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'Fresh Air' remembers 'Friends' star Matthew Perry

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. The actor Matthew Perry died last weekend, found unresponsive in his hot tub in Los Angeles. He was 54 years old. In the last years of his life, he was best known for his efforts to discuss and combat substance abuse, including his own. Last year he wrote a best-selling memoir detailing his own struggles with addiction. Its title was "Friends, Lovers, And The Big Terrible Thing." But Matthew Perry became known and became a beloved television star as one of the ensemble cast members of the hit NBC sitcom "Friends." That series ran for 10 seasons from 1994 to 2004. And Perry's character of Chandler Bing was a major part of its success.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRIENDS")

LISA KUDROW: (As Phoebe Buffay) Hey - new wallet.

MATTHEW PERRY: (As Chandler Bing) Oh yeah, it was time. The old condom ring in the leather just doesn't say cool anymore, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

COURTENEY COX: (As Monica Geller) God, is this a gym card?

PERRY: (As Chandler Bing) Oh, yeah. Gym member.

(LAUGHTER)

PERRY: (As Chandler Bing) I try to go four times a week, but I've missed the last 1,200 times.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Chandler was sarcastic and lovable, and when his relationship with one friend, Courteney Cox as Monica, turned romantic, the audience's delight at this pairing became a pop culture event. During the episode in which Chandler finally proposes marriage to Monica, you can hear the outburst of delight from the studio audience but not before Monica gets down on her knees and very emotionally tries to propose to him first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRIENDS")

COX: (As Monica Geller) Chandler, in all my life, I never thought I would be so lucky. (Crying) It's true. Fall in love with my best - my best - there's a reason why girls don't do this.

PERRY: (As Chandler Bing) OK. OK. OK.

(LAUGHTER)

PERRY: (As Chandler Bing) I'll do it. I thought, wait. I can do this.

(LAUGHTER)

PERRY: (As Chandler Bing) I thought that it mattered what I said or where I said it. Then I realized the only thing that matters is that you make me happier than I ever thought I could be. And if you let me, I will spend the rest of my life trying to make you feel the same way. Monica, will you marry me?

COX: (As Monica Geller) Yes.

(APPLAUSE)

BIANCULLI: Matthew Perry began acting as a teenager, appearing in individual episodes of such shows as "Charles In Charge," "Silver Spoons" and "Beverly Hills, 90210." During his 10-year run on "Friends," he guest starred on a number of other quality TV series, including "Ally McBeal," "The West Wing" and "The Good Wife." And after "Friends," he starred in an Aaron Sorkin series about television, "Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip." That show lasted only one season, but Perry's true friendship with his "Friends" castmates lasted for the rest of his life.

When co-starring on that sitcom, the actors negotiated together as a unit. This week, days after Perry's death, the five surviving stars of "Friends" issued a joint statement. It ended like this. Quote, "for now, our thoughts and our love are with Matty's family, his friends, and everyone who loved him around the world," unquote. Terry Gross spoke with Matthew Perry in 2007, when he was starring in the film "Numb." Written and directed by Harris Goldberg, it's about a screenwriter who is having a breakdown and is diagnosed with depersonalization syndrome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Matthew Perry, why did you want to star in "Numb," which is about a writer who is - has this kind of detachment from reality through this anxiety syndrome?

PERRY: Well, for me personally, I was - I had just taken some time off because "Friends" had come to an end, and I was afforded the - you know, I was very lucky to be able to not have to work for a while. And I read this script, and I related to a lot of it in my own life, this character's isolation and this character's fear and his kind of desperate attempt to improve his life on a daily basis, I completely related to. So I read the script, and then I had a meeting with Harris a couple of days later, and we just talked about what he had gone through and what this character goes through, and I thought it was just an excellent opportunity for me to really do something different. There was less pressure to be funny, although there is comedy in the movie, but it was this guy's desperate struggle to improve his life, and I really related to it. The character holed himself up in his house for weeks at a time. I've done that in the past. And I just thought it was an excellent opportunity to do something different for me, and I was also moved by the story. So...

