Whacky Phoebs is no dumb blonde
To people of a certain age, Lisa Kudrow is best known as the kooky one from Friends. But a role in PS I Love You - based on Irish novelist Cecelia Ahern's bestseller - should endear Kudrow to a new generation, writes Paul Whitington
Lisa Kudrow's voice and manner are eerily familiar. The way she laughs, stops mid-sentence and sounds at times surprised by what she's saying is spookily reminiscent of her most famous character, Phoebe Buffay.
It's unsettling, and besides, Phoebe was kind of mad, wasn't she? Is Lisa? Far from it, as it turns out.
We are talking in advance of the release of PS I Love You, the surprisingly likeable film adaptation of Irish novelist Cecilia Ahern's novel starring Hilary Swank, Harry Connick, Kudrow and Kathy Bates. Lisa plays Swank's best friend Denise Hennessey, an alarmingly direct and perhaps as a consequence unmarried woman who - not very surprisingly - utters some of the film's funniest lines.
The film, which charts the journey of Hilary Swank's character Holly through bereavement under the posthumous direction of her late husband, was based mainly in New York but involved a three-week stint in Ireland.
The set was visited by the Republic's Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and his daughter Cecilia, but Kudrow found the locations they used, in the Wicklow mountains and elsewhere, to be more memorable.
"That place," she says, "where we filmed around the cottage - oh my God that was so beautiful."
This wasn't just a free holiday, though - Kudrow was much taken with the film's plot and script and is proud of the final result.
"I liked the script, eh, of course," she says, laughing.
"Richard LaGravenese is a really fantastic writer, so that was a big draw, and so was the cast, Hilary and Kathy Bates - and Hilary is great in it, strong but very vulnerable. Also, the story felt a bit different from your average romantic comedy where the lead woman's biggest problem is being shy in front of the guys - this felt like it had a lot more to it."
The film is released simultaneously here and in the United States, but Kudrow has already finished two more films and is midway through a third. She says, though, that these days she tends to work only when she wants to.
"It's like I don't work for a while and then I think, ah I should really do something, and then I'll do something ¿ but that's the great benefit of having done Friends ¿ it's a part-time job."
The enormous success of that series famously led to Kudrow and her co-stars being paid a million dollars an episode and has given her - to put it mildly - financial independence.
But the 44-year-old actress was not an overnight success and certainly paid her dues on the way up.
She was born - in Encino, California on July 30, 1963 - into an impressively academic family. Her father was a prominent medical researcher in the field of headaches, and her brother is a neurologist.
Was there any adverse reaction, I wonder, when she announced she was going to be an actress?
"No, they cheered," she says. "I was studying pre-med at that point, but they all just said good for you, go for it. They know how hard that academic life could be, and they just thought that I might be more fulfilled doing acting."
She started out in comedy and was briefly a member of The Groundlings, an improvisational comedy troupe that operated out of a run-down Los Angeles bar, which included such future luminaries as Will Ferrell and Janeane Garofalo.
Lisa also dated Conan O'Brien for a while before he moved to New York to start his chat show.
However, while Kudrow's comedic talent was obvious, she struggled to establish herself, being rejected for shows like Saturday Night Live and a certain up-and-coming sitcom called Frasier.
"I was actually down to play Ros," she remembers, "but they fired me before we started shooting the pilot.
"For a moment they went he-ey, she'd be good for the part, and then they went hey, she'd be better.
"They went with Peri Gilpin and they were right, she was great in that part. So that was devastating, but it ended up OK because not long after that I got Mad About You."
That was back in 1992 and that domestic sitcom starring Helen Hunt would become one of the most successful US comedies of the 1990s.
"After that I got auditions for lots of parts, but Friends' executive producer David Crane's boyfriend was a writer on Mad About You, so I think that made them aware of me."
Of all the former 'Friends', Kudrow has always been the most resolutely private. She is married and has a son, but stays well away from the celebrity limelight.
"It's all so different now," she says. "There's U-Tube and video cameras and people using their mobile. It just seems if you're a celebrity, and you're out in public, then you're fair game."
That must be a horrible thing to experience?
"Well, I just don't go out," she concludes. "That's my answer anyway."
PS I Love You opens today. See P4 for review