“Friends and some other shows were water cooler shows,” says David Schwimmer, who is best known for playing Ross Geller on that staple of 1990s “Must See TV,” as we sit down at The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of the Awards Chatter podcast. “But to do that today [with FX’s limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson, in which Schwimmer plays Simpson’s late friend and attorney Robert Kardashian], when there are so many different kinds of ways to watch and to consume television? I thought it was a remarkable achievement.” For his portrayal of Kardashian, the 49-year-old has received his second Emmy nomination, in the category of outstanding supporting actor in a limited series or TV movie, 21 years after receiving his first, for Friends.
(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Brie Larson, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson, Jane Fonda and Michael Moore.)
Schwimmer was born in New York and raised in Los Angeles, but his heart has long belonged to Chicago, where he attended Northwestern University and first fell in love with acting. The Lookingglass Theatre Company, which he helped to found, became a huge focus of his life during his undergraduate years. “When we were graduating we were kind of the shit,” he recalls with a laugh. Over the ensuing three decades, he has continued to act, write, direct and produce works for Lookingglass, which he describes as “the most stable artistic home” he’s ever had.
He headed West again only after a manager suggested he would be able to earn a lot of money very quickly — money that he intended to put right back into the theater company. Instead, he spent seven years struggling to make ends meet, working as a waiter at restaurants and occasionally landing small parts on TV. “I was so frustrated and discouraged,” he recalls. Things changed, however, when David Crane and Marta Kauffman, who had auditioned him for a pilot that never made it to air, wrote for him the role of Ross Geller in their next show, Insomnia Cafe — which later became Friends.
The NBC comedy series hit the air in 1994 and was an instant smash — at its height, it attracted 52 million viewers. It also turned its six principal castmembers into overnight celebrities — which wasn’t an easy transition for Schwimmer, who was 27. “It was pretty jarring and it messed with my relationship to other people in a way that took years, I think, for me to adjust to and become comfortable with,” he says. “As an actor, the way I was trained, my job was to observe life and to observe other people, so I used to walk around with my head up, really engaged and watching people. The effect of celebrity was the absolute opposite: It made me want to hide under a baseball cap and not be seen. And I realized after a while that I was no longer watching people; I was trying to hide. So I was trying to figure out: How do I be an actor in this new world, in this new situation? How do I do my job? That was tricky.”
TV stardom is different from any other kind, Schwimmer later realized. Actors are piped into a viewer’s living room as the same character for a long stretch of time, so “you lived with us for 10 years, we are part of the family, in a way,” he says. “There’s less of a barrier than there is with, say, a big movie star — you see them in this other kind of a space with a lot of other people on a big screen and you see that their role changes in every movie, for the most part. They’re very different people in very different situations, whereas in our show I’m the same guy for 10 years, you can rely on me to be a certain way and you know me — or you think you know me.”
Another byproduct of this kind of success is that many people — outside and inside of the business — have a hard time seeing the actor as anyone other than the character he or she became famous playing. “I was very aware of the power of the success of the show,” Schwimmer acknowledges, which is why he began planning for life after Friends even while it was still on the air. After shadowing the celebrated directors James Burrows and Kevin Bright and receiving the blessing of his castmates, he directed 10 episodes of the show. And during its hiatuses, he took on other roles, in films like The Pallbearer and TV movies like Band of Brothers, aiming “to play the long game and hopefully change some people’s minds,” while acknowledging that “others will just see Ross in World War II.”
During Friends‘ run, Schwimmer also directed a film starring the Lookingglass company, Since You’ve Been Gone — turning down an offer to play the role that Will Smith wound up playing in Men in Black in order to do so. “It wasn’t even like a choice,” he says. And after Friends ended in 2004, he directed a couple of other indies — 2007’s Run, Fatboy, Run and 2010’s Trust — and made occasional cameos on TV shows, such as one in Curb Your Enthusiasm. But Schwimmer “was very resistant” to doing another series, preferring instead to focus on other artistic pursuits and his new family — he married the British artist Zoe Buckman in 2010 and she gave birth to their daughter, Chloe, in 2011.
What brought Schwimmer back to TV was the other talent associated with The People v. O.J. Simpson and an assurance that it would deal with its subject matter respectfully. Creator Ryan Murphy, whom Schwimmer has long admired, told him he was aiming for something like the 1976 film Network. “That, more than anything, really landed with me,” he says. When he signed on to the project, he “had no idea” who Kardashian was, but he read books, watched videos and did research online. “The single most helpful thing,” he says, was speaking “for hours” with Kardashian’s widow, Kris Jenner. “There were a couple of clues that she gave me,” he says. “[Kardashian] had a crisis of faith.”
In the end, Schwimmer’s Kardashian serves as the conscience of the series — which received 22 Emmy nominations, just one shy of leader Game of Thrones. Kardashian was the one guy who had nothing to gain from the outcome of the case. He was simply one of Simpson’s — you’ll pardon the phrasing — friends.