Aisha Tyler Looks Back at the "Colorblind Casting" That Got Her on Friends

We caught up with "Charlie" from Friends to chat about how the iconic show handled race and more.

Aisha Tyler and David Schwimmer acting on Friends
Photo: NBC/Getty Images

Friends was an instant hit when it debuted in September 1994, and it has only become more beloved, by a wider audience, as time has passed. But looking back on the show, there's clearly a lot the sitcom could've done better.

For example, for a show set in New York City, it's hard to believe that there were no Black people around. It was season 7 before any Black actor had a speaking role when Gabrielle Union came on for a whopping one-episode arc as a love interest for both Joey and Ross — and that was it for a while. Two seasons later, Aisha Tyler, then relatively unknown compared to some of the series' other guest stars, was brought on in a recurring role, and Friends history was made.

Playing Dr. Charlie Wheeler, a paleontology professor who worked alongside (and then dated) Ross, Aisha Tyler was the first Black actress to become a series regular, which was as monumental for the show as it was for her — and women of color watching from home. Her role was there to serve the more central characters, in other words, and she says she was put in it using that controversial, once-buzzy method: "colorblind casting."

Tyler's character eventually realizes that she still has feelings for an old flame, and breaks up with Ross, thus exiting the show. But for Tyler, something much bigger had begun. Ahead, she tells InStyle all about her experience on the set of Friends, how she thinks the show changed the course of TV history, and what she's been up to since.

What was your experience like being the first Black woman cast in a recurring role on Friends?

Honestly, it was a great experience personally and creatively. I don't think that I felt like, even though I knew that was a milestone, I don't know that I felt like they turned it into something more than what it was, which was just a love interest for Ross ... There [wasn't dialog] about the fact that it was an interracial relationship. There was no commentary on the show about my character being Black, and I think they had just written this character as this kind of love triangle between Ross and Joey. They happened to hire a Black woman, which — I don't know that I'm advocating for colorblind casting any more than I'm advocating for people doing a better job at making shows diverse.

Being African American is just one aspect of who a person is. It was really wonderful to just be on the show and be a love interest. And what was interesting about the character was that she was a paleontologist and she was funny, she was dating two of her friends — and mainly I was just trying to do a good job. This was a milestone for the show. As an actor, that was the biggest show on TV at the time.

What was it like joining the close-knit cast?

The cast was incredibly welcoming when I first joined. This was in season 9 when they had already had several very high-profile guest actors on the show, including Brad Pitt, Reese Witherspoon, Tom Selleck, and Bruce Willis. I think they were very aware that it could be an intimidating set, and they made a special effort to be kind and open toward me when I arrived.

The night of my very first live performance in front of a studio audience, as the cast came together at the end of the taping to take a bow in front of the crowd, Matthew Perry made a point of saying to me, "Get ready for your life to change," and it did! He may have said that to every guest actor, I don't know, but it was a special moment for me, and a seminal memory of my time there.

Were there any moments that you felt pressure or self-doubt?

Every single minute of every scene. I was working with the best ensemble in four-camera television, on the biggest show in the world. I was wracked with self-doubt. You wanted to do your job and not get in the cast's way, but your job was also to be funny, and it could be tough to land a joke surrounded by all those titans. And the writers gave me great material; they definitely wanted me to do well. Still, sometimes it was hard to connect with the audience, and if a joke I told didn't get a laugh, it could feel really personal, because the audience laughed at everything the main cast said — which makes sense; they were there to see the Friends cast, not some random visiting actor who they knew wouldn't be around long. It always felt like a real victory when I got a laugh in those tapings.

How did you prepare for the role of Charlie Wheeler? Did you relate to her?

I had probably seen every episode of Friends at the time I auditioned, so I knew the comedic timing, style, and cadence of the show really well. I think that's why I got the role — I understood the comedy math of Friends very well, just from being a fan. I suppose Charlie and I are similar in that we are both academics — I have a degree in government from Dartmouth College — and are both slightly self-conscious and a bit neurotic. I know very little about dinosaurs, however, other than they existed. I definitely believe in science.

Your character's storyline was a very pivotal moment for the show in regards to race. How do you think TV handles race now versus back then? Would you take a role like this again?

Well, I think it was a pivotal moment for the show in regards to race, in terms of having a character of color that had some durability, and stuck around a while, but what was interesting was that they didn't really make a meal of it. The role wasn't written as a woman of color, and when I auditioned, I read against women of every ethnic background. I think why it worked was that they didn't make it into a "very special episode of Friends" where the friends suddenly confront issues of race or try to somehow counterbalance the previous eight seasons' relative lack of diversity. I was just a character on the show, with her own appeal and quirks and foibles, and I think that's why it worked so well.

I think television gets better and better at dealing with race, but we still have a long ways to go. If you think about it, right after Friends, a show like The Wire became a hugely influential hit, and now we have incredibly diverse casts like The Walking Dead and How to Get Away with Murder, where the shows just look like America, and sometimes issues of race come up and sometimes they don't. I think ideal storytelling shows individuals in their specific complexity and doesn't always lead with how race defines them. People of color are as heroic and flawed as the next person; we need stories that break the myth of the racial monolith. We haven't gotten there yet, but we've made progress.

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Tell me a little bit about your work on Criminal Minds — you're on the show, but have also directed an episode.

My experience has been incredible; originally I was only supposed to appear in six episodes of that show, coming on as a guest star. It just was a fit from the very beginning, which was really wonderful. I worked as a director before I came on Criminal Minds, so it felt like a really natural step to direct over there, it felt natural to me ... I'm so close with the cast; It's really lovely to direct people that you love and respect. I am the first female cast member to direct on the show ... It was nice to set that milestone, and, in fact, now A.J. Cook [who plays J.J. Jareau on the show] is going to direct an episode, and I'm really excited to support her.

How do you stay balanced between hosting Who's Line Is It Anyway?, acting, and directing? Your work ethic must be intense.

I have a very interesting approach to my creative life. If it's something that I'm curious about and want to learn how to do well, then I'll throw myself into it. ... That's a very fancy way of saying I'd like to be busy; it's the tempo that I prefer in my life. This is my dream occupation so that answers [the balance] question: I think that maybe the concept of balance is a false construct because if you're passionate about something, you're actually going to put more of your energy and time into that than into other things in your life. I'm passionate about my work, so that's what gets most of my time and attention. But, you know, I work seven days a week. I work late into the night. I wake up at four in the morning and pick up my phone and turn on my computer. That's not particularly, like, a model for "balanced." ... Maybe when I'm older I'll take it easy, but right now I love to work.

What was it like to make your first feature film, Axis?

It was a very aggressive process because I was on The Talk and doing about four [other] shows at the time, so I only had about a week off to make a movie ... When you're making a movie for a micro-budget in a week, [there are] really interesting problems to solve. I'm getting ready to direct another feature at beginning of next year and it's also a thriller, and now I have a little bit more money, and a little bit more time, but still the approach and the kind of lean strategy that I brought to making AXIS, I'm bringing to this movie and trying to maximize my money. AXIS won three awards and got an L.A. and New York release, and now it's out on iTunes, Amazon, and on demand. I'm extraordinarily proud of it.

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