David Schwimmer: Out of Character, in the Director’s Chair


THE sun was hanging low over the Brentwood neighborhood when the roar began. At first the sound was barely distinguishable from the traffic noise rising from the 405 freeway, a quarter-mile away. But it soon grew in intensity, a gravelly drone. Was it some out-of-control bulldozer? A military gunship on a low run? No, it was David Schwimmer, rounding the corner in a gleaming, oil-black 1969 Chevelle.
“I don’t get to drive this thing enough,” Mr. Schwimmer said lovingly, once he’d killed the muscle car’s engine and stepped out into the mild chill of a late-February afternoon. “It’s one of the things I love most about coming back to Los Angeles.”
Mr. Schwimmer had offered to show me the single-story, cream-colored house he’d lived in for much of his childhood. He regarded the street with a sweet, aw-shucks smile, recalling the time he tore apart his left thumb in a bicycle accident, and how a neighbor’s dogs used to “absolutely terrorize” him and his sister.
These days Mr. Schwimmer, 44, spends most of his time in New York, where he shares an apartment with his photographer wife, Zoe Buckman, and, come May, their first child. When Mr. Schwimmer played the endearingly geeky Ross Geller on “Friends,” he bought a house in the Hancock Park neighborhood, “eight minutes from the set in Burbank.” Now, seven years after the “Friends” finale, he announced, he was finally putting it up for sale.
If Mr. Schwimmer could also put Ross Geller up for sale, unburdening himself of the character that easily, he would. He was careful not to utter any unkind words about the role that had made him rich and famous. “It was a dream job,” he stressed. But he added that he’d always fancied himself mercurial, and mercuriality is hard to come by when you’re playing the same character for 10 years straight.
“When I started acting, the challenge and the thrill was: Who’s the next guy I can inhabit? What’s the next thing I can learn about?” he said. “Coming out of college I felt like I had a tool belt to draw from. I was excited to use all those tools. Not just one” — he mimed swinging a hammer laboriously — “over and over.”
On Friday Mr. Schwimmer will get a chance to show off his dexterity with something decidedly different, when the drama “Trust” arrives in theaters. The film concerns a sexual predator who seduces a 14-year-old girl online, rapes her on a hotel bedspread, and leaves a storm of rage, confusion and guilt in his wake. What’s more, Mr. Schwimmer does not act in the film, which stars Clive Owen, Catherine Keener and a young actress named Liana Liberato; he directed it.
“I needed some distance from ‘Friends,’ and I intentionally shifted gears to directing,” Mr. Schwimmer said a couple of hours before our visit to his childhood street. We were eating a late lunch at the Daily Grill, a Brentwood restaurant where he’d waited on tables as a fledgling actor. (“I remember watching myself on ‘L.A. Law’ on that television over the bar, then turning back around and saying, ‘Would you like some more blue cheese, sir?’ ” he recalled wryly.)
“I love the collaborative nature of directing,” he continued. “The vision is coming from you, but you’re incorporating talents and ideas from all these people. As an actor there’s a great freedom, but the experience is much more isolated.”
He’d long liked the idea of telling stories from behind a camera. He directed several “Friends” episodes before making his feature directorial debut with the 2007 comedy “Run, Fatboy, Run,” and he has directed some theater, through Lookingglass Theater Company in Chicago, a playhouse he helped found in 1988. But Mr. Schwimmer also allowed that there was pragmatism in removing himself from the screen. Though he’s taken on some patently un-Ross roles over the years — the maniacal, wicked Herbert Sobel in “Band of Brothers”; the alcoholic protagonist in “Duane Hopwood” — Mr. Schwimmer wasn’t sure that audiences had given those performances a fair shake.
“I decided that it would take 10 years before Ross wasn’t superimposed over my face anymore,” he said. While making “Trust,” he added, he fantasized about removing his name from the film, releasing it under a pseudonym in the hopes that people would take it more seriously. He has made no hard-and-fast oaths, but for the time being acting (unless you count voice acting in the coming “Madagascar 3”) is on the back burner.
