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David Schwimmer: Don't use the F-word

...or the R word for that matter. Tim Cooper meets David Schwimmer, the serious West End Actor (you know Ross from Friends)

Saturday 14 May 2005 00:00 BST

However hard you try, it's impossible not to think of Ross. For the past 10 years of our lives, David Schwimmer has been inseparable from his role of Ross Geller, the nerdy, needy palaeontologist with the hangdog expression, whose on-off-on-off-on relationship with Jennifer Aniston's Rachel drove the most popular sitcom in history.

However hard you try, it's impossible not to think of Ross. For the past 10 years of our lives, David Schwimmer has been inseparable from his role of Ross Geller, the nerdy, needy palaeontologist with the hangdog expression, whose on-off-on-off-on relationship with Jennifer Aniston's Rachel drove the most popular sitcom in history.

The impression lingers as Schwimmer orders coffee to combat his severe jet lag. Just like he does in Central Perk. "A double espresso? With a little skimmed milk on the side?" His tentative request almost sounds like an apology. But there's none of neurotic Ross about his body language. With his tall, athletic frame, he's firm of handshake and even firmer of eye contact. Sharp, intelligent and passionately driven, he seems more comfortable talking about issues than himself, which is almost unheard of in ego-driven Hollywood. On the other hand it's hard to imagine that he tolerates fools gladly and he occasionally exhibits a wariness - understandable after dealing with fame for so long - that can make him seem edgy and intense. But it's an impression that can be instantly demolished by a dry wit, the punchlines invariably followed by a burst of that whiny high-pitched laughter we know so well.

Four days since flying in from LA he's still getting no more than three or four hours of sleep a night, which must make it tough to learn his lines. He's got plenty to learn, too. He's in London to tread the boards of the Gielgud Theatre in the world premiere of Some Girl(s), a scabrous new comedy by Neil LaBute, the controversial screenwriter and playwright whose searing and gleefully un-PC dissections of the late-20th- (and early-21st-) century male psyche have won him many admirers and not a few feminist detractors.

Schwimmer is on stage for all of it, playing a guy who's about to settle down and get married. But before he does, he decides to look up four old girlfriends in order to achieve closure and reassure himself he's doing the right thing. The drama, which anatomises the male fear of commitment with surgical precision, is split into four scenes in four different hotel rooms in four different cities with four different women, played by Saffron Burrows, Catherine Tate, Lesley Manville and Sarah Powell. It's a demanding role and one f which, like the handful of others he has taken outside of Friends - mainly on stage - is calculated to erase the memory of Ross. But he doubts he'll succeed. "I'm sure there will be people, including some critics, saying it's just Ross up there. And I'll take that ... really hard actually." He delivers the punchline with impeccable comic timing and allows himself a Ross-like chortle. "But what am I gonna do? I can't control it. Someone has said it about every single thing I've done outside of Friends. Every time someone says: 'It's just Ross'. Whether I'm playing a cokehead screenwriter or a psychopath or whatever - it's just Ross as a cokehead, Ross as a psychopath."

It's also more than likely the theatre will be full of Friends fans paying to catch a glimpse of their idol in the flesh, just as they did when Matthew Perry appeared in a West End production of David Mamet's Sexual Perversity In Chicago two years ago. Not that Schwimmer minds if they do. "That would be cool," he says. Particularly if they were new to theatre. "It would be great if someone came to the play having never set foot in the theatre before, just because they liked my character in Friends. But they might be sorely disappointed. Ha ha!" He pauses to consider the drawbacks. "Some people are gonna come in expecting and even wanting to see that character, and unable to distinguish me from that character. In this role I'm going to look fairly the same: I'm not dying my hair, not growing a big beard, not wearing a big cape." No? That'll be Val Kilmer then, who'll be pulling in Batman fans down the road in The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Like every other Hollywood star who has come to London for the smell of West End greasepaint and enhanced credibility as a Serious Stage Actor, Schwimmer says it's a dream come true. In his case it really is. When he was an insecure schoolboy who felt he didn't fit in at the fame factory that was Beverly Hills High School, he attended a Shakespeare workshop by Ian McKellen in LA, then entered the Southern California Shakespeare Festival three years in a row, winning two first prizes. "This is something I've wanted to do since I was 12 - the whole idea of coming to do theatre in London is just a dream," he says. "Earlier today I walked on to the stage at the Gielgud for the first time. And just setting foot there and being alone on that stage, knowing the history of that theatre and taking in the space, was so exhilarating and really humbling."

Theatre is, in fact, Schwimmer's first love. After school he studied it at Northwestern University in Chicago and upon graduation founded the Looking Glass Theatre in the city, where he has a loft apartment, in addition to his home in LA. He still performs with them, and also writes and directs plays, usually ones that tackle serious social topics. In fact, behind the sharp wit, he's a pretty serious guy with a keen interest in issues such as race, child abuse and women's rights - the latter a legacy of his mother, a lawyer and feminist. He's also an active director of The Rape Treatment Centre in Santa Monica that specialises in helping victims of date rape, and child rape victims, and he has been at the forefront of campaigning for legislation to ban drugs like Rohypnol and GHB.

