There was that innocently ignoble time Phoebe Buffay pretended she was a physician named Dr. Regina Phalange. Or when she misguidedly taught a preschool class the circle of life by singing them a song about farmers grinding cows into hamburgers. Of course, there was her sordid tale of one smelly cat.
Now, however, Lisa Kudrow is finally playing a character with a real scandal.
The Friends and Web Therapy star is in the midst of a juicy guest arc on the hit ABC soap-thriller-procedural-romance-political-drama Scandal, playing Congresswoman Josephine Marcus, a moral crusader launching a campaign to run for president against philandering incumbent Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn). Of course, this is Scandal, TV’s most gloriously and shamelessly insane television series, so Josie isn’t just any values-preaching candidate. She’s hiding her own dark past: a secret daughter she had as a teenager, pretended to give up for adoption, but instead had her mother raise as her sister…who is now her campaign manager…and had no idea about any of this…until now.
Josie also, as it happens, is blossoming into a spitfire champion for the end of sexism in politics, delivering a blistering monologue in last week’s episode, eviscerating the mainstream media for its part in prolonging, even unintentionally, gender bias. The scene quickly went viral, earning praise as an uncomfortable fictional mirror reflecting a startling reality.
With Kudrow’s arc only getting more, well, scandalous, we chatted with the Emmy winner about that epic scene, whether such passion would be valuable in real-life politics, and what it is about politicians makes them unable to get their personal scandals, well, “handled.”
The Daily Beast: It’s been a long time since you’ve been on a network series for an arc this big. What was it about Scandal that won you over?
Lisa Kudrow: I mean it’s such a fun show. I got hooked during the first season and just thought, my god, there are so many twists and turns. They just come up with stuff and then you can’t wait to see how they’re going to explain it next week. You know, the end of an episode it’s like the world turned upside down.
It’s one of those shows when you’re watching and you think, “Wow, this was the craziest episode yet!” And then you look at the clock and realize the episode’s only about 15 minutes in.
It reminds me of really good improvisation where you know someone just declares something and then they have to spend the rest of the scene justifying what it is. But it makes it fun.
The reaction to Josie’s speech about sexism in politics in last week’s episode was epic. The clip went viral, with blogs picking up the scene and talking about how great the message and your performance was.
It was really great. It really was. I mean that’s the other thing about this show is the writing. I mean there’s always going to be a scene or two where you’re like, wow, well done. And I’m so happy that I got one of them.
How did it feel to deliver that speech?
Well, I mean practically speaking it was boiling hot in there. I was wearing like a wool and a suede jacket, so I actually had trouble remembering what comes next because I was completely overheated. But it didn’t stop me because I had obviously rehearsed it myself and understood what was going on, and thought it was so great. I really loved it because it made me think of like Elizabeth Warren, for example.
Elizabeth Warren? How so?
She was on CNBC and three different of their anchors tried to win an argument with her, and she is just too smart. And she had the information, and they couldn’t beat her. And the last guy, the last thing he said was “well you look good, now that you’re a senator. You dress better not that you’re a senator.” Something about her appearance. And I thought that’s because she’s a woman and she beat him. So he had to resort to that basic sort of I’ll cut you down because you’re a woman. That bugged me so much, and it was funny because I was looking for it again recently, and everyone who shows that clip now, they leave that last moment out. I don’t think it’s on purpose, I just…it struck me and I can’t believe I’m the only one that it struck. But the most important part of that is she just smiled, you know. She’s not going to make it into a bigger thing which allowed people to miss it. She’s so smart.
Later in that episode, we see that the speech had a positive effect on Josie’s campaign. Do you think that if a female candidate in real-world politics went on the offensive about gender bias and sexism like that, they’d have the same response?
I don’t know. I think it’s a really tricky thing in our real world for a woman to sound, gosh, I don’t know that we’re there yet. Because I think she’d be accused of being a ballbuster. I don’t know though. I mean have you ever heard any prominent female politician say, “Yeah, that’s because I’m a woman?”
Just Tina Fey’s Hillary Clinton riff on SNL all those years ago. I’ve never actually heard a politician say it herself, I don’t think.
No. And I think it’s probably part of, you know, maybe just a better strategy. I honestly don’t know, it just makes them look like they don’t want to draw attention to it, they just want to do their job and wear people down until people become familiar and adjusted and comfortable with their leadership.
