Lisa Kudrow on 'Who Do You Think You Are,' 'Friends' and Being Blond

Filed under: Celeb News & Interviews

Lisa Kudrow

Lisa Kudrow helps celebs research their family histories in "Who Do You Think You Are?" Credit: Nicole Rivelli, AP Photo/NBC

Lisa Kudrow played Phoebe on "Friends," but in real life, the actress is nothing like her famously ditzy character.

A Vassar College grad with a Bachelor of Science degree in psychobiology, Kudrow's one of the executive producers behind NBC's "Who Do You Think You Are," a show that helps celebrities research their family ancestry -- often with surprising and heartbreaking results.

The second season, premiering tonight, features Gwyneth Paltrow, Rosie O'Donnell and Vanessa Williams.

Kudrow has been married since 1995 to French advertising executive Michel Stern and is the mother to Julian. ParentDish recently caught up with her to discuss the show, keeping in touch with the "Friends" cast and what she's watching on TV. An edited version of the interview follows.

PD: How old is your son?
He's 12 ½. He's interested in acting. He likes directing and writing and designing video games. I'm not signing him up for anything right now, although I think he could handle it because he likes attention, but he doesn't need it.

PD: Are you a Jewish Tiger mother? Do you expect good grades?
I certainly expect effort, but, to me, a Jewish mother is, "Well, are you happy? No, then don't do it. All right, so you didn't get a good grade, then you will next time."

ParentDish: "Who Do You Think You Are" was originally a British show. How did you get to produce it here?
Lisa Kudrow:
I was working in Ireland and I saw it on the BBC and I thought it was the best show I'd ever seen. I got in touch with the British producer and he said that he'd love to do it in the U.S. We (Kudrow and her producing partners) reasoned with the network that there are a lot of people here who are famous and intellectually curious and very successful and it would attract an audience and they'd be fantastic subjects.

We got in touch with the celebrities and showed them that it wasn't an exploitative appearance on a reality show. It's not really about them and their current lives. It's about them as narrators or guides as we look at historical events experienced by their ancestors.

PD: I can say this because I'm Jewish, but nothing beats a good Holocaust story.
It's intense.

PD: Yeah, you can't beat that.
I think the slavery stories are pretty intense.

PD: Yes, Holocaust and slavery stories, nothing beats that.
(Laughs.) If it's a contest, then yes. I don't view it that way. You know, what it is with the Holocaust and slavery is that these people were victims and that's all there is to it.

PD: You're smart.
Well, I have a bachelor's degree in biology.

PD: I failed biology. You're smart.
Yeah, well, it wasn't just writing essays. See, I just put down writing essays.

PD: When you first went to Hollywood, were you like, "I can't believe how dumb people are here?"
No. Look, I went to a high school that wasn't known for academic achievement. That's why I wanted to go East for college. So, it wasn't coming to Hollywood that made me realize there were people who weren't intellectually curious.

PD: In her memoir, Kathy Griffin said you dyed your hair and became successful.
Uh-huh. It's kind of true. It started getting lighter and lighter because I was exercising outside and I'd go get color and I'd say, "Match this." And it just got blonder. I don't think casting agents treated me differently. I think I literally lightened up once I lightened my hair. I played dumb characters with a very small role. You can make it really funny in almost no words and it's easier to pull off if you're blond. I think that's how it happened. It wasn't calculated.

PD: Do you stay in touch with the "Friends" cast?
A little bit, not a lot. I mean, I don't. Matt LeBlanc said something really funny: We were trapped in a building together for 10 years and once they let you out, you go your separate ways. We get along; we do like each other and care about each other. I hang out with moms from school and friends I've had a long time.

PD: You also star in "Web Therapy," a weekly online show.
It's by design. I can produce "Who Do You Think You Are," and "Web Therapy" does not take a long time to shoot -- like a weekend. These two things are perfect for me right now because if I were to seriously pursue being in movies and stuff, they don't shoot a lot in L.A.

The last time I did a couple of independent films and they shot in New York and I shot my "Who Do You Think You Are" episode, and I ended up being away for two months and that was too much. I can't do that to my son or my husband or myself. So, this is how it works right now. It's great. I'm not, "Poor me I can't be in a movie."

PD: What are you watching on TV right now?
"Downton Abbey."

PD: Me, too! I love it.
I know! And because I've never watched it, I'm getting the DVDs of "Upstairs Downstairs." Can you believe I've never seen it? I've also been watching documentary on Susan B. Anthony. Oh, my God, I never really took it in that women had absolutely no rights, no rights at all. It makes me realize how lucky we are.

PD: Can I sound cheesy? You have great timing. You make a nothing line funny. It's genius.
(Laughs.) Thanks. Well, I know how to sound like an idiot.

PD: Do you think that's the key to your success?
(Pause) Um, yeah.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.