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This story first appeared in the Aug. 23-Sept. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The producer of NBC’s genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? reveals the thrill of exposing celebrities’ hidden histories.
The Hollywood Reporter: You co-produce the series with your friend and frequent collaborator Dan Bucatinsky, but the format of the show originated in England. What are your roles as producers?
Lisa Kudrow: I was working on a film in 2007 in Ireland and saw the British version on BBC. It was the most fascinating thing I’ve ever seen. British producer Alex Graham created the show, and we thought, “Why don’t we make an American version of it?” As producers, we are very involved in the research phase and script stage, but then things come up in the field we didn’t expect, so we have to be nimble. And we go over all the cuts. We’re very hands-on.
THR: The series has delved into the ancestries of A-list stars like Sarah Jessica Parker. How involved are you in choosing the people to profile, or do they come to you now?
Kudrow: The first year it was about me choosing people who struck me as intellectually curious: Sarah Jessica, Susan Sarandon, Spike Lee and others were all fantastic. It was a huge leap of faith on their part because there had never been a show like this. But things fell into place, and now we have people coming to us. It’s been fascinating to see the themes that emerge between who these celebrities are and their ancestry. Like for Rob Lowe, who’s a huge patriot, we found that one of his earliest ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War.
THR: Do you have a team of genealogy experts on standby?
Kudrow: We work with folks at Ancestry.com who do a lot of work. Our own researchers work with them, looking through historical archives and documents like articles, obituaries or court papers.
THR: So, paperwork that seems totally incidental today like a parking ticket or electric bill becomes our footsteps 50 years from now?
Kudrow: It’s true. If you had a parking ticket today, your great-granddaughter might say, “Well, I always thought she was in L.A., and now I have proof!”
THR: Your own family history was featured in season one. What was the most shocking thing you uncovered?
Kudrow: There was the worst, which was getting the detailed eyewitness account of how exactly the Jews of the Polish village Ilya were rounded up and shot. That was tough. But the bigger impact was finding out there’d been a relative in a Polish naval uniform who came here after the war in 1947, and he told my father and his mother what had happened. They begged him to stay in the U.S., but he left, and then they heard he died. They never saw him again. So then I was going to Poland to find out what happened to him. I was pretty down after I got there — the whole experience had been really brutal and now I have to find out how he died, too? And then it turns out he was alive! And I got to meet him, his son and his grandson. It was like a miracle happy ending. If I weren’t involved in the show, I would have thought the whole thing was made up.
THR: It almost seems too good to be unscripted.
Kudrow: Yes, too good to be true. It also gave me great hope in general that this isn’t just an unhappy planet. Sometimes very good things can happen.
THR: How did you feel when you learned the series had received a first nomination in the reality series category?
Kudrow: We were so surprised because the show starts with a “W,” so by the time they read all the names, we didn’t think we’d made it.
THR: Maybe to avoid confusion next year, the title should be changed to Just Who Do You Think You Are?
Kudrow: (Laughs.) Or, Ahhh … Who Do You Think You Are?
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