Still, to many people he'll always be Ross. But at least he was well rewarded for his tenure. By the final series the six principals were each being paid $1m an episode. When Ross and Rachel were finally reconciled in the very last show a year ago, the cast and crew threw a "big-ass party" and went home laden with souvenirs. Schwimmer took a chunk of the pavement outside Central Perk and some of Ross's diplomas. When the show was aired some weeks later, the six actors got together to watch it - the last time they were all in the same room. "It was really emotional," he admits. "There were moments for all of us when tears would well up. It's 10 years of your life: it was really nice that we got to share it together and close that chapter together."

He seems completely unaware of widespread reports that the six of them will be reunited in a 90-minute special, and is adamant it won't happen. "That's the first I've heard of it," he says, looking surprised. "I don't think there will ever be a Friends reunion. Honestly, we've never even talked about it - not once. And I can't imagine why we'd do it." As he is quick to acknowledge, no one needs the money. "I can't speak for the whole cast," he adds, "but for me it was what it was and it's like, I don't wanna mess with it, I don't wanna taint the memory of it. It was such a great memory of how we went out, how it ended, such a good feeling. I'd rather not mess with it, just let it be."

He's amused, too, to hear there have also been reports that the Friends cast will be reunited as gay holidaymakers in an episode of The Simpsons. "Is that right? It's the first I'm hearing of it but I love The Simpsons - though I love South Park more. It's great satire." He loves the episode where Paris Hilton comes to town to open a shop called Stupid Spoiled Whore - "a store where girls can buy everything they need to be just like me". Soon all the little girls of South Park become thong-wearing sluts, lining up to buy Paris Hilton's perfume ("Skanque") and her video playset ("Show the world what a slut you are!"). "It's ber-RILL-iant!" enthuses Schwimmer. "You've gotta see this. It's more about the culture and how our culture has allowed her to become a role model. I would be so aghast and horrified as a father if I had a daughter right now that this person is allowed to become a celebrity and a role model. She even has her own perfume" - we're back to real life now - "and I found myself clipping this article, this newspaper ad from the New York Times or something for Paris Hilton launching her new fragrance, and the slogan was something like 'Sultry. Sophisticated. Class.' I'm like: are you fucking kidding me? It should be called 'Spray-On Whore'."

That, says Schwimmer, who presumably won't be staying in a Hilton hotel during his stay in London, is why South Park is brilliant. "Because they are completely unafraid to go for the jugular, and do it in a way that's biting satire. They're not just taking the piss; they are doing that but they are also commenting on our culture and our society. At the end, when Paris Hilton challenges the town to a 'whore-off', to see who's the biggest whore, I couldn't believe I was watching television."

When Friends ended, Schwimmer plunged himself into more work. First he appeared in a play, Turnaround, that savagely satirises Hollywood, and then he took the lead role, the kind of serious, edgy part he enjoys most, in a small independent film called Duane Hopwood which made its debut at Sundance last January. "It's not a comedy. I play a father struggling with alcohol, divorce and the custody of his two daughters. I'm really proud of that film, it was like a real role in a real story." The only other film role he has taken is the voice of a giraffe in the new DreamWorks animation Madagascar. After that, he took some time off to travel around Europe with friends. "I'd never been to Spain before, so I went to Barcelona and Mallorca." Then it was back to work, directing two TV pilots under his development deal with NBC, and another for Fox, starring Brooke Shields - currently making her own West End debut as Roxie Hart in Chicago. Schwimmer says he has not had the chance to seek advice on living in London from Matthew Perry. "I haven't seen him in a while but when he came back to LA after doing it we spoke a lot about it. He had a blast, said people were just great and he had a great, great time." I'll bet he also advised the others to keep away from those pesky paparazzi photographers. "No, no," says Schwimmer, "... well, yes."

As one of the most recognisable people in the world, he must be used to it by now, though Schwimmer is by no means a tabloid staple. "I'm a pretty easy-going guy but it depends on my mood. Sometimes I'm in a good mood and I couldn't give a shit - whatever, take your picture, do your thing. But truthfully ..." he pauses as if unsure of the wisdom of continuing, "I do have a contempt for the profession of paparazzi. If I'm just walking by myself and want a day in the sun, to go to a bookstore or a music store or whatever, to suddenly come outside and find this guy following me down the sidewalk, I invariably find myself saying: 'Get a life.' It's not a real life, it's a waste of life. I keep thinking: that's what you do with your LIFE? I mean REALLY? What a waste of your existence on this planet." He shakes his head in disbelief.

So why then, when he has no need to work ever again, is he putting his privacy at risk to do eight shows a week in a West End theatre, 5,000 miles from home, for a fraction of the salary he's accustomed to? "Because it's scary," he says with relish. "And I like things that terrify me. I like growing as an actor and I like the challenge of working with actors and a director I've never even met before. I like working on new work with the writer; I love collaborations so much. And doing it in London where theatre is at the top of its game and there's so much history - the whole thing is scary and challenging and exciting."

And what comes next? "I don't really have a game plan," he confesses. He wants to direct some more TV "because it's really fun" and he's slated to direct himself in another independent feature called Run, Fat Boy, Run. He wants to direct more theatre and return to the stage with his theatre group in Chicago, but says his next ambition is to do a play on Broadway. Which is a lot of potential activity for someone with no plans. As for right now, he has a more pressing concern. "Right now," he sighs, staring into his empty coffee cup, "I've gotta memorise a bunch of lines."

'Some Girl(s)' is previewing at the Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1, 0870 8901105, and opens on 24 May

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