GROSS: You know, one of the things that most people hope to achieve by fame is desirability, that everybody will want to spend time with you, you can go to the best dinners or parties and have your choice of partners or whatever, and you're talking about identifying with the isolation that the character feels and identifying with, like, holing yourself up for weeks, you know, at home. What made you want to isolate yourself, or what made you feel isolated? - 'cause I'm assuming you're referring to a time when you were well-known and could have been, you know, in a very social world.

PERRY: I would like to say at this point that I feel that I am still very well-known.

GROSS: Yes (laughter).

PERRY: No, I'm just kidding. No, what...

GROSS: Absolutely.

PERRY: ...I'm - what I was talking about was, I think dealing with "Friends," I got that show when I was 24 years old, and the - kind of the white-hot flame of fame at that point was pretty disillusioning to me. At first, it was kind of everything I'd ever wanted, and I was getting all this attention, and it was wonderful. But then you - I kind of realized that it wasn't real and that it was sort of this - existed in this, you know, kind of ether. And it became kind of scary to me. So I spent a lot of time, you know, at home watching TV during that time and just not wanting to deal with reality. And that's really what I related to most in this story.

GROSS: What was scary?

PERRY: Just that the world kind of changed overnight. And doors that were, you know, closed were now open, and creatively, that was good. But it just, you know, if you're fortunate enough or unfortunate enough to be in a situation that becomes that huge overnight, just the entire world changing is scary in and of itself.

GROSS: You were a really, like, well-known public figure when you'd go through periods of, like, isolation or whatever, and you also went through a period of being in rehab and so on, and that was written up in the press. So it must be really hard to go through periods like that when you're living, you know, under the microscope.

PERRY: It must be hard to go through periods of - like that when I'm living under the microscope. Yes. Of course it was. Yes. I have, unfortunately, a rather well-documented history with having to deal with certain issues in my life on the public level. I've managed to kind of turn that around, though, for me, where it gives me much more of an opportunity now to help other people who are going through similar struggles. It also made it impossible for me to just go to a bar and have a drink because if you're on the cover of People magazine in rehab, you're going to turn some heads. So I turned it into a positive.

GROSS: Before you got the part on "Friends," did you do verbal witty parts? Was that the kind of role that you saw yourself as getting?

PERRY: Yeah, before "Friends," you know, I was auditioning for everything. And what I would find that I - the parts that I was getting was sitcom auditions and people that were at least trying to be funny. And I think that's largely due to growing up in Canada around a bunch of kind of goofy, funny people, and I just learned all these kind of comedic rhythms to make kids laugh or make girls laugh in school. And I would use those in my auditions and kind of 9 times out of 10, early on, I would get these little sitcom auditions that I would go out for. And at the time, it was important to me to be on TV, and I thought it was, you know, a fun job. So that's certainly how it started. I mean, I got - comedy came easier to me than drama, than the stuff that I'm playing out in the movie "Numb," which is a little bit harder for me to do.

GROSS: I've read that when you auditioned for "Friends," you actually weren't going to audition because you were tied up with another pilot, but you ended up auditioning, and you already knew the lines because you had so many friends who were auditioning for the part that you eventually got. What was it like for you to audition for the part, having heard friends of yours do it in their way? Like, you'd already heard so many versions of the character.

PERRY: Well, and that was a very interesting time because I, you know, had for years been doing the kind of jobs we were talking about and was off the market because I'd done another pilot that year just for the money. The pilot was about baggage handlers in the year 2194 at the LAX Airport. And needless to say, it wasn't very good. And - but what that did was it rendered me off the market for that pilot season. And then all of a sudden, this wonderful script, at the time called "Friends Like Us," came around. And it just had a part in it that leapt off the page as something that was very similar to me and had my rhythms, and it was about a guy who was sort of trying to distract everybody from how miserable he was all the time by being funny.

