Growing up in Encino, California, Lisa Kudrow didn’t have a lot of friends. The daughter of a travel agent and physician, she would stand on the playground and hope that someone would shine a little kindness her way. “I was always the last kid chosen for dodgeball,” she recalls. “I didn’t know then, but it was a big life lesson.”
“You take all the setbacks and turn them into stories that you share with other people. You come to realize there are so many kids who feel like they don’t fit in. I want them to feel like they’re not alone,” says the 58-year-old Vassar College graduate, who set out to be a doctor but went on to become one of the highest-paid women on TV.
The irony now? “Every time I go out, someone says, ‘Hi, Phoebe!’ ” says the actor known for “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion” and that little TV series called “Friends,” where she played Phoebe Buffay from 1994 to 2004.
That brings us to her new streaming movie, “Better Nate Than Ever,” debuting this weekend on Disney+. The story revolves around 13-year-old Nate Foster (Rueby Wood), a kid with big Broadway dreams. When his parents leave town for the weekend, Nate and his best friend, Libby (Aria Brooks), sneak away to the Big Apple to audition for a big show. He has a chance encounter with his long-lost Aunt Heidi (Kudrow), who looks after him during his big adventure.
On a Saturday morning, an ageless Kudrow in a white shirt with flowing blond hair took to Zoom from the home she shares in Los Angeles with her longtime husband, French advertising expert Michel Stern.
Kudrow says she chose this project because it fit with her new career mantra. “This is joy. This is about so many good things. That’s what I want to be part of now.”
Review-Journal: Talk about life on the set of a movie, about acting and trying to achieve the dream of being cast in a big Broadway show?
Lisa Kudrow: Set life was fantastic. It really felt like a theater group. There we were sitting all around between shots in the same room, which I love, especially when it’s nice people. I loved every step along the way. This project was so fast and easy, plus it had a director who knew what he wanted and then let someone like me do what they do.
Describe Aunt Heidi.
She’s little Nate’s aunt and sadly estranged from the family. The sad thing is she’s an actress who got to be in a Broadway show, but not for long because it closed. She had the dream, but it was taken away from her quickly. It was like, “Wait, that’s not fair.” But she hasn’t quit. She’s still auditioning for new roles despite the heartbreak. Seeing her young nephew try to audition now, it comes full circle. It’s all about second chances and mending past hurts.
Did you relate to your character navigating the ups and down of acting?
I loved how Heidi has clearly been beaten down a bit, but you could still tell that she liked herself. She still loved acting even though there wasn’t a lot of evidence for her to do that job now. She just can’t help it. She believes in her dream, which is admirable.
The story is also about healing old family wounds — as in, how long are you going to keep up old vendettas.
Heidi is alone in New York because of some past understanding. She loves her family and misses her sister. She has learned what her priorities are in life, which is a good thing at any age. Not knowing them in the past made her pretty lonely in life, but sometimes with families, it’s not too late.
How do you decide to say “yes” to a project now?
You always want to work with people you would actually like to hang out with in life. Then, of course, there is the script and the director.
Did the young actors on “Nate” ask you for any career advice?
We met on a Zoom call before shooting began. The director did ask me to give advice to the kids, and I said a few things. Then I said, “They don’t need any advice. These young people have their heads on securely.” It was true. They were so grounded. One did ask me how I stayed in character, and another asked about longevity in show business. One asked: What agency should I sign with?
How do you deal with rejection?
If you have anyone in your life that you respect and thinks you’re good and talented, keep them stored back in your head to remind you. Sometimes you’re not going to be your own cheerleader, but you can think of all the cheerleaders from the past. Listen to them.
You were on track to becoming a doctor in college.
I didn’t act in high school or college. I was going to follow in my dad’s footsteps. I was a biology major in college partly because my dad was a doctor. I also loved how biology was about unlocking the mysteries of humanity. It wasn’t until after college that I thought about acting. I kept thinking about it to the point where I decided to give it a try. Jon Lovitz was a family friend I grew up with, and he was on “Saturday Night Live.” He inspired me and sent me to the Groundlings improv company in L.A.
Do you remember your audition for “Friends”?
“Everyone auditioning got that same monologue from the pilot. It’s the part where Phoebe is talking about how she lived in a car with a homeless guy. It reminded me of a girl I knew in college. She had so many bad things happen to her, and her attitude was always like “all in a day.” That was my take on Phoebe, and I got the part.
Is it true that you struggled to play Phoebe on “Friends” at one point?
I did struggle, and then third season in, I said, “I don’t think I have it. I don’t know what I’m doing.” It was Matt LeBlanc who told me, “You’re her. Relax. You’ve got it. You’re working too hard. Relax.” He was right.
Finally, when you’re not working, what is a perfect Sunday for you?
I’m a homebody. Give me a sunny day, a good game of tennis and maybe an old movie like “All About Eve” on TV. I love a long walk. It really is the simple stuff.