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The Flaky One

Lisa Kudrow On Pal Phoebe: She's 'Operating Out Of A Huge Amount Of Denial'

April 21, 1996|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Without a publicist, agent or any of her fellow "Friends" in tow, Lisa Kudrow breezes into a popular Santa Monica deli, just like any other patron on a carefree afternoon.

Soon, one by one, not wanting to crowd her, college-age fans, like lemmings, approach her table, papers outstretched for autograph. Steve, from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Jaime, from Minnesota. Christine, a friend of Steve's. They ask no questions; they're cool.

As one of the sextet of 20-something singles on NBC's smash sitcom "Friends," now nearing the end of its second season, Kudrow, of course, is seen as one of them. Even if she is 32.

The first thing you notice about the actress, who grew up in Tarzana, is that she's prettier--and classier--than her character, the ditzy Phoebe Buffay, with a voice more Vassar (she graduated from the college in 1985) than Valley Girl. With clear gray eyes and aquiline nose, she could easily pose for Ralph Lauren.

And she's nice, whether meeting fans or passing out "Friends" pins to 90 13-year-olds at her nephew's bar mitzvah the previous weekend. "They swarmed me," she grins, though she's serious too, "which is my nightmare. But I got through it . . . Sometimes I'm nervous about crowds. I don't like to go to concerts and stuff."

Kudrow, who last year married French-born ad executive Michel Stern, is also quite candid. She reveals that when she was called in to audition two years ago, ahead of the other female "Friends," her preference was not to do Phoebe. "I thought I could do something with Monica [Courteney Cox] or Rachel [Jennifer Aniston]," she explains. "Phoebe felt like they wanted me to do Ursula"--the waitress character she has played intermittently on NBC's "Mad About You."

"I definitely understand that," she adds. "You do something well, then [the producers] want you to do it for them, too. But for yourself as an actor, you're kind of like, 'Oh don't, please don't. Let me do something else.' But they were pretty strong-willed."

Still, Kudrow made the New Age massage therapist, guitar-playing Phoebe, who writes inane songs like "Smelly Cat," distinctively her own. In so doing, she was the only female cast member nominated last season for an Emmy; this season, she was the only one of the "Friends" stars nominated for a Screen Actors Guild or Golden Globe award.

"To me, [Phoebe's] operating out of a huge amount of denial," Kudrow says with obvious enthusiasm. "So many horrible things have happened to her that she would not be able to even breathe another breath if she took it all in. Her mother kills herself [when Phoebe's] 14. Her father runs out on her and her twin sister [Ursula]. . . ."--the twinship a dramatic nicety that the producers contrived last season when they decided to bring the two characters together.

"I think [Phoebe] thinks she's a very talented, struggling artist, and she's just not. Oh no," says Kudrow. "She's one of those in-search-of people. A few years ago, she was probably doing crystals. She's in search of whatever feels good."

Kudrow, who is quite grounded, brings some of herself to the role. "Certain gestures and head movements," she notes, slowly moving her head from shoulder to shoulder. "I just thought it might be easier, because there's not a lot of rehearsal time, if I could bring her a little closer to me."

Kudrow didn't initially intend to be an actor. She majored in biology, preparing for a career in science and following in the footsteps of her father, Dr. Lee Kudrow, a renowned headache researcher. She even got a research credit on a study he did.

Yet acting had tugged at her heart ever since the sixth grade, when she put on shawls and lip-synched in front of her mirror the roles of the butcher's wife and the grandmother in "Fiddler on the Roof." "I told the teacher, 'Look, I've got this record. I can lip-synch to this, it'll be really fun. Let me do it.' . . . I ended up doing like a [classroom] tour at Wilbur Avenue [elementary school]."

At Taft High in Woodland Hills and at Vassar, Kudrow felt she should be doing more serious stuff. Yet every time she came home during college, she would "get this feeling in my gut" about acting that, "I could do this, I know I could do this."

Friends helped. When Jon Lovitz, a best friend of her brother David, got on "Saturday Night Live" in the fall of 1985, it inspired her. He recommended she hook up with the Groundlings, a well-known improvisational theater group. There, she made friends with fellow student Conan O'Brien, who helped her with acting techniques.

Mostly, however, she credits her former acting coach, Cynthia Szigeti, whom the Groundlings recommended she study with after initially rejecting her, and from whom "I just learned so much. It was acting and it was therapy . . . all with a sense of humor attached."

Kudrow went from Groundlings beginner classes to the main company. That led to a play in 1988, "Ladies' Room," and to guest spots on "Cheers," "Coach" and the final episode of "Newhart."

Now she's in rehearsal for a movie, "Romy and Michele," with Mira Sorvino, last month's Oscar winner for best supporting actress.

As for the success of "Friends," Kudrow dismisses the concept and cites instead "a combination of good writing, good characters performed well and a great time slot on a network that does really well on [Thursday] night."

"How long will I stay with 'Friends'?" she repeats, as if anyone could be so ditzy as to ask. "I don't expect to leave the show. I have no plans for that. It's been so good."

"Friends" airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on NBC.

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