Interview: Paul Lieberstein & Amy Ryan from The Office

We had the pleasure of sitting down with Paul Lieberstein & Amy Ryan of NBC’s The Office to talk about the series and the new season starting September 25th. Here’s what was said:

What was the funniest human resource experience in your life and maybe through – for this great role?

A. Ryan: Well probably back, you know, from grammar school when I was at one point a hall monitor. Anyone who keeps boring rules.

No proper interviews or like a corporate job before you got into acting?

A. Ryan: No, no. But being a fan of The Office and watching Paul’s performance as Toby, I think that’s all the research anyone would need.

How did it work out that you got this part? Was it as simple as them reaching out to you and you wanting to do it?

A. Ryan: I think there were a few things in play. One is I knew Paul Lieberstein many years ago from a television show we both worked on called The Naked Truth. And then most of the writers turned out to be fans of The Wire.

And then I had briefly known Steve Carell when we shot the film Dan in Real Life. And then I got nominated for an Oscar and I asked my agent and manager – I said, you know, the one job I’d like that I don’t think I’d get if I weren’t nominated, I want to be on The Office.

And so some people thought I – they all laughed at me when I told them that story, but they said I shot too low. But I disagree. I think that’s one of the best shows on TV.

No, it’s a wonderful show. It really is. Good choice.

A. Ryan: Thank you.

You know, when we talked to Brian a few weeks ago he said that he was, you know, really excited about you coming back and what could possibly happen between your character and his character.

A. Ryan: Yeah.

But obviously, like, you know, Holly was probably more into Michael as the season ended.

A. Ryan: Yeah.

So what can we expect this season in the relationships between Holly and Kevin, and Holly and Michael?

A. Ryan: Well, Holly and Kevin is probably a little bit more a misunderstanding. You imagine, you know, her misunderstanding that he’s mentioned a handicap that sort of – (probably) show its truth pretty soon.

And with Michael and Holly, I think that it gives us all hope that there’s a lid for every pot or I like to say there’s a lid for every cracked pot out there. So it’s – everyone has a chance at some form of love.

Is there a fixed number of episodes that you’re going to be doing or is there the possibility that you might stay longer?

A. Ryan: Well I’m back home in New York so I finished my, you know, my initial agreement of the six episodes. But I suppose, you know, never say never. But I don’t have any plans at this moment to head back.

Do you have most of your interaction in your six episodes with just Michael and Kevin, or do you actually get to go out and intermingle with the rest of The Office staff?

A. Ryan: Oh yeah, no I’ve completely moved into Toby’s desk. So complete with personal photos. But yeah, I get to intermingle with everyone in the office.

You’ve done so much TV and film, and you’re really great on both sides. Do you prefer one to the other or do you see, you know, your career going in one direction? Or do you kind of like to mix it up?

A. Ryan: No, I mix it up but I’d say that the constant – at least something I strive towards is just great writing. And but no, it’s true though because 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.

Does Michael have a shot with the new girl?

A. Ryan: Well, I don’t know if I should kiss and tell. I think the beauty is that he’d make shots and then I don’t know if I can really give away plot line. But I will say, you know, he gets points for trying.

When you did the season finale, was this already intended to continue into this season?

A. Ryan: I don’t think so. That’s actually a better question for Paul.

P. Lieberstein: We did. We didn’t have a deal with her yet so we were really hoping. But no, we knew that she would stay around, or we hoped.

Could you talk a little bit about the development of Holly as a character and whether it was something that you and Jen pitched or whether it was something that the team devised together?

P. Lieberstein: No, it was talked about among the writing staff a great deal and I would say – but it really crystallized in the episode that 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.

Has Holly figured out that Kevin might actually (be not) special?

A. Ryan: Can I answer that, Paul?

P. Lieberstein: Yeah.

A. Ryan: Yeah, she finds out the hard way.

Paul, I’m assuming Toby is going to come back eventually so is it his love for Pam that brings him back?