There’s still something so satisfying about hearing someone say those things, and say them so passionately.
Yeah. I mean at least it can be said in fiction. But I don’t know what would happen if a woman did go on a rampage, I’m trying to imagine Hilary Clinton bringing it up. I’d think, oh, she’s got a cross to bear. I don’t know whether I want some one in power with a cross to bear.
You’ve brought up Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton. Were they women you were thinking of when you were creating this character?
Well it goes all over the place. When I was first talking to Shonda Rhimes and Mark Wilding, they brought up Wendy Davis. But the character’s not exactly her. And, you know, Sarah Palin of course was very straight talking, very down home, and had tremendous appeal because of that. But they didn’t mean her either. So yeah. But in my mind I wanted to look towards Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton. More Elizabeth warren, but that’s not completely where I went, obviously.
You see on this show so many fictional politicians come in with scandals that Olivia helps brush under the rug, including Josie. Has playing a politician with a scandal changed your perspective on the real-life politicians who are constantly having their secrets exposed in the mainstream press?
I think what’s smart about the Scandal writers is that they make it so complicated. I think we all thought the politicians who do better with scandals are the ones who fly straight into the storm with it, you know, who say yes, this happened, and I’m not perfect and it was a mistake. It’s the ones who keep telling a lie in the face of overwhelming evidence that you just feel like well, I don’t know if I can trust you. You see both on the show getting away with things.
Josie takes on the secret teenage baby issue head on, but she’s not exactly honest about it.
No, she’s not. She was trying to protect her baby sister, but not enough that she would just drop off the face of the earth. So she lied, and then somehow she and her sister-daughter seemed to be ok. You know, Sally [Pressman, who plays Josie’s sister] and I looked at each other one day and went wait, so what happened do you think? And I said I think they’re both actually ambitious, as it turns out. They both want it.
Josie gives a speech talking about how she signed up for this, but she didn’t sign up her loved ones for the scrutiny. I feel like there’s a connection between that philosophy Josie has and the one a lot of actors have about their families when they start becoming famous. Did you relate to that at all?
Yes, I did. I think actors, the family of actors, they do get a little more privacy than the family of politicians, for sure. Because actors aren’t in public service. And politicians are in public service, which is—it bumps into like moral conduct and how you lead your life, which includes how you raise your family and influence your family. And so, for better or worse, whether it’s right or wrong, I think their families fall under scrutiny. And it is unfair. But I can be kind of rigid and black and white, personally, so I do feel like if you’re a politician, yeah, you’re signing your whole family up for it too.
So it’s a bit more permissible than the celebrity tabloid situation.
Yeah, I think so. I think Meghan McCain’s just going to be watched a little bit more and the Obama girls, and Chelsea Clinton was. Everyone wants to know what they’re doing, and can’t wait to call their parents out on something they’re doing wrong.
I’m constantly shocked when politicians still have these scandals come out. They seem to be under some delusion that still, in this day and age, their secrets won’t ever be revealed.
I am in shock too. I am always in complete shock and think, “Well, you have to resign because you’re an idiot.”
What’s behind that delusion, do you think?
I don’t know! There are different people who have talked about it and the different theories about power, and that it becomes so addictive. Then there’s the danger, also, the taking risks. Being risk-takers, that they have to up the ante. I heard that theory once. And then also what I go to is, ok, so how many times have they gotten away with things that they thought it would be ok?
Have you ever thought about going into politics?
How do you think you’d fare?
What would be the worst part for you?
Well, I mean there’s two levels of nightmare for me. One of them is making a mistake during an interview or something. You’re so much more scrutinized, that would be really hard. And what you can say and what you can’t say, it feels like there are just so many secrets when you’re a politician. And the other part is a different level, which is just the amount of handshaking and appearances, the small talk, and… no. That’s not for me.
Don’t you have to already do a fair amount of that in your line of work?
And I find it exhausting. I couldn’t do it. I mean I’m exhausted after going anywhere. I mean I need a nap. I don’t know why, it’s a lot of energy.
Constantly having to be on.
Yes, and interested. It doesn’t work to fake being interested. You have to be interested. I think I could do that because I think people are interesting, but it just takes a lot of energy for me. I don’t have the stamina, I barely have the stamina for anything.
Well, then. I won’t keep you on the phone much longer.
That would be funny. “I don’t even have the stamina for this conversation.” Not true, I do!