[Editor’s Note: This interview originally ran in June 2015 as part of an Emmys push for select candidates the Indiewire editorial team found deserving. It has since been lightly edited to focus on pertinent issues and redistributed this week because of Ms. Kudrow’s Emmy nomination.]
Fans of “The Comeback” — the HBO series that ran for one season in 2005 and then roared back to televisions last fall for a follow-up — know that the last episode of Season 2 broke all the rules established by the faux-reality show tracking the life and times of ambitious actress Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow). So maybe don’t read the below if you haven’t checked out the final season?
But if you don’t read the below, you won’t learn Kudrow’s personal philosophy for life, why the final scene of “The Comeback” Season 2 didn’t have a soundtrack and whether or not she and co-creator Michael Patrick King have plans in place for a third season (before Kudrow turns 100).
I wanted to start off by getting a super obvious question out of the way, which is talking about “The Comeback”… I don’t think anyone expected it to come back — to have the surprise of bringing the show back. When did that conversation start?
I think it started in December, or beginning of 2014. Last year? Where it was just sort of, “so theoretically…” [laughs]…”could you and Michael come in and, I don’t know, think about, what do you wanna do?” I think by February we told them exactly what we wanted to do. Which is great. Except then we had to start shooting it in May.
Yeah, it seems like it came together really fast.
Really fast, yeah.
Is that an advantage or a disadvantage for the way you like to work?
I mean, neither and both. Because…it went great. If it hadn’t, I’d say, “No, it was a huge disadvantage.” [laughs] But I think what was great is, we didn’t have time to do anything other than get very clear and go by pure impulse. And Michael and I were both in that zone, luckily.
Had you guys been wanting to work together again after the first season?
Yeah, doing “The Comeback.”
Just doing “The Comeback”?
Well yeah; there’s something about that show for both of us that just runs deep and resonates for us. It wouldn’t be anything as good as we think it is without him, or without me, so it’s just something that the two of us do together. I don’t know. And it’s a remarkable working situation, also. We just get in this zone with it and feel pretty clear and in sync about “so now what happens?” and “this and then this.” It’s really an incredible experience.
I imagine there’s a level of trust that’s required there.
There is, and it just happened. It was just there nine years ago. We’d already known each other; we were just having lunch [and] our agents — we have the same agents — and they said “Hey, why don’t you get together now that you’re both done with your shows,” and we went, “Um, well, we will because we’re friends and happy to have lunch.” And then we just started talking about “Well, there’s this one idea,” you know? And we just started talking, and it turned into a three-and-a-half-hour lunch.
As we were talking about this, we were both getting really excited by what we started contributing to it and turning it into something. And then we met again, and Michael said, “Well, we need to pitch this to HBO.” We were just in sync early on, and it just flowed out of us. It all went really fast again.
So this time, going into it, we were a little nervous, like, “Well, that one turned out really good, now what do we do?” And we just decided to— I don’t know how else to put it other than “surrender.” We’re not gonna not do it. That’s not an option. [laughs] If HBO is saying, “What do you want to do?” then we have to have an answer. And again, it felt like something just came out that made sense.
The show has such an incredibly specific tone, and I was wondering how you feel like you found that?
Well, our original idea was we were gonna show raw footage from a reality show. Something that’s not edited and produced yet, other than what we see the producer meddling with on camera. That’s caught. The whole thing has to feel “caught.” Originally, it was just gonna be one camera. And then we saw, oh no, we can’t do that. [laughs] That’s too hard. And [reality shows] have more than one camera, so it’s okay.
But that’s how it started. And that’s why, at the top of every show, you just see the color bars and raw footage. So that sort of predetermined, I think, what the tone was gonna be. That it’s gonna be awkward, and because there are gonna be long silences or reactions with no resolution necessarily, when you feel like you’re supposed to have some? [laughs] Because they’re shooting stuff that really happens, before you edit it, and paste it up. I think that’s why it has that feel.
So, of course this is something you created with Michael. Looking back at what you’ve done over the years, it seems like you really embrace producing projects for yourself. And I was wondering, thinking back to the first time you really decided to create something for yourself to act in, what inspired that?
“The Comeback” was that. And it was just ,”Oh, here’s a good idea!” And Michael understood it. And then…I don’t know. It just happened. I mean, it wasn’t a big strategy. My only thought was — when I was finishing up “Friends” — my only thought was,”If I do another TV show, I would like to be involved creatively.” That was it.
Is there something specific about producing that you enjoy?
