Americans know English actress Helen Baxendale as Emily, the girl helping Ross discover life AR (After Rachel). But back at home, she's practically Dame Helen. ''My boyfriend rings me up and says, 'Bloody hell, the press here have gone mad!''' Baxendale laughs, explaining how she and fellow Must See TV Brit, ER's Alex Kingston, have sent the tabs into a nationalist tizzy (both Friends and ER are hits in the U.K.). ''It's like I'm held up as some kind of beacon of England or some bloody British bulldog.''
Baxendale, 27, just happened to be on a first-time visit to L.A. last year when she got the call. A long-forgotten resume and tape she'd mailed off had landed her a Friends audition. Before she knew it, her two-week trip became a very high-profile extended stay. ''Quite a few of my friends really like the show, and they were all astounded,'' she says. ''I hadn't even mentioned that I was going to America.''
Friends exec producer Marta Kauffman admits that before meeting the actress, she'd never actually seen Baxendale's principal TV credit, a role in the British medical drama Cardiac Arrest. But Friends had committed to a story line where Ross' new love would lure him to London for the season finale, and time was running out; first choice Patsy Kensit (Lethal Weapon 2) hadn't panned out. ''Helen came in and was brilliant,'' Kauffman says. ''It's a difficult thing we're asking her to do, because the audience is very resistant to that seventh person coming in. But you can see her being one of your friends.''
Which is fine by Baxendale within limits. While clearly grateful for her ''ludicrous'' good fortune, she maintains a cheery ambivalence. ''I don't think I could cope with being David Schwimmer-ly famous,'' she says. So when the season wraps, the former ballet and drama-school student will return to the British comedy Cold Feet, a show, it turns out, loosely in the spirit of Friends, with Baxendale's character named...Rachel.
Nevertheless, rumors of a Ross and Emily marriage in the season-ender certainly make a return visit seem likely. ''No one tells me anything,'' Baxendale insists. All she knows for sure is that ''I'm Ross' girlfriend, and he loves me.'' Eat your fickle heart out, Rachel.