And so a lot of my friends - you know, comedic actors, comedic out-of-work actors tend to gravitate towards one another. And we would have lunch and hang out all the time. And this part came around, and a lot of people saw that it was sort of similar to me. And because I was off the market, they had asked me to run the scene with them. And it was - and, you know, help them with their auditions. And finally, after the fourth person did it, I just said, well, listen. I think I've got a really good line on this character. Why don't you let me just do this scene for you and just take any choices that you like? And a couple of guys I did that for, and they did very well on those choices and got to network and got to the final levels.

And I was - you know, I was a little disappointed, of course, because I thought that this show was going to be good, and I couldn't be on it. And then what ended up happening was some of the powers that be at the network in the studio saw the pilot that I did, the futuristic baggage handler show, and decided it probably wasn't going to get picked up. So I got a phone call saying - from my agent saying, you know, you have an audition for this show on Wednesday. And at that point when I got that phone call, I knew - and I've never felt that way before in my life and probably never will again. I knew that I was going to get the job. I knew that it was going to change my life just even before I went in to read for it.

BIANCULLI: Matthew Perry speaking to Terry Gross in 2007 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GRANELLI'S "NEVER GONNA BREAK MY FAITH")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2007 interview with actor Matthew Perry. The star of the hit sitcom "Friends" died last weekend at age 54.

GROSS: Now, how did you get the part in "Studio 60," which is in hiatus now, hoping it comes back? And on that, you play - this is a - there's two movies that - there's two TV shows that recently premiered that are kind of like backstage at "Saturday Night Live" kind of shows. There's the comic one, and then "Studio 60" is more of a drama done by - you know, written by Aaron Sorkin, who did "The West Wing," which you had a part on for one of the arcs. So how did you end up playing the head writer on the show in "Studio 60"?

PERRY: Well, I had little or no interest in returning to television 'cause my theory at the time was I had already been fortunate enough to be on one of the better shows, so why go back? And I just completed this TNT movie that we shot in Canada called "The Ron Clark Story." And I was in my hotel, and my manager called and said that Aaron Sorkin had written a pilot about backstage at a "Saturday Night Live"-type show, and I just immediately wanted to get my hands on it. And they emailed the script to me. And at about 2 o'clock in the morning in the business center of one of these hotels, I just read it on the computer, and by the time I had finished it, I thought to myself, oh, boy, I guess I'm going to have to do another television show, because the character was so great and the writing was so wonderful.

And Aaron Sorkin is one of the biggest freaky "Friends" fans in the world. It just happens to be that he's seen every episode, like, 15 times. And he, you know, I guess was a fan of my work on that show. And then when I came to do "The West Wing," which was a much more toned-down version, a much more dramatic performance than what I had done on "Friends," so, you know, for whatever reason, he had written the part for me. And the guy is slightly cynical. He's messed up. He's dark. He's a genius. He's all the things that Aaron Sorkin is and what the show - as these things tend to happen, over the last year, the show is - that character has become sort of a combination of Aaron and myself.

GROSS: Yeah. And one of the things that you guys have in common, in addition to being, like, smart and maybe a little cynical and funny and all of that, you also have, like, a period of, like, drug problems in your background, as does your character. And I wonder if that kind of helps link you to the character and to each other.

PERRY: You know, I think so. The character in the pilot was on Vicodin because of back surgery, and that obviously leapt off the page for me because I thought it, you know, afforded him to be a little freer and a little crazier in the pilot and a little darker. So, you know, I've had my history with that. And he's had his history as well. They're both very separate histories. But, you know, they both - you know, there's a lot of that darkness in Hollywood. There's a lot of that kind of history in writing rooms all over the place. So, you know, that just added to my interest in the project, that's for sure.

GROSS: Do you remember the first time you saw yourself on film or on video and how that jived - or didn't jive - with your self-image of yourself?

