David Schwimmer is describing an awkward moment that occurred during a recent rehearsal for "Turnaround" at the Coast Playhouse and the creative suggestion that co-star Jonathan Silverman made on how to break the ice.
In "Turnaround," Roger Kumble's extremely dark new comedy about Hollywood that opens Wednesday at West Hollywood's Coast Playhouse, Schwimmer plays an unscrupulous industry sleazeball who'd sell his soul for a six-figure deal, his name above the title or a line of good cocaine. Silverman, an old buddy from Schwimmer's days at Beverly Hills High School, plays the character's similarly debauched best friend. But as he talks about his scene with the play's only female character, Schwimmer sounds less like a jaded Hollywood shark than like Ross Geller, the perpetually embarrassed nice guy he's portrayed for nine seasons on "Friends."
"There is this moment of ... of sssssssexual tension," he says, clearing his throat before the "sssss" and ending the sentence with an apologetic squeak. "It's really an exploration of using sex as a powerful weapon in this town. In this particular scene, the one character that is a woman happens to grab this particular character by the ... by the so-called ... how do you call 'em? Let's just say she's got his number, so to speak.
"Roger, the director, was saying you do this, then she grabs you there; we were all kind of skating around it," Schwimmer continues, seeming less comfortable by the second; if the director was skating around the issue, Schwimmer's trying to land a triple lutz. "And Johnny [Silverman] calls me backstage and presents me with this giant cucumber, freezing cold, from the market across the street.
"We got to the point in the scene when she grabbed me for the first time, and she just had this complete look of shock and bewilderment, and then she burst out laughing," Schwimmer says. "And then I got it out of my pants because it was freezing and, ummm, had the opposite effect than was intended."
Just another example of the role of fresh produce in the actors' process. The point is, Schwimmer was game -- as he seems to be for just about anything when it comes to live theater.
'DOWN TO THE WIRE'
It was Dec. 21, during rehearsals for the last "Friends" episode to be filmed in 2002. As with every other workplace in America, the "Friends" soundstage and backstage areas on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank were a festival of decorations, holiday cards and tables laden with too many sweets.
In this episode, to be filmed later in the evening in front of a live studio audience, Phoebe and Joey (Lisa Kudrow and Matt LeBlanc, if you spent the last decade on some other planet) set up Ross and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston, if you spent the decade in some other galaxy) on bad blind dates, to prove to the on-again, off-again couple that they're really meant for each other.
Offstage between scenes, unbeknown to the audience and crew, the six leads of "Friends," including Courteney Cox and Matthew Perry, were busy dotting I's and crossing Ts on their contracts for a 10th year of the show -- big news in the entertainment press the next morning. No raises, however; all six will continue to work for only $1 million per episode.
"It came down to the wire -- that was the last day that all six of us were going to be all together in the same room with the executive producers, to kind of talk it all out, to have heart-to-hearts and really get back to, how do people feel about this?" Schwimmer explains a few days later.
"There was a certain amount of pressure involved, but I think the cast and the writers and the crew have such a well-oiled machine by now, it went pretty smoothly, without a hitch The general decision of all of us coming back had already been made in our hearts and in our minds -- this was just the nuts and bolts. If just one of us wasn't into it, we were going to call it quits."
In characteristic nice-guy fashion, Schwimmer apologizes for "disappearing into meetings" to finalize his commitment to another year of sssssssexual tension between Ross and Rachel while also trying to conduct an interview about "Turnaround." But he manages to squeeze in some words about his longtime commitment to theater even in the midst of the day's chaos.
In 1988, during his senior year at Northwestern University, Schwimmer and a group of other Northwestern drama students founded Chicago's Lookingglass Theater Company, devoted to presenting inventive stage adaptations of literary classics, including Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" and Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." The theater company recently moved into a new space in Chicago's historic Water Tower Water Works building.
