Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
David Schwimmer's New Movie Leaves Ross (Who?) Far Behind
Knight at the Movies web exclusive 11-18-05
by Richard Knight, Jr.
David Schwimmer as the hapless father and casino pit boss trying to keep it together in frigid Atlantic City his new indie film Duane
Hopwood and with co-star Janeane Garofalo as his ex-wife.
David Schwimmer is doing his best to exorcise himself of the ghost of Ross, his puppy dog love character that delighted America for
11 seasons on the sitcom "Friends." But, as he so eloquently discusses below, though HE's long since left Ross behind, audiences
have yet to embrace him in another role and set him free. Duane Hopwood, the small independent movie in which he plays a down
on his luck alcoholic in the midst of a personal crisis may help to change perceptions. At a recent, intimate round table to talk about
the film, Schwimmer, dressed in typical slacker gear (dark blue-gray pullover sweatshirt, black t-shirt and blue jeans), looked fit and
relaxed as he noshed on a finely chopped Caesar salad. His passion for the film, acting and directing were palpable. My specific
questions are preceded by my initials (rkj).
Sidenote: Schwimmer is NOT related to Rusty Schwimmer, the character actress who spoke to me recently about North Country. But they are
friends and David directed Rusty in his highly publicized stage adaptation of Studs Terkel's "Race." This was in the debut of the Looking Glass
ensemble's gorgeous new Michigan Avenue theatre space in 2003.
Q: How did you decide to take the role in Duane Hopwood?
DS: There have been some other movies I’ve looked at recently where I could have played a sociopath or a rapist and I’d look at
those parts and I’d think, “Well, that would certainly mix things up and change people’s expectation of me” but I wasn’t very
responsive to what the movies had to say and I didn’t feel like it was a responsible movie so I didn’t did it.
Q: What drew you to this part?
DS: Personally, I’ve never struggled with any kind of dependency, whether it’s alcohol or drugs. I like to gamble but I’m not an
addict and I know a lot of people who have struggled and I’ve painfully observed friends or coworkers and I think it scared me – the
challenge of playing that believably, playing a functioning alcoholic believably and I’ve never been a dad – I’ve never been married
or divorced but those were also the challenges that I thought I’d like to play. I thought I’d like to play a regular guy, a guy who
works hard, a working class guy who seems to be in a fog about what has happened to him and how his life is suddenly and
completely upside down. I thought that was a real challenge and to make him likeable because in the first five pages of the script I
read the guy’s arrested on a DUI with his five year-old daughter in the backseat and I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” How
are you ever going to win me over? And that was the challenge for me. How do you make a character like that – at least if not
forgivable – you can’t forgive that. How do you make him sympathetic.
This character is an amalgamation of several guys that Matt Mulhern, the writer/director grew up with in Jersey. I’ve heard there was
an earlier, short version was made but I intentionally didn’t want to see it because I didn’t want to have some other actor’s
interpretation of this guy.
rkj: Is this part also a really good way for you at this point to break the “Ross-sitcom” curse? It seems like a lot of your fellow
"Friends" cast members have done projects this year that are light years away from those sitcom characters.
DS: I don’t know. Part of me, I’ll admit, I hope so but I don’t expect it because for some reason, it’s not happened yet. In “Band
of Brothers” on HBO which couldn’t be farther than the character of Ross and yet, still, I had people even then saying, “It’s just Ross
goes into the Army” and I was like, “Really? I don’t make one joke, not one double take, not one funny entrance.” I’m kinda
mystified by the whole thing and I’m the one person in the whole world that can’t be objective. But then I look at Woody Harrelson
who on “Cheers” was this sweet, dopey kind of guy for 11 years and one movie – Natural Born Killers – bam – people are like, “Oh,
he's an actor.” I think it can be done with just one role but first of all the movie has to be seen by people. I’ve done a bunch of
independents but none of them have broken through. I did a movie with Andre Baugher, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, Giovanni Ribisi,
with this ridiculously talented cast based on this play at the Goodman called “It’s the Rage” where I play a homosexual murderer
and no one’s seen it. It didn’t break through for some reason.
rkj: I want to see you as a homosexual murderer – how fun would that be to watch.
DS: That’s just one of several. I did a movie with Woody Allen and Sharon Stone called Picking up the Pieces that was directed by the
guy that wrote and directed Like Water for Chocolate that no one’s ever seen where I play a Priest who’s sleeping with a prostitute. I
keep doing roles that are different but until one suddenly breaks through – which I have no control over – that’s just the way it is.