PERRY: Yeah. It's very interesting. You know, a lot of actors don't watch their own stuff, and a lot of actors watch a lot of it, and I'm probably somewhere in the middle. I mean, at first, as a young actor, when I was 16 or 17, I couldn't get enough of it. It was just, you know - it was just so much fun to be able to see my work on television. And now I'm less apt to watch it because I still sort of watch it with that juvenile kind of I, you know? I could be doing the most important scene in the world, and I'm more concerned about what my hair looks like or, you know, what I'm wearing. So it's a very bizarre profession us actors have put ourselves into because, you know, you can see it, you know? It's like, in other professions, you're kind of submitting your work, and it's on a piece of paper, and people either like it or not. But it's your work. This is, it's you.

GROSS: Did you look like you expected to? Were you surprised at seeing yourself the way other people see you?

PERRY: Did I look like I expected myself to look? You know, I think I looked...

GROSS: 'Cause mirrors are different than cameras.

PERRY: They are. You know, I think I probably looked like I thought I was going to look, but, you know, it's what's going on in my head that's the problem. It was like - as I said, I'm, like, pointing - like, I'll look immediately at the - at what I think are the bad things before the good. That's why I try not to watch it too often.

GROSS: Now, I know when you were growing up, your father did Old Spice ads. And for anybody who doesn't know or remember Old Spice, it was a kind of like aftershave and cologne that was really, really popular in the '60s and, I think, in the '70s, too. So your father was the guy who did the commercials on TV for Old Spice?

PERRY: Yeah. That's actually led to most of my problems because my father is the handsomest man in the world.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PERRY: So that's led to why I look at myself on TV in the first place and also why I immediately go to the problems. But, yeah, that was - you know, a lot of you guys probably remember the - you know, there was that Old Spice commercial where the sailor has, like, a tote bag, and he's whistling, and all the women are, you know...

GROSS: Right. So was it a lesson in what show business was like to have a father who was famous from commercials?

PERRY: Well, it was an interesting lesson on all fronts to have a father in this business because I got to see the highs and lows because he would, you know - he would have one year that was just off-the-charts successful. And then he would have a year that wasn't. And, you know, he's one of those actors that have, you know, managed to work for 40 years in this business. And, you know, I saw a lot of the highs and lows. I would see, like, him go out for pilots and either get them or not and, you know, what that kind of does to your attitude on a daily basis. So, you know, his big lesson to me was to make sure that there's something else in your life that is more important than acting or you'll go bananas. And so I've tried to follow that, and I know that he feels that way, too.

GROSS: So your mother was the press secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

PERRY: Yes.

GROSS: So one parent is exposing you to, like, you know, Hollywood, and the other to politics. What was your impression of the political world growing up?

PERRY: Well, I was absolutely fascinated by it. And she was around during Jean Chretien's liberal leadership campaign. And I was right there as a, you know, 12-year-old kid, just watching all of that happen and watching, you know, all those campaigns. And it was just fascinating. And, you know, it was bizarre because my mother was sort of in the public eye when I was a kid as well, just from a completely different arena. But, you know, I was fascinated by it as a kid and watching all these people gather together and celebrate all these politicians. It was really fun.

GROSS: Did you see her on TV a lot? Did she have to make...

PERRY: I did.

GROSS: ...A lot of public statements?

PERRY: I did. I saw her on TV a lot, you know, especially during the campaigns and stuff 'cause she was always kind of, you know, around. So it was really an interesting time.

GROSS: So you grew up in an environment where the people who you knew best, your parents, were on TV a lot. So I guess...

PERRY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Does that make it any more or less of a big deal to be on TV yourself?

PERRY: Well, the most interesting thing was - you know, I grew up in Canada, in Ottawa, Canada, and, you know, with my mom, and the way that I would see my father on a regular basis was on TV. He would call me up and say, you know, I'm doing an episode of "Mannix," or I'm doing an episode of this. And that's the way I got to kind of see my dad. So I really think I generated a huge respect for television and for the industry because of that.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

PERRY: Well, thank you. This was really fun.

