When Helen Baxendale was in Friends she got mobbed in the street, but now she reveals: I'm so glad I gave up fame for a family
Priorities: Former Friends star Helen Baxendale gave up fame to start a family
Helen Baxendale turned her back on Hollywood fame when she had the world at her feet.
She was starring as Jennifer Aniston’s love rival in Friends, and had already established herself in her role as James Nesbitt’s girlfriend in Cold Feet — which won her a best actress award and was acknowledged as one of the best female parts in British TV.
But then she made the bold decision to quit Friends and put family life first, going on to have three children and limiting herself to parts that fitted in with her home commitments.
Fourteen years on, and she insists she has never regretted the move. ‘I had a little glimpse of what fame holds, and I decided it held a load of nothing. It contained nothing that mattered.
‘Some people can deal with that well; it sits on their shoulders fine. But it wasn’t for me.’
Helen, 41, who is preparing to return to mainstream drama in ITV1’s thriller Kidnap And Ransom this month, says it was her year in Friends in 1998 that led her to decide worldwide fame was not all it is cracked up to be.
Her character, English rose Emily Waltham, married and divorced Ross Geller (David Schwimmer) in the series, but had to be written out after 16 episodes — earlier than the producers had intended — because she and her partner, film director, producer and writer David L. Williams, were expecting their first child.
‘Friends was great fun, but I was just there so they could make some funny jokes about England. And I was also expecting, and you have to be thin out in America.’
In any case, she says, everyone in Friends had become so famous — including her — it became impossible to live a normal life. For a girl from Warrington whose earliest ambition had been to be a ballet dancer, it was all a bit overwhelming.
‘You couldn’t walk down the street to buy a pint of milk. In fact, you couldn’t go anywhere. It was impossible to mix with the crowd, and do what ordinary people do.
‘I saw it as a gilded prison. It was something I wasn’t prepared for. But it was quickly forgotten. I don’t get the same attention now.
‘Fame just didn’t fit in with my life. I don’t know how much would have come from staying in the States anyway. I didn’t want to live in America, when all my circumstances were leading me back to Britain. I don’t regret it for a minute.
‘To me there are many aspects of being ambitious. Yes there is your career, but there are also many other ambitions. There is this perception that TV is glamorous and it is the pinnacle of your existence — I don’t think it is.’
She says she can quite understand why people continue to be fascinated by Friends.
‘People still love that programme. It’s such an amazing show. It’s still as fresh as a daisy. There is a whole new generation of children who are mad about it all over the world. Other programmes are now trying to mimic it.’
Baxendale starred as Jennifer Aniston's love rival in Friends and married the character Ross Geller in the hit series
When she left Friends, she continued
starring in Cold Feet for another five years by juggling her home life
in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if she’d remained in
Bullen’s hugely entertaining story of the complex love lives of six
20-something friends in Manchester — played by Helen, James Nesbitt,
Hermione Norris, Robert Bathurst, Fay Ripley and John Thomson — was a
Millions tuned in to the heartbreaking episode in 2003 when Helen’s character died in a car crash.
‘I’ve only had to die twice on-screen, thank God!’ she says. ‘I’m sure as I get older, I’ll have to die on-screen more!’
Family life: Helen Baxendale with her partner David L. Williams and two of her children in 2006
Now her children are older — Nelly is 14, Eric 11, and Vincent six — she is able to spread her wings a little more.
So here we are in Cape Town, the setting for Kidnap and Ransom, sitting in an idyllic garden, which is an oasis of calm in the middle of the bustling city.
If there is a downside, it’s very minor. The other day a baboon wandered on the set. ‘They have been known to attack women, so it could have been a bad moment, but it wasn’t there long enough for me to get scared. It just wandered around before quickly disappearing.
‘Oh, and the internet connection is so bad in my hotel that I can’t get Radio 4 for more than a minute at a time. It’s very frustrating.’ A pause, before she breaks into laughter and adds: ‘I’m obviously middle-aged!’
In her leading role in Kidnap And Ransom, she plays Angela Beddoes, a high-flying, super-intelligent hostage negotiator.
Cold Feet cast, from left to right, are: Fay Ripley, John Thomson, James Nesbitt, Robert Bathurst, Hermonie Norris and Helen Baxendale.
Alongside her business partner Dominic King (Trevor Eve), she has to conduct very delicate negotiations to try to free a busload of Western tourists taken hostage by kidnappers in Kashmir (for which Cape Town proves a splendid double). Dominic has parted from his wife, Sophie (Natasha Little), and he and Angela are growing ever closer.
Is it set to become something more than a professional relationship Helen proves coy on this matter.
‘Angela is really fond of Dominic. Something endears her to someone so driven and yet so fallible. There is definitely a bond between them, and Sophie is suspicious that it’s turning into romance.
‘Angela bats that away, but still feels guilty for no reason.
‘If you work with someone who is in the middle of a divorce, you may appear culpable in some way. But I’m not sure anything is going on between them. Angela is really concerned for Dominic — that’s all I’m going to say!’
What she will say is that she is happy with her own life. ‘I wouldn’t change anything. I’m happy, and I don’t know if I would have been if I’d continued to work so much.
‘I wouldn’t have seen my children grow up, and I honestly didn’t want that to happen.’
For all that, Helen is now keen to set a good example to her daughter.
‘I want her to see me working. It’s important to keep the brain ticking over and to feel fulfilled. I congratulate any mother who manages to do just that.
‘I don’t think that there is a perfect way to be a mother. Whatever you do, you always think you have mucked something up in their childhood!’
Kidnap and Ransom begins on ITV1, at 9pm, on Thursday February 23.
Nicolas Cage once ate a live cockroach for a scene in Vampire’s Kiss. A fake one would have been a betrayal of his art, he explained.
He also had several teeth extracted for a part in Birdy. And when he moved into a haunted house in New Orleans, he bought a two-headed snake ‘as my personal bodyguard’.
Welcome to the wacky world of one of Hollywood’s most eccentric performers. Although Cage puts it another way: ‘There’s a fine line between the method actor and the schizophrenic.’ The 48-year-old star also has a strict diet — eating animals he thinks have sex ‘the right way’. Fish and birds are on his menu, apparently, ‘because they have dignified sex’. But ‘pigs not so much’.
On location in Romania for his latest movie, Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance, in which he reprises his role as a motorcycle stuntman who has made a pact with the Devil, he stuffed his pockets with ancient Egyptian artefacts to ‘get in touch’ with the supernatural character he was playing.
He also scared everyone by wearing black contact lenses and painting his face black and white like a Voodoo doll. ‘Anything that convinced me that I really was a ghostly spirit helped me with my portrayal,’ he says. ‘I could see genuine fear in the eyes of the people I was working with.
‘I don’t see that this makes me eccentric, though. I just like to play flawed, interesting characters who allow me to fulfil my surreal dreams in film acting rather than being a lunatic myself.’
■ Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance opens on February 17.