“I heard someone use the word ‘Schwimmersaince’ today,” David Schwimmer says, shaking his head in disbelief. “I was like, ‘OK…’”
The former Friends star is speaking to The Daily Beast amidst, well, actually yes: a renaissance of sorts in his career.
He is fresh off the zeitgeist-seizing success of American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, in which he played probably the most tabloid-tantalizing role: Robert Kardashian, ex-husband of Kris Jenner and father to the Kardashian sisters. A full hair and wardrobe transformation and stressed-out performance—his Robert Kardashian operated at a near-constant boiling point, a tearful man on the verge of a breakdown—marked a complete 180 from the frantically funny dinosaur enthusiast seared in our minds from Friends.
It was a shift toward the dramatic and, after a 12-year break from appearing on television in a regular role, a return to the spotlight that continues in Schwimmer’s next starring role, as a widowed father starting a restaurant in Feed the Beast, which premieres Sunday night on AMC.
“It wasn’t anything planned,” Schwimmer says about this new phase in his career. “It just happens to be happening at the same time with these two jobs, back to back.”
He tries not to take such pronouncements—all the coronet-heralded proclamations that Schwimmer’s back!—seriously, but he’s always been aware of such things.
“Even 20 years ago—oh gosh, even longer than that—when Friends really hit and reporters were asking similar questions, even then I said the same thing. That I’m in this for my life, till I’m too old to walk across the stage.
“I enjoy the momentary pops of, ‘Wow! The O.J. thing!’” he continues. “But any expectation that this show is going to have the same kind of ripple effect or crazy response that People vs. O.J. Simpson had, that would be insane to think. I’m really realistic about it all.”
The show he’s referring to is Feed the Beast, AMC’s latest Sunday-night attempt to make noise in the #PeakTV era of excessive amounts of prestige cable content (and upwards of 400 TV shows airing in a year)—not to mention cable network’s own, creatively struggling post-Mad Men and Breaking Bad era.
No one is more keen to this situation than Schwimmer, one of the last actors to benefit from any sort of pop-culture unity, the age when everyone would sit around the TV on the same night and watch the same TV show. Friends was regularly raking in 20 million viewers when it left the air. Now, most shows barely crack a quarter of that.
He was shocked that People vs. O.J. Simpson, at least in the conversations it started and obsession it caused, achieved a semblance of that Friends phenomenon. “There hasn’t been, or at least I haven’t been a part of a show that was a water cooler show like that since Friends,” he says. “That was cool, to be a part of it.”
But with Feed the Beast debuting Sunday night, “there is so much competition,” he says. “It’s not easy to get people to tune in and, on top of that, return to watch you when there’s so much choice now.”
That choice, however, applies to him as well. Robert Kardashian was a one-off part in a limited series. Tommy Moran, his character on Feed the Beast, is a regular role, with a multi-season contract. In the 12 years since Ross Gellar drank his last cup of Central Perk coffee, hundreds of scripts have come across Schwimmer’s desk, but this is the first he’s agreed to marry himself to.
“I’ve also been quite weary of the jump to TV,” Schwimmer’s co-star, Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) says about the idea of signing your life away. For the in-demand British actor, it was the modern realism of Feed the Beast that was a selling point; when he arrives at our interview, he looks as if he never changed out of his character’s wardrobe. “If I was in a period drama I think I’d go insane,” he says. “I couldn’t be in Downton Abbey for seven years.”
For Schwimmer, the appeal was slightly different.
Part of it was circumstantial. The show films in New York, where he lives with his wife and daughter. He was intrigued by the showrunner, Clyde Phillips, best known for Dexter and Nurse Jackie, and the unique mix of dark humor, gritty drama, and sensationalism he brings to a show’s tone.
Most of it, though, was the character.
When we meet Tommy, he’s an alcoholic grieving the death of his wife, who died in a hit-and-run crash, and trying to raise his adolescent son, who has been mute since witnessing the fatal accident. He’s a former sommelier now making ends meet—and barely keeping his job amidst his drinking—as a wine rep.
The father and son see their lives disrupted when Tommy’s childhood best friend Dion, played by Sturgess, returns from a stint in jail, where he served time on drug charges. The two at one point had a dream—with Tommy’s late wife—to open up their own high-end restaurant in their neighborhood in the Bronx, and bring fine-dining to the quickly gentrifying area.
Dion convinces Tommy to revisit the idea, slightly out of good intentions but—and unbeknownst to Tommy—mostly because the mob is breathing down his neck and he needs to launch the restaurant to give them something to control. It’s Michelin meets mob. Meets character drama.
For all the food porn and gangster camp, the root of the show is the relationship between Tommy and Dion and a universally relatable emotional through line: the lifelong friend who, in other people’s minds, no longer makes sense to continue to a relationship with—but with whom cutting ties is not an option.
“You become very different people as you get older, as life takes you on different paths,” Sturgess says. “I have friends who, if I met them now, we would not be friends. But you’re bound. You’re bound by history and experience.”
When we meet Tommy in Sunday’s premiere, he’s a broken man. A man who is clearly in pain. That’s one thing the character has in common with Schwimmer’s role on The People vs. O.J. Simpson. Both Tommy and Robert Kardashian are men in pain who are grieving, who are trying to get through.
“I think I’ve always been drawn to characters who are in pain,” Schwimmer says. “In the pilot for Friends, Ross was divorced. His wife chose a woman over him and is leaving him. It doesn’t get bigger than that, except for losing a wife, which Tommy just did.”
He brings up his supporting role in the 2001 miniseries Band of Brothers. “My character is the only Jew in this company of men that he had to train, and there was a huge amount of racism at the time,” he says. “I think I’m drawn to these characters. Broken, flawed guys. Guys who are trying to pick themselves up, dig deep, and get their shit back together, which is what Tommy does.”
He’s not explicit about any sort of goals to shed memories of a certain iconic paleontologist whose greatest missteps come while on a break. But according to Sturgess, who shares many of his scenes with Schwimmer in Feed the Beast, he shouldn’t have to be.
That indelible character, the “David Schwimmer” you have in your mind because you’re still watching reruns of him as Ross Gellar, “disappears immediately,” Sturgess says.
“Of course he’s got such an iconic face,” he continues. “But when I saw the [Feed the Beast] pilot I felt the same way. It all just disappears straight away. You believe that he’s Tommy. He really feels like a broken man in this show.”
It even changes the way Sturgess watches Friends now.
“Now that I know him, if I see a clip of Friends I realize how fucking hard he was working to do that character,” he says. “He’s nothing like Ross in real life. Every little twitch, every little facial movement, he’s working. He’s in it, he’s playing a role. And he’s so good at it that you assume he’s going to turn up at dinner when you meet him. But that character is fictional. David is a very different man.”
When Schwimmer and I meet, it is roughly 48 hours since production wrapped on Feed the Beast. For months before, he