Lisa Kudrow plays a twentysomething on TV, but, at 32, she wouldn't go back in time for anything. "The 20s?" says Kudrow. "My title for that period of my life would be, 'It was the Worst of Times, It Was the Worst of Times.'" For emphasis, she adds: "Did I mention it was the hardest time of my life?"
When it comes to the reasons why Friends (CanWest/Global and NBC) is a monster hit, Kudrow (Phoebe Buffay) acknowledges that the show's decidedly upbeat "friends helping friends" theme resonates with all ages. But the more the sitcom gets at real twenties frustrations, the better as far as she's concerned. "I don't think that my experience with the twenties had anything to do with trying to become an actress." she says. "Most of my friends, trying to establish other kinds of careers, went through the very same problems. Your whole life is ahead of you, yet you have no identity. You're kind of an adult, but you aren't really treated as an adult. There are all these choices, about career, marriage and kids, and who the older people are who you can believe in and which ones are bogus."
Sitting in her publicist's Hollywood office, Kudrow thinks some more and notes: "You feel like you have all this information on your side, but the smarter part of you knows you really don't because you don't have the experience to judge it. You don't know if you can trust your instincts. It's such a hard time."
If it sounds like Kudrow has a geniune mind and is the opposite of her character - loopy, New Agey trend-surfer Phoebe - it's because she is. "Yeah, it's true," says David Schwimmer (Ross). "Everyone else is pretty similar to their character; Lisa is the biggest stretch. You look at her academic background, for instance, and it's almost scary."
Consider: As the daughter of Lee Kudrow, L.A. physician who is renowned for pioneering medical research on headaches, she was a bookworm in high school and went to prestigious Vassar, she says, "with extremely serious intentions to graduate with a degree in sociobiology and then go back to work with my father and do research. And that's the plan I followed, to the point where I was doing the research with him; the goal was to get published and then apply to a really good graduate program and just keep going from there. I was a long way down that road." Not exactly the profile of a typical slacker.
The focus changed, though, when her brother's best friends, Jon Lovitz - after 12 years of struggling - had made it. He was on Saturday Night Live with his trademark, conniving, "Yeahhh, that's the ticket" character, pathological liar Tommy Flanagan.
Kudrow had entertained notions of being a comedic actress, but was reluctant to even bring it up in a family of successful scholars (her brother has since taken over her retired father's medical research). "Jon was so inspiring to me," says Kudrow, "that he could just hang in there through times when he wasn't getting a lot of support.
"He simply believe in himself, believed he'd make it sooner or later. It dawned on me that if you just keep a good attitude and keep struggling that you could make it [in show business]."
Her decision 10 years ago to detour into performing caused concern in her family, but she quickly hooked up with the venerable L.A. improv group, The Groundlings (alumni include Lovitz and NewsRadio's Phil Hartman), where one of her comedy bits included playing a persnickety professor spouting incomprehensible medical terms.
Kudrow's first real acting role was in a play called "Ladies Room," "and I got a part as a dim girl - the first time I was cast as having, shall we say, a different frame reference? Aaron Spelling was backing it so every casting director came to see it. And some good stuff started happening; I got a guest role on Cheers and NBC did a pilot based on my character and another in the play."
The pilot, she concedes now, was awfule and never aired, and her education in show biz was fully underway. She'd have to be almost as patient as Lovitz.
"During the time I was waiting to see whether I'd make it or not, I got therapy [psychotherapy with a psychologist] when I was 26, 27," says Kudrow. "Best thing I ever did. A friend told me, 'If you want to have good relationships, of any kind, have some therapy.' It was great. Because I was just entering the real darkness before the dawn - pitch black." That was despite guest shots on Bob and Coach. "Therapy kept me breathing till things started to fall into place."
After many auditions, Kudrow did a brief stint as Roz Doyle, the producer of Frasier's radio show, then landed her recurring role on Mad About You, as Ursula, the order-challenged waitress. When the call went out for actors for new shows in early 1994, Kudrow tested only for those that would allow her to continue Mad About You. "It ended up with just focusing on getting a role on Friends, because it would be on the same network, and I knew how great the writers were and they'd let me keep doing Ursula part-time. So it all finally worked out."
The One About The Ditz Factor "Ditzy" - the Emmy-nominated actress is sick of having Phoebe described like that. "In a way," she says, "Pheebs is more grounded than the others. She's certainly not a nut with a persona like Ursula. I mean, Phoebe deals with stuff. Some problem comes along, she finds a way to deal with it."
And from what is knwon about her past so far, Phoebe has had to deal with major-league dysfunction in her family - she came to the city at 14 after her mother committed suicide and her stepfather was in prison again. She also discovered that the man in the pictures she thought was her real father, was only the model used in the store-bought frames. "I think she's less in denial than some of the others, like Chandler [Matthew Perry], who is always making jokes as his way of not dealing. I play her as someone who pretty much knows what's going on and why things are happening to her.
"Her weakness might be that she doesn't trust that part of her enough. That's why she kind of bounces from aromatherapy to crystals to aura cleansing to whatever seems to be 'in' at the moment."
David Crane, the show's executive producer says Phoebe is definitely the broadest Friends. "That made her the trickiest in a way, because it would have been so easy to take her too far and just be there for comedy relief without contributing anything else. But in Lisa's hands, Phoebe is multi-layered and can give you a surprising number of moments."
The One About Finding True Love When Friends goes on hiatus in the summer, Kudrow will star in an Albert Brooks' film called "Mother." Last summer she married Michael Stern, a French-born L.A. advertising executive. "He's very patient and understanding about the important things," she says. "The little things, he'll try to be controlling and Parisian about, like what pair of shoes I should wear. But on the very important things, like any bad stuff that goes along with my career, he's amazing. I think that's the main reason I married him. He likes the fact I'm working and busy; he'd go crazy with boredome with a woman who's just sitting around worrying about where they're going for dinner. So we're lucky. I'm lucky."