“Trust” has its roots in Mr. Schwimmer’s involvement with the Rape Treatment Center, an organization in Santa Monica, Calif., that approached him during “Friends” about shooting public-service announcements about date rape. “If you meet any of these young victims, your heart goes out to them,” Mr. Schwimmer said. “But also several of my friends have been victims of date rape and child sexual abuse, and a girlfriend of mine was a victim of both. When I was with her, all this stuff was resurfacing, and her issues became our issues.” In 2001 he joined the Rape Treatment Center’s board of directors.
When it came time to make “Trust,” Mr. Schwimmer hired two screenwriters, first Robert Festinger and then Andy Bellin, to develop a script. Mr. Schwimmer and Mr. Bellin pored over interview transcripts and video recordings of victims and predators. They sat in as an F.B.I. agent posed as an under-age target in online chat rooms. “Every single line in the script” was run past counselors, Mr. Schwimmer said.
The result is a film pitched between art and advocacy. “The first job is to entertain and move people, so every cut I had to strip away more and more advocacy,” he said. “Little pieces of dialogue where it was an important fact but it was slowing down the scene or taking you out of it to the point where you suddenly think, ‘What am I watching? “60 Minutes”?’ ”
Nonetheless it was Mr. Schwimmer’s gut devotion to the subject that drew Mr. Owen to the project. “When I met him, I realized it was a passion project for him,” Mr. Owen recalled in a telephone interview. “It wasn’t just a ‘great idea for a movie.’ ”
Thanks to Mr. Owen’s involvement Millennium, a small independent house where, as its co-chairman Avi Lerner put it, “drama is a dirty word,” agreed to finance the film. (Millennium’s recent releases have tended toward shoot-’em-ups like “The Expendables.”)
Mr. Lerner, who offered Mr. Schwimmer a $4 million budget and a tight 29-day shooting schedule, said he was less than sanguine at first about Mr. Schwimmer’s résumé. “I was never impressed with ‘Friends.’ It wasn’t smart enough, not sophisticated enough for my taste. But you meet David on a personal level, he’s a serious, sensitive, smart man.”
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Charles S. Hodes/Millennium Entertainment
Clive Owen and Catherine Keener portray the parents of a 14-year-old rape victim in “Trust,” which arrives in theaters on Friday.
Still, Mr. Lerner and members of his team checked in frequently on the Michigan set where “Trust” was shot. (The state was chosen in part for its generous filmmaking rebates.) Mr. Lerner said: “When I’m deciding to make a movie, I sit with the director and say: ‘I’m giving you so many days, but you can not go out of this. You cannot shoot more than 12 hours a day. For one thing, you make everyone very tired, and secondly you pay double time.’ After 12 hours I pull the plug. I call the generator guy. He’s the most important person to keep the budget right.”
Those are trying circumstances for any moviemaker, especially a relatively unproven one navigating material that requires tonal precision, but both Mr. Owen and Ms. Keener, who play the victim’s parents, said their director remained coolheaded. Ms. Keener described one moment when he helped her between takes of a grueling scene.
“I would go sit on this stairwell, waiting for my cue, but at one point I just couldn’t come back in,” she said. “It was too much. David came and sat with me, and he didn’t say anything. It was so sophisticated, his actor’s sensibility of what you need right now is not somebody saying: ‘Are you all right? Ready to go?’ It was just, sit next to me.”
Simon Pegg, who starred in “Run, Fatboy, Run,” said of Mr. Schwimmer: “There’s something very studious about him. For such a goofy character that he’s known for playing on TV, he’s a very realistic, pragmatic guy.”
Some of Mr. Schwimmer’s realism was in evidence at the Daily Grill. “When I was cast in ‘Band of Brothers’, I thought, ‘Aha! This will dispel Ross,’ ” he said. “But I’m sure half the people who saw it thought I was Ross in the Army. With ‘Trust’ my thinking isn’t that calculated. If I suddenly surprise people, great, and if not, I’m not counting on it. I hope to do this another 40 years. Maybe I’ll be 80, and they’ll finally say, ‘Oh, he’s not Ross.’ ”

J.Weiner
He paused, chuckling. “Or they’ll say, ‘Hey, it’s Ross in Depends.’

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