P. Lieberstein: I think what brings him back is failure to escape.

There was a friend of mine who’s actually one of the writers here that decided to – maybe about ten years ago, collected enough money to live poor in Hawaii and he was going to just do it and surf because he loves to surf.

And he had made a big deal of it, had a going away party and he was back in two weeks because he was lonely. Nobody talked to him. He was robbed on the beach and that was it.

So that was our model for the success…

As a follow up to that, if you could choose an exciting story for Toby to tell to Pam to impress her, what would it be?

P. Lieberstein: Maybe the time his camera was stolen by a monkey or the time he was attacked by a monkey in Costa Rica, or the time when a monkey took his wallet. Probably one of those three.

So obviously he has a – Toby would have some kind of trouble with a small animal, right?

P. Lieberstein: Yeah. Somebody is picking on him is the theme.

With the similar intelligence of Michael Scott.

P. Lieberstein: Yes.

I’m just curious how it came to be that you got in front of the camera and other than your friend that you mentioned, is there any other thing that you draw on to make Toby such a sad sack?

P. Lieberstein: Yeah, I must draw on myself because I never even thought I was a sad sack. But 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 kind of inform the writing, see what that’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 redheaded guy who is kind of funny – more of him.

And that kind of got around town as a joke in itself and all of a sudden I was in most episodes.

Paul, do you think it’s meant to be that you got involved with The Office considered that you graduated from Staples High School in Connecticut?

P. Lieberstein: Do you know Staples, is that where this is coming from?


P. Lieberstein: Did you grow up there?

No, no – but staples – I mean, Staples High School.

P. Lieberstein: Oh, oh, oh yes, I didn’t even put it together. I don’t know why. Yeah, maybe it’s all been leading to this like everything I’ve done so far.

So you think that Toby can find happiness in a job elsewhere outside of this office?

P. Lieberstein: I don’t know if happiness is in Toby’s future. I just don’t know if I see – you know, it’s just kind of something you bring with you everywhere you go.

Are you going to be directing it again this season, and, you know, how many episodes you’ll be directing?

P. Lieberstein: Oh, I’m probably going to direct a couple this season. It’s not locked in exactly which ones they are, but that’s my goal at least.

You wear a lot of different hats on the show with acting, directing, producing, writing. I was wondering if you enjoy any certain one more than the others or do you…

P. Lieberstein: I think I kind of do. I think we have such incredible actors on the show that when I write a line or a joke and I see them do it awesomely, I think that’s my greatest joy on the show – just kind of nailing that.

See I think – you know, I mean, we have such talented cast that I think we can really reach kind of great heights and yeah, that’s it.

Paul, how did last year’s writes’ strike affect the last season?

P. Lieberstein: I think it affected it really positively. It let us do a (reasonable) group in the fall and then kind of like take a break, see how those episodes came out, you know, edit them and really respond.

And I think in the spring came a group of our strongest episodes. So, you know, I think they’re like kind of the model of how HBO, you know, and The Wire, you know, will do 12 or 13 in a row and then they’ll come out so strong.

I think it let us do like two groups of 12 and – instead of this giant block where we have to kind of guess how things are going to come out.

Creatively, I was very happy with it.

Jenna Fischer just posted a blog saying that you’re filming a Halloween episode this week and it’s being directed by Stephen Merchant.

P. Lieberstein: Yes.

And I was wondering if you could share any details or describe what it’s been like having him on the set?

P. Lieberstein: Well his episode hasn’t started shooting yet. It shoots this afternoon.

But he was in the writers room with us rewriting it over the last several days and so it was really exciting having him there. He brings a bit of the – kind of that initial integrity of the documentary….that the British had.

And so he calls us out every once in awhile when we’re – he’s like how are they going to do that with a little documentary? You know, when we seem to go a little too far or get too personal with them.

We’ll set a scene in the bathroom and he’s like really, I don’t think they follow them in there. But…

So we have some great new costumes to look forward to?

