Carol Willick and Susan Bunch paved the way for same-sex couples in the early ’90s when the two characters got together on the hit TV series Friends.
For the actor who played Carol, Jane Sibbett, the role was career-defining and one that she wouldn’t realise the gravity of until much later on.
“I mean, it still to this day baffles me that anyone would see any kind of bump [about the same-sex wedding] in it. But now I’m understanding how important it is for me to see that people have a bump like that. And if they do have a bump with it, then we need to talk about it. We’re talking about love. We’re just talking about love. And what more would you want in the world for people to actually get together because they love one another?”
While it was the role of a lifetime, Sibbett’s own father did not support his daughter in playing a lesbian on TV.
“He had a really hard time with this. He actually had a Bible study and they would light candles exactly at eight o’clock so that none of his friends could watch Friends,” she said.
“Other friends began to send him articles about the positive impact of the show and my father finally began to understand, and then we had a healing over it”
When Sibbett was cast as Ross’s (David Schwimmer) ex-wife, the then 32-year-old had just given birth to her first son just 48-hours before she was due on set.
After an already successful start to her career, Sibbett had auditioned to be one of the main six, however, while that wasn’t meant to be, she was kept in mind for the role of Carol. Anita Barone was ultimately cast, but then according to Sibbett when “that didn’t work out”, she got the role instead.
“I said, ‘Please consider me for the pregnant lesbian,'” she recalled telling her agent. “When I actually got to play Carol, I was so excited because it was the perfect thing for me because I had a new baby. I just feel so grateful!”
From the very beginning, the actor and comedian knew that Friends was going to be a big hit.
“I knew it was gonna be special for sure,” she said. “I wasn’t surprised. When I read the script, I knew it was going to amazing. I was just excited because these people are so talented and the writers are just so good.”
Here, Sibbett talks to The Latch about what happened when she met Barone after being re-cast, what impact her role has had on the LGBTQ community and why love is always the answer.
Anita Anabel: Hi Jane, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. This is a bit of a dream come true! You had really done so much by the time you were cast as Carol on Friends. After replacing the first Carol, what was getting that part like?
Jane Sibbett: You may not know this, but I was originally up for one of the main six and because I was getting ready to deliver my baby, the timing didn’t work out. I said: “Please consider me for the pregnant lesbian!”, but they said that wouldn’t work out either. When I actually got to play Carol I was so excited because it was the perfect thing for me because I had a new baby and the schedule worked out great.
It was 48 hours after I delivered my son that I started work. I just feel so grateful!
AA: The show was — and still is — a phenomenon. How did it feel all of a sudden when the show just blew up?
JS: Who would have ever thought it was gonna be all of that? — But I knew it was gonna be special for sure.
I was in a milky haze because I was still nursing my child all the way through those early seasons, but I wasn’t surprised. When I read the script, I knew it was going to be amazing. I was just excited because these people are so talented and the writers are just so good.
That’s what I said to my agent, “You did tell them I’m pregnant right? You did tell them I’m gonna have a baby when they’re shooting the pilot right? Because please let me know. Please keep me in mind!”
So when it actually kicked in, and after I saw the pilot, I knew for sure it was gonna go even bigger. When it kicked in, I wasn’t surprised. And the producers were amazing.
The people were just so great. This is exactly what you want. You want to reward those people that are kind of good and do their jobs and love creating for the joy of creating.
AA: You replaced Anita Barone. Good name — I won’t hold it against you! (Laughs) Did they tell you why she was replaced?
JS: They didn’t tell me, they just said that she “didn’t work out”. I’ve actually met Anita because we have mutual friends. I met her at a 4th of July party. I said to her, “Oh, I’m so sorry” because I’ve actually replaced her on two shows. Which is crazy, because we don’t even look alike!
When I got the part, I said to the producers, “Tell me what it is that you want me to do that she didn’t” and they said, “We just want you to play it the way you want to play it.” I said, “I just want to play it for love, will that work for you?” And they said, “Yes, that’s what we want.” Because I was kind of “milking” at the time and “I’m not really funny right now”.