Q: Can you talk about working with Janeane Garofalo? I’ve always thought of her as the great unsung character actor.
DS: I’m glad to hear you say that because I think it was her best work. Acting with her was a revelation because she’s so
understated in her performance and also so feminine in a way. She’s just a real mom in the movie. She’s not too urban, she’s not
too savvy, she’s not who she is – which is a really politically aware and outspoken activist. She’s just a working class mom who cares
desperately about getting on with her life. When I saw the movie I realized, “She really loves this guy” and for his own health and
her own health she has to play hardball with him. She could have been seen as a real bitch for treating this guy like this, taking the
kids away, sleeping with someone else but the fact is that he’s living in kind of a cloud of alcohol and was not able to see that he
was the one that had fucked up their marriage.
rkj: Why was your character a drunk?
DS: I don’t think he was a drunk. Here I am defending him.
rkj: Okay, then why did he drink – why did he like a little pick me up so early in the day each and every day? What did I miss?
DS: I think because he was really unhappy and really in pain and didn’t know how to deal with it. He was working really hard – and
that’s a brutal job to work 3am to 12 Noon, holidays, six days a week just to get by and just to pay the bills. He had two kids and he
couldn’t even see them and I think it was killing him. Spiritually, I think it was hurting his marriage and he was like a vampire –
right when he’d get home he had maybe an hour with his kids during the day and then he goes to work so he missed out on their
life. I think it was a very slow process – it probably took nine years for him to develop a problem drinking – I think it started out
very slowly with a beer after work and then a couple more. It ran away from him and before he knew it all the arguments he had at
home – instead of dealing with them he’d just leave and go get a drink or work harder. Instead of doing the hard work – getting a
new job or fixing his marriage or whatever.
rkj: I think that’s illustrated so beautifully in the scene where he’s pulled over drunk with the little girl in the backseat.
DS: That scene, you know, was his heartbreaking scene. He had to go drop her off back home. He just didn’t want to say goodbye
yet to his daughter so he stayed out even latter and had a few more drinks. In his mind, he just wanted to spend more time with
her before having to drop her off.
Q: Have you ever felt that low?
DS: I’ve never been divorced but I’ve certainly been in love and I’ve certainly been in a relationship where it was over and I wasn’t
prepared for it to be over and couldn’t let go. He couldn’t let go – the divorce has gone through, she’s with another man and he’s
still on the porch leaning in to kiss her. It’s so painful, that’s how I felt when I read it.
Q: Any thoughts of directing another Looking Glass production or acting?
DS: Yes, I’m proposing a play this weekend to the company. We have an annual retreat every year where for five days the entire
company meets. We vote on the upcoming season. It’s a new play by a young guy, that's all I can say. Chicago should be proud
of how much theatre there is to see here in the city – how many new plays, new groups, new world class productions are done here. I
don’t know of any real ensemble theatre companies like the ones here in any other city. You can pick up the Chicago Reader and
pick out 400 plays on a given night and in L.A., forget about it.
rkj: Is there a chance you’ll do a play here? Certainly, you had a good experience earlier this year in London with “Some Girls.”
DS: Yeah, it was good. Well, I’m talking to the company about several different things. This play that I’m proposing I would
probably just direct although there’s a part that I could play so we’ll have to see.
Q: What about your next film project?
DS: Yeah, Run, Fat Boy, Run is a movie that I’m attached to direct. It’s a romantic comedy – we’re still waiting to find the right guy.
It has to take place around a marathon. It was written to take place during the New York marathon but I’ve been talking about
doing it here in Chicago around the marathon here.
rkj: Did I read that you were going to do the lead?
DS: No, I’m not going to act in it.
Q: Looking back now on your Northwestern University theatre days, where did you see yourself then?
DS: I was always very ambitious. I really believed I was going to make a difference in some way as an actor or director and
probably by my third year of University we had sort of formed a company. We were directing each other in plays on and off campus,
took a play we directed to the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland and after graduation we were like, “Well, let’s keep doing this. This is
Q: What year was graduation?
DS: ’88. Quite awhile ago.
And then -- without thinking about it -- Schwimmer let's out a great big ironic laugh followed by a sheepish smile. "Friends" fanatics
would surely recognize these as "Ross" trademarks but having never seen a single episode of the show I'm happily free from those
associations. And apparently, Schwimmer is too. Good news.