At a preview of new pop-up cafe Central Perk (199 Lafayette St.), we sat down on the iconic orange couch and spoke with James Michael Tyler, who played Gunther on "Friends."
There's going to be a long line out the door on opening day. Why do you think people still want to be a part of the show, even 20 years later?
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It's a feel-good show. It's kind of like comfort food in a way. And it's also kind of universal: It's not that dated, because the storylines weren't time-specific and the characters weren't necessarily time-specific. Perhaps the wardrobe was, or the hairstyles, but people can still relate to it. I think everybody can see a piece of themselves in at least one of the characters in the show or the situations that appear in the show. It’s like, “Oh, I went through something very similar." When you really boil it down, it's not convoluted or very complicated — it's simple and real.
A lot of shows have tried to recapture that formula.
Yeah, it's true: Some successful and some not so successful. But I think “Friends” had the right chemistry. From the first episode, they really seemed like [the cast had] known each other for years and they were comfortable with each other. And it was funny. We had great writers, and that's really the key.
Was Gunther always supposed to be a recurring character?
Oh no, not at all. I came on as an extra. I was a background performer for a year and a half. I was known as “Coffee Guy.” In the second season, one of the creators of the show asked if I had any acting experience, and I said that I had a Master of Fine Arts in Acting, and she said "cool" and walked away. The next week I came back and she said, "Your name is Gunther and you have a line and it's ‘Yeah.’” I got paid a little bit more money, which was very great because I’d kept my job at a real coffee shop, where I was a barista, for four seasons. The first four seasons I still worked there because I didn't want to give up my day job. As an actor, you never know. So I put every single dime away. But, by luck, I was able to buy better groceries and get some more decent protein.
Looking back, is Gunther a character you’re happy to forever be associated with?
There's always the danger of typecasting, but it's something you accept as an actor. [I was] on a major show with a lot of visibility and didn't say much, so it's largely undiscovered territory. Nobody really figured that much out about Gunther, except for this obsession and love he had for Rachel — and pretty much the disdain he had for everybody else, including the rest of “Friends.” … It's not like I played this horrible, horrible character. In real life, I'm hopefully not creeping you out, like, "Oh, he's going to follow me home." And I've been able to do other things, so I can dye my hair black. I only did this white for this occasion, after 10 years. I did it right before I got here. I thought, it's the 20th anniversary, and they're going to have all these other props, I'm going to let my hair be yet another prop.
When your hair isn’t white, do you still get recognized?
[This weekend,] I was in Washington Square with some friends. I’d really forgotten that I'd bleached my hair. I don't think of it normally, because I do not get recognized with my dark hair. People look at me and say, "Hey, I went to high school with you” or "Hey, you were my waiter last night." They think they know me. But when it's like this, I hear: "Hey, Gunther put the mouse back in the house!" People are screaming this across Washington Square. So I bought a hat. It's not that I was embarrassed, but maybe I shouldn't spoil the surprise about Central Perk. So I put on a hat and it’s fine. I have the magic hair.
Like Clark Kent taking off his glasses and becoming Superman?
Bingo, I love that.
So tell me, what happened to Gunther after the show?
I think Gunther would have moved on from his obsession, or his love, or whatever he had for Rachel. I think he would have matured a bit. I think the reason he was like that was because he had no experience —he had an idealized vision about love. So hopefully Gunther would have gained some experience. Maybe he moved closer to the city so he wasn't so grumpy. I think he probably spent way too many hours and way too many stops on the subway, which made him angry and upset, which I think a lot of viewers in NYC can probably relate to —especially if you're working for eight hours in a coffee shops, slinging coffees all day and you're obsessed with Jennifer Aniston's character. That will really, really get to a person after a while. He was the manager of Central Perk. I think he would own it by now, or there would be a Central Perk franchise, and Gunther would be very happy with a lot of white-haired babies. Yeah.
Now that you’ve been a real-life barista and you’ve played one on TV, what’s your expert opinion of this Eight O’Clock Coffee at the real Central Perk?
I think it's great. Have you had any of them? You need to — they're really, really good. I think this is all cool. I mean, they nailed the color scheme — it’s much bigger than our set was —but we have the set, with the couch, with the memorabilia. We have Pat the Dog, that’s my favorite thing. It's kind of like a museum. [Warner Brothers] brought it] here for a month, so it'll be a good chance for people to see things. I hope they come.
For more entertainment news, follow T. Michelle Murphy on Twitter: @TMichelleMurphy.