As her new Netflix show drops, the actor/producer talks about being holed up with her son in Beverly Hills, why she rarely leaves California anyway, and texting with the Friends cast
Written by HELENA DE BERTODANO
When Steve Carell sent Lisa Kudrow a text last year saying “Be my wife!” she didn’t hesitate to accept his proposal. Not in real life, of course. Carell wanted Kudrow to play his onscreen wife in the new Netflix comedy series Space Force, co-created with comedy writing legend Greg Daniels.
The series premieres May 29, the second Daniels’ series to be launched in May via a streaming service. Also starring John Malkovich, Space Force focuses on General Mark Naird (played by Carell) who is tasked with establishing the sixth branch of the country’s armed forces: The United States Space Force.
Of course, as most people know by now, this is not entirely a joke. President Trump officially created a Space Force in December last year, the first new military service since the Air Force was created in 1947, announcing that American superiority in space was “absolutely vital.” Perhaps inevitably, the idea proved rich fodder for late-night talk hosts and comedy writers.
Kudrow herself says she had no idea Space Force was a real thing until after filming finished. She just assumed it was a massive joke. But to join a show masterminded by Daniels and Carell was a no-brainer. A Daniels creation is always a television event — five of his shows (The Office, Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, Parks and Recreation and King of the Hill) were listed in Time magazine’s All Time 100 TV Shows.
Kudrow, now 56, is of course a television event in her own right. Best known for her 10-year role as ditzy bohemian Phoebe Buffay in Friends, she was the first cast member to win an Emmy Award in 1998. Later she, Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston became the highest-paid TV actresses of all time, earning $1 million per episode for the last two seasons. In 2005 she produced, wrote and starred in the HBO cult comedy series The Comeback, which returned nine years later for a second season. She also produces Who Do You Think You Are?, a genealogy reality program that has aired 10 seasons since 2010 and garnered five Primetime Emmy Award nominations.
Born in Tarzana, Kudrow received a BA in biology from Vassar College and worked for several years with her physician father, a renowned specialist in migraines. But her dream was to become an actor, and she attended The Groundlings, an improv comedy school in L.A., where she met Conan O’Brien and Daniels.
“I was writing partners with Conan O’Brien,” Daniels says. “And he was taking Groundlings classes in his off-hours, and Lisa was one of his best Groundlings friends. I would get a hamburger at the Hamburger Hamlet or Johnny Rockets with them, as they riffed and came up with sketch ideas and worried about whether they were ever going to make it.”
Daniels explains why he offered Kudrow the role of Maggie in Space Force: “She is one of the great improvisers and has terrific comedy taste. She can make small things funny in unexpected oddball ways while keeping her character grounded and real.” And no, Kudrow did not have to try out for the role. “She didn’t have to audition,” he says. “If you can’t tell how great Lisa Kudrow is from her past work, you’re probably not in the right business.”
At the start of Space Force, Kudrow’s character is a supportive government wife with a mouthy teenage daughter (played by Diana Silvers), but by the end of the first episode, she is a prison inmate.
I speak to Kudrow as she self-isolates at her home near Beverly Hills with her son, Julian, 22, from her long, happy marriage to French advertising executive Michel Stern. Stern is at the couple’s second home near Palm Springs, where they were all together until recently.
“Lisa Kudrow can make small things funny in unexpected ways while keeping her character grounded and real”
What about this role appealed to you most?
I get a script for Space Force — it’s Greg Daniels and Steve Carell, and I love everything both of them have ever done. … I get a text from Steve [saying] “Come on, be my wife, it will be fun.” I mean, in what world do I say, “I don’t think so”?!
When did you realize this wasn’t purely a fictional comedy, that there was some shred of truth to this fictional comedy?
Trump’s last State of the Union [in February, two months after filming wrapped]. And he mentioned the Space Force. I went, “What? It’s real?” What an idiot! I thought, “What a funny thing you made up.”
Your character, Maggie, is sentenced to jail for 40 to 60 years, but what was her crime? Did I miss something?
No, it’s meant to be a mystery.
Oh, I actually went back to watch the first episode to see if I could work it out.
Wouldn’t it be funny if that was the grand design: [getting everyone to] rewatch it for extra viewing [numbers].
Do you have a theory about why she is in jail?
It could be a range of things. Maybe she did some stupid “oops” that turned out to be punishable with 40 years in prison.
Are there any characteristics in Maggie’s personality that you relate to?
I understand a woman who adapts to whatever it is. You always have to pivot. You can make plans, and circumstances change. I don’t just roll up into a ball and wallow. Or if I do, it’s for a few minutes, and then you’ve got to get up. My mom was like that, she dealt with what was, I never saw her at loose ends. And my father also. … It’s a stoicism. So Maggie thinks, “What do I do? OK, there’s book club. And that guard looks nice enough [to have a relationship with], that would be helpful.”
