Jenna Elfman makes a triumphant return to television comedy with an ambitious new series -- but this time, it's a whole other ballgame.
On ABC's live-action/CGI-animated sitcom, Imaginary Mary, Elfman plays Alice, a sports public relations executive, who falls in love with Ben (Stephen Schneider), a divorced father of three. What we soon learn is Alice's imaginary friend from childhood, Mary (voiced by Rachel Dratch), reappears out of nowhere when Alice nervously prepares to meet her boyfriend's kids for the very first time.
For the Dharma and Greg vet, Imaginary Mary presented a different kind of challenge -- one Elfman was eager to tackle head-on. Instead of acting opposite other actors, the 45-year-old actress spends a lot of her time talking to no one when scenes call for her character, Alice, to interact with her imaginary friend, Mary.
"It's a lot, but that's why I was interested in it, because I went, 'Wow, this is fully the next step up comedically and playing all that with [Mary], while also having actors in the scene who I'm having the scene with who don't know she's there," Elfman told a handful of reporters at a Los Angeles Lakers-Cleveland Cavaliers game at Staples Center on a recent Sunday afternoon in L.A. "You have to play these dual realities. This is like a nice new bag of tricks I get to practice and see how to do."
Ping-ponging between acting opposite Mary and the other actors was a steep "learning curve" for Elfman, who admitted there was a lot "to manage" in the beginning. According to Elfman, viewers see her becoming more and more comfortable with the process as the season goes along.
"I felt like I hit my stride," Elfman said. "My learning curve is all on camera. I started learning more and more. There's still more. I went to visit the post-production house after we were done filming and saw 25 animators who are my co-star. It was a whole dimension that came alive to me in a much bigger way than I had in my head while I was filming. That's a whole other expansion of my performance."
"It was a great challenge that made me feel really alive and engaged the whole time," she said. "I'm always learning. I'm always trying to grow and improve. If you're not doing that, I don't know what we're doing in life. I think I did a good job in this first batch and I certainly want to expand on that."
It's established early on why Mary, whom a young Alice created in her mind as a surrogate parent and friend, vanished from her life once she reached adolescence and adulthood. When Mary returns to Alice's orbit, she becomes her go-to advice giver about how to navigate a long-term relationship with kids in the picture.
"When it becomes apparent that this is a meaningful thing and she has no point of reference for a meaningful relationship, what's the rule book? None. It doesn't exist for her," Elfman said. "Not only does she not know a workable relationship, she doesn't know kids and she's now engaging on a relationship and kids, so it's a full pile-on of no point of reference, so there's a lot of journey there for her."
Imaginary Mary premieres Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.