BIANCULLI: Matthew Perry speaking to Terry Gross in 2007. The star of "Friends" died last week at age 54. After a break, we'll hear from one of his "Friends" co-stars, Lisa Kudrow, who played Phoebe. And Justin Chang reviews Sofia Coppola's new film "Priscilla." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIA SCHNEIDER ORCHESTRA'S "WALKING BY FLASHLIGHT")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television history at Rowan University. We've just listened to our interview with Matthew Perry, who played Chandler Bing on the hugely successful TV show, "Friends." He died over the weekend at the age of 54. We thought we'd hear another interview with a "Friends" co-star, Lisa Kudrow. She played the quirky character Phoebe. When Terry spoke with her in 2003, she was starring in the film "The Opposite Of Sex," and "Friends" was in its final season. Let's begin with a clip from "Friends." Matthew Perry's Chandler has begun a secret romance with Monica, but their friends find out. Here, Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe seduces Chandler in an attempt to force Chandler to confess to his romance with Monica.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRIENDS")

PERRY: (As Chandler Bing) Hey.

KUDROW: (As Phoebe Buffay) Hey. Oh, wow, that jacket looks great on you.

PERRY: (As Chandler Bing) Really?

KUDROW: (As Phoebe Buffay) Yeah. The material looks so soft. Oh, hello, Mr. Bicep.

(LAUGHTER)

KUDROW: (As Phoebe Buffay) You've been working out?

PERRY: (As Chandler Bing) Well, I try to, you know, squeeze things.

KUDROW: (As Phoebe Buffay) Oh (laughter).

(LAUGHTER)

PERRY: (As Chandler Bing) You OK?

KUDROW: (As Phoebe Buffay) Well, if you really want to know, I - oh, I can't tell you this.

PERRY: (As Chandler Bing) Phoebe, it's me. You can tell me anything.

KUDROW: (As Phoebe Buffay) Well, actually, you're the one person I can't tell this to, and the one person I want to the most.

(LAUGHTER)

PERRY: (As Chandler Bing) What's going on?

KUDROW: (As Phoebe Buffay) I think it's just, you know, that I haven't been with a guy in so long. And you know how sometimes you're looking for something, and you just don't even see that it's right there in front of you, sipping coffee. Oh, no. Have I said too much?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Your timing - your comic timing is so good. And I'm just wondering, you know, talk about intuitive, is that something that's intuitive or something that you worked on, that you were trained in?

KUDROW: Oh, I think it's intuitive. I go back-and-forth on it because I think every actor - I think everybody has the capacity for comedy, and everybody has the capacity for acting. But I don't know. I think this is interesting to me. I took a, you know, I was involved with The Groundlings, which is an improvisational sketch comedy group in LA, and in one of the classes, there was this actor who had worked a lot and - really good actor, and he was having a little trouble with the comedy, he felt. That's why he was taking this class.

And he asked me at one point, you know, you just - I don't know how to do it, and you're doing it, and you're funny, and I want to do that. And I don't know why, but somehow I knew. I said, yeah, but you're an actor. Just be in the scene and listen and then just respond. And I think it'll be funny. And he did, and it got funny. He stopped trying. He relaxed into the comedy and it feels like that's all it is. It's - you got to just relax into - the more you're relaxed, the funnier it can be. The more open you are, I don't know. I tell you, I'm really inarticulate about this stuff.

GROSS: Right, yeah. Well, I'm not agreeing with you that...

KUDROW: Right. Yeah, you...

GROSS: You're inarticulate, but...

KUDROW: ...Are. Yeah. Yeah you are.

(LAUGHTER)

KUDROW: I heard it. Yeah.

GROSS: How do you feel about this being the last season of "Friends"? Is that a good thing for you?

