Paper Man - Jeff Daniels and Lisa Kudrow © MPI Media Group
Richard (Jeff Daniels) and Claire Dunn (Lisa Kudrow) © MPI Media Group

Lisa Kudrow portrays Claire Dunn, a New York surgeon married to unsuccessful novelist Richard (Jeff Daniels) who has never quite grown up. Since his childhood, Richard has relied on his imaginary friend, the costumed superhero Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds).

At Claire’s urging, Richard has moved into a Long Island beach house for the winter season in order to overcome his writing block, while Claire continues her practice in New York. But Richard meets a young 17-year-old girl, Abby (Emma Stone), who also has had a traumatic past, and a quirky friendship between them develops. With the coming of spring, both find through their relationship that they are able to face their futures.

Lisa Kudrow became a star in the Nineties with her role as Phoebe on the smash hit TV series Friends. She’s gone on to star in many movies, another TV show for HBO, The Comeback, and is currently  the producer of the documentary celebrity genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are?

You always have championed indie films, why do you love them so much?

There are a lot of reasons, mostly I play the wife or the mother role, and this was a little more layered than the regular wife role I would get. The roles are just more interesting and, regarding my lifestyle, independent films are very short shoots, so I wouldn’t have to be gone [from my family] for very long. I know, that’s not very artistic but it’s practical!

What was it like working with Jeff Daniels, had you ever acted with him before?

I haven’t ever worked with Jeff. I hadn’t met him so that was one of the draws for me. And he was as professional as I expected, and not terribly precious about acting, but takes it seriously. He’s a regular guy, who lives in Michigan, and his family is a priority and you can see that. His kids came to visit and they’re fantastic, and his wife was great. He’s really impressive.

During the movie you get to know both Richard and Abby’s back stories, but not Claire’s. Did you write a back story so that you knew why she behaves the way she does?

Claire Dunn (Lisa Kudrow) and Richard (Jeff Daniels) © MPI Media Group

No, I didn’t write a back story. It all felt like it was all there in the script. She says, ‘Everyone thought that I was the lucky one to be married to the guy that made me laugh.’ So from there I just thought she really imagined that they were going to be this successful couple, he would be a successful novelist, and she’s a fantastic surgeon, and that’s just not how it happened. He wasn’t that guy, and she’s disappointed in him, and I think he really feels the pressure of that disappointment.

Why did Claire want her husband to keep writing when he just had one book which was a flop?

I think she was still hoping for that life she projected when they first got together, that they were going to be this glamorous fabulous couple living in New York. I think that complicated it. He was just thinking lower and lower and he became paralyzed and she’s doing what she can to help, not knowing that her help is actually a lot of pressure for him.

The movie is about an imaginary friend. Did you have any when you were growing up?

I didn’t. Well, I did imagine that the Monkees were with me everywhere I went!

Indies shoot so fast, as an actress do you like that as it stops you from getting into your head too much?

Yes, I’ve found sometimes when there’s a rehearsal it’s so different from what you’re going to do on the day with the camera rolling and everyone is completely in character. But we didn’t rehearse on this at all. You block and shoot, that’s what you get on television. Not on Friends because that was a week of rehearsal and then we’d shoot it like a play in front of the audience. I just did Courteney Cox’s show, The Cougar, and that’s a single camera, and we’d block and shoot. I had fun doing that.

What kind of reaction have you received from producing Who Do You Think You Are?

Who Do You Think You Are? logo © NBC

I’ve gotten an unbelievable reaction from viewers. I’ve never done anything before where people said thank you for this, and were genuinely grateful.
I saw the show in the UK and I thought it was fantastic and why can’t Americans have this? I know why, because people don’t think American audiences are interested or smart enough. And that’s not true. I think all the networks were nervous about this, because they weren’t sure how American audiences [would react to it]. Whatever you do, don’t say history, because they know from research that people hear history and they turn it off. Don’t say documentary series, people turn that off too. At the heart of the show are extremely compelling stories. Yes, it’s Sarah Jessica Parker, but five minutes into it, it has almost nothing to do with her anymore.

Were you nervous to take your own journey?

Who Do You Think You Are? - Lisa Kudrow © NBC

Yes, I was terrified to go on my own journey, because I knew the horrors of the Holocaust, I’d studied it, and I was very afraid to look at it too closely. I’ve not been to a concentration camp ever, because I don’t know if I’d be able to handle it, I think it might be too much, because I can’t help but think about those details that make it unbearable.
I was nervous about it and I really thought I would be going to see just some clearing in a forest where they believed is the area where the villagers were rounded up and shot. That alone made me nervous, and then I went and it was one detail after another I wasn’t expecting. This is how they met their end, so I could endure it. Then finding that relative at the end of my episode made it almost a fairytale.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter. More by Judy Sloane