About a year ago, Lisa Kudrow delivered the commencement address at Vassar College, where she received her own bachelor’s degree in 1985. Clad in black cap and gown, her long blonde hair streaming down her back, the star squinted slightly in the sunlight while reading her speech, even though she’d taken the precaution of printing it in oversize type. “I should have worn glasses,” she says now.
If the new Vassar grads expected the actress they’d grown up watching as spacey Phoebe Buffay on Friends to get all flaky on them and sing a chorus of “Smelly Cat”—Phoebe’s most beloved ditty—they were in for a disappointment. Kudrow delivered a carefully crafted, heartfelt yet humorous address in which she answered the question she said she is asked most frequently: “How did I go from biology major to actress?”
In fact, Kudrow says that while composing the speech, she drew on the lessons she’d learned from studying biology and evolution on that Poughkeepsie, New York, campus. “Evolution is change,” says Kudrow, who turns 48 on July 30. “There’s no good or bad in nature, no judgment. It’s just what happens. It helps if you view everything that happens as OK. It’s all OK.”
Her own evolution has been decidedly OK. “In certain ways, I feel wiser now,” Kudrow says. “Experience alone gives you so much information for making decisions. A kind of freedom comes from that. In my twenties, I had confidence but questioned if I was entitled to it. I think it’s healthy and human to question yourself, but the ratios are the key. I still question myself, but the questions are more specific, which makes it less unpleasant.”
A lot has happened to Kudrow since 2004, the year that Friends, the hit sitcom that catapulted her to stardom and earned her an Emmy Award and five additional nominations, concluded its 10-season run. She has become a multihyphenate, a writer-producer-performer who heads up a production company that turns out smart, ahead-of-the-curve shows, only some of which feature Kudrow. Notable entries include the show business satire The Comeback, which starred Kudrow and ran for one season on HBO in 2005; the current NBC reality show Who Do You Think You Are?, which investigates a celebrity’s ancestry; and the groundbreaking Web Therapy, which premieres on Showtime July 19. In this addictive new series, Kudrow plays a supercilious therapist who counsels, and more often insults, her clients, colleagues and family (including Meryl Streep as a sex therapist and Lily Tomlin as Kudrow’s mother). And she does it online, via webcam, which makes sense, since Therapy began, in 2008, as short webisodes.
“I think she’s a genius,” says Nora Ephron, who directed Kudrow, alongside John Travolta, in Lucky Numbers (2000).
“She’s like a more intellectual Lucille Ball,” says Tom Gliatto, TV critic for People magazine.
Marta Kauffman, who helped create and produce Friends and remains pals with the actress, says of Kudrow’s adventurous, post-Friends path, “Good for her, for doing work that she wants to do, that she loves to do, that’s interesting to her. So many people after success become afraid.”
Not that Kauffman expected timidity from Kudrow. She remembers the actress telling her early on, when Kauffman appeared surprised to learn about that Vassar degree, “I’m not stupid; I just play it on TV.”
And that may be the key to understanding Kudrow. She is not, and never has been, a dumb blonde. (Nor is she a born blonde; her natural hue is dark brown.) She has never allowed herself, even at the height of Friends’ success, to be sucked into the Hollywood maelstrom. Though she’s firmly focused on doing challenging, creative, professional projects, her private life is equally a priority—and she works hard to keep it that way.