KUDROW: It's a mixed bag of emotions. You know, I love TV, I like a TV schedule a lot, and I love everybody I'm working with. And it's a good show. People like it. People watch it. That's all good. But it's fine that it's time to move on. I mean, honestly, I can't see doing this for another 10 years. You know, it has to end at some point. This is as good a time as any.

GROSS: What are some of the things that you think you'll miss and some of the things you won't?

KUDROW: I'll really miss - I'll miss, you know, those five actors and, you know, the executive producers I've become, you know, friendly with. I don't know that I'll miss - and I think I'll even miss Phoebe, or being her, you know, like, putting on those - putting on that person 'cause that's what it feels like. You know, I'd want to say putting on those clothes, but not literally 'cause I actually hate the clothes. But just putting on that skin of Phoebe - I'll miss that.

GROSS: What do you hate about the clothes?

KUDROW: How unflattering they are may be No. 1.

(LAUGHTER)

KUDROW: It's not my style at all, but - and it's always tights. You know, I hate pulling up tights. It's very silly, little things. But, I don't know, I'll just - I'll miss it. And in a way, I've missed the Phoebe that she started off being, to be honest. Anyway, I miss being so, you know, unreasonably optimistic and cheerful about absolutely everything 'cause that was nice. That was a nice thing to do every day.

GROSS: Is it kind of a relief from yourself to do that?

KUDROW: Yes. And a little of it seeps in, and I think it helps you cope with other things in your life better.

GROSS: Really?

KUDROW: Yeah. Yeah. That's why I'm - I actually have a hard time, you know, defining anyone as stupid or, you know, ditzy or any of that because it's an easier life, and it maybe isn't so stupid.

GROSS: Is there anything in your life that you feel really connects to the lives of the characters on "Friends"? You know, like, did you ever have, like, friends walking in and out of your house all the time and a small group of people that knew everything about each other and that were lovers with each other and all that stuff?

KUDROW: No, not even in college. That was never part of my experience, to be honest. No.

GROSS: Did you have lots of friends or were you more...

KUDROW: Yeah.

GROSS: ...On your own?

KUDROW: Not on my own. I've always had, like, a few good friends at a time and then some acquaintances, you know. But, no, I never really had that core group of men and women, you know, that were just friends because I actually never really believed that - I honestly don't know that men actually like to be friends with women. Maybe they do now. Maybe they're different. But, you know, back when I was in college, it seemed like men were really only friends with women if there was a chance of, you know, some sex. But - so, no, it really wasn't ever my experience.

GROSS: You know, there's been, like, a whole industry of shows inspired by "Friends." And, I mean, there are times - and it's been like this for years - when you put on the TV and you feel like every half-hour there's a new group of people in their 20s or 30s sitting on a couch talking to each other and having affairs with each other.

KUDROW: Yeah.

GROSS: Is that bizarre for you to watch?

KUDROW: In the beginning, it was - not bizarre, I just thought, wow. It was flattering. To be honest, it was flattering. And then a little sad because I think TV does this all the time. I just read something the creator of "Everyone Loves Raymond" said that they think that you're establishing a new formula for a TV success, and you're not. You've just hit on something with, you know, the casting, and they click with the writers' sensibilities. And you've created people and lots of backstory for these people, so they feel fleshed out. And that's what it is. It's not just, oh, let's just put six, you know, young people in a room, see what happens.

GROSS: (Laughter) Right.

BIANCULLI: Lisa Kudrow, who played Phoebe on the NBC sitcom "Friends," speaking with Terry Gross in 2003 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF VAMPIRE WEEKEND SONG, "M79")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2003 interview with Lisa Kudrow, who played Phoebe on the TV show "Friends." After college, she thought she would follow in her father's footsteps and pursue a career in medicine and research. But then the urge to go into acting took over.

KUDROW: I started with Jon Lovitz, who I grew up with. That's my brother's best friend and like a brother to me. And I had seen him struggle, you know, for a long time, and finally he was working. He got on "Saturday Night Live." And I just finally let him know, I think I'm going to pursue this now. And he said, great, go to the Groundlings. So I've taken a lot of acting classes. I studied it in college. I've never learned more than I learned from the Groundlings and doing improvisation.