P. Lieberstein: Great new costumes? Yes.

Are there any other high profile directors that will direct episodes this season?

P. Lieberstein: Jason Reitman.

Oh awesome.

P. Lieberstein: We have that, yeah, very excited.

You mentioned that you liked writing dialogue and scenes for the other actors. How do you tackle when you have to write for Toby?

P. Lieberstein: You know, I almost never do it.


P. Lieberstein: You know, I give him like one or two lines in my episodes, but – so I feel like, the best and certainly the most Toby talk comes from the other writers.

Oh, so you intentionally pass it off onto them?

P. Lieberstein: Yeah, exactly. I tell them to make me a star.

With so many different storylines, the ball is kind of in the air. All the different relationships and Jan’s pregnancy, and all those things. Is there every any concern that maybe you guys are spending too much time on relationships and not just on these stories, or do they kind of blend together? How do you kind of keep it from becoming too (stopey), I guess is my question?

P. Lieberstein: Yeah, it’s a great question and we talk about it a lot. And we just – we always need a balance. You know, we’ll never go into an episode saying this is the episode about a relationship.

There’s always something else happening. One of our episodes is a robbery in the office and there is ethics training. But – and that’s, I guess, the way we answer it, that the relationships are always the B stories.

And I know you might not want to give too much away, I’m really curious to where Ryan is going to turn up this year because he definitely went down a bad path the last time we saw him.

P. Lieberstein: He went down a bad path, yeah. So he’ll spring back up in a way that I think is typical for people who are not – who don’t – who can spin anything.

I know that you can’t give away too much for the new season. There’s a lot of plot points and what not. But I was wondering if you could comment regarding the new season. Were the writers and producers having to change up Darryl’s storylines a lot based on what happened with Craig Robinson?

P. Lieberstein: No, not at all. He was – he’s been completely available to us and completely professional when he’s here. So it was – you know, it was a surprise to us.

But we saw no evidence of it and it’s never impacted a single day of work or a moment of work.

I watched an episode the other day from Season 2. It was the “Booze Cruise” and then I watched the deleted scenes. In some of the scenes, such as Creed picking up the guitar and jamming with the band, they’re priceless. Does it break your heart when so many great scenes wind up on the cutting room floor?

P. Lieberstein: Yeah, it’s awful. They’re often our favorite scenes because they’re maybe pure comedy scenes and they’re not quite on story. And that’s why they got in there, and we’ve just played with them.

And then we forget what’s in and not – what in, you know, and we’ll be – you know, we’ll think everybody knows, you know, Creed does a band and then someone will say no, no we cut it. And we’re like disappointed. And (build) on that.

With the season finale it looked like there may be some problems in Jim and Pam’s relationship. I’m wondering what you could tell us about where they’re headed as we go into the next season? And, you know, as far as Toby goes, is it possible that he could actually be a real spoil in their relationship or does he just stay as sort of a comic aside?

P. Lieberstein: Well, there – let’s see, they’re – Pam’s going to take an internship in New York and they’re going to try long distance dating. And that’s going to be, you know, the source of obstacles for them.

And I think, you know, Toby is less of a threat than the price of gas for Pam.

So I wanted to find out Paul as a writer, you would have the information – do we think we’re going to see Angela and Andy actually make it to the alter?

P. Lieberstein: That is such a good question. I want to answer right. They will make it to an alter of sorts. But probably not what you’re thinking or in the way you’re thinking. But yeah, I guess I – let’s see, I don’t have a good quip to answer that without giving away the good stuff. I think there’s a lot of fun coming up in that relationship.

So from weddings to babies, what are we going to see go on in the arc of Jan’s pregnancy? Is – are we going to find out there really is a father, who the father is? What’s going to happen there?

P. Lieberstein: We’re taking it bit by bit. You will see a baby shower that the office throws for her. And then we won’t visit the father. Well there is some talk about who the father might be.

