It took 16 years for TV comedy to lure back David Schwimmer, who as Ross Geller was part of the unforgettable cast of the NBC juggernaut Friends. Now starring in Intelligence, a new original series streaming on NBC's Peacock platform, Schwimmer plays a brash American National Security Agency veteran joining a nutty British cybercrimes investigation unit. Schwimmer tells AARP about his new series, the long-awaited Friends reunion and why he really needs to do more stretching.
The road back to TV
Right after Friends (1994-2004) I was more interested in focusing on directing and theater. But in the last couple of years I was thinking it would be really fun to dive into acting again if the right idea came along and the right character. Then out of nowhere Nick [British comic Nick Mohammed] sent me this idea that he's had — just a couple-paragraph outline of what the idea was — and the characters that he and I would be playing and I just immediately liked it. I also thought the workplace setting was a really interesting area to mine for stories.
From Ross to ...
My character, Jerry Bernstein, feels very much of the moment we're in right now — he's this narcissistic, pompous alpha male, very patriotic and all of that, combined with incredible ignorance. It's a really fun opportunity, and the challenge for Nick and I is how do we make this character, who on paper is pretty unlikable, how to make him likable and even sympathetic? The combination of those things and the opportunity to act with Nick, who I think is just a genius, I said, “Yes, this is really worth the risk of total failure.”
His true Friends takeaway
The biggest gift it gave me is what I think any actor hopes to achieve: financial stability and being able to, because of that, not have to take a job just to pay the bills. So anything beyond that show, honestly, has been a choice of passion, and many things I've chosen since have not been successful at all.
RELATED: How well do you think you know the cast of Friends? Take our brand-new AARP TV for Grownups Quiz to test your Central Perk IQ, here: How Well Do You Really Know These 'Friends'?
How he measures success in a post-Friends world
In a way a project's success doesn't really matter to me. Sure, I'd love everything I do to be successful, knowing none of it will be as successful as Friends, but to me it's really about the journey. I know that sounds cheesy, and a lot of people say that, but it's really about the experience itself. Am I going to grow from it? Am I going to learn from it? Am I going to challenge myself? I feel very lucky that I've been able to make decisions following that rather than be in the next big thing.
Currently binge watching
I'm an avid consumer of television and film. I love watching all kinds of shows — even reality shows like Top Chef or The Great British Bake Off, where you're watching someone with real skill, especially a skill that I don't possess. I'm really in awe when I watch shows like that. I just like watching the creativity and the challenge that those shows present. Right now, I'm watching Perry Mason and I May Destroy You.
Quarantine parenting moment (so far)
Cleo [age 9] had been begging us for months and months to let her shave her head or for us to shave it for her. We'd been saying no for so long. For her it's just practical; my daughter's a very, very active girl — she rock climbs. Her long hair was just a pain in the butt to her, so she just wanted to get rid of it. Every bath or every shower, it took forever to wash and condition. And then during the quarantine, I started shaving my own head. She said, “I don't understand. You get to do it, why can't I?” I really couldn't argue with her anymore. I was like, “Yeah, we don't have a good comeback for that, so let's do it.” She loves it. I love that she loves it. l love how it makes her feel.
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The global reach of Friends
It's amazing to me, to be honest with you, and to all of us in the cast that it's got legs like this, and internationally as well. The thing that's most meaningful to me is when someone comes up to me from India or from Korea and tells me, “I just want to say I learned English watching your show.” Now they are here in New York and making their mark, just pursuing their dream. The fact they learned English watching Friends is really satisfying,
Ross Geller in 2020 is doing what
I honestly don't think about it.
That reunion [pre-pandemic it was scheduled for mid-August as part of the launch of HBOMax, which now streams all 10 seasons of the show] will be totally unscripted, it's really just a long-format interview with a couple of surprise bits that I don't want to spoil. You'll see how we've aged, obviously, there's not going to be any special effects or anything. We are who we are today, many years later. We'll only do it if it is safe to do so, and that's really being determined as we speak.
COVID-19's impact on the arts
The hardest-hit art form is live performance. My theater company, Lookingglass, is really struggling, along with all other not-for-profit theater companies in the country. It's not so much figuring out with Actors Equity or SAG how to rehearse together or to be on stage or on camera together; that can be worked out in a safe way, that's being worked out right now — everyone is tested, certain protocols and rules. The challenge for live theater is the audience. I just don't see people sitting shoulder to shoulder in a space like that for quite a while, which is really crushing, especially for small not-for-profits like ours.
His personal middle act
My first goal, honestly, at this stage of life is just being the best and most present dad I can be. I get so much joy and so much fulfillment from that, whether it's helping my daughter with her schoolwork or taking her to Yosemite for the first time. Just being with her, watching her grow, brings me so much pleasure and fulfillment. That's really my priority these days.
Hometown: Flushing, N.Y.
Famous Zip Code: Graduated from Beverly Hills High School, 90210
Now starring: Intelligence (Peacock, streaming)
Notable credits: Friends, The Pallbearer, Madagascar film series, HBO’s Band of Brothers, FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson
Theater nerd: Co-founder, actor, director of Tony Award-winning Lookingglass Theatre Company, star of Broadway’s The Caine Mutiny Court Martial and shows at Playwrights Horizons, Century City Playhouse, Williamstown Theatre Festival, London’s Gielgud Theatre
Family life: Divorced; one daughter, Cleo, 9
His professional middle act
Professionally, there are a couple things I'm developing as a director and also as producer, a couple of movies, and we're about to shoot Season 2 of Intelligence. We were supposed to shoot in May, but of course that got pushed. I'm also tinkering with some writing as well.
Don't hate me
I've been blessed with a good metabolism. In terms of diet, I can pretty much eat anything. I've been the same weight for the last 20 years. Even my peers in the cast can't believe I don't dye my hair or anything. I'm just pretty lucky in terms of genetics, and I take pretty good care of myself.
Advice to my 20-something self
Physically, be a stronger, better runner. Also, I never really learned how to do a lot of winter sports, like snowboarding. Take a little more time — not be so focused on work and achievement — to enjoy sports and adventures and travel.
Now? Stretch more
Doing physical comedy, it's actually really easy to hurt yourself if you're not taking good care of yourself. The same with staging a combat or a fight scene. You have to be in good shape to be the kind of physical actor that I consider myself. So I do more stretching now, more than I needed to years ago.
Promoting Intelligence during a pandemic
It's been interesting. I just did [The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon], and that was my first late-night talk show Zoom. It was fun. I have no problem doing what little makeup I wear and doing my lighting myself. I have a light kit here and am setting up. Maybe that's the way forward? Why go all the way to someone's studio?
There's not been some huge realization about changing the way I live, but the thing I took for granted was being able to fly and see my parents and my sister, who live in L.A. I'm really missing my family. I haven't been able to see them and I really even shouldn't see them, especially my parents, unless we do something outside, socially distanced. I haven't been on a plane since all this went down, and I guess if anything it's a reminder of how far away they are, and they haven't been able to see my daughter in person in quite a while. That's painful. She's their only grandchild.
I'm really hoping — and this is really the biggest issue for the entire country — I just want my daughter to have a normal social life and school life. It's such an agonizing situation. Of course I want everyone to be safe, but my daughter is an only child and homeschooling was really tough. My daughter is such a social child. All kids are so social. It felt like they were just doing homework all day, and no one likes that.
Having said all that, I feel grateful that we have our health and that we have the resources to help other people in need right now.