BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.—When Lisa Kudrow costarred as Phoebe on “Friends,” somebody was always putting words in her mouth. Now she’s planting the words herself and they’re coming up funny.
Kudrow didn’t go the way of her fellow costars, she’s followed her own path. She took the road less traveled by and it’s made all the difference.
Starring in Showtime’s quirky “Web Therapy,” Kudrow not only portrays an imperious, self-absorbed Internet therapist, she plays it as though she were wrapped in shrink-wrap – no paranoid hysteric will ruffle her salon hairdo.
As the officious Dr. Fiona Wallace, Kudrow ad-libs herself into parody of both the web and a nation’s passion for the quick-fix.
Her life took this turn, says Kudrow, when her son was 3 years old. “I realized there was one point where I was working a lot in ‘Friends,’ and they were very generous about letting us do films. He was very little and I was working 17 hours a day. We were in another city. He thought we’d moved,” she says, leaning back in an oversized leather chair in a conference room here.
“He was turning 3 years old, and I realized, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m going to be his mother at this age right now. And next year it’ll be gone. I won’t be the mother of a 3-year-old again . . . it’s really fleeting. So if you want to keep working, you’ve got to be here.’ That changed a lot of my work choices.”
With more risky selections she suddenly understood most actors who are not lucky enough to capture a 10-year sitcom. “I did wonder: ‘Am I ever going to work again?’ But it couldn’t matter because being his mother HAS to be the most important thing,” she says, resting her hands on her lap.
“The good thing—and maybe the bad thing about ‘‘Friends’‘—is you don’t need to do anything because your rent is paid and you have enough food and you can make choices to please yourself,” she says.
One of those choices was “The Comeback,” which she did for HBO in which she played an actress whose career has peaked. As Valerie Cherish (you get the picture just from the name) she combated the virulent prejudice against aging actresses in a town where today’s trend is tomorrow’s nostalgia.
Kudrow, who spent five or six years learning improvisational acting, says there are certain rules to it. ‘Whatever your scene partner is saying, your response is ‘Yes and. . .’ So that you’re not negating what they’re saying. But more importantly, it’s a great mindset because whatever comes up, it’s OK. Everything’s OK, which helps you relax. And I think you have to be relaxed when you’re acting.”
There were times, early on, when she considered quitting. “But they wouldn’t last more than a day or two. I have to say also that mindset you learn from improvising, ‘Everything’s OK,’ it also helps a lot if you let it bleed into other areas of your life,” she says.
“For those big choices that you’ve made that you need to commit to, to see them through, because you’re not going to know immediately if it’s going to work out or not.”
Working on “Friends,” taught her a lot, she says. “I learned one very important thing. An actor always considers the possibility that they’re going to be famous one day, that people will stop them on the street and tell them, ‘Oh, my God. I love you.’
“And I know for me, before that, I always felt that if that would happen then I’d have permission to really like myself a LOT, not that consciously. But I realized after ‘Friends,’ and they are stopping you on the street, ‘I love you, I love Phoebe, I love that character.’ And the next second, ‘I’m so tired of that show. You guys are everywhere. It’s too much.’ . . . You realize that OK, you can’t really be dependent on any outside opinion to form any opinion of yourself. You have to do the work to be comfortable with who you are and change the things you don’t like.”
That was a very big lesson, she thinks. “It seems very basic. That makes sense. I think we all know but not many people do it. It’s very, very, very hard.”
Her husband, Michael Stern, an advertising executive, helps critique her work – when she wants it, she adds quickly. “My husband is very proud and likes ‘Web Therapy’ and thinks it’s very funny. Which is good because he’s very tough. He tells me the truth and sometimes I don’t ask. If I don’t want to know, I don’t ask.”
He does worry when she tries risky projects like “The Comeback” and “Web Therapy.”
“He gets nervous for me. I think I’m appropriately nervous, but it’s not going to stop me because I feel if I could survive the cancellation of ‘The Comeback,’ that was good work and sometimes networks make mistakes. And I do think of it as a mistake, so that’s out of my control. It reminds me what I learned at ‘Friends’ which is, task at hand. You just do what you do and the other stuff you don’t even try.”
Television will soon teach us that not only does New York City harbor a bunch of dirty houses, it shelters legions of rats. Not sure the Chamber of Commerce is going to love some of these new programs. The Style Network papers October with “Clean House New York” which includes a couple of designers and some fixer-uppers dredging out the city’s dirtiest dwellings. “Rat Busters, NYC,” will hit the tube on Aug. 26, highlighting two Pied Piper exterminators in search of their favorite rodentia airing on Animal Planet.
In view of NBC’s new American version of England’s “Prime Suspect” due on Sept. 22, Acorn Media is releasing this week Season 1 of the original which starred Helen Mirren. Maria Bello takes over the role as a hard working homicide detective, but she’s shooting for a different team. “Without the writing, the kind of quirkiness and edginess that this character has and this dry sense of humor, she wouldn’t be able to come to life. But we all agreed in the beginning not to make her a conventional cop, right?” says Bello.
“My favorite shows growing up were, ‘Baretta,’ ‘Columbo,’ ‘Kojak,’ and they were all detectives who had a little weird thing, their own quirk. And we haven’t seen a woman like that on television, a woman detective.
“So we were all in agreement about that, that that’s what we wanted to do. We didn’t want her to be in, a traditional pant suit and being earnest. That’s what I love about our show too. It’s not earnest. There’s nothing earnest about it, and there’s nothing earnest about this character. So I feel really lucky that I get to explore her.”
Four folks will be chewing the fat when ABC fills a daytime slot on Sept. 26 with “The Chew.” A show about food and lifestyle, it will be hosted by Clinton Kelly (“What Not to Wear”) and feature Daphne Oz (Dr. Oz’s daughter), Carla Hall from “Top Chef” and occasionally Mario Batali and Michael Symon. “Our priority is to give people usable information that they are going to take home and be able to put into practice that day, and certainly, the rising cost of food overall and definitely the high cost of healthy food is an issue we have to take into account,” says Oz, “because we are looking at an audience that maybe has $5 to $10 to spend on their meal. How are we going to make it as healthy as possible, as delicious as possible, and affordable?” We shall see.