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.
Kudrow, clutching a takeout coffee cup, rushes into the offices of her production company, Is or Isn’t Entertainment, on the ground floor of a house on a quiet, treelined street in Los Angeles. She is five minutes late—after dropping off her son, Julian, 13, at school—and apologizes as she leads the way into a meeting room. Dressed in jeans and a long black sweater, she settles her five-foot-eight-inch frame onto a couch, reaches over to pluck a croissant from a platter and signals that she’s ready to talk.
And talk she does, for the next two hours, about career, fame and family. “I talk a lot,” she says. “I go on and on.” She is friendly, funny and forthright, willing to answer most questions but not all. Asked if it’s true that she was a virgin when she married—at age 31—she debunks that oft-told Hollywood tale with the real story: “I think in People magazine I said that I had once hoped I would be a virgin when I got married. And then Jay Leno made a joke in his monologue about me being a virgin, and the story got started.”
SO, um, at what age did she lose her virginity? Kudrow laughs and demurs: “If I haven’t told my son yet, then I shouldn’t tell everybody else.”
She’s content with where her career is now, making comedy shows that are more class than mass. She says she wouldn’t want to star in one major movie after another (though she’s happy for former Friends castmate Jennifer Aniston, who does) because “to maintain a career at that level, there have to be choices.” Though she’s appeared in her share of big features (including Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Analyze This and, most recently, Easy A), she has lately chosen to pull back from films. “They’re out of town, and it’s too hard on my son,” she says. “That’s not the way I want to parent. I don’t want him traveling with me. It’s different for every child, but for us, we need consistency.”
Making movies would also take her away from her husband, Michel Stern, a French-born advertising executive turned financier, and her extended family. “She’s massively connected to family,” says Sex and the City producer-director Michael Patrick King, who created The Comeback with Kudrow. How connected? Every Sunday night, Kudrow, her husband and her son get together for dinner with her parents, two older siblings, their spouses and their children. On weeknights she is usually home in time for dinner with Stern and Julian. Kudrow herself cooked those weekday meals until her schedule grew too packed and the family’s housekeeper-nanny took over. “Now she’s so good that no one wants me to cook,” Kudrow protests. “I keep reminding them, ‘Where do you think that recipe came from?’ ”
Friends and colleagues describe her as a confirmed homebody. “She’s not someone who walks into a party and emerges with 15 friends,” says her -production-company partner, Dan Bucatinsky. “Lisa would rather be home playing Scrabble or watching movies.”
Kudrow says she and her husband “make sure that we have our life together and that it’s separate from professional stuff.” She’s not one for flashy Hollywood parties: “I’d rather see the movie than go to the premiere. But it’s part of the business, to be out there and be seen.” Her husband, she adds, tags along only if it promises to be fun or if he’ll see people he knows.
Her own background may have set up Kudrow for this intense family focus. She was born and raised in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, where her physician father, Lee, specialized in headache treatment and research and her mother, Nedra, was a travel agent (both are now retired). As the youngest of three children, she enjoyed certain advantages. “I learned really quickly I could get away with things,” she recalls. “I’d say, ‘I’m just little. I don’t know any better.’ ” It was a happy childhood and, looking back as a parent, she says she realizes just how supportive her parents were: “If a teacher didn’t like me—if there were any, because my first job was to get them to like me—my father’s attitude was, ‘Oh, fuck her, what does she know?’ That was great.”
WHEN it came time for college, Kudrow applied to several in the East. Vassar, which she put on her list because she’d heard it mentioned in old movies, became her top choice when it was the first to accept her. “I didn’t want to go to a party school. I wanted to be around people who were intellectually curious,” she says, popping a piece of Nicorette gum into her mouth (she quit smoking when she was pregnant and again six years ago, but still chews four to six pieces of the gum daily).
At Vassar, Kudrow spent her time among the petri dishes and beakers at Olmsted Hall, the biology building. She attended a few campus productions but evinced no interest in being an actress. “Ironically, Lisa and I were both at Vassar at the same time, but we didn’t know each other,” Bucatinsky says. “I was in a weird avant-garde performance troupe, and we did a dance on the steps of Olmsted, but she says she doesn’t remember it.”
