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When Jan Met Jacqueline: A Conversation With Melora Hardin, TV’s New Best Boss

The actress played the delightfully bad corporate manager on The Office and now stars as dream supervisor Jacqueline Carlyle on The Bold Type

Freeform/NBC/Ringer illustration

Think of a popular show from the past 40 years and there’s a pretty good chance Melora Hardin has made an appearance. Diff’rent Strokes. Matlock. Murder, She Wrote. Magnum, P.I. NCIS. CSI. CSI: Miami. Friends. Transparent (which earned her an Emmy nomination). Her IMDb could double as a survey of the evolution of American television, but she is probably most known for her work as the 21st century’s worst and best fake bosses. Hardin played The Office’s unpredictable corporate boss, Jan Levinson (formerly Levinson-Gould), for most of the show’s nine seasons, and she currently stars on Freeform’s The Bold Type as Jacqueline Carlyle, a fashion magazine editor who doubles as a fairy godmother for her young employees.

Carlyle could easily be a saccharine role, but Hardin turns her into a layered confection, and something rare: a kind, competent female boss character. Since The Bold Type aired its Season 2 finale this week, it seemed like a good time to catch up with Hardin to talk about what it’s like to portray television’s kindest female boss and television’s kookiest female boss. She spoke with The Ringer on a break from production of the show’s third season, which films in Montreal.

Your character on The Bold Type, Jacqueline, was inspired by [longtime Hearst editor] Joanna Coles. I’m curious how you navigate inhabiting a character based on someone who exists.

She inspires the whole story. I’ve met her and we’ve become friends, and she’s just a wonderful woman. She is a real woman’s woman, a real advocate. But I’m obviously not playing her, it’s not a biopic. What’s interesting is, she is actually my boss. She is very much the kind of boss that Jacqueline is. She’s not threatening, not competitive. Just very joyful.

I think a lot of younger female writers like The Bold Type because it’s nice to imagine having that kind of mentor.

I’ve heard that from a lot of journalists. I had another interview with somebody a couple days ago, and she said, “I want to thank you because I have not had that experience, and you playing Jacqueline just makes me feel like I get to look in on the other side and it’s very moving to me to see what that might’ve been like had I had that kind of a mentor.” The way she said it was very moving. It was very touching to me. She was really earnest about feeling seen, and feeling like, “Oh my God, there’s a different way to do it.”

I hope that it will get people in the industry thinking about how helpful it would be to be more proactive about mentorship. It definitely doesn’t always happen in journalism.

Such a competitive environment doesn’t really grow greatness. When people don’t feel safe, they don’t feel like they can actually be their greatest self.

Did you have any female mentors in your acting career?

I can’t really say that I have. My greatest mentors have been my mom and my ballet teacher. I was a very serious ballerina. I would’ve told you as a child that I was going to be a ballerina, and that acting was just my hobby. I went to Joffrey Ballet on scholarship when I was 13. I had some incredible dance teachers, and I’m really so grateful for that. They gave me an incredible connection to my body, and confidence about my physical self and how to move through the world in a way that absolutely comes from my dance training. As far as acting, though, I did take a class with Stella Adler when I was 18. I was thinking about whether I wanted to continue or not acting. I’d been under my mom’s wing, because she was an acting teacher and my dad was an actor. They really taught me the craft. My mom’s an amazing acting teacher. She taught Leonardo DiCaprio, and discovered Jessica Biel and many, many, many people. But I was thinking, “Is this what I want to do?” So I took the acting class with Stella Adler, and she was really tough on women in particular. I did a scene from Agnes of God. I did all this stuff to prepare for it, but I never felt like I arrived at kind of a well-polished performance. I got on stage to do it in the class, and it was one of those incredible moments as an actor, where I got so in touch. And then she just turned to me at the end and said, “I have nothing to say to you, that was brilliant.” At that moment of time for me in my life, it was exactly what I needed to hear. I don’t know if that can speak sort of as mentorship because it wasn’t. But it was like a moment of something I needed.

Do you think that things are getting better for women in the industry?

I have a really wise friend who says Hollywood is like high school with money. It’s not ageist, it’s not sexist. It just doesn’t tolerate victims. And I think that that’s kind of true in a way. I think a lot of women have behaved like victims in the business. Sometimes it’s because they have been. We have absolutely been second-class citizens. We’ve absolutely had less opportunities. There’s no doubt. But at the same time, now the opportunities are absolutely there. I see a lot more people stepping forward, and I think that’s amazing and wonderful. There’s still work to be done and things don’t change overnight, but I do see things changing, little by little.

Amazon just announced that Transparent will be coming back for a final season, and I’m wondering if you have any plans to return to the show. [Hardin’s Tammy Cashman has not been seen since the second season.]

They have not said anything about that. I would go back if there was. I had nothing but an amazing time on that show and an amazing experience with Jeffrey Tambor and with everybody else. Particularly with my love interest on the show, Amy Landecker, who is still a good friend. So, yeah I’d go back in a second. I loved Tammy Cashman.

I hope we can see her again. Speaking of old roles, last week, The Ringer highlighted The Office’s “Dinner Party” episode in our Best TV of the Century package. I wanted to ask you about your favorite Jan moment.

I’m quite proud of the Dundie hitting the television every time.

We did it three times and I hit it every time. I think all the crew guys kind of had a crush on me after that. I loved the moment in “Dinner Party” where I put on the Hunter song and I danced inappropriately, because I am a dancer, and it was super fun for me to try to kind of dance just a little off the beat, just a little wrong. I also loved the moment where [Michael Scott] heard the ice cream truck and he ran through the glass door. Because Steve [Carell] and I were kind of improvising there and I said, “That makes me the devil” and I did those little devil horns, and he has such a real reaction. They were filming both of us at the same time, so you get to see me doing that and his real reaction to it in the moment.

Jan’s character arc is so unexpected and funny. Do you have any theories about where she would be in 2018?

It’s funny, because someone just posted a meme on Twitter that said something like, “Isn’t it great that Jan Levinson got her life together and got to change her name and became Jacqueline Carlyle and became an editor-in-chief in New York City.” There’s a picture of Jan, and then next to it, a picture of Jacqueline.

That would be an amazing plot twist.

I know. Jan is a survivor. I always liked Jan. A lot of people were like, “She is such a bitch.” I didn’t see her that way. She was attracted to Michael in the first place because he represented a kind of softer life. When we were talking earlier about women in the business, goes for women in any business—women had to kind of be men in order to achieve, climb the corporate ladder. She really had become much more masculine. Something about Michael Scott made her feel more feminine, and it made her feel a little softer, even though he was such a dork. I would say that she probably found some man that is making a good living. She probably still works, but I think she’s pretty into being a mother. Still, I’d think, tortured and unraveling at times.

Now I’m kind of into this idea that Jacqueline is secretly Jan.

If it were true, it would be hilarious.