ABOVE: DAVID SCHWIMMER. PHOTO COURTESY OF ZOE BUCKMAN.
David Schwimmer is a theater geek. Before the world came to know him as Ross Geller on the sitcom Friends, Schwimmer was just another Northwestern graduate trying to make it in Chicago with his fledgling theater company, Lookingglass.
Even when Schwimmer was living in LA, shooting arguably the most popular show on television (… ever), he could not leave the theater behind, constantly returning to Chicago to direct and act in Lookingglass productions. He is, without a doubt, most famous for his television guest appearances, films, and cinematic directorial projects (in 2010 Schwimmer won critical praise for his second feature film as a director, Trust)—but his time in between these projects has been peppered with performances from Chicago, to Broadway, to London’s West End.
Next year, Lookingglass will celebrate its 25th anniversary, and Schwimmer will return to direct a new play by Keith Huff (A Steady Rain). Currently, he is rehearsing off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, for Lisa D’Amour Detroit, with, among others, Oscar nominee Amy Ryan.
Interview recently spoke with Schwimmer about the pressure for pecuniary success, what he values as a director, and the last time he forgot his lines on stage.
EMMA BROWN: Did you see Detroit when it premiered in Chicago in 2010?
DAVID SCHWIMMER: No, I wish I had. Actually, now I’m kind of glad I didn’t, because I think I would have had that production in my head too much—or at least it’s possible. But I’m good friends with the actor who played my role in Chicago at Steppenwolf, this actor Ian Barford, so I picked his brain a little about the production when I was first considering doing the play.
BROWN: Your production at Playwrights Horizons is a complete “re-staging;” what does that mean exactly?
SCHWIMMER: This director [Anne Kaufman], working really closely with the playwright [Lisa D’Amour]—they’ve known each other for 10 or 15 years—they’ve decided to have the action of the play take place in the backyards, as well as the front yards, of these two neighboring houses. I believe in the Steppenwolf production, the set did not move, it was rooted in just the backyards of both the houses. I’m excited that this director was inspired to take advantage of different environments—there’s a big difference when you have some of these scenes take place kind of publicly in the front lawn, rather than in the privacy of your back yard. It affects the dynamic of the scene a lot.
BROWN: I’ve heard that the play is not actually set in Detroit.
SCHWIMMER: I think that the idea is that it could be any major urban American city that is going through a process of decline and looking for ways to reinvigorate and reinvent itself. I think the title of Detroit is more metaphorical in that way, but we’re pretty much playing it as though it is a city like Detroit, or rather a suburb just outside of Detroit.
BROWN: Having directed many things yourself, what do you value most in a director?
SCHWIMMER: In short, it would be strong vision married with open-mindedness and a spirit of collaboration.
BROWN: When you direct something what do you do on the first day of rehearsal to make your actors feel comfortable?
SCHWIMMER: [laughs] Um…
BROWN: Or do you try and scare them into submission…
SCHWIMMER: No, no. I’m not that school. I try to create a relaxed, fun environment, and I think it’s important that the actors try to get to know each other and myself and the designers as soon as possible. Obviously you want to feel like you’re working and you’re getting down to it and there’s a serious approach to the work, but I think most important is setting the tone for that first day: we’re going to work hard, we’re going to play hard, and we’re going to just have a great time doing it, no matter what.
BROWN: I always felt that one of the most enjoyable things about being in a play is that you are part of this ensemble, but as a director you’re in a tricky position because you still have to maintain some sort of authority. Do you feel that’s true?
SCHWIMMER: Yes, I would use objectivity instead of authority, [but] I think you’re right, you kind of have to rein things in and move things along and be the person who’s driving the car or steering the ship. It’s kind of bittersweet, you want to be a part of the ensemble and be a part of the team, but, at the same time, you want them to feel that they’re creating a really solid ensemble of their own—a real strong company that ultimately doesn’t need you or rely on you—and that they will eventually take the reins and you can walk away. So it is tricky, you want to be a part of this thing but, the truth is, at some point you have to step aside and let them just run with it and it’s no longer yours, it’s theirs.
BROWN: When’s the last time you forgot your lines on stage?
SCHWIMMER: I’m usually pretty good at it, I think the last time was at a production that my company in Chicago did of The Master and Margarita. It was a very serious part of the play and I was playing Pontius Pilate and I had a really bad slip. [laughs] I think it was in 1994, to be precise.
BROWN: What did you do to recover?
SCHWIMMER: Well, I just kind of powered through, even though a couple of my fellow actors in the company behind me were looking at me and laughing, [or] trying to hold their laughter [laughs]. Luckily, it was a student matinee—one of those performances that was mostly a lot of high school students—so I’m not sure if they even caught the mistake, but all my fellow actors on stage did, so when we got off stage, they gave me a good writhing.
BROWN: Do you mind if I ask you what the particular mistake was?
