I knew we were going to be shooting at night and I thought a gold bikini with white angel wings was going to be visually wonderful in the night. I love absurd things. I love the absurdity of life and all of its oddities. I truly believe that this girl sincerely believed what she was saying in the most impassioned way, and slightly grumpy about the whole thing, which I thought was really cool. I had a great time.

Jenna Elfman and Ethan Embry, in 1998’s Can’t Hardly Wait

Jenna Elfman, Can't Hardly Wait

Jenna Elfman and Ethan Embry, in 1998’s Can’t Hardly Wait
©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Of all the actors you’ve worked with over the years, who has made the biggest impression on you, especially starting out?

Elaine Stritch. I saw her in A Delicate Balance on Broadway in 1996. At that time I didn’t know who she was, but I was so blown away by her performance and her energy, her iconic voice, and everything about her. I was obsessed with her after I saw her in that show. I said to myself, “I need to work with this woman. I’m obsessed. I want to be her when I grow up. I want to work with her.”

A week or two later, I had just gotten my first feature film with Richard Dreyfuss, which was Krippendorf’s Tribe. I sit down for the table read, and in walks Elaine. My heart started beating so fast. I couldn’t believe it. We became very fast friends. She was the first person I ever showed Dharma & Greg to when I got the [first footage], long before it was announced that it had been picked up at upfronts or anything. Elaine Stritch was the first person I showed it to besides my husband. There’s just something about her boldness and her confidence and how much space she occupied with her persona that enamored me. It’s like when you see someone who’s lived a lot and still has the capability to give a ton of love. That hits my soul. She probably made the biggest impact on me.

So when you look back at the ’90s and the ’00s, how would you describe yourself? What was that time like for you?

I knew how hard I had worked to get where I was; nothing was ever handed over. I spent hours sending my headshot out to casting directors, making the rounds to casting director’s offices, working my tail off in acting classes, etc. I just put in my time. So when I got a theatrical agent and finally started booking jobs, I always felt that I earned it because I knew how hard I worked to get it. I never felt like, “Oh, God, how did I get here?” Or, “I hope I can maintain this.” I know what it takes to achieve something, and I know how much work you have to put in. I was not out partying. Even through my teen years, I was never hanging out at the mall or partying. I was working towards my craft, in a classical art form. I know that was incredible training for me, and none of it came just by luck.

Anytime I got a job, it felt like a really validating reward for my hard work. But I was always, always trying to learn more, even to this day. I’m obsessed with becoming a better actor. I’m obsessed with learning, acting, and growing as an artist so that life constantly feels fresh and new.

I love that confidence because this industry can be a mind-fuck where you’re constantly thinking about why something may or may not have worked out.

Yeah. And I also—not in an entitled way ever—think the confidence comes from putting in the hard work and accomplishing something. It’s a terrifying, vulnerable journey that you have leading up to the accomplishment. I’m always like, “I got here the first time, and I can get here again.” I don’t like not working, but I also don’t panic about it because I know I can do it since I’ve done it before. That’s part of that confidence.

How do you cope with disappointment then when you’ve put heart and soul into something?

I ask myself, “Did I miss something? Did I not have the tightest personal ethics? Did I stay up too late? Did I get a little sloppy with my self-discipline? Or did I do everything I could and this just was not the one?” I sort of take an examination of myself first of all.

Jenna Elfman in FX drama Damages, season 5, episode 506: “I Need to Win” from 2012

Jenna Elfman, Damages

Jenna Elfman in FX drama Damages, season 5, episode 506: “I Need to Win” from 2012
DirecTV/Everett Collection

Where were you in your life and career when Fear the Walking Dead came around?

It was a big point of transition for me. I had just come off a comedy that was short-lived that I worked really hard on. I felt like I needed to go back into the dance studio and connect back to myself. I felt like I was going through a second puberty—artistically, and businesswise. It was a difficult time.

I rearranged some things in my life and granted myself the time and space to go, “What is it that you want to be doing right now? Not just on the wheel of continuing what you’ve been doing but doing a reassessment.” And I went, “I want to tell meaningful stories as a human being and as a woman.” Once I got that arranged for myself, in my mind, 10 days later they called and offered me that role [on FTWD]. It was a total blessing for me. I really needed it. It helped me rejuvenate my excitement artistically and pump new life into me for a new chapter.

You also have two podcasts: one with your husband, and one with your friend Heather. How does that fulfill you?

My husband and I have been together for 30 years, and we’ve been through everything and talk everything through. We are best friends. We love throwing ourselves under the bus and having a laugh about how ridiculous marriage is and how funny it is. Not just ours, but just as a subject matter. So we love exploring the absurdity of relationships and everything.

And then the one with my friend, Heather, we just have fun. We have fun with our own chats and thought we’d open that up and share our chats with everybody because sometimes you just need to hear somebody else say it, to know you’re not alone.

Is there anything you wish women would be more honest and open about?

I feel like it’s much better now with social media—people are definitely sharing more, but there’s communities. I feel like it’s a much more welcoming, open place, the world. On a recent podcast that Heather and I released, we were just talking about how some people feel like they have to share everything about their life on social media, but I really enjoy privacy as well. I don’t want to place the burden of my life on everybody to manage because people have got their own shit.

But when I was pregnant with my first child in 2007, my body really changed afterwards and it did not bounce back. I was filming [soon after] and seeing all of these “body after baby” media releases about celebrities after they have their children and how fantastic they look. And I did not look like any of them. I was on location filming a movie, having just had my first son five weeks before, and I looked like I was still pregnant. I had to bind [my belly] down and cover it with a coat. And there were paparazzi taking pictures of me filming and then captions that said like, “Body after baby.” I felt like I was betraying women…but I didn’t put that headline there. And I was always trying to find, do other women look like what happened to my belly? It only got worse after my second kid. It was extreme, and you’d never show that. No one seems to want to talk about it or share that because it’s really vulnerable.

Especially back in 2007. We’re much more real now, but back then, not as much.

It’s definitely more broad now, the scope of appreciating the beauty of women in all of their forms. But specifically after you have a child, it just feels very lonely, what happens to your body, and no one talks about that. It is crazy what goes on with your body. It’s beautiful, it’s amazing—but it’s a vulnerable time.

And people need to stop commenting on people’s bodies to begin with, whether you’re pregnant or not.

It should be more like, “Hey, how’s life? Are you all right? You accomplishing your goals? You need any help? How’s it going?” as opposed to enamored and obsessed with bodies.

Meanwhile, you just had a big milestone birthday last September. How did you feel about turning 50?

I feel younger than I’ve ever been. I feel like I have so much more knowledge about life, about myself, that I’m truly, genuinely enjoying life, and that gives you energy. I’m less stressed. I’m more interested. I get more sensation out of living than I ever have in my whole life. So I loved what 50 was. You really, really stop being so concerned about approval from other people. It doesn’t matter. They’re not living your life. Do you feel capable of living the way you wish? And if not, what do you need to do to accomplish that? What do you need to learn? That’s what’s very exciting to me about living.

I saw Reese Witherspoon posted on her Instagram a couple weeks ago about how when you really genuinely stop worrying about what other people think of you, you truly feel free. I couldn’t agree more.

Jessica Radloff is the Glamour West Coast editor and author of the soon-to-be-published book The Big Bang Theory: The Definitive, Inside Story of the Epic Hit Series (October 11, 2022). You can follow her on Instagram @jessicaradloff14.

Originally Appeared on Glamour