25 Years After Friends’ First Episode Aired, This Guest Star Opened Up About Their Treatment On Set

Friends was a TV phenomenon like no other. It first aired 25 years ago, yet people are still talking about it today. Recently, some of the guest stars who appeared on the show – many of whom went on to even bigger things – talked to Today about their experiences. And Lauren Tom – the person that played Julie – had something to reveal.

Friends told the story of six 20-something-year-old New Yorkers and their romantic trials and tribulations. These were Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, Monica, Chandler and Joey, played by David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry and Matt LeBlanc respectively. Key to the series was the will-they-won’t-they relationship between Ross and Rachel.

In addition to the six main cast members – who apparently became great friends in real life over the course of the series – Friends had a huge number of guest stars come and go. Some of these people had great experiences on the set of the massively popular TV show. Others, though, didn’t have such a good time.

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In 2019 Today interviewed ten performers that appeared as supporting characters on Friends. Lauren Tom was one of them. But to put her experiences into context, it’s helpful to hear from other people who were in Friends that have told the world what it was like for them on set.

In 2011 Reese Witherspoon – who played Rachel’s sister Jill – talked about her Friends experience at an Elle Women in Hollywood shindig. Apparently, she and Jennifer Aniston quickly became friends in real life. This supposedly happened after Aniston swooped in to help Witherspoon out when she found herself out of her depth.

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“In all my enthusiasm [to be on Friends] I completely forgot something very crucial,” Witherspoon said, speaking at the shindig. “I had never been on television ever before in my entire life. And I never really had been in front of a live audience before ever in my entire life. I panicked.”

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Witherspoon continued, “I totally froze. It became immediately clear to me that I had no idea what I was doing and I was completely out of my league.” But then, she said, Aniston came to help her. She apparently said to Witherspoon, “Don’t try to be perfect, just be yourself.”

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Witherspoon then sang Aniston’s praises. “There are not that many people, actually, who have this incredible combination of sex appeal and complete lovability,” she told the Elle audience. “You just want to get your nails done with her and you want to make out with her – at least I do.”

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Witherspoon seems to have had a very positive experience on Friends. But one person that allegedly didn’t have such a good time is actress Kathleen Turner. She portrayed Chandler’s father, a person presented as a gay drag queen. The character is considered by some to be quite controversial these days.

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After Friends finished, one of the show’s creators, Marta Kauffman, explained that Turner’s character – referred to during the series by both the names Charles and Helena – was actually a trans woman. The show never mentions this, however, and the portrayal of the character has been criticized by the LGBT community.

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Turner herself doesn’t think the character has “aged well.” In an interview with Gay Times in February 2018, she said, “[Friends] became a phenomenon, but no one ever took it seriously as a social comment.” She also explained how the role of Chandler’s dad was sold to her. Apparently, the show’s producers asked her, “Would you like to be the first woman playing a man playing a woman?”

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Other actors in Friends believe that it was progressive in terms of LGBT characters, however. Speaking to Today for the aforementioned Friends guest actor interviews, Jane Sibbett talked about playing a lesbian on the show. “[Carol] wasn’t any kind of stereotype,” she said.

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Sibbett said she had heard from Friends fans who said Carol inspired them to come out. And she added, “We were never poking fun at being gay. We were poking fun at a person who didn’t get it… And that was the great beauty. The great truth in that the joke’s on the people that don’t get it, that this is all about love.”

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Later on in 2018 Turner spoke to Vulture about how she hadn’t enjoyed her time on the Friends set. “I’ll be quite honest, which is my wont. I didn’t feel very welcomed by the cast,” she told the interviewer. “I remember I was wearing this difficult sequined gown – and my high heels were absolutely killing me.”

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Turner went on, “I found it odd that none of the actors thought to offer me a seat. Finally, it was one of the older crew members that said, ‘Get Miss Turner a chair.’ The Friends actors were such a clique – but I don’t think my experience with them was unique. I think it was simply that they were such a tight little group that nobody from the outside mattered.”

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When the Vulture interviewer asked Turner how she rated the Friends cast as actors, she replied, “I won’t comment on that.” But then she did backtrack slightly. “I could only judge based on the period I worked on the show, which wasn’t long. I do respect the camaraderie they had. You can see camaraderie on the screen,” she said.

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The relationships between the six main Friends actors were also noted by many of the actors interviewed by Today. “I think the thing I remember most was the cohesion between the cast,” Kristin Davis – who played Joey’s brief love interest Erin – said. “And the fact that they were somewhat besieged by the success from the outer world and they had kind of bonded together as a group.”

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Christina Applegate – who played Rachel’s other sister Amy – also appeared to get on well with the cast. “They’re just such a great group of people, really fun and funny,” she told Today. “And it’s easy and it wasn’t a hard job. It felt like I got to just hang out with a bunch of people and socialize for a couple of days. And then in the middle of it, we shot a show.”

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Contrary to what Kathleen Turner said, other actors interviewed by Today claimed that the main Friends performers were actually welcoming. Cole Sprouse – who portrayed Ross’ kid Ben – said, “I was quite young and all the actors were older. But I remember all those worries kind of fading away when the cast was so nice.”

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Christine Taylor – the actress that played bald lady Bonnie – said the cast “could not have been kinder and more loving.” And Jessica Hecht – the actress for Susan – remembered appearing in the second episode of the show. She recalled, “Nobody was famous yet, so everybody was super nice – not that they ever changed.”

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And Cosimo Fusco – aka Paolo on the show – was full of praise, too. He told Today that Friends was “an incredible coincidence of chemistry, of good writing, people. I mean those six guys and girls were just really brilliant on their own. And the magic was just the combination of the individuals.”

