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Baxendale, 38, landed a part in the American sitcom Friends nine years ago, as the English girl who won the heart of Ross Geller. She accepted the role enthusiastically, underestimating the huge impact the 10-episode adventure would have on her life

It was 1998 and I was doing quite well in England. I’d done Cardiac Arrest and had worked on the pilot for Cold Feet, which I went on to act in for six years. I’d also played the lead in a detective series, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. It had done well here and was going to be shown in the States, so I went over to publicise it. My husband, David, came too; we planned to have a holiday afterwards. So I did my publicity, and the day after my agent called and said: “They want an English girl in Friends.” I thought: “I’ll go for it — there’s no chance I’ll get it.” I auditioned and was offered the part, almost immediately — they must have been desperate. I was playing “the new English girl”, Emily, who would date Ross, marry him and divorce him — all in 10 episodes.

Friends was massive at the time, and I said I’d love to do it. In LA I was taken straight onto the set, where they were filming at 1am, and that night I was just introduced to the actors. It didn’t seem real. I felt such a fish out of water, but I just went with it. I wasn’t fazed at all. I’m sure the actors hadn’t heard of me — guest actors were turning up all the time. The next day David went back to London and his work as a producer. I got a room at the Cadillac hotel in Venice Beach, bought some knickers and carried on. The actors were all amazingly creative and giving. David Schwimmer [playing Ross] discussed everything with me.

The celebrity hysteria about the show was in full swing. Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow and the rest were very famous, but as I only witnessed their lives on the lot, I didn’t see them being mobbed or “papped”. And I didn’t hang out with them: they were delightful to me, but they had their own lives — though Matt LeBlanc [Joey] took me out one night, which was nice of him. I was a bit lonely. I didn’t know anybody in America.

But I was there to do a job, trying to do my best work — I just wanted to go back to my room, learn my script and get an early night. I did three months in Los Angeles, then they came to England to shoot the wedding scene.

While I’d been away, my mum and dad and David would ring and say: “You wouldn’t believe the press about Friends here — it’s ridiculous!” But it wasn’t until I came home that I realised just how ridiculous. David and I would wake up to find people outside our home. Our car would be followed by photographers. Reporters went up to Yorkshire to talk to my mum and dad; old boyfriends of mine were contacted… I found the whole thing really upsetting.

There was so much coverage in the papers, and I didn’t handle it well. I tried to be honest and say: “It’s not so great.” And they’d write, “She had a terrible time in Friends”, which I hadn’t. And people expected me to be a millionaire. Well, I wasn’t: I got £1,000 a week for the show, out of which I had to pay tax and accommodation. This madness would come over people when they spotted you: their eyes would glaze over and they’d ask the same questions time and time again: “What’s it like to kiss Ross?” “What are the Friends like?” “Are you best friends with the Friends?” And because the show was seen worldwide, you’d go to other countries and they’d be going: “Emily! Emily! Emily!”

It took a long time to calm down. Even a year later, I was coming out of my house after having my first child, Nell, struggling down the steps with a pram, and a photographer was taking pictures of me. I cried out: “Why are you doing this? Can’t you help me with the pram?” He carried on. I pleaded: “Please stop. I don’t want my daughter in the paper.” Then he said he was so sorry, he’d trash the photos. I don’t know if he did. It was utterly miserable.

I understand why people were awestruck. The Friends actors are very talented. They’ve made people laugh, and people think they know them. But that’s a stifling, cotton-wool world. It changes the balance of things. It affected every relationship I had: with friends, even with my mum and dad. They’ve always been utterly supportive, but it’s seductive… I defy anybody to cope well with that level of exposure.

Being in the show was wonderful, but having had a glimpse of that notoriety, I thought: no thanks. It’s great to be able to walk about London and not be chased.

Now it seems like a peculiar blip in my life — albeit a colourful, interesting one. I have a great job and I’m contented with my lot. I have a company with David, and we’ve made a film, Beyond the Pole, a comedy we hope will raise awareness of green issues. I still go on stage every night and think: “This is so exciting!” I’m so lucky, I can do this and still be there to take my kids to school. In fact, my life’s pretty bloody brilliant.

Helen Baxendale is appearing in Swimming with Sharks with Christian Slater at the Vaudeville Theatre, London

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