One of the company's earliest productions was "The Odyssey," adapted by ensemble member Mary Zimmerman. It was an ambitious four-hour production -- five if you count the one-hour intermission -- with live music, dance, acrobatics and gymnastics. There were 16 actors in the cast, including Schwimmer. On opening night, there were four people in the audience.
"We'd been rehearsing for months, and we got this thing up, and it was just beautiful," Schwimmer recalls with a rueful laugh. "But we opened in the summer in Chicago, when nobody wants to be indoors; you've just gotten through a brutal winter. They gave us a standing ovation, these four people."
That's the kind of thing that can happen in live theater -- and it's one of the reasons Schwimmer loves TV, and "Friends." Performing live for a full house of die-hard fans every Friday night is an actors' dream. "It's the best job any of us has ever had," he says. During a filming break, Schwimmer clearly enjoys interacting with the fans, reaching up to grasp the hands of lucky audience members in the front row.
"We usually have special guests, like maybe Make-A-Wish kids," he says, referring to the foundation that grants wishes to children with terminal illnesses. "I personally try to do it whenever there are kids. To a kid, seeing a celebrity or someone they look up to means the world to them. I want to keep their dreams going, because I know when I was a kid, it meant the world to me."
'A sweet vacuum'
Despite growing up in Beverly Hills, Schwimmer, the son of two lawyers, said his own idols were not TV stars; he never even attended the filming of a sitcom. "None of my family was in the industry; I lived in kind of a sweet vacuum -- my parents wouldn't even let me watch TV during the week. It was good. It kind of forced me to draw, or read, or do theater, or play sports or whatever." He also recalls being one of the few at Beverly Hills High whose parents wouldn't give him a car.
"There were kids with brand-new BMWs, there were kids who had their own apartments -- their parents were divorced, usually, and they had apartments and $1,000-a-week allowances," Schwimmer marvels. "Being a young kid, I was like: 'I want a car.' And they were like: 'No, we live 10 blocks from school.' "
His parents' refusal to give in to peer pressure, Schwimmer says, is one of the reasons the actor respects his fans as peers. "Don't get me wrong, when I'm out to dinner with my family or a friend or girlfriend, I certainly do not like being interrupted," he says. "And if it's an adult, I'll say so. I'll say: 'You know what, I'm in the middle of a meal, it's not the appropriate time.' Or if I'm in a bad mood, I'll say: 'You know what, I'm not working right now.' " Tough words -- for Schwimmer, anyway. "But any time a kid comes up, I don't care what I'm doing," he adds. "You drop everything and do what you can."
Despite the obvious rewards, Schwimmer, 36, admits there are times when it's hard to keep it fresh in the ninth season. "How do I do something funny that I've never done before, not make easy choices?" he muses. "How do I exit a room in a way that I've never exited a room before? For my own sanity, I actually kind of forget I'm on the show when I leave here."
And, although he loves the laughs, Schwimmer finds it a bit disturbing sometimes to inhabit the sitcom New York of "Friends," a Manhattan "where 9/11 never happened." Upcoming projects have a little more edge. He and a partner are submitting a pilot script to NBC for a situation comedy about an interracial couple. Schwimmer wants the show to revive the kind of topical satire pioneered by "All in the Family."
For Lookingglass, Schwimmer is co-writing with company member Joy Gregory an adaptation of Studs Terkel's 1992 book, "Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession," opening in June. He met the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, now 90, about 12 years ago when Terkel showed up for the theater's production of "The Jungle," directed by Schwimmer. Terkel invited Schwimmer to talk about the play on Terkel's radio show. The incident launched a long-term friendship.
Schwimmer says theater directors are more willing than feature film directors to allow him to play against "Friends" type. "It's such a pop culture phenomenon, I find that it's difficult for some people to imagine that I can do anything else, unless I actually get them in a room and demonstrate that kind of range," he observes.
"The single greatest thing about the show -- the financial rewards -- is the freedom of choice. I don't have to take a job for the money. Life is too short not to have a good time."