As the president and future or once in future HR directors, there would seem to eventually maybe a clash between Toby and Holly when Toby got back from parts unknown. How does that resolve itself? Is it peaceful or do they throw down? Or how does that happen?

P. Lieberstein: Oh…

A. Ryan: Paul, you want to take that? I don’t know if that’s a plot point question.

P. Lieberstein: Yeah, you know, we’ve been trying not to give away things.

Mike Schur and Greg are working on the untitled Amy Poehler non-spin-off show. To a certain extent, has that changed the dynamic in the writing room at all? Are you missing them? Are they still totally there all the time? What’s sort of the balance of power at this point?

P. Lieberstein: We miss Mike a lot. Greg’s around still. He’s somehow finding a way to, for the most part, run both shows – supervise the running.

P. Lieberstein: …he has to walk through the room to get to snacks, so we see him. So we always – we’re always happy when he’s hungry.

Amy – I thought it was hilarious when Dwight was trying to put the raccoon in her car. I’m just wondering is he going to continue trying to haze her or does that stop?

A. Ryan: I think – it pretty much stopped, didn’t it Paul?

P. Lieberstein: Yeah, the hazing stopped.

A. Ryan: Yeah.

P. Lieberstein: Dwight pretty much accepts what Michael accepts, you know.

A. Ryan: Yeah.

P. Lieberstein: And he hazed her in kind of a miscommunication with Michael when Michael – because she came in and – as an HR rep and he didn’t know her yet, and instantly hated her. And Dwight took on a – you know, took that as a directive, you know. But I think once…

A. Ryan: Yeah, he said the guy was Toby and that it smelled like a woman.

P. Lieberstein: Yeah, it was just Toby as a woman. And as that changed, Dwight didn’t pick up on it, so that’s where the hazing came from.

Amy, you said you do get a chance to have your own desk when Holly takes Toby’s place. Did you get a chance to personalize your desk with really any of your own personal effects, anything we can keep an eye out for while we watch the show?

A. Ryan: No, but that’s kind of the magic of the prop department. One day during a scene I looked over and there was some photograph with me and some other woman that looks like – just like two friends.

But I don’t know who that woman is, so they photo shopped a couple of things together. It’s amazing what they find.

Can you speak a little bit about what it’s like coming into a cast that is as established as The Office?

A. Ryan: Oh, well on paper in the first day, it’s quite intimidating because – especially when you enter a show that you’re a fan of and – but you have great admiration for. You have to take a moment to allow yourself to join them.

And – but it’s quite an extraordinary group that everyone was really supportive, and very down to earth which is kind of staggering. You rarely see that when a group has a great success – a bunch of actors.

There’s usually one – there’s always one, you know, and I’m happy to report that there were – everyone was so gracious and generous and that made the greatest welcome, you know.

What would you say separates your experience on The Office so far apart from everything else you’ve done – all the TV and film, a little bit of Broadway? What would you say kind of separates it from the rest of your career?

A. Ryan: Lipstick. No, I – it’s a wonderful departure to be in the world of comedy. I’ve been – most of my career, I feel like has been mostly these really heavy drama, rooting for the underdog on the lowest scale of the, you know, financial world.

But – and showing up to 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 ways.

But there’s something – it’s just being like a kid, more so like getting together with your friends and, you know, just playing – play acting. It was a nice split.

I’m wondering as someone who was a fan of The Office before coming and joining The Office, was the environment on the site while you were working what you expected? Was there anything that surprised you?

A. Ryan: The first day when I walked on set, yeah, it feels like almost walking into a museum. Just anything that you’re very familiar with from the comfort of your own living room couch, you know.

So it took a minute just to – you know, I felt like a little kid, you know, walking around, you know. But and a – one of my good friends is Rashita Jones who was on the show, as you know, and so I would call her a lot and say – you know, just ask for advice like before I joined.

And, you know, what can I expect and, you know, I knew some of the actors. You know, I knew Rainn. We share mutual friends and Steve and I – I had a small part in a film of his a year before that.