GROSS: When he told you to go there, did they just, like, let you in?

KUDROW: No, absolutely not (laughter). No, they called up and said - when I called them, they said, what's your experience? And I said, well, in junior high I...

GROSS: (Laughter).

KUDROW: And so they said, yeah, we're going to refer you to this teacher who we work with a lot. And her - she was a godsend. Her name's Cynthia Szigeti, and she was the best thing that could have happened to me.

GROSS: How come?

KUDROW: Because she didn't take no for an answer. And embarrassment was not an option, you just had to do it. And it was the best thing that ever happened to me. And, you know, it's improvisation and that could be scary. And some of the exercises look really silly, like lifting a disc, you know? And I thought, that's so actor-y and embarrassing. I just can't. And the second class, I came in late, and she was just, you know, talking everyone through it. She wasn't, like, warm and nurturing, although she was warm. But she was, come on, do it. You can do it. Stop laughing, we'll laugh - we'll tell you when it's funny - you know, just how to stay committed. She just forced you, sort of like with a gun to your head, you know, on being louder and staying committed.

And I'm watching these people lift a disc, and I'm so embarrassed for them except for one guy who's doing it. And now I understand what being committed is. He was so committed that it wasn't embarrassing. He looked like he was lifting a disc. He wasn't overdoing it. He wasn't embarrassed. He wasn't commenting on it. He was just there acting like he's lifting a disc. And I understood what commitment was from that, you know?

GROSS: Is it a disc like a discus thrower disc?

KUDROW: It's - there's nothing there.

GROSS: Right.

KUDROW: You're pretending like - no, everyone's standing around in a circle, and you're all working together to lift a disc.

GROSS: Oh, I see. I see. So it's a group exercise.

KUDROW: Yeah. But there's this one guy who's doing it, and he's not embarrassing to me. And I thought, all right, well, I got to be friends with that guy, that's for sure. And it was Conan O'Brien.

GROSS: Oh.

KUDROW: Yeah, so we became friends, you know, from that class on. We were very close friends.

GROSS: Oh, that's interesting.

KUDROW: Yeah. And so I just kind of stuck with him because I thought, OK, he's got a handle on this.

GROSS: So how come you saw yourself as a comic actor? How did you know that, at least at the beginning, it was going to be about comedy for you?

KUDROW: Because I thought, well, you know, the people in comedy don't seem to take themselves as seriously. I could handle that (laughter). I think I could handle that, being around those people. A lot of it was just about, who would I have to deal with if I'm going to do this career? And, you know, that was also a big deterrent for so many years before I decided to do it.

GROSS: What were you afraid of in terms of the people?

KUDROW: Just...

GROSS: Pretentiousness?

KUDROW: Not so much a pretentiousness as too otherworldly, too - you know, because I feel like they're genuine in their erroneous beliefs. That's how I felt about it, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What were the erroneous beliefs?

KUDROW: Just - I don't know - a little too just anything goes because I was a really rigid kid and, you know, young adult - (laughter) really rigid. And I'm not saying I was right back then, but that's just how I felt, like, you know, these people are idiots. And I don't want to be one of them, and I don't want to be associated with them. What I came to find out was that they're not idiots, and everybody - I, more than anyone else, could use a little lightening up, you know?

GROSS: Was one of your fears about actors was that sense of, like, elevating craft to an almost, like, religious level?

KUDROW: Yes. Thank you, that was exactly what it was, yeah.

GROSS: And what was your problem with that?

KUDROW: It didn't ring true to me at the time. It just felt like somebody - yeah, I mean, I think you were right when you said pretentious. I don't know why I rejected it so quickly. That was unfair.

GROSS: Hostility (laughter).

