Lisa Kudrow may be best known as Phoebe Buffay, but she was born to play Valerie Cherish. Take the scene from the sixth episode of Season 2 of "The Comeback," in which Valerie, stuck in the desert for a day of "Seeing Red" reshoots, is tied up and locked in the trunk of a car, her mouth bound with duct tape. The director forces her to do the scene again and again, and when a live snake is added to the mix, Kudrow uses only her eyes to nail the single funniest shot of the season. But sight gag aside, the scene encapsulates the comic tragedy that is Valerie; she's humiliated, suffocated and taken for granted, but she won't stop. And that's the genius of Lisa Kudrow: She shines brightest when Valerie brutally sacrifices her dignity with a smile.
As co-creator of the HBO series (along with Michael Patrick King), Kudrow puts that talent to good use throughout the second season, which explores Valerie's crumbling relationship with husband Mark and her intense paranoia about hairstylist sidekick Mickey's cancer scare. After lampooning the earliest seeds of the reality-show era, the latest installment glides with precision into a new age of pop-cultural trends to mock, like the rise of the prestige-baiting "docuseries."
It's clear Valerie is embedded deep within Kudrow. She laughs infectiously as she analyzes the show, often slipping into character mid-sentence. The Huffington Post caught up with her last week to chat about resurrecting the series nine years after its cancellation, the possibility of a third season and Valerie's decision to skip the Emmys. And speaking of the Emmys, here's hoping Kudrow earns some well-deserved recognition when nominations are announced next month. This woman is owed an award, Television Academy, and we need to know we're being heard.
You got to return to playing Valerie Cherish after nine long years. How did that compare to the final seasons of “Friends,” when you had been playing Phoebe consistently for about the same amount of time?
These characters sort of stay with me, no matter what. With Phoebe, we’d have our hiatus breaks, which were like April, May until July or August. And sometimes I felt like, “Oh no, I don’t know what I’m doing with Phoebe." I was really struggling because it was easy. I was like, “Wait, I don’t feel like I’m doing as much work to be Phoebe.” And Matt LeBlanc zapped me back to reality. He said, “Why should you? You’ve been doing her for how many years?”
But with Valerie, even though it had been so long, you’d only done 13 episodes.
She’s in my head a lot. I talk to myself frequently as other characters. I can’t help it. Or other characters comment on things that are going on when I’m going through my day. Not to sound crazy! Sometimes they come out and I’m not aware that I’m saying it out loud in character. One time, someone heard and went, “Oh my God, that was Valerie Cherish!” But I was kind of nervous, and when Michael [Patrick King] and I started writing, the voice of Valerie sounded a little crankier to me. And I went, “Whoa, look what’s happening –- but that’s OK, right? Can’t she be less of a pleaser? She’s nine years older.” And he said, “Yes, if that’s what’s happening, let’s go with it.”
You’ve said you were surprised when people called the show “cringeworthy comedy." When you’re playing Valerie, do you feel that visceral humiliation that we are reacting to?
No. I finally realized I never felt it because she’s not feeling humiliated. She won’t have it. She’s one of those people who’s deflecting and pivoting and spinning it, and she thinks once she’s spun it, that’s the new truth. She creates a different reality. So no, she’s not hurt.
We’ve only seen Valerie acting in small pieces. We saw one scene from “Seeing Red” this season, and her performance got good reviews. Then we see her at the improv class she attends, where she fails miserably.
It’s so bad!
In your opinion, is Valerie a good actress or not?
I think she is accidentally a good actress. She explains with her audition [for the part on “Seeing Red”]. Her audition was compelling, wasn’t it? It got away from her. She lost control. And that was magic. She thinks you’re supposed to be in complete control, but in a bad way. It’s a performance that’s micromanaged by the artist. So when it gets away from her, the truth is coming in and getting expressed. And her other reason for being horrified [when Valerie first sees footage from "Seeing Red"] is it’s too dark, and she looks ugly, she thinks. And also, she was tired. That Paulie G wore her down! That was like the 12th take! She wants to seem like Linda Evans in “Dynasty” -- like a poised, soap opera something, you know? And on the other hand, if everyone else says it’s good, she’s fine with that too.
That’s the great dichotomy of Valerie.
What’s sad is she’s a decent person, but she’s almost like a shadow person. It depends on what’s being reflected back.
Why didn’t we see any of Jane’s documentary, “The Assassination Of Valerie Cherish,” in this season?
We wanted to end with the Emmys, and we were building toward it. We decided early on she was going to have to leave the award show to go to the hospital. So there wasn’t really room, and to me, it’s somewhere to go if we want to do more.
