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With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense of how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood’s writers, actors, directors, executives and others are living and working in these challenging times.
Lisa Kudrow wants nothing more than to reunite with her Friends co-stars for the HBO Max reunion special, which is now delayed — and to give her father a hug. The actress and producer, who is spending her time at home in L.A. with her husband and son, revealed that her mother died in late February. Although thankful she could have a funeral, she recalled instructing her loved ones to avoid hugging. Kudrow, who stars opposite Steve Carell in Netflix’s upcoming comedy series Space Force (dropping May 29), opens up about the loss of her mother, getting her well-traveled NBC series Who Do You Think You Are? back on track and why a Friends reunion over Zoom simply won’t do.
Let’s start easy: How are you doing?
I’m doing fine. I mean, every time I have a sore throat or I sneeze, I get a little nervous. (Laughs.)
Have you been tested?
No, because it’s hard to get tested and I don’t feel like I’m in need. Other people need to get tested first.
What were you doing, professionally, when the pandemic hit?
I was in the middle of production on NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? We had to stop shooting. And we shut down the Friends reunion, which was painful. I feel bad for everyone who was working and now is not working. That’s the part that makes me really nervous. Who Do You Think You Are? is basically a travel show, and there’s a lot of people who work on it. Everyone has been good about trying to keep them working and getting paid until they can’t anymore.
What are some of the conversations you’re having about keeping the series going?
We have all kinds of conversations: What if it’s on Zoom? And it’s like, “Ugh.” Because the other part of this show is actually walking in the footsteps of your ancestors. At some point, [people featured on the show] are at a place where their ancestor was. It’s not the same if they are looking at a computer screen and someone is doing it for them and showing them: “Look, this is it.”
The Friends reunion was supposed to tape at the end of March on the show’s iconic Burbank soundstage before a live studio audience. What did the discussion between your co-stars and Warner Bros. about postponing it entail?
I have to be honest: I was getting nervous at the very beginning of March, before there was a stay-at-home order. I called [executive producer] Ben Winston and asked if he had any contingencies that he was thinking about — like, were there other versions of this? He was like, “No, it’s going to be fine!” And then everything started shutting down, one by one. We all got on the phone and said it had to shut down. People threw out [other] dates, which have come and gone. But we were really trying to be able to do it as soon as we could.
HBO Max wanted the Friends special to launch its service, and that won’t happen. What’s the latest on it?
I don’t have an update yet on when anything is possible. It sounds like people are hoping and hedging on August or September. But then it just feels like everyone is going to be shooting things as much as possible in those two months and there might be another wave. I don’t know; everything cannot be shot in two months. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Have there been any discussions about doing it remotely? Obviously the appeal is to get the cast together in person, on that set.
Right! That’s the whole point! We haven’t all been in the same room in front of people — I mean, we have privately once many years ago but that’s it. The whole point of this is to be in the same room. That hasn’t changed. And HBO Max is being phenomenally patient and understanding.
How might that reunion special look different when production is able to resume? It’s hard to imagine everyone crowding onto the famous couch at a time of social distancing.
I haven’t heard anything officially, but hopefully there will be tests available so everyone has to be tested for the virus and antibodies before being able to show up for work. If everyone’s tested and clean, then we don’t have to be 6 feet apart. Everyone who checks out, so to speak, can sit next to each other on the couch. Because from one end to the other might be 6 feet and one of the two chairs? I thought of that too. But the reunion of the cast and celebration of the show will definitely happen.
Is there potential for this to be more than a one-off unscripted special?
I would love that. There was an idea to do something like that that Courteney [Cox] and I had a while ago, but it couldn’t get off the ground.
What was the pitch?
The basic notion was: You like watching Friends, watch it with us. I think that’s fun.
Fox just picked up a show with a similar concept to that.
Yes! It was like Gogglebox, the U.K. show, but different.
That’s the show Fox is rebooting. How long ago did you pitch that?
Maybe two years ago now.
You might consider dusting that pitch off given the current landscape…
(Laughs.) Yeah, well, we’ll see. There’s some resistance from entities you can’t ignore.
Next you have Netflix’s Space Force, where you play Steve Carell’s wife. What has it been like to promote the project from home?
