FRIENDS 25: The One Where We Interview Gunther

You’d have to be hiding under a rock to not know that the world is marking the 25th anniversary of Friends, the insanely popular NBC sitcom that is now on Netflix. NYC has been celebrating with a pop-up exhibit and store at 76 Wooster Street.
TV and City was lucky to visit pre-opening and chat with two iconic supporting characters: Gunther and Janice. Here’s our discussion with James Michael Tyler, who played Gunther.

James Michael Tyler: Every five years they drag me out of retirement to come and talk about the show.

TV and City: How do you feel about that?

JMT: Great. I know how blessed I was to have been a part of it. To have been a minor character on a major show, and as an actor to have had 10 years of steady work is unheard of, especially on a show of that caliber. It was a great learning experience for me. I had a Master of Fine Arts degree when I came to Los Angeles and of course like a lot of other struggling actors I ended up as a barista in real-life working at a real coffee shop. I went into the first day of Friends because the assistant director said we need someone who can operate a real cappuccino machine, an espresso machine. So they called me in and he said, “you’ll make 40 bucks and you’ll get a meal”, which at the time was something I desperately needed: to supplement my income and to get a meal. Ten years later, who could have thought!

And just the fact that after a year and a half the creators decided to create Gunther – to give him a name, and make him a character and to extend what was probably going to be a two-episode arc for his love for Rachel, unrequited love, they kept that up for 10 years. So there was a lot of kismet. I was very very very blessed and I don’t take it likely.

TV&C: Are you based in New York now?

JMT: No. I live in Los Angeles.

TV&C: So you’ve come in especially for this?

JMT: Yes.

TV&C: And will you be participating throughout the time that the pop-up is here or just for these press days?

JMT: These two press days and then my wife and I go back to LA. We’ll come back this week when it’s open to the public and I’ll be doing something with it; I’m not even sure yet – they haven’t told me.

TV&C: We saw they recreated Central Perk and they are going to be serving food.

JMT: Apparently they are going to have real coffee and of course a gift shop at the end. They have things there I didn’t even know were available.

TV&C: The show is from an era before there was Starbucks – little coffee shops were what people were used to. The show kind of jump-started a whole coffee culture.

JMT: It kind of did. As I said, I actually was a barista in a coffee shop in Los Angeles when I got this part. One thing I find interesting is whether you could have a Central Perk or a Friends today? It would be different because no one would be talking to each other in the coffee shop. They’d all be on their laptops, maybe texting each other and the scripts would be like four pages long. It was a different time, a different culture, and I think that part of that nostalgia is what attracts people to it. It’s a simpler time when people communicated more, even if its a sitcom, but that was real life. I went through it, I’d go to coffee shops and have a conversation about music, art, things of importance. I went into one a couple of weeks ago, you know I’m not putting it down, I get it, people are there for the wifi, they want to work, but they are isolated now. They have their headphones on and they’re on this or this or this and they’re not talking. The shop’s still there but the atmosphere is completely different.

TV&C: That’s interesting because the couch in the shop is one of the most iconic parts of the show.

JMT: Communal space where even complete strangers could have sat on it if Gunther hadn’t reserved it for only the friends so that he could look at Rachel. There was a “reserved” sign which I didn’t really quite notice until after the show was over. A fan pointed it out online. So there was a “reserved” sign in every episode on the table and I know I must have seen it because I was on the set. I didn’t quite make the connection then and none of the writers said, “oh, this is why this is here,” but it makes sense that Gunther would have reserved that couch so that Rachel would be within eye line.

TV&C: How much of your character was assigned and how much did you develop on your own?

JMT: Interesting question because like I said, I went in with the white hair kind of by mistake. A friend of mine had bleached it, literally the night before I went in as an extra. He was practicing on my head because he wanted to be a stylist. So I went in with this bleached hair and they put me behind the coffee counter and I guess the producers liked it. They were like, “this is what a New York barista looks like in 1994.” So I had to keep that for all 10 seasons. Now as far as the development of the character, Gunther did not have a line until midway through the second season. It was one word, “yeah.” There wasn’t really a lot to work with. I just kind of tried to play along with the dialogue that eventually increased over the seasons. Especially when they established Gunther’s love, unrequited love for Rachel, they gave me a bit more to work with. So I worked with Jen and with that. I can’t say I can take all the credit because the writers were brilliant, but as far as making Gunther just basically stone-faced and the only person that he really had affection for was Rachel. I don’t think Gunther really cared much for the rest of the friends. And he just didn’t take any gruff. He was like, “What’s your order? Stop talking. Leave me alone.”