The Emmys are a huge part of the second season, and in the finale we see Valerie choose humanity over awards. Was that a commentary on awards campaigning in general?
No. I thought it might look like that, but no, we weren’t making fun of the awards. Thank God Conan [O'Brien] did it, because we could make it as real as possible. And we had Jimmy Burrows there, who says, “Hey, it’s great to win, but remember you’ve got to hold on to the other stuff.” It’s not everything, but it’s not nothing. It was important to her. And why wouldn’t it be? It is a big deal. So that’s what made it even more powerful -- that this person left that, and her internal moral compass gave her no choice. She couldn’t stay there and she had to go be with Mickey, otherwise she can’t even sit in the seat.
Did your own experience of winning an Emmy for “Friends” inform the way you played Valerie having a chance at an Emmy?
Well, Michael has no shortage of awards for “Sex and the City." We know what happens and how that goes once someone’s nominated. We also figured that what Valerie did in that show might get recognized because it’s just a complete 180 from what people would have known of her. It would merit some attention. So it felt reasonable to us that she would get nominated. We wanted her to win, then we had a moment of, "Should she win? Would she win?" Then we went, "Why not? Let’s have her win because that’s a nice thing."
It’s a nice release for the audience to see her get something after all she’s gone through.
And the audience has no idea whether she’s going to win or not. Did you think she would win?
I was in suspense because the show trades so well in defeat, but the first season ends on a triumphant note that also works.
Right, so it’s not like everyone is going to expect her to win, so it’ll be just as nice of a surprise for the audience.
Valerie’s most-used phrase might be “you know.” She says it all the time. How many “you knows” are written in the script and how many are natural conversational additions on the fly?
Oh, that’s interesting. I don’t know. I’m not sure if I threw those in. I should actually look through a script and see. We do write in when she starts to say something, then we add dashes and she starts over again, you know? Well, I’m saying “you know” a lot. Who knows? Maybe I threw them all in.
What do you think Valerie would be like in a “Friends”-esque salary negotiation?
The biggest wimp! She has money. She’s married to a hedge fund guy. They don’t live like that, but they’ve got it.
But it seems like a lot of her self worth is wrapped up in her professional milestones. Do you think she would feel like if she’s not getting paid a certain amount, she’s being cheapened?
The spotlight is much more valuable to her than the check. We set it up that she doesn’t need money, and that even without Mark, whatever she made on “I’m It,” she bought apartment buildings. So, she’s always had income from that. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but rents go up. So, she’s always been financially fine. We needed to make it clear that this isn’t about paying a mortgage. It’s about being in the spotlight.
When was the last time you had a Valerie Cherish moment, when you were taken totally by surprise at how someone received you and you felt that self-awareness?
When we were shooting this, I would drive through the same gate every morning. And one time it was early, so there was a different guard there, and he didn’t recognize me at all. He was very protective of that gate, and he wasn’t letting me in. And he said, “Look, the only people through this gate are producers …” And I said, “Oh, I’m producing this.” And he said, “Let me finish. Only producers or cast …” I said, “I’m in the cast.” He said, “Not extras.” So I handed him my ID, and he put it in the computer and saw that I am in the cast and I’m allowed to drive onto the lot and park my car. I said, “They wanted me to be closer to the hair and makeup trailer.” And he said, “Did you see where that other car went? That’s background. That’s where you go.” Before he finally let me on, he went through the whole speech again. “Only producers and the cast and the director, and that’s it.” He just wanted me to let him finish. He just wanted to be heard.
You’ve said the door is open at HBO for a third season of "The Comeback." Are we talking a year? Five years? Another nine years?
Not another nine years. Michael and I are talking now. It needs to be worth it to do more. I mean “worth it” in terms of coming up with something that’s worth it. I think we pulled this one off, which was scary because for the people who liked the show, it was a high mark to hit. And I think we did it. But we’re talking about what that would be. Michael’s only just finished “2 Broke Girls,” so we’re talking.
I’m not going to ask whether there will be a “Friends” reunion because the entire cast has made it clear the answer is no. But I am curious how you feel about that question following you in every interview you do.
It’s fine! I don’t care, ask it all day long. I just feel bad that the answer is “sorry.” Because people get mad, as if it’s any of the six of us that are the reason why it’s not happening. But we can’t even get the six of us in a room together to have a meal. We just tried again. We got so close and then one of us was out of town. We’re trying really hard. It’s a lot of adult lives of people who are spread out and busy, so it’s tough.