It'll make Mamet blush
"Turnaround" is no "Friends."
For one thing, the salary negotiations were probably shorter, because everyone agreed to work for next to nothing -- except for the $5 per performance required for members of Actors' Equity. And "I think I paid myself like a dollar to write and direct," says Kumble, who is splitting the production costs of about $50,000 with Schwimmer. "It's like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland -- let's put on a play. It's just so much fun."
The world premiere is produced by Tom Hodges, another Northwestern alumnus and longtime friend of Schwimmer's. Cast member Jaime Ray Newman is also Northwestern grad.
The other big difference is style. "Turnaround" is not a sitcom, but a disturbing look at disturbing emotions, laced with enough profanity to make David Mamet blush. The program and promotional materials contain a disclaimer that the play is for mature audiences only.
The only "Friends" effect: Coast Playhouse will be dark on Fridays because that's the day "Friends" is filmed at Warner Bros. The play's cast squeezed in as much "Turnaround" rehearsal time as possible during the "Friends" holiday hiatus.
"Turnaround" is the third in a semiautobiographical Hollywood trilogy by Kumble, 36, an industry veteran who wrote and directed 1999's "Cruel Intentions" and directed 2002's "The Sweetest Thing," starring Cameron Diaz. The trilogy began in 1993 with the play "Pay or Play," with Silverman portraying Jeff, the neurotic hack screenwriter played by Schwimmer in "Turnaround." Schwimmer also played Jeff in 1997's one-act "d-girl" at Century City Playhouse.
"It's so much fun to write David's character, because he's sort of an alter ego of mine," Kumble says. "I mean, I'm a much better person than the character is now, but in 'Pay or Play' and 'd girl,' that was me onstage. I've made some smart choices in my life in the past few years; now I'm part him, but not really."
Although Kumble and Schwimmer were at Northwestern together, they weren't friends back then. "We knew each other from frat parties; to be honest -- that's it," Kumble says. "Then he was my next-door neighbor when we first moved out here; we lived on Sierra Bonita. He was working at the Daily Grill, and I was temping. After that, we always stayed in touch."
Schwimmer read "Pay or Play" in 1993, but he was unavailable to do it. The role of Jeff went to Silverman. In 1994, along came "Friends." Then, a couple of years later, "I ran into him at a New Year's Eve party and he asked me what I was up to," Kumble says. "I said I'd just finished writing this play, 'd girl,' and he said he wanted to read it. I think if I didn't have that New Year's Eve inebriation going, I wouldn't have said it, but I was kind of surly to him -- I said: 'You're a huge TV star, you don't want to read my little Equity-waiver play.' And he called me the next day and said: 'Jackass, I want to read your play.' "
As it happened, Schwimmer loved "d girl," and he took over the role of Jeff. "It was really a pivotal moment in my career," Kumble says. "I was doing all right as a screenwriter, but wanted to break into directing, and having him in an Equity-waiver play certainly helped."
In "Turnaround," Silverman returns to the cast as Richie, his original character's newly created best friend.
Kumble calls "Turnaround" a collaborative experience, with Schwimmer, Silverman or other cast members constantly throwing out a directorial suggestion or joke. Kumble's not precious about his own words; the best joke wins. He notes that Schwimmer and Silverman have slightly different senses of humor. "Johnny will just laugh," Kumble says. "David will analyze a joke -- then laugh."
Is Kumble's Hollywood the Hollywood that Schwimmer has come to know? "The view that Roger's presenting in the play is pretty bleak, and pretty scathing. I personally have found that part of Hollywood absolutely exists," Schwimmer says slowly. "But there's also a side of the industry and the people who live and work in it that is pretty normal, and decent, and sweet, and generous, and artistic and visionary."
He laughs. "The only thing about that is, it doesn't make good theater."
Where: Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood
When: Opens Wednesday. Regular schedule: Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 6 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 8 p.m.
Ends: March 2
Contact: (866) 468-3399