KUDROW: Yeah, I don't know. It made me so angry at you.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KUDROW: No, maybe that was part of it, it just didn't ring true. It was something that I just always rejected. And, you know, I just lumped - I'm very black-and-white and especially then. So I see an actor or an actress on a talk show and hate them...

GROSS: (Laughter).

KUDROW: ...You know, and hate all their divorces and hate, you know, just how messed up they were and not seeing it - you know, behaving as if, and of course, everyone would aspire to be me. You know, it's just - it really bothered me a lot.

GROSS: Do you think that the other women characters on "Friends" have been more sexualized than your character has been?

KUDROW: Absolutely. Sure.

GROSS: And is that because yours is the more kind of comedic?

KUDROW: No. I think it's because I'm not as sexual as they are. I mean, I'm not as - I don't project that as much as they do.

GROSS: Do you think it's about you, the actress, not about the character?

KUDROW: Yeah. I really do. I really do. You know, there's no end to the amount of dating and, you know, sexual experiences that Phoebe refers to. So the opportunity was definitely there. But it's - I'm not comfortable doing that. It's not any kind of, you know, like, moral belief or I'm against it. It's not that at all. I'm personally not comfortable with that. So, you know, I don't like photo shoots. We did one early on where this one photographer who does stuff - and he did that famous shot of Jennifer on the cover of Rolling Stone, where you see, like, a fuzzy, blurry - you know, part of her tushie. And it's just about the sexiest thing I'd ever seen. And I thought it was beautiful.

And so we were all doing a shoot, the three girls. And one of the - it was that same photographer. I think it was before, you know, Jennifer's Rolling Stone cover. But he had us all doing different things that were kind of sexy and asked me to unbutton my top and keep on buttoning it and opening it up just a little more. And as I was doing it, it felt awful to me. I didn't like the way I felt at all. I felt, like, taken advantage of. I just did. And I thought, what is this? All of a sudden, I'm, like a - I don't know. It didn't feel right. You know, I'm like a sex performer right now.

GROSS: Right.

KUDROW: I have to be a sex performer for this photoshoot, and I wasn't comfortable with it.

GROSS: So what did you do? Did you say you're not comfortable and then button your shirt back up? Or did you say, well, you know, they're asking me to do this, and I'll be a good sport even though I don't feel comfortable?

KUDROW: I was trying - it was more of, get comfortable with this, Lisa. Come on. You know, stop that prejudice you have against everything. Maybe this is part of your old way of thinking, you know? And I tried. And I unbuttoned it, and I opened it a little, and I tried. And, you know, it just didn't feel comfortable. And the kind of face you have to make to look sexy, like...

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

KUDROW: ...You know, opening your mouth a little, and your eyes get really big, and you purse your lips. That's like a comedy bit to me. And I've even done it as jokes in photo shoots or Polaroids. I always, as a joke, do this - to me, it's a crazy face, and it looks OK. It doesn't look crazy.

GROSS: That sexual pout.

KUDROW: Yeah. And it doesn't look crazy. It looks like what all these women look like when they look really sexy or doing these photographs. So now when I see those, I think, wow, they - the amount of contortion it took me to achieve that. I can't believe that's what you do without even thinking twice about it.

GROSS: That's really funny. Do you know people who do that naturally, or do you think that whole style of sexual allure is almost always pure acting?

KUDROW: Oh, I think there are people who it's pretty natural for. I mean, my husband has a pout to him, and he's sexy, and that's natural, can't help it. Everyone in his family, they're all French, you know? They just are sexy, and it's no act. But, yeah, so there are people like that. I know there are. But then there are others who - come on. Like, I know what you had to do to achieve that face and that arch. And it's just, like, so unnatural to me, unless you're in, you know, a bedroom.

GROSS: Well, it's just been such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much.

KUDROW: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Lisa Kudrow, who played Phoebe on the TV show "Friends." She spoke to Terry Gross in 2003 during the show's final season. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "Priscilla." This is FRESH AIR.

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