SCHWIMMER: Oh man, it’s such a long line. I basically substituted the word “rabble” with the word “rabbit.” A big mob of people was supposed to be attacking someone and instead of saying “a rabble” I said “a rabbit.” It was quite a funny image, like this giant rabbit attacking someone rather than a giant mob.
BROWN: I know that you cofounded Lookingglass; did you do that right after college?
SCHWIMMER: Yeah, we were directing each other in college, and right before we all graduated in ’88, we founded the company and decided, “Well, let’s just keep doing this professionally.”
BROWN: What would you say is the biggest difference between putting on a play in Chicago with your theater company and doing something in New York?
SCHWIMMER: Well, the biggest difference, I guess, is that I’ve known everyone in Chicago, in the company, for 25 years, or longer. It’s family, so there’s no kind of awkward stage of, “How does this person work?” or, “Can I try this? Do I feel safe enough and do I trust these people enough to really try something and go crazy?” That’s just never a question, so the biggest difference is that familiarity and just the thing of just knowing each other so well that you can cut through a lot of the crap and get right to it. It’s really a great feeling where you trust everyone in the room. [But], I have to say, this new group, the [Chicago] cast, there’s only five of us, but everyone is just so lovely and there’s no ego in the room, so I’m actually quite relieved and happy, and it does remind me of being with the company.
BROWN: Did you know any of the actors before you started rehearsing?
SCHWIMMER: No, I knew none of them personally. I was a big fan of their work, but I never met them.
BROWN: When you find out that you’re going to be working with an actor, do you make an effort to look at their work?
SCHWIMMER: Oh, for sure. I try to educate myself as much as possible, as I do with the director and the designers and everyone. It just helps, I think, with the frame of reference for who you’re working with.
BROWN: How involved were you able to be in the Lookingglass company when you were working in television in LA?
SCHWIMMER: I was hugely involved. I would constantly fly back to Chicago; when I was off from the show or from other TV or film work, I would be acting or directing plays with the company, constantly fundraising and, of course, using my own resources, both financially and otherwise, to raise money for the company and build our new home. It took a lot of work and a lot of dedication; because young companies in Chicago, they drop like flies, it’s a miracle if you get past the five-year mark—a bigger miracle if you get past the 10-year mark—and we’re approaching our 25th season now. It took a lot of effort from not only me, [but] the other 20 people.
BROWN: It seems that you’ve always loved theater. What made you decide to pursue television and film?
SCHWIMMER: I think a combination of things. I came from a family where I felt great pressure to be financially successful, and I felt that staying in Chicago and doing theater, I was, in all likelihood, not going to find financial success. Simply put, there’s better money in doing TV and film. I think the other honest attraction was that I just grew up loving watching TV and loving watching film, and there’s so many directors and actors that I dreamed of working with, I just really wanted to take a crack at it and see if I could ever work with some of those. Theater’s always been a huge love of mine and I never considered not doing theater again, that was never an option. I knew I was always going to do it; I just wanted to try to find a balance, and for the most part I’ve been able to do it.
BROWN: When you direct plays, how often do you watch the performance every time?
SCHWIMMER: Once the play is up, I would watch it for the first week or two to make sure there aren’t any wild changes happening, or wildly different choices that the actors are making. But then, you trust your actors to remember what you all agreed on, what you all talked about, and what you all discovered, and your stage manager to remind them of certain things. I would come back every couple of weeks and just check in on the show and just make sure that it’s feeling the same. I would always return for closing night just to see how the play changed, how it evolved as the actors got more and more confident.
BROWN: Do you think that a play is “better” by the end of the run?
SCHWIMMER: No, not always. In fact I’ve seen plays that aren’t nearly as good by the end of the run. Something has been forgotten or lost, or the first kind of excitement. With some actors or some productions I’ve watched them, either forget their initial choices or instincts, or not trust them, or get bored with their own performance so they start doing things just to keep themselves interested. I think that’s a huge danger, and I’ve seen some plays kind of fall apart or just not be as good because of that.
BROWN: When you auditioned for plays in college and you had to fill out the audition sheet and write down your special skills, what would you put down?
SCHWIMMER: Oh man, that’s going back quite a bit. You know I think at the time, standard stuff would be you know, sports and dialect. At one point I was a really good roller skater, some gymnastics—you want to puff yourself up and put anything out there. I wasn’t that good of a singer, so I didn’t really emphasize that, but I was a pretty good dancer.
BROWN: “Can do musicals if necessary”?
SCHWIMMER: [laughs] Yeah.
BROWN: Do you have a good-luck charm for the theater?
SCHWIMMER: My instinct was to say my wife, but no, I don’t have like a little stone or something. [laughs]
BROWN: What are you doing after Detroit?
SCHWIMMER: Well, there’s a comedy—a feature film—that I may direct that we’re in the process of kind of going out to cast for, so we shall see if it happens or not, but I really love the script, so that would be next up.
DETROIT OPENS FRIDAY, AUGUST 24TH, AT PLAYWRIGHTS HORIZONS IN NEW YORK CITY. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.