How is Maggie different to previous well-known characters you have played, like The Comeback’s Valerie Cherish or Phoebe from Friends?
Well, she’s a lot older. [Like Valerie and Phoebe], she knows how to survive.
Did you base Maggie on anyone you know?
I guess I’ve just decided she’s a Washington, D.C., wife who has ambitions for her husband that get dashed against the rocks.
You’re a writer yourself. Did you use improv on Space Force?
I [sometimes] pitched — but I need a lot of permission to improvise. I think that’s from being on a scripted show for 10 years. Also, it feels disrespectful to the writers who are up until 4 in the morning trying to write this script.
What is Steve Carell like to work with?
He’s heaven. It’s as if one of his job descriptions is to make you comfortable. That’s just who he is, and he can’t help it. He’s also super professional and really wants to get it right and make it the best it can be. There’s no ego about it, it’s about the bigger picture. [He’ll say]: “I think this line is funnier for that person, it doesn’t fit in my mouth, I think it fits in their mouth.” He’s that guy.
You have a lovely speech about marriage in Space Force; you say it’s about love and honesty and support. In real life, you’ve been married to your husband for 25 years. Do you and your character share that perspective?
You’re lucky if you’re both willing to work on it and stay in it. It can’t just be one person, that’s not going to work. [My husband and I] are both good at seeing the big picture. … We chose each other because we’re both quite independent. So, if anything, this [period of quarantine] has been a challenge. It’s challenging for everybody that way: just spending so much time together. … I just read something that Jamie Lee Curtis said [about marriage]: “Sometimes you hate each other, and that’s OK. As long as you don’t act on that moment.” Or George Harrison’s wife [when asked], “How do you stay married so long?” [She said:] “We didn’t get divorced.” I’ve said all of those.
Twenty-five years! Who does that these days?
Well, both of our parents: My husband’s and mine. Maybe that has something to do with it.
Were you interested in space and astrology before this series?
Would you travel into space if you were given the opportunity?
NO! Absolutely no interest. Not for me. No. N.O.
“I understand a woman who adapts to whatever it is. You always have to pivot”
I read somewhere that you don’t even like to travel on Earth.
I don’t like flying. That bothers me. … I just need to know that I’ll be able to go home. I can’t even be out all day. I need to be able to come home and have my space and regroup, I am ridiculously fragile. … And I think Southern California is heaven on earth. I think that this is the best resort in the world. And it’s in America. Why on Earth, if you get to live here, do you need to go anywhere else? You can just step outside, and it’s perfect weather. And it’s beautiful. You want to ski? OK, that’s only a couple of hours away. You want to go to the beach? That’s not far at all. If it’s open. You want to be in nature, you can take a hike. The restaurants are just as good if not better than everywhere else in the world.
What about concerts at the Hollywood Bowl?
No, I get nervous at concerts. I’ve always had a thing since childhood about crowded places. My son and I watched Rain Man last night, and we were taking turns saying, “I identify.” “Ooh, that’s a lot of noise.” … I’ll go to a party, and if it starts to get overwhelming, I’ll leave. I don’t go out a lot.
So I imagine, in some ways, this time of quarantine isn’t so bad for you?
That’s right, I’m fortunate. I don’t mind being home.
Are you spending quarantine with your husband and son?
My husband is in the desert now. He’ll be back soon. My son and I have [just] had lunch together. He showed me the latest Rick and Morty episode, which is worth it — so funny. [There is the sound of loud barking.] That’s my little dog, Emma, she’s a Maltipoo, she’s completely cute.
Will the HBO Friends reunion still go ahead?
Absolutely. That was a painful one to have to shut down. It’s been in the works for a long time.
I heard Conan on a podcast teasing you that you thought you weren’t going to get the call for the reunion.
Hahaha. That was some fake [reunion]. I just had a moment of “What if no one called me?” I mean, it’s possible. People are not gonna tell you they don’t like you to your face.
What shape will the HBO reunion take?
I think the thing that everyone wants cleared up immediately is that it’s not an episode as our characters. People think, I wonder what’s happened with Rachel and Ross. And it’s not that at all. We are not about to unravel all the happy endings. This is really just us getting together to celebrate the show and to reminisce, because you know, we’ve only been all together in the same room privately once [since Friends ended]. Everyone has different schedules, but the six of us got together for a dinner, and it was the most fun ever, it was like no time had passed. Everyone remembered something different from those 10 years. Matt LeBlanc and Jennifer remember absolutely everything. … Jennifer remembers what we were all wearing at the first table read of the pilot when we met.
