‘Imaginary Mary’ posed a real acting challenge for Jenna Elfman in ABC sitcom

Mar 20, 2017

W.C. Fields once warned performers to “never work with animals or children,” lest they be upstaged by their cute castmates. Were he alive today, the famously irascible vaudeville comic and actor would likely take a dim view of CGI-animated characters, too.

And that’s not to say that Jenna Elfman is upstaged by the animated character she plays opposite in her new ABC comedy series “Imaginary Mary.” Quite the contrary. It merely underscores the skill it takes to act and react to an entity that viewers can see but the actor can’t.

In the half-hour series, which premieres Wednesday, March 29, Elfman (“Dharma & Greg,” “Friends With Benefits”) stars as Alice, a PR guru enjoying the fruits of success and the freedom that singlehood affords. But when Ben (Stephen Schneider, “You’re the Worst,” “Broad City”), a divorced father of three, crosses her path seeking help with his social media page, she falls hard. And that sets off alarm bells in the commitment-phobic Alice and summons forth her imaginary friend from childhood, Mary.

Mary, who resembles something of a cross between the Pillsbury Dough Boy and a mogwai from the movie “Gremlins,” would surface in times of crisis to talk Alice through whatever predicament she happened to be in. And now that the possibility of a long-term relationship has entered the picture, Alice needs Mary more than ever.

“She’s my inner voice and my mentor,” explains Elfman in a quiet corner of a Pasadena, Calif., hotel. “Mary kind of mirrors what’s going on with my character. So when Alice is a little tipsy, Mary is tipsy. And when Alice is enjoying her melted mint chocolate chip ice cream, Mary is enjoying the mint chocolate chip ice cream. So she’s mirroring her and challenging her at the same time, much like our own thought process.”

Playing opposite the CGI Mary turned out to be quite the exercise in acting for Elfman. In addition to having to be funny and believable as Alice, the actress also had to focus her eyes on a point in space where Mary was supposed to be while reacting to Mary’s lines being thrown at her by a comedic actress off camera (on the show, she’s voiced by Rachel Dratch of “Saturday Night Live” fame). And then of course, when the character moved, Elfman’s gaze had to adjust as well.

“We would sometimes tape marks on the walls,” Elfman notes, “but obviously if she’s in this space and right here – like sometimes she’ll be right here on the table with me so then it’s a dimension point so there’s nowhere to put tape. So sometimes there will be like eight to eleven eye (lines) in a scene that I’d have to remember while also focusing on performance (and) comedic timing.”

In the end, it was 15-hour days and a lot of mental calisthenics, but Elfman welcomed the challenge and says the experience made her better.

“It was great because I was ready for that next level of challenge … which really excited me,” she says. “It wasn’t just the same-old. It was like definitely the next level of game for me, which I loved.”

Jenna Elfman stars in “Imaginary Mary,” premiering Wednesday, March 29, on ABC.

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