Former Energee! Dancer on CBS Drama

Duane Dudek
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Tanya Fischer plays Zoey Waters, the coquettish secretary on "The Defenders.".
Tanya Fischer plays Zoey Waters, the coquettish secretary on "The Defenders.".

“I love being from Wisconsin,” said Tanya Fischer, 25, from the CBS series “The Defenders.”

Fischer, who grew up in West Bend, spent her youth “daydreaming among the cornfields” about being an actress and was involved in “all sorts of activities” in high school. After graduation, she joined the Milwaukee Bucks’ Energee! Dance Team. She moved to New York in 2004 with “$1,000 and one suitcase,” slept on a friend’s couch and worked odd jobs. She didn’t have money for acting classes but got experience by working for theater companies and performing on stage. Through that, she got an agent and landed a recurring role on the short-lived ABC show “Life on Mars,” which was shot in New York.

“Then the stock market crashed and the industry changed,” she said.

She started losing roles to more established actors looking for work. So when a band she was in visited Los Angeles, she went to a “Defenders” audition, and after several screen tests she got the role. “The Defenders” stars Jim Belushi and Jerry O’Donnell as Las Vegas lawyers. The season finale airs Friday night at 7.

Fischer plays their secretary Zoey, whose competence is camouflaged by her coquettishness.

She said she drew on Judy Holliday in “Born Yesterday” and “Monkey Business,” an early Marilyn Monroe film, in creating the character, whose trademarks are brightly colored Post-it notes and a pink fuzzy-topped pencil, a prop Fischer pocketed when the series finished shooting.

Belushi is the star of the comedy-drama hybrid, but “The Defenders” is also an ensemble show, of which Fischer’s character is “the wild card. The random piece of the puzzle.”

“The Defenders” is produced and written by Whitefish Bay native Niels Mueller, with whom Fischer shared “handshakes and hugs” during the Green Bay Packers’ run to the Super Bowl, albeit behind Chicago native Belushi’s back. She said that Belushi “runs a tight ship” but is “open to improvisation if you come prepared.”

John Candy’s daughter is Fischer’s stand-in, and Belushi’s son Rob has appeared on the show.

Fischer had no such show business connections.

“I’m no producer’s kid,” she said.

Far from it. Her mother, Peggy Fischer, runs Shooting Star Travel in West Bend. Her dad runs a martial arts studio. Her younger sister attends the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and her brother attends her alma mater, West Bend High School.

When we spoke by phone last week, it was the day after she had finished filming her final scene of the season, and she was on a giggly adrenaline high.

“Right now, they’re packing up the stages until we get word” if the show was picked up for a second season, she said.

She is optimistic – “we’ve been pulling in good ratings consistently” – but also philosophical about the show’s future, and her own.

She said that when she interviewed for the commentary track on the DVD boxed set of the first season and was asked what she liked best about the job, “I had to say ‘everything.’ I’m not crashing on friends’ couches or eating food that restaurants throw away anymore. I like knowing my rent’s going to be paid for a while. And I can send my sister some dough for college. Who knows how long anything will last?

“But the work we are doing is something I’m proud of, and the audience seems to like it.”

And renewed or not, her dream is the same as it was in that cornfield: “To be a great actress.”

“I just want to keep at it,” she said. “I can’t wait to see after years of being around, the roles I can play when I’m a crazy old lady.”

[Tracey at]