Do you all keep in touch?
We all check in with each other. LeBlanc, I keep in touch with a little more regularly. And during this [pandemic], I’ve checked in with everybody, and then we end up texting all day.
Why do you think that Friends is still so popular?
I think it’s an unconscious nostalgia for connection.
For life before social media?
Yes — because what else could it be?
Many actors, once they have had one very successful role, seem to worry about being typecast — but you don’t seem to mind people remembering you as Phoebe.
I don’t think any of [the Friends cast] do. Even when we were there, we were saying, “Oh my god, thank god for this, this is the gift.” But yes, actors do get afraid they’ll be pigeonholed. I didn’t care. I was like, “Yeah, I’m good at playing dumb people. If that’s what you want me to do …” It’s a really nice way to go through life, it lightens me up. … I also got lucky [as] I did some independent films early on where I was not a dumb person. And now I’m so much older, so I don’t have to be a ditz any more.
Do you grit your teeth when you hear people calling out Phoebe in the street?
I don’t hear it. I forgot to get the wax cleaned out of my ears. Most people, their experience of me on the street is that I’m completely ignoring them. If you’re [out] in Beverly Hills, there are a lot of tourists, so you become part of their vacation package. What I don’t like is when they send their kids up [to take pictures with me] — who clearly don’t know who you are, [as if to say], “I defy you to say no to a child.” [I say:] “Hello, nice to meet you, this will have to do.” My husband’s the worst, he’s like, “Yeah, you can take a picture, here I’ll do it,” and then he doesn’t know how the phone works, and then [he says:] “This isn’t good, let me take another.” He makes it last way too long.
He’s just too nice?
That’s a word for it! I guess it looks like he’s just really nice, the good guy. And my son gets horrified when I say no. He doesn’t want anyone to feel bad. He’s nice too.
You mentioned your son was at film school. Is he following you into acting?
I hope so. He’s really good. He’s also a really good director, and he’s writing. He’s good. He’s better than me.
Did you ever try to discourage him?
Did your parents ever try to discourage you?
No, they were thrilled when I said I wanted to be an actor, because I was studying biology, and they were like, “Oh thank god, maybe it will lighten you up. And then you can meet a man, find a husband.”
Is there anything you would do differently?
No, nothing. I’m happy with everything.
Where are you now?
I’m just pacing in the kitchen [of my home] near Beverly Hills. I’m wearing workout clothes, I wear workout clothes every day. I take walks, the dog likes that.
So you’re managing to keep as fit as you were pre-lockdown.
Hopefully better. If I would stop eating pasta and rice! I’m being less careful. I sort of think [she puts on a wavering plaintive voice]: I think it would be nice to have a little macaroni and cheese.
“During this pandemic, I’ve checked in with all the Friends, and then we end up texting all day”
Are you cooking more in lockdown?
The good thing is, my husband forgets that I can cook. So he just goes and picks up stuff from restaurants. That’s fine — I like supporting the restaurants.
What’s different about trying to launch a show during a pandemic?
For me, nothing. I’m just sitting at home and posting things and talking to you. I’m fortunate that I can afford to just be home. Thank you, Friends. … My office is here. I have spent days where my car was never turned on.
Are there any projects you’ve had to shelve?
We were in the middle of shooting Who Do You Think You Are? so that’s really too bad. The people we have lined up are really thrilling to me, and of course, I’m not allowed to say who they are.
Is there someone you would love to have on the show you still haven’t yet?
I get asked that, but I hate [answering], because then it’s like: So Courteney Cox wasn’t good enough?
Are you working on anything else at the moment?
I’m doing an animated series called Housebroken for Fox. So once a week there’s a table read and then another day there’s a recorded session.
Which comes most naturally to you: acting, writing or producing?
I think acting. And producing. I love Who Do You Think You Are?, that’s like my baby. I didn’t create it, obviously. It originated in the U.K., but I love that show with all my heart.
You were responsible for bringing it to the U.S., though.
Yes, I think that’s safe to say. I think Alex Graham has even said it. He had tried to bring it over here, and it wasn’t happening until I called him up. That first season was fantastic.
Are you learning any new skills in lockdown?
I’m not learning a new language. I’m catching up on a lot of audiobooks — right now, the series that I’m loving is by Sarah Kozloff. And then I want to read Diane Keaton’s book Brother & Sister. And I’m catching up on TV shows: I just started Upload [another Greg Daniels comedy that launched this month on Amazon] and oh my god, it’s really good.
Do you think comedy is even more important now?
It’s the best escape. The best.
Feature image: LISA KUDROW. Photo by Lisa Kudrow.
May 28, 2020
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