David Schwimmer talks with NBC's Ann Curry.
NBC News
updated 11/21/2003 12:32:16 AM ET 2003-11-21T05:32:16

On TV he’s quirky, goofy and just a little geeky. And as Ross Geller on “Friends,” he’s been making us laugh every Thursday night for nine years. But there’s far more to actor David Schwimmer than an uncanny gift for comedy. There are some important issues he wants us all to talk about, and he’s started the discussion on stage. NBC’s Ann Curry sat down with Schwimmer just before the curtain rose on his brand new project. He was a little nervous, a little anxious — a little like his famous character.

Ann Curry: “You are how stressed out right now with opening night coming around the corner?”

David Schwimmer: “It’s a little, it’s a little stressful.”

Curry: “Little?”

Schwimmer: “Well, we have our first audience tonight.”

We caught up with David Schwimmer in Chicago, in the final frenzied days before he and his theater company prepared to open a play about what they say is the American obsession: race.

Curry: “This is your true love.”

Schwimmer: “Yeah, it’s a dream we had 15 years ago that we would finally have our own space.”

The space, the new home for Lookingglass, the theater company Schwimmer co-founded as a college student in 1988, is where he says he’s happiest. And the play, about something he cares deeply, race, is a work Schwimmer has wanted to put on stage for more than a decade.

The script was still a work in progress, the actors still finding their cues, but it is a labor of love for Schwimmer, the man much of America knows simply as “Ross.”

Curry: “How much do you worry about the perception of you as Ross Geller?”

Schwimmer: “It’s just this strange phenomenon. I mean, I have people come up to me on the street and call me by that name.”

Curry: “What do you want to say to them and don’t?”

Schwimmer: “I say, actually my name is David. Hi, it’s reality.”

Friends has been on the air for nine years, airs in more than 100 countries and will have put close to a $100 million in Schwimmer’s bank account. But Schwimmer wants people to know he’s not a one-trick pony and he’s working to put some distance between himself and the role that made him famous, for instance, playing a tough guy in the TV miniseries “Band of Brothers.”

Schwimmer: “I make conscious decisions to choose parts that are maybe different from that energy or that guy, that persona of Ross.”

Curry: “I notice you don’t happen to be in this play.”

Schwimmer: “Correct.”

Curry: “Why is that?”

Schwimmer: “I’m directing it.”

Curry: “Why did you chose to direct it rather than to act in it?”

Schwimmer: “Because it’s a bigger challenge and I have a real vision for what I think this play should be and hopefully will be.”

This isn’t his first directorial effort. He’s been at the helm for nine episodes of “Friends,” several small films and plays. But he isn’t only directing this play; he helped adapt it from Studs Terkel’s oral history, “Race.” It is an important subject for the 36-year-old who grew up in Los Angeles. Because he says he, too, has felt the pain and humiliation of racial discrimination.

Curry: “But you are a white male in America.”

Schwimmer: “Yeah, but when it comes down to it, it was Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman who were killed as civil rights workers in Mississippi. Two Jews and an African American. And when it comes to certain prejudice and the hatred that still pervades this country I’m a Jew first and not a white person.”

Curry: “Have you been discriminated against because you are Jewish?”

Schwimmer: “Oh sure.”

Curry: “What is the worst comment you ever heard?”

Schwimmer: “Do you mean about me directly?”

Curry: “Yeah, about you.”

Schwimmer: “You know, kyke, hebe, hook-nose, Shylock.”

Curry: “To your face they said this?”

Schwimmer: ” Oh yeah, to my face or for my benefit. But I don’t want to come off like poor me, you know, I’m complaining. I’ve been called names. That is not the point.”

The point, he says, is to open a dialogue in Chicago and the rest of the country about race and racism.

Schwimmer: “No matter how progressive, how open minded you feel you are, you still carry some kind of prejudice. And we all have work to do. So the purpose of doing the play is to just get people to want to talk about it and think about it and examine themselves.”

Sparking a national dialogue is a lofty goal for a man who 10 years ago was just another struggling actor, waiting tables in L.A., and doing bit parts on shows like “NYPD Blue.”