So – and of course, Paul and I knew each other many, many years ago on another TV show. So that all helps walking into a new environment.

And we saw some bloopers from the Season 4 DVD of various people who couldn’t get through scenes because they were laughing so hard.

A. Ryan: Oh my god.

Did you have any experiences like that so far?

A. Ryan: Yes. It was one of my favorite things – was almost to see who’s going to go first. And the day that I went first I was mortified. I was like that’s just not done with the new kid. You can’t do that.

But I laughed so hard at one point that it turned into just bawling tears. So I’m not sure where the laughter began and sorrow took over, but I had to reapply – makeup had to come in and reapply.

P. Lieberstein: I didn’t know that.

A. Ryan: Yeah, you could see – I’m trying to hide behind my hair and just my shoulders are convulsing. And Steve just carried on like, you know, no bother. I couldn’t believe it.

But it feels really good to do that. But it’s like, you know, when you’re in school and you’re told to be quiet during a test and once someone goes you all do, and it becomes like dominoes.

Looking at your resume there’s not – I know you mentioned The Naked Truth, but there’s not a ton of other comedy work on it, at least on camera. What was it like going back into that arena after having done so much serious stuff in the recent past anyway?

A. Ryan: Yeah I mean, I was truthfully, you know, very nervous because it wasn’t just going back into comedy. It was going back into the best comedy. You know, and trying to stand up next to that cast is – it’s not an easy thing to do.

But they certainly made it easier for me. As (they) said earlier, the writing is so stellar. But I guess it’s also, you know, just those roles have just – you know, don’t play the comedy, you play the seriousness of the situation, you know. Don’t ask for the last (off) for (the ham sandwich) or something like that. Is that the rule, Paul?

But I was happy to see it was kind of a much more freeing experience than I had thought. But truth be told, the first day I showed up at the finale I was petrified. I was – I think I really was.

Yeah, does the style of the show where you’re not having to sell a big joke and a punchline make it any easier to do?

A. Ryan: Well I feel, you know, The Office — unlike some other comedies, you know, in the past where you did have to sell a joke — I feel like these are almost like jokes that come out of human behavior and what’s fun about it is like the darker side of human behavior.

So for me I would – now I know the writers wrote jokes along with the character situations, but the more I could see it as just a real life situation, you know, and the joke is someone said something awkward, then that’s the way I kind of like skirted around the issue of being intimidated by it.

Paul, what would you think of it if the marketing of the show reached the point that there could be a Toby bobblehead?

P. Lieberstein: I know at one point they considered – they had mockups of bobbleheads for every character.

And they never quite reached the NBC store. And I think they must’ve done the smallest amount of market research to see there wasn’t a market.

Joanne Park: Hey you guys, it’s Joanne. There is going to be – there will be bobbleheads.

P. Lieberstein: There will be?

Joanne Park: Yes, yes. There will be bobbleheads of everyone.

P. Lieberstein: Oh that’ll be fun.

Joanne Park: Yes.

I just am so curious because everybody loves The Office so much, what TV shows do you love? And actually more specifically, what are your favorite guilty pleasure TV shows?

P. Lieberstein: Go Amy.

A. Ryan: Well I’m not just saying this but I love The Office and so that’s why I was kind of hoping that that worked out. But my guilty pleasure show – and I actually don’t even know if it’s still on the air, but I used to love that show Blind Date. That was my guilty pleasure show.

And what about you, Paul?

P. Lieberstein: Yeah, I don’t know if I – I like – the amount of time I have, I had to fade out some of the guilty pleasure shows. But I have to – I watch hour longs because I can appreciate some comedies, but it’s work.

I see them like the code in the matrix because I’m – I’ve been writing them for so long that I can’t just sit back and enjoy them. But that fades away when I’m watching, you know, Law & Order or The Wire. That was a huge favorite. That’s a good show.

Interview By: Emma Loggins

The Office


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