Former 'Friend' David Schwimmer tries deeper waters
By By Paul Brownfield
Mar 20, 2008 | 12:00 AM
AFTER the insane fame and wealth of "Friends,"David Schwimmer is back to what he considers to be his essence -- trying to make it as a working actor-writer-director, albeit one who never again has to worry about making it.
It's a nice life, if also an odd premise for a career: He is as famous for what he did as he is anonymous for what he's been doing.
He burns to work with his heroes, like filmmakers Mike Nichols and Sydney Pollack. He's back to auditioning, as he did in his early 20s, when he was a waiter at various Daily Grills in the L.A. area, wondering whether he ought to quit Hollywood and go back to Chicago, where he'd co-founded a theater company -- Lookingglass, still extant -- as a student at Northwestern.
Late last year, for instance, Schwimmer walked into a room and read for the Coen brothers, who were looking to cast the lead for their upcoming film, "A Serious Man," which the Coens recently told The Times is "about a Jewish community in the Midwest in the 1960s."
Schwimmer read for the lead, a college professor named Larry. The project felt to Schwimmer like a Bernard Malamud novel meets, well, the Coen brothers.
"I think I knocked it out," he said with a chuckle, talking about the audition last week over coffee at Bazzini, a gourmet market in TriBeCa, not far from Schwimmer's New York residence.
In a ski cap and growing a beard, Schwimmer is still instantly identified as his "Friends" doppelgänger Ross Geller, paleontologist, ex-husband of a lesbian, true love of Rachel Green (two female employees at Bazzini asked for his autograph; Schwimmer obliged). Though he also has homes in Hancock Park and Chicago, Schwimmer bought a place here around the time "Friends" was winding down, wanting to make Manhattan his home base. It's less industry and gets him out of the house, into the street, his iPod tucked in his backpack.
It's a leave-me-be kind of anonymity Schwimmer seems to be seeking. For this reason he avoids those parts of SoHo where the paparazzi lurk.
"I'll literally say to them, 'What?' " said Schwimmer. "I'm 41 years old, I'm not an alcoholic, I'm not dating a stripper; like, I'm sorry, why do you possibly want to photograph me? I'm, like, seriously? Me? I'm just coming out of a restaurant with a buddy."
One way to exorcise your fame is to lampoon it -- something former "Friends" star Lisa Kudrow did in her HBO series "The Comeback," a mock-documentary about an aging, out-of-the-business third banana on a sitcom. Since "Friends," Schwimmer has flirted with this, popping up in other people's shows, winningly. He played a version of himself on a season of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," cast as Larry David's costar in a Broadway production of "The Producers." And more recently he was the eco-friendly then power-mad network mascot Greenzo on Tina Fey's NBC sitcom "30 Rock."
With any luck, the Coens could do for Schwimmer what Quentin Tarantino did for John Travolta in "Pulp Fiction," retrofitting the forgotten "Saturday Night Fever" icon and reintroducing him to the culture. Suddenly, Travolta was relevant again, and doors opened.
Schwimmer doesn't know if he'll be cast in "A Serious Man," but the audition alone still meant something significant to him. "Part of it was just being able to be in the room with two people I absolutely respect and would kill to work with," Schwimmer said.
Not that he expressed his admiration to the Oscar-winning brothers. "I'm not about to say, 'I love your work.' They must know that already."
Directing 'Fat Boy'
SEVERAL weeks earlier, in Los Angeles, Schwimmer had come to the L'Ermitage hotel for lunch, and to talk about "Run, Fat Boy, Run," his directorial debut (he'd directed a few episodes of "Friends" and also "Joey," the NBC spinoff starring Matt LeBlanc).
"Run, Fat Boy, Run," which opens Friday, is a small, sweet film with equal parts pathos and slapstick comedy, with shades of a Nick Hornby antihero. It stars Simon Pegg ("Shaun of the Dead") as Dennis, who abandons his pregnant bride, Libby ( Thandie Newton), at the altar. Cut to: Five years later, and nothing has worked out for Dennis, save for the relationship he has with his 5-year-old son, Jake. Libby, meanwhile, is being wooed by the smooth Whit ( Hank Azaria), who is training for a marathon. In a conflation of guilt and comedy, Dennis decides running a marathon is exactly the thing to show Libby how much he's grown.