Curry: “So how does a guy like you get to be a big TV star?”

Schwimmer: “By sheer chance. Really, I mean, sheer chance.”

Curry: “People love Ross, so many people connect with his suffering and his, I mean, his jokes and he’s funny and all those things, but also his humiliation. And you play humiliation so well.”

Schwimmer: “I know it well. I’ve just known it well.”

Because the now confident, funny, some even say sexy TV star wasn’t always the coolest kid in the class.

Schwimmer: “I was kind of a geek in high school. I mean I was — I worked my butt off and was always in the AP science, you know chemistry, physics, physiology, biology, math. Math was my thing.”

Curry: “Were you teased?”

Schwimmer: “Come on. I was for a long time short and kind of pudgy. And from a very young age, I had like a premature mustache, you know what I mean? I also had braces and I didn’t have any kind of sense of style. I had like a bowl haircut and I just dressed whatever my mom thought I should wear. You know what I mean? I just was out of it.”

Even going away to acting camp one summer and coming back transformed didn’t help.”

Schwimmer: “I grew so quickly that I was really thin. really tall and really thin. So then it was the opposite of short and fat and I was teased about that.”

Curry: “Can’t win.”

That was before the award shows, the Emmys and the drop-dead gorgeous real-life friends.

Curry: “Do you have this sense now, ‘Who is laughing now?’ I mean when you think back on those times at all?”

Schwimmer: “You know, I did feel that way when the first wave of success hit. That first year of ‘Friends.’ You know deep, deep down you’re like okay, you called me that huh? And now, look at me, you know. Yeah.”

Curry: “Have you ever seen any of those people?”

Schwimmer: “Oh not the people who —”

Curry: “Made fun of you?”

Schwimmer: “No.”

Curry: “No, would you like to?”

Schwimmer: “No cause I am not —”

Curry: “A vengeful person?”

Schwimmer: “Not really, no. Well, let’s be honest.”

But to be honest, what everyone really wants to know: Is this going to be the last season from “Friends?”

Curry: “Is this upcoming season absolutely positively your last season last on ‘Friends?’”

Schwimmer: “I think so, yeah.”

Curry: “You think so?”

Schwimmer: “I mean, I can say it is my last.”

He says he won’t do a “Friends” spin-off either. So with only one more season to go, Schwimmer has been taking more and more risks on “Friends.” And with those risks, he’s revealing more and more of his character and of himself.

Curry: “Oprah once said—”

Schwimmer: “Wow, I hope she comes to the play.”

Curry: “I hope she does, too. She lives here.”

Schwimmer: “I know, right.”

Curry: “Is she coming to the play? Did you send her an invitation?”

Schwimmer: “Yeah.”

Curry: “Okay, she once said, ‘I think y’all should have a black friend.’”

Schwimmer: “And we do.”

Curry: “And now your character Ross is dating someone who is African-American.”

Schwimmer: “Yes. Aisha Taylor.”

Curry: “That at the same time as this play, coincidence?”

Schwimmer: “Fortuitous, as it were, because we can talk about it, but I don’t think it is a coincidence. I think it is something I have been trying to make happen for many years.”

Curry: “Really?”

Schwimmer: “Yeah.”

Curry: “So it’s possible that you influenced this idea of bringing a black friend on the show?”

Schwimmer: “I think it’s more than possible.”

Curry: “And you did that because of your strong feelings about race in this country?”

Schwimmer: “Yeah.”

David Schwimmer is not Ross Geller. But he is a man grateful that playing Ross has given him a chance to do the work he really loves.

Schwimmer: “This will be 10 years that we’re doing this. And while I love it, I also want to take a stretch — acting, writing, producing, directing. I think the more you create the better your odds that you will create things that people will remember. In some ways it could be argued it is the closest we can come to immortality.”

The play “Race” has been getting rave reviews since it opened this month in Chicago. It runs though August 10. And Schwimmer is not limiting his new projects to the stage. Soon, you may see more of his ideas on the TV screen, too. He’s just signed a deal to develop some future programs for NBC.

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