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However, certain romantic scenes between people on the show could apparently prove to be an awkward endeavor. For instance, Jane Sibbett remembered that during a kiss between her and David Schwimmer as Ross, Schwimmer was “really sweaty.” But, as the actress also pointed out, it was “the sweetest, sweetest scene.”

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Mitchell Whitfield – who played Rachel’s one-time fiancé Barry – had a similar experience. “I have guys for years who would ask me, ‘Dude, you kissed Jennifer Aniston. What was that like, dude?’” he said. “And I was like, ‘Well, imagine kissing someone you know that you’ve known for a long time, that you’re just friends with, in front of about 200 people, when it’s about 120 degrees, with a bunch of cameras on you.’”

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Even today Whitfield feels the need to defend his Friends character from fans of the show. “People still stop me about Friends and Barry. Like, ‘Oh, you’re the jerk on Friends,’” he said. “I didn’t think he was that bad of a guy… Let’s just call him misunderstood and still looking for love in all the wrong places.”

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And Lauren Tom, it seems, suffered the same treatment – but on a much bigger scale. As the actress who played Julie – the girlfriend of Ross and a major obstacle to the Ross-Rachel relationship – she found herself in a difficult and strange position. Fans of the show, she told Today, were downright “rabid.”

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Julie the character was deliberately presented as a sweet girl, even if Rachel didn’t like her. “She is just the nicest person on the planet,” Tom explained. “And I think that the writers meant to have her that way, so that the joke would play more that Rachel thinks she’s a b****, no matter what she does or says.”

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Tom had no problem with her Friends co-stars. “The rest of the cast was so welcoming to me. It was very authentic, their friendship. They were very bonded. When I started, it was the point at which they were just taking off like a rocket ship,” she said. “I still remember it was my birthday on my first day of rehearsal, and so they all took me out to lunch.”

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Instead, it was the fans which were the problem. “I wasn’t prepared for the amount of venom I was about to receive in a live audience, where they actually booed my character,” Tom explained. “And, of course, I was trying very hard not to get my feelings hurt. So I had to get used to that.”

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Tom’s role on Friends was an important one, however. At the time, after all, not many Asian-American people were appearing on TV. In fact, Friends has often been criticized for its lack of racial diversity. Aisha Tyler – who played the show’s first recurring African-American character, Dr. Charlie Wheeler – told The Guardian in 2019, “People were constantly pointing out that Friends wasn’t as diverse as the Manhattan of the real world.”

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In 2015 Tom spoke to NBC News. “One of the great joys of my life post-Friends has been being approached by Asian women who have told me how much it meant to see an Asian face on their TV screen when they were growing up,” she said. And she also shared that the scene where Rachel assumes she doesn’t speak English derived from something that really happened to her.

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Tom told NBC News that she initially hadn’t quite comprehended how vital Julie would be. “I don’t think I realized at the time what kind of impact it would have on the Asian community. I was just so happy to be offered a role on such a great show,” she said. But she did also add there were still “not a ton of Asian faces on the big screen.”

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When speaking to Today, Tom said that she still got recognized a lot for Friends. “Someone on the street, or just when I’m out and about, will come up to me and say, ‘Were you on Friends?’” she said. “And it’s so great that they keep repeating [the show], because it keeps me current with the younger crowd. I’m glad that the show still holds up.”

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Despite being booed by the audience on the show, Tom still had nice things to say about Friends. “I think that Friends is so relatable, and that’s why it’s still such a success so many years later,” she said. “Because young people can identify with the characters, and the writing is that good.”

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No matter what, it seems, Tom enjoyed her experience. “It’s a very clear sign to me when you don’t have to do anything but say the line. And that’s how it always was on Friends,” she said. “The execution was amazing because of the cast and their chemistry, but the writing was very solid.”

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As for Julie, although she didn’t stay with Ross, she got a happy ending when she met Ross’ apparent double, Russ. “Ross should’ve picked Julie. We would’ve been so happy with our cats,” Tom told Today. “But I think Julie probably ended up with Russ, so I don’t think she did too bad.”

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Although Tom considers her time on Friends to be time well spent, there were undoubtedly unpleasant experiences mixed in. In a 2004 essay for Fresh Yarn entitled “My First (and Nearly Last) Day on Friends,” she wrote about the experience. She claimed to “feel like an awkward, geeky loser who’s just transferred from a different junior high school.”

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And something problematic happened after Tom left the show. The National Enquirer wrote a made-up article about her, she said in her essay. The paper claimed that Aniston and Tom “had a cat fight on the set, ending in [Aniston] marching to the producers.” According to the piece, this resulted in Tom being fired. Except this hadn’t occurred at all.

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“I was only contracted for six episodes!” Tom pointed out in her article. “We all liked each other! They took me to lunch! We hung out in each other’s dressing rooms!” She consequently wanted to sue the National Enquirer, she wrote, but was eventually convinced it wasn’t worth it.

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Unfortunately Tom’s far from alone when it comes to her negative experience with a TV show. It’s sadly all too common for performers to receive abuse or even full-on death threats for playing an unpopular character. Over the years, actresses such as Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn and Mad Men’s January Jones have spoken about the harassment they received from fans of their respective programs.

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But Tom seems pretty much at peace with her time on Friends. “I’ve done all the stage work, and tried to position myself at the beginning of my career as a serious actress. And yet, I’m probably most known for Friends,” she told Today. “And what people want to know, is Ross a good kisser? So that sort of sums it up. And he is, by the way.”

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