That was always the joke that Jess [Jessica Hecht who played Susan Bunch] and I were the straight men to David Schwimmer’s ridiculousness, but that was what we were!
AA: What I loved about the role of Carol — and this is something you probably had no idea at the time, or maybe you did — however, Carol really led the way for same-sex relationships on prime-time television.
JS: We were the first lesbian wedding. I have said for years that we were the first gay wedding until I met Roseanne and she’s like, “Actually it was on my show”.
I didn’t really think about it because, in my world, I’m surrounded by gay friends. So I didn’t even think of anything of it and it’s not like I had to play anything different.
I didn’t even think about the phenomenon until later on. I mean, it is still to this day baffles me that anyone would see any kind of bump in it. But now I’m understanding how important it is for me to see that people have a bump like that. And if they do have a bump with it, then we need to talk about it. We’re talking about love. We’re just talking about love. And what more would you want in the world for people to actually get together because they love one another? That was my whole thing for fans and I’m just so grateful to have that.
AA: At the time, being gay wasn’t as openly accepted and certainly not on television. Did you have anyone approach you in a negative way?
JS: I did have a woman from my old church come to me and tell me that I was going to burn and I told her, “I don’t think so. I’m sure that I’m not.”
I also had my father, he had a really hard time with this. He actually had Bible study, and they would light candles exactly at eight o’clock so that none of his friends could watch Friends. Other friends began to send him articles about the positive impact of the show and my father finally began to understand, and then we had a healing over it.
I gave him a book about what the Bible really says about homosexuality, it’s not an issue — if you look at the original Greek version. I know that’s a little preachy, but it was important for me to let him know that I still have my faith…but I know that love is the most important thing.
AA: I was talking to Eddie Cahill about this yesterday and we were saying that Friends is so multi-generational. Have you had anyone from another generation thanking you?
JS: I have people coming up to me on the street all the time and I have people writing to me on Instagram all the time. I get letters still to this day of people saying that it’s made such a big difference. I’ve had people from all over the world say, “You are the reason why we were courageous enough to talk to our parents” in a community that doesn’t have any gay community. Things like, “Thank you so much for helping us through this storyline,” and “It’s really made a difference.” I’m so deeply touched.
AA: How special is that. That’s actually made me quite emotional.
JS: I’m gonna tell you one more little story. There’s an organisation in America that’s for gay families with a gay parent. They gave this show an award — we received a lot of awards — but I received an award on behalf of the show. This man had said, that if we had had role models when “I was growing up like Carol and Susan, I wouldn’t have tried to commit suicide so many times and I am so grateful that my son and my daughter have role models like you so that they can see that it’s OK.”
I just never in a million years would have thought that would be the case. We still have work to do in this world and hopefully, we can do that. And with more people.
AA: Thank you so much for sharing that with me. One thing I learned about you was that you and Jessica Hecht are still really good friends. I think that is just incredible. Why do you think your friendships lasted so long?
JS: Because she’s the most incredible woman ever. She really is. She’s the woman that everyone wants to be their best friend in their life. She has such a great heart and she is so funny. I’m just grateful that we’ve been able to nurture that relationship over time.
I don’t know if you know this, but we’ve been stomping around for Joe Biden because we definitely need big change over here in America.
AA: Finally, why do you think the Susan, Carol and Ben storyline went to the wayside? I heard you were both joking that it was because they “moved to London”.
JS: That’s because we were running away from what we knew was going to happen in America — I think that would be the reason why we wanted some sanity.
We were actually doing press in the UK at that time and Jess came up with that idea. I’d say now, my first favourite would be going to Australia! But why did they let it all go? I just think they had other things that were going on. When you have 10 years, it’s a lot of things to cover when writing. But I wish they’d kept it going longer. But I can’t complain. I’m just grateful for every single laugh and every single hug. It was the best show.
Stream every episode of Friends plus the world’s best shows for just $10 per month on BINGE.