It doesn’t feel that different. I love not going anywhere! (Laughs.) What’s different about today? My office is at home and I’m fine.
So your day-to-day hasn’t changed that much?
No, I’m not a shut-in, but I could be! (Laughs.) And my son is home, so that’s a slice of heaven.
As you think about going back to work, what keeps you up at night? Will you do love scenes anymore?
I’m always fine to not do those things! I’m fine being a bit of a pain in the ass about [saying,] “This doesn’t seem safe.” I don’t keep my mouth shut about that stuff. But it’s going to have to go back to sort of old Hollywood, where you lean in for a kiss and you imagine the rest. Maybe some shows will actually show fireworks and everything will be G-rated. I don’t know what’s going to happen unless it’s all going to have to be CGI. Everyone is going to have to get used to wearing the dots and letting the computers generate everything. There are a lot of fantastic shows that happen to be about single people falling in love, dating and hooking up. How are you going to shoot that?
What’s been the hardest adjustment for you in all of this?
I have a friend who does girl nights, and that obviously can’t happen. And Zoom is not the same because with a large number of people, Zoom is not fun. So getting to actually see people, getting to hug someone, console someone.
What’s been the most challenging decision you’ve had to make since this all started?
I haven’t talked about this. My mother passed away at the end of February, and I was the one who asked the rabbi to please let everyone know there was to be no hugging because we were all in an emergency room with her. That was the hardest decision because we weren’t there yet and we had only just heard the words “social distancing.” I’m a freak and all I could think that whole day was there has to be coronavirus here. Some people [understood] and most people were just looking at me like I was a monster when I’d take two steps back, put up my hands and say, “Hi, thanks for coming.” That was hard. That’s the stuff that breaks my heart, too, when I see parents, especially in the health care field, who come home from work and are like, “Hi, remember, we have to stay away from mommy.” How is a 3-year-old supposed to understand that?
I’m so sorry for your loss. Having to instruct your loved ones to not hug at a funeral, I’d imagine, requires a lot of strength.
Well, at least we got a funeral. And everyone was hugging but me. I just couldn’t bear it if I got someone sick. From that moment on, I just acted like I’ve got it, so what do I need to do?
Do you really think you had it?
I don’t know. If I did, then it was really mild. I know I was sick two days after the funeral, but there was no testing because it was a mild fever and I felt like I just had a cold. Or I was just drained. So how do you know? But a couple family members did feel sick with the flu and it could have been a flu — but that was early March and there was absolutely no testing.
What have you found yourself watching or listening to as a reprieve from all of this?
I’m listening to a series of books by Sarah Kozloff. I’m on book three, A Broken Queen. And I’m catching up on sitcoms that I never watched, like Everybody Loves Raymond, and new things like Amazon’s Upload.
What have become your go-to news sources during the pandemic?
I like to flip between CNN and Fox, just to see the different takes. But I can’t do it for too long.
Dusting off any old hobbies or finding new ones?
I had a bunch of puzzles, and then I thought, “Wait, we can’t do this because everyone’s touching pieces.” Even within our house, I’m not sure. If someone goes out to the grocery store … I don’t know. My husband had a fever, and I moved into another room. He was sick for a bit but is OK. So no puzzles. I’m like lab-experiment cautious. It makes him crazy!
What have become your comfort foods during this period?
I have had more pasta than normal, so I have to stop that. And peanut butter-filled pretzels are the most delicious thing ever.
How would you describe your corona-era wardrobe?
Workout clothes just in case I can go outside — and so I’m always ready.
Is there a cause that’s become particularly important to you during these times?
I’m involved with my alma mater, Vassar College, which is making me aware of what’s going to happen with education. They need some relief too.
What’s on top of your to-do list once this is over?
To go see my father in person and give him a hug. And professionally, get Who Do You Think You Are? shooting. I love that show so much.
Do you think it will look any different when it does come back?
We want it to look a little different just because we’re going to be back on NBC [after a period on TLC]. But in terms of is it new for the pandemic era? I don’t know. I think we need to wait for science and data to let us know that.
Right before production shut down, you were fielding a lot of offers to star in broadcast pilots. Are you still considering returning to network TV in a regular fashion?
There was a script that was really enticing, and then I realized, “Nope, not ready for that kind of commitment.”
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