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Friends and, just maybe, a franchise

Seven years after their surprise 'Opposite of Sex' success, Lisa Kudrow and writer-director Don Roos fire up their synergy.

June 26, 2005|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

When screenwriter Don Roos ("Boys on the Side," "Single White Female") cast "Friends" star Lisa Kudrow in a key role for his 1998 filmmaking debut, "The Opposite of Sex," an exciting new director-actress collaboration emerged. Roos' bitingly funny take on love, sex and responsibility took flight when Kudrow's Lucia -- a tart-tongued, opinionated, spinsterish teacher with unexpected reserves of pained optimism -- was on screen.

Roos and Kudrow won critical acclaim, awards and industry respect, and also became close chums. Now, seven years later, they're back with another achingly complex, witty ensemble indie called "Happy Endings," which closes the Los Angeles Film Festival tonight and will be released by Lions Gate Films in mid-July.

Set in a Los Angeles of unforgiving sun and dark corners, Roos' interweaving story lines explore a handful of damaged, secretive people trying to make sense of their needs and desires. This time, Roos wrote with Kudrow in mind and came up with Mamie, a closed-off woman coming to grips with a decision she made in her teens to give up a child for adoption.

The pair sat down recently at Roos' Benedict Canyon home -- speckled with the baby paraphernalia that heralds adoptee Eliza Rose's arrival in his and partner Dan Bucatinski's household -- to discuss their friendship and muse-like working relationship.

Don, when you first met Lisa for "The Opposite of Sex," were you worried about her coming from sitcom-land?

Don Roos: No. I don't think Phoebe was a walk in the park. That's a really tough role. There was a lot of anger in Phoebe.

Lisa Kudrow: I thought it was understood everyone just felt like Phoebe was a ditz and that's it. I didn't know what in his mind could possibly be recommending me for the role of Lucia. And I didn't want to ask.

He was a first-time director, though. Did that make you nervous, Lisa?

LK: A little bit. It's very different from writing something. But I had just finished watching "Boys on the Side" on cable and loved it. Loved the women. And women are tricky. People don't always ... No one ever seems to fully understand women or be able to express the complexities of women. I said, "If he truly wants me to play this part, I'm in."

Manipulating others to your own ends is a big theme in "Happy Endings," and film directors have been known to do that too. Does it work when the actor is a friend?

DR: You can't really manipulate Lisa. You can try -- but it would be a painful death. Of course, when you say "During this scene, remember the day you were playing with your son," that's kind of a manipulation.

LK: What makes him a great actor's director is Don would introduce a thought that I could have. It's like "Broadcast News," when someone in your ear is telling you something and the flow is perfect.

DR: But if she was going to play a scene where she was very upset, it wouldn't be smart for me to be angry at her that morning, just to [tick] her off.

LK: Although I remember one take, I said, "Maybe I should be crying inside." So I did it, and you were like [condescendingly], "Yeah, that's the way to go." Then I get frustrated, there would be a lot of takes, and now it's hard. And he was like, "Sorry, angel, that's the way it goes." Don can be a firm sort of father. Which I respond to. Instantaneously.

DR: We're very frank with each other, because if you're not frank on Tuesday, you'll have to be even franker on Friday.

What about bucking each other up? Who does that more?

DR: I am much more fragile than Lisa.

LK: I felt pretty fragile when we were shooting "Happy Endings."

DR: Open.

LK: I'm not comfortable with "open."

DR: But Lisa's very strong. I'm convinced ... not that I'm horrible. But that I'm mediocre, which is the worst thing. The most important part of our collaboration was even before ["Happy Endings"] started, because it took so long to get financed. I would go to Lisa's dressing room at "Friends" every week on show night, and even though I'd be embarrassed saying "It fell through again" or "I don't know if this is going to work out," Lisa was always saying, "This movie is going to find its home."

LK: I knew this movie would get made ...

DR: ... cheerleading me, "Have more free food." ...

LK: ... I'd say, "Run Phoebe lines with me."

DR: It was very therapeutic.

Dan is now your producing partner, Lisa, on your new HBO series "The Comeback," which debuted earlier this month.

DR: Between their house and our house, there is a lot of creative activity, isn't there? It's crazy. The only problem is that we sometimes fight over Lisa. There are periods where all the phone calls are about Dan, and Lisa's husband, Michel, and I are like widows. I always feel like I should have a trump with Lisa ...

Because you were there first?

DR: I was there first. But then "Friends" thought they had a trump.

LK: But when we shot the pilot for our show, Don was there a lot. Thank God.

[Lunch has arrived, and Roos gets up to go into the kitchen.]

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