“They were very sweet with me and welcomed me into the group very smoothly"
T o say that Friends was popular among my peers is perhaps the biggest understatement of our time. For my generation, Friends was and is much more than a television series. To this day, it continues to be a source of familiarity, comfort and of course, laughter.
The 90’s television series had become such a staple of our viewing habits that before long, we had unknowingly learned every single line in the show.
From its incredibly relatable writing to its addictive re-watch-ability to its timeless comedic value, it’s no wonder that 15 years after its final episode, Friends is still relevant.
Today, the Friends culture stays alive in our society with fans gravitating to the many Central Perk cafes sprouting up around the world and the annual FriendsFest homage to the show.
So when the opportunity arose to interview Lauren Tom – who played Rachel’s arch rival Julie in season 2 – well, could I BE more excited?
Somewhat ahead of its time in terms of diversity, Friends featured Tom as Ross’s girlfriend Julie for the first time in 1995.
As a season 1 cliffhanger, Rachel learns about Ross’s feelings for her and decides to collect him from the airport as he returns from China. However, Rachel is shocked and heartbroken when Ross introduces new girlfriend from China.
Upon meeting Julie and taking one look at her, Rachel assumes she must be a foreigner. “Welcome to our country,” Rachel says slowly and condescendingly. In a similar tone Julie responds epically and hilariously with “Thank you! I’m from New York.”
Tom tells me that she was often experienced similar situations as an Asian actress in the 90s and had actually asked the writers to put the line in the show.
Sitting in her local country club in Los Angeles, it’s clear that Tom’s career has paid off well and that her role in Friends paid dividends financially and in building her name.
The Chinese American first established her name in The Joy Luck Club as Lena St. Clair and has since worked on projects included Futurama, King of the Hill and Disney series Andi Mack.
Of course, as a huge Friends fan myself, I couldn’t help but to first talk about her role on the show.
Recalling how she first received news that she was going to be on Friends, Tom said that her agent said to her on the phone, “I have an offer for you and it’s it’s a narc on the show Friends, what would you think about doing that?”
Tom recalled how she was “running and eating a donut at the same time” as she received the news, which caused her to fall off the treadmill. “I was like ‘hey wait what did you say?! Let me think about that for a second, yes!'”
“It really started to take off in that second season,” she continued. “I was in seven episodes of the second season and that’s right when it started to just explode.”
Reflecting on the other stars of the show (Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt Le Blanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer), Tom said the closeness of the group was touching.
“What was so cool about it is that they were so was such a tight-knit group, because sometimes when you have a huge success, it can almost feel like a crisis,” she explained. “All of a sudden you’re completely out there in the world and everybody knows you and it’s exciting. They kind of clung to each other.”
The group were also very welcoming to Tom and hung out with her outside of the show.
“They were very sweet with me and welcomed me into the group very smoothly,” Tom said. “It was my birthday on my first day of rehearsal and they took me out to lunch on set. The girls were really into keeping their figure so they would work out during lunch normally.”
Although Tom’s arc was already written into the script, she was still emotional when leaving the show.
“They were all very kind to me and even though I knew ahead of time that I had an arc and that my story was gonna last seven episodes and then it would end, it still felt when it was time for that last episode that I was being dumped!” She said.
“It almost felt like I was going off to college and I didn’t want to because I had become so close with them and I really didn’t want to leave!”
Another difficulty Tom faced was playing the nemesis to Rachel, who fans had hoped would get together with Ross.
“The audience wanted Rachel and Ross to get together much more than Ross and Julie so a lot of times I would be booed!” Tom revealed with a laugh. “The whole joke of my character was that I was the nicest person on the planet and [Rachel] kept calling me a bitch!”
In terms of being the first Asian face on the sitcom, Tom said it is still one of her proudest moments.
“I still get the most touched when people come up to me and say it was the first time they ever saw an Asian face on screen like that,” Tom said. “It was very inspiring and uplifting and that made me feel great because there weren’t a lot of people of colour on any show at that time.”
Although Tom has been involved in a number of projects after Friends, she is still recognised as Julie on a daily basis.
“Because of all the reruns, someone at least once a day will stop me go ‘oh my gosh I know you from somewhere!’ They can’t figure it out and it takes a long time they think. I say ‘did you used to watch Friends?’ And they go ‘yeah that’s it! You’re Julie!”
For Tom, Asian role models were few and far between when she was growing up.
“I didn’t have very many role models to be honest,” she said. “The people that I was able to see were Nancy Kwan and Flower Drum Song. People had to do more what we would call ‘stereotyped roles’. They had to because that’s all that was being offered to them.”
However, Tom is more optimistic for the generations that followed. “I feel like every generation paved the way,” she said. “All the work the sacrifice that they made enabled us to have the Joy Luck Club then and have that be the first real Asian American story.”