Well, yeah, I do. Producing and writing. Especially with TV, they go kind of hand in hand. The first thing that was wonderful was Michael was so open to me writing it with him. There are a lot of writers who, someone has an idea, but oh no, they’re gonna write it. You just step aside. And Michael knew that because I was in The Groundlings, I was writing. You write sketches so, you know, I did have some writing background. He was very welcoming that we would write this together. That was really great. And I loved every second of it. I didn’t know, when I would produce something for myself to be in, that I would be that involved in writing.
It’s such an intimate character portrait in the end. I imagine that being able to be that hands-on with it helps that.
Definitely. It does help. And just being able to help inform how the other people are responding to her, and what her reaction to that is, and that’s sort of what moves everything along.
Are you tired of people comparing Valerie to your own life and your own career?
Luckily, they keep it to themselves, if they’re comparing it to my career. I think they can’t help but assume. But I know the truth. I know I’m really not like her. There are aspects of me, from time to time, that are like her. Because I’m a human being. But I don’t feel like I’m like her. And luckily the people who know me well know that I’m not like her. At all. And I mean yeah, it’s fine. People can be wrong. [laughs] I’m comfortable with that. As long as they’re not about to operate on me. [laughs]
That’s a good rule.
Right. If it’s limited to entertainment, I’m perfectly fine…[laughs]…with people being wrong.
In that case, then, do you feel a distance from Valerie when you’re playing her?
Well, I don’t know how to put it. I mean, it’s nice to inhabit Valerie, because she deflects everything. It’s not even that she’s pretending to be in denial; she is in denial. If a sling comes her way, she pivots. Or catches it and throws it out in a different way, and thinks, “Good enough.” She truly believes that the spin she’s giving something, which is so obvious to everybody else that it’s spin, she lives in a world where she believes they’re buying it. It’s good. It’s fine. It’s enough. She doesn’t have to give it another thought. So it doesn’t hurt so much to be her. And she’s also just really optimistic. Yeah, sometimes it’s spin, and sometimes it’s just another way to look at things, which is valid.
At her core, I think, what’s so interesting about Season 2 is you really see the question of, “Is Valerie a genuinely good person?” And the ultimate answer becomes “Yes.”
Yeah. She is. I always thought she was a genuinely good person. And I felt like we didn’t really ever see her get tested before. And that’s what we were interested in. This time just to see…you know, it’s 14 years of marriage; it can’t have been easy because you’re not a human being if it is. You’re on this planet. It’s designed. With all the privileges that she has, there’s still stuff that comes up. And having a mean showrunner…it’s unpleasant. But that’s not your friend being hospitalized and maybe dying. That’s still not your husband and you not working out. Your marriage is in big trouble. And I feel like that first season was mostly slings and arrows and not actual stakes. And so this time, we’re gonna have real stakes.
The way that Mickey’s illness is layered into the show is handled so subtly.
Yeah, that was key.
Was that something you always knew was going to be a big part of the season arc?
Yeah. We did. And we wanted it to be that Mickey is, sort of… “Here it is! But I’m fine!” That we don’t ever really know, is he fine or is he not fine? And then you see, oh, he’s really sick. And the chemo… Is that what’s making him sick, or is he really sick? Should we be worried? That’s going on through it all. I think. I don’t know if that’s your reaction to it.
I think so. Because so much of the show is about appearances, and the facades we put on.
Yes! And because also, in life, you don’t ever really get to know the absolute truth. Not really. And so, for this too, it’s like, yeah, you’ve cameras on, but that doesn’t mean you get to know exactly what’s going on. It’s hard to tease out. And for a person like Valerie, we assume she is in denial, you know, she says, “He’s fine. He’s fine. I don’t wanna have to think about it.”
We really loved that she’s at Juna’s party, and Juna keeps saying, “He seems really sick,” and Valerie’s saying, “It’s the medication. It’s just the medication.” I think we all assumed, “Ugh, that’s Valerie not wanting to deal with it,” and Juna even says, “You don’t see anything?” But then it turns out, it was the medication. It really was. He’s okay. I don’t know, sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re wrong. This is my personal philosophy. [laughs] Sometimes you’re right, sometimes you’re wrong. And if there’s some things that you don’t have to face, and you don’t want to, okay. Because things are gonna unfold anyway. That’s my personal philosophy. Whatever gets you through. Whatever mindset gets you through. You’re gonna have to come to terms with something anyway, ultimately.
Something you brought up a bit there is the idea that when the cameras are on them, the characters are all aware of the cameras and playing to them. Which means that the first really honest moment of the show could almost be said to be the ending of Season 2.
Well, that’s the moment when there are no cameras on her. It’s an objective camera, for the first time ever. I think there have been moments when Valerie forgot that the camera was on. She’s forgotten that there’s a camera on her. But there were no big stakes necessarily happening. There were maybe some, like, embarrassing moments or stuff like that. But these are big stakes. I thought that, to me, what was really compelling was how quiet she was.
