Tell me about Jan Levinson, the emotionally complicated sometimes-girlfriend of Michael Scott on The Office. How did you play that character without turning fans against her?
I love that you can see into all those layers. I don’t know that I was trying to walk that line you talk about, but to me, from the minute I said the first line as Jan Levinson I sensed she was very complex. Maybe it was just the lucky combination of the writing of Jan and me playing her.
You just finished your first day on the new season of Dancing with the Stars, didn’t you? How are you feeling?
I’m exhausted, but I feel great. It’s just go, go, go with this show. I haven’t had a day off in two weeks, so I’m like, Okay, so is that the pace? I guess so. Yeah, it’s intense.
How do you know you’re “good to go” when the music starts, as opposed to an acting role? Is it a different mental process?
It is. I had a big “Aha” moment the night before because it’s live television, which is really refreshing and different, something that we don’t get a lot these days. It’s similar to theater in that you have to be on—you have be ready to go when they say go, and you know you’re going to get one chance. With film and television, it’s different in the sense that you have to be ready to go…but you also know that you have time to finesse. Sometimes with film and television, you show up and run through it a couple of times, and it’s out of order, and you have to bring all of your skillsets to prepare your emotional self—where your character is in that moment in time and in the arc of the story and the arc of the evolution of the character.
Also, in television and film, you can really communicate so much through your eyes.
And you have lines, and sometimes you have songs. You have more than one scene to show people who the character is. Here, you have one moment. You have one chance. You have no lines. It’s in this giant universe of lights and explosions, and they’re barely on your face because they’re watching your body. It’s a much bigger, broader stroke that you have to make as a performer. That was a big realization to me.
Fans may remember you from your starring roles in the film Lambada and the TV series Dirty Dancing. I guess Dancing with the Stars was not your first tango.
I started acting professionally at six, and I’d started dancing at five. [When I was younger] I think I would have told you that acting and singing and songwriting were my hobbies, and that I was going to be a ballerina. In my little girl mind, that was what I thought I was going to do. I think Dancing with the Stars is this wonderful opportunity to reawaken my little girl fantasy and dream. It’s the closest I’ll ever come to being a ballerina.
Editor’s Note: This Q&A was conducted by Gerry Strauss. Gerry spent a little more time with Melora and they chatted about her roles on Transparent and The Bold Type, as well as her work as a director on an upcoming documentary based on her friend Paula Cole’s iconic song “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?”