After graduation, Kudrow returned to L.A. and a job assisting her father with his medical research. “I was studying hemispheric dominance and headache types and planning to apply to go to graduate school in neuropsychopharmacology,” she says, uttering that mouthful so naturally that she might as well be a regular on House. Then a funny thing happened: She found herself mentally critiquing performers in sitcoms. “I’d think, They’re hitting the joke too hard; you gotta throw it away,” she says. “It was like there was this alternate reality coexisting in me. It was an inner voice.”
She listened. Six months into her research job, Kudrow announced to her stunned family that she was going to try acting. On the advice of Jon Lovitz, a friend of her brother’s who’d just been hired by Saturday Night Live, she enrolled in an improvisation class.
She hated the first session. “I was embarrassed. Everyone was trying too hard,” she says. “I almost didn’t go back to the second class.” After forcing herself to continue, she found herself inspired by a classmate, Conan O’Brien. “He was really smart, really funny, and he thought I was funny,” she says. (They dated briefly, “but found we were better as friends,” says Kudrow.) With O’Brien’s encouragement, she stuck with acting, eventually becoming a member of the celebrated Groundlings comedy troupe in L.A. (Kathy Griffin and Will Ferrell are also alums.)
In 1993, after a few small TV and movie parts, Kudrow landed what she thought was her big break: the role of radio producer Roz Doyle in the pilot for Frasier. Three days into rehearsals, she was fired. “I knew it wasn’t working,” she says. “And they fixed it.” (Her successor, Peri Gilpin, played the role for 11 seasons.) For Kudrow, then nearly 30, this was a low point. She began to question her lunge into acting, and her mother started talking up medical school.
“I’ve since found out from other family members that she was very worried,” Kudrow says. “She was happy with the idea that I could have a career, but this one didn’t look like it was working out. And there was no boyfriend and”—here the actress begins imitating her mother—“ ‘You don’t wear enough makeup, you’re not flirty, and you’re not the go-out-and-get-a-guy type.’”
Just when Kudrow was thinking maybe she should look for a day job, she was offered a waitress role, only a line or two long, on Mad About You, the popular Paul Reiser–Helen Hunt sitcom. “My agent said, ‘I don’t think you should do it,’ but I said, ‘I’m going,’ ” she recalls. “As I’m driving over, I kept telling myself, Just listen and respond and make it funny.”
She made it very funny. By week’s end, she was asked to reprise the role in five more episodes. Her hilariously indifferent waitress, named Ursula Buffay (when Friends began and both shows were on NBC, it was decided that Phoebe would be Ursula’s twin sister), put her on Hollywood’s radar. Less than a year after being booted from the Frasier pilot, she was officially in demand. Humorist Andy Borowitz, the cocreator and executive producer of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, remembers bringing Kudrow in to read for a pilot in 1994. “She was brilliant, of course, but as soon as I offered her the part, I found out that every other pilot in town wanted her,” he says. “She turned me down and did Friends instead. Good move.”
Friends, originally called Insomnia Café, was a hot pilot that year. Created by Kauffman and David Crane, it focused on six twenty-somethings who hang out together in Manhattan. “Lisa came in to audition and just nailed it,” says Kauffman. “Phoebe ran the risk of being cartoonish, and Lisa brought so much humanity to her.”
The sitcom quickly became a smash, turning its ensemble cast (including Aniston, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, David Schwimmer and Matt LeBlanc) into household names. How do you handle that kind of attention? “We at least had each other,” Kudrow says. “I couldn’t imagine being alone and that happening.” Cox and Kudrow became especially close and remain friends today, trading cameos on each other’s current shows, Cougar Town and Web Therapy (Cox plays an Internet psychic). “I wish I could see her every day like we used to. I miss her laugh,” says Cox. (Asked what would surprise people about Kudrow, Cox responds, “She has to chop up everything to swallow, including aspirin.”)
As the cast’s careers and public profiles skyrocketed, Kudrow managed to steer clear of the pitfalls of sudden fame. “She was probably the most grounded of anyone, while I, rather famously, dealt with it the worst,” says Perry. However, he does recall once seeing a frustrated Kudrow throw what qualified, for her, as a temper tantrum: In her dressing room, she slowly and deliberately tipped a chair over onto the floor.