Schwimmer sees "Run, Fat Boy, Run" as a "Rocky"-type story in which a man-boy must become a man. The material, he knows, is broad, but not "Wedding Crashers"-broad. He'd wanted to direct a comedy and had been developing "Run, Fat Boy, Run," based on a script by writer-comedian Michael Ian Black, for two years, but could never get American financing. The leads on his wish list: Philip Seymour Hoffman and, later, Paul Giamatti.
The experience brought him face to face with the vagaries of trying to get a small comedy off the ground, even when your name is David Schwimmer.
It wasn't until "Run, Fat Boy, Run" was bought by the British company Material Entertainment on the condition that it be translated into a London story that the film got made; suddenly, Schwimmer was directing a British comedy, with the bright talents Pegg and Dylan Moran, who starred in the BBC series "Black Books." Neither the name "Schwimmer," nor the word "Friends" appears anywhere on the poster for "Run, Fat Boy, Run," and Schwimmer expressed ambivalence about using his star power to promote the movie at all.
"I have had countless talks with the distribution company out here, Picturehouse, who I really love, and my publicist, and my agent. Like, 'What do I do? Is it my responsibility to get out there and be in front of the movie and publicize it?' "
His instinct, he said, was to do nothing and let people discover it, though he conceded this was unrealistic.
"I'm not Ron Howard, I'm not Spielberg. Those guys maybe can go on those shows because they've earned it, but any other director -- you didn't see the director of 'Juno' before the movie came out."
The making of "Run, Fat Boy, Run" culminated two years of his life, post-"Friends," in which he spent the bulk of his time in London. He starred in Neil LaBute's latest play, "Some Girl(s)" (recently staged, without Schwimmer, at the Geffen Playhouse), on the West End, then came back to the States, only to return to London to direct the movie.
He learned, as a director, to wear comfortable shoes and to make 200 extras look like 10,000 people running a marathon.
"David's fairly timid in terms of the public side of his job," Pegg said by phone from London. "I don't think I've ever met anyone that famous, really. He's just sort of still wary of that aspect of his life."
"Friends" made Schwimmer pop-star famous and rich beyond reason. By banding together as one -- a negotiating move Schwimmer acknowledged he helped spearhead -- the "Friends" sextet functioned as a powerful voting bloc on things like merchandising and publicity; each drew salaries of $1 million an episode (or roughly $44 million) those ninth and 10th seasons of the series, when NBC was desperate to keep its Thursday night tent-pole show on the schedule.
"I'm just as passionate about things that interested me 20 years ago as I was then," Schwimmer said in L.A.. "Undoubtedly, life has been made more comfortable, and I feel incredibly lucky and blessed that . . . you don't have to worry about where the rent's going to come from, and that I can take care of my parents and my family and I can donate to charities that I care about and invest in other artists that I think are talented. Being able to support other talented people is one of the biggest gifts ever."
He mentioned the short film "Fly Like Mercury," which heexecutive produced, bringing together director Harry Lennix with a writer-actor named Reginald Nelson, whom Schwimmer had directed in a Lookingglass Theatre adaptation of the Studs Terkel book "Race: How Black and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession."
PHILANTHROPY and activism were ingrained in Schwimmer at an early age. Though he was born in Queens, he was raised in Beverly Hills by attorney parents who were active in women's and civil rights, he said (his mother, a family law and divorce lawyer, came to represent Hollywood figures, including Elizabeth Taylor; one summer Schwimmer, then 19 and working for his mom, served Rod Stewart with divorce papers).
Schwimmer grinned, revealing that piece of trivia on a cold Sunday in TriBeCa. The subject turned to the other "Friends." Once like a family, they've now dispersed into their separate lives.
"I don't think the six of us have been in the same room since the show ended," he said.
The two-hour "Friends" finale ended with Ross and Rachel going off together into the sitcom sunset. Offstage, Aniston went back to her then-movie star marriage to Brad Pitt. Schwimmer went to Atlantic City in the middle of winter to star in a low-low-budget movie called "Duane Hopwood."
He played an alcoholic father and casino pit boss opposite Janeane Garofalo, John Krasinski and Dick Cavett, showing once again that he had chops beyond Ross. "Duane Hopwood," written and directed by an unknown, Matt Mulhern, was a small, affecting movie that never registered with the public (even after it played the 2005 Sundance Film Festival) -- its widest release was three screens.
"A career-transforming performance," critic Roger Ebert proclaims on the DVD cover.