When the cameras are off?
Yeah. She’s not spinning a million miles an hour.
When did that concept come up? The idea of turning the cameras off, essentially?
Michael thought of it. We were debating whether she wins or doesn’t win the Emmy, and then, we were trying to figure out, how do we get her to the hospital? How do the cameras get to the hospital? Like, what hospital is allowing cameras in, I wonder? I know they can, but…[laughs] And do we wanna see her with cameras on at the hospital? And the answer was no, we want to see the real her, without cameras. And do we just break the rule of the show? And, you know, Michael and Amy [Harris] and John Riggi were, “Oh, yes. Oh yes, Michael. That’s fantastic. Let’s do it.”
And I have to admit, I was, “I don’t know. Really? As back-up, can we schedule in…just in case…” [laughs]. But it was good. It did work out. I liked the idea he had to make it prettier than it was with the reality cameras. The irony is that your real life, if you’re just living it, is prettier. Because it is real.
Yeah. It’s beautifully shot.
Yeah, he’s good. Michael Patrick King is a good director.
He should look into doing it professionally.
Yeah! [laughs] Yeah. It was really beautiful. And the interesting thing was, because it was supposed to feel like a film, and cinematic, he got the most talented person to score, and then it didn’t work. Scoring it didn’t work. Because scoring tells you how to feel. And if there’s one thing about this show, is it’s not telling you ever how to feel.
That’s a really interesting point — that the audience is really able to react to it on your own terms.
Yes. That’s what was interesting to us, too. When we were watching it, going, “Why isn’t this working?” It’s like, “Oh God, because this show doesn’t tell you how to feel.” And it’s so much more powerful.
When it came to shooting that day, did you approach the character extremely differently?
Not at all differently. Because to me, that was the test. That was the scary part. She’s not mugging for a camera, so is this gonna work? Will she seem like a real person? But yeah. It worked. Of course, we’re not gonna take the time for me to look at playback; it just had to go by Michael — “Did I need to change it? Was I okay?” — and the answer was no. We did find that certain shots can’t be too flat. It has to be observed, and off to the side a bit. You know what I mean? It was really well done. But no, I didn’t have to change much. I just was Valerie, who wasn’t playing for an audience.
One other new thing we get to see from you in this is the show within the show, and some of the scenes you shoot as your character in “Seeing Red” [the HBO series that Valerie is acting in]. I love the scene where Valerie is watching a scene of her acting in the show, and everyone is realizing how talented she is and all she can pay attention to is the lighting. Is that something informed by your own experiences watching your own work?
Oh, at times. I have noticed, for myself, if I’m in a bad mood, I can’t like what I’m doing; what I’m seeing. If I’m in a bad mood, I think I’m pure garbage and I can’t believe anyone ever let me act. And if I’m in a good mood, I’m okay. I did notice that sort of irrational thing. And I have observed, with actors and actresses, sometimes, like, “How are you looking at how you look?” I mean, there’s real true emotion coming out, and you really only care how you look? For Valerie I think it goes a little…not deeper, but in another dimension, which is: “People don’t wanna see me look like this. They’re gonna get turned off. I’m not giving them what they want. People want pretty. People don’t want ugly.” And she really firmly believes it.
She also feels like, that really wasn’t good acting. That was just sort of, she was tired, and his apology wore her down, and it’s like self-indulgent. That’s not a performance. [laughs] A performance, in her mind, is something that’s extremely controlled. So, I don’t know.
I think that speaks to the fact that so much about the character is about control.
Yeah! Yeah, yeah yeah. And I understand that. [laughs] I think we all do. But yeah.
In everything you’re pursuing right now, how important is that level of control?
I check in with it every day, to be honest with you. I have to tease out, “Am I trying to control something or is this a real concern?” So, I don’t know. It’s hard for me to tell. I think a controlling person doesn’t see themself as controlling. So.
They just wanna get it right.
Yeah. So it’s hard to tease out: Am I helping someone, or is this me being too controlling? Because I don’t want to be that.
So what do you have on the horizon right now?
We’re still working on “Who Do You Think You Are?” We’re very hands-on, and we’re in the thick of that right now. And Michael and I are starting to talk about what more of “The Comeback” would look like.
I think so!
Perhaps it won’t take nine years again?
No…no. [laughs] Ugh, no! My god. I don’t wanna be 100 and, you know. [laughs]
Just every nine years, you come back and do another season of “The Comeback”…
[laughs] Oh my God. Okay. [laughs]