HAVING her family nearby helped her cope, says Kudrow, as did keeping company with Stern, her future husband. They were introduced in 1987, when he was newly arrived in L.A., by Kudrow’s then-roommate, who was also French. “I thought he was perfect, but he was dating her, so I wouldn’t even look him in the eye. I would leave the room,” she says. “He thought I was weird—and I was weird.” When they met again, at a party six years later, they were both free, and sparks flew. Kudrow and Stern (“He’s not Jewish, but his name is,” says Ku-drow, herself a nonpracticing member of the tribe) wed in May 1995, at the end of Friends’ first season. Julian, their only child, was born in 1998.
Kudrow was already looking toward her future when Friends ended its run in 2004. Thanks to the handsome salaries the cast had collected ($1 million an episode by the final season), she was set financially. “It makes life way, way, way easier—no argument, no discussion,” she says.
A year earlier, she and Bucatinsky, an actor-writer with whom she was friendly, had formed Is or Isn’t Entertainment. Explaining the name, she says, “What we’re making, either it is or isn’t entertaining; others will decide.”
For the critics and a cadre of appreciative fans, deciding about her first post-Friends show, The Comeback, was easy: They adored it. Created and written by Kudrow and King in 2005, it starred Kudrow as Valerie Cherish, a middle-aged ex–sitcom star so desperate for a second shot at fame that she allows her attempted comeback to be filmed for a reality show. “Lisa truly wanted to lacerate the idea of celebrity, and she loves the idea of playing someone who is a little emotionally incorrect,” says King. Though HBO pulled the plug on The Comeback after only one season, the show is revered to this day by its admirers, and Kudrow earned an Emmy nomination for her performance.
Kudrow says The Comeback grew out of her feeling appalled at how eagerly ordinary people would humiliate themselves for the chance to be on a reality-TV show. “It’s all about the hot pursuit of fame, and fame doesn’t fix anything,” she says.
Not that she thinks all reality programs are bad. Her company produces Who Do You Think You Are?, an hour-long show in which celebrities as A-list as Sarah Jessica Parker, Spike Lee and Gwyneth Paltrow dig into their ancestry. In Ireland shooting a movie in 2006, Kudrow raptly watched an episode of the British version and became convinced that the show could work in the U.S. “This was just good storytelling—truly documentary and not sensational,” she says.
She turned up as a guest herself in the first season, traveling to Belarus to visit the site where her paternal great-grandmother was killed by Nazis in a mass shooting of villagers at the edge of a pit; afterward the bodies, which had fallen into the pit, were set afire. She then flew to Poland, where she discovered that a distant cousin, long believed dead, was still alive. (“This is amazing!” another Polish relative exclaims. “Lisa Kudrow, not on my TV but in my home.”)
If Who Do You Think You Are?, with its focus on family, is consistent with Kudrow’s own preoccupations, Web Therapy is not. In real life, Kudrow believes in therapy. Years before she found herself on Friends, she saw a therapist who, she says, offered practical advice to someone coping with the uncertainties of young adulthood.
That helpful therapist definitely did not inspire Dr. Fiona Wallice, the snippy, can’t-be-bothered counselor played by Kudrow. “She’s maybe the worst human being in the world, and she’s dispensing advice,” says director Don Roos, who created the show with Kudrow and Bucatinsky. (To make it even cozier, Bucatinsky and Roos are a couple. Kudrow wrote recommendation letters when they were adopting their two children.)
Kudrow says the original, online show was shot on a shoestring in her company’s offices. “Doing a Web series is what independent filmmaking used to be,” she says. “This room”—she gestures around at the space we’re sitting in—“we used to shoot in.” The chocolate-colored walls certainly look familiar, having appeared behind Wings’ Steven Weber when he did a stint as a Wallice client. Other guest stars, many of them Kudrow’s pals, have included Alan Cumming (they met “so long ago, I was still dating women,” says the openly gay actor), Rashida Jones and Streep, a Vassar alum with whom Kudrow serves on the college’s board of trustees.
Streep was paid a pittance (“I think the makeup woman made more,” says Roos), though her segments were filmed in New York to accommodate her. When it came time to shoot, Kudrow found Streep, who was playing a breathy sex therapist, totally prepared. “She had researched her part, she had everything in her head, and”—here Kudrow shakes her own head at the role -reversal—“she was playing the ditz.”
It takes, it would seem, one brilliant blonde to recognize another.
Former People movie critic LEAH ROZEN writes about entertainment for TheWrap.com, the Anglophenia blog on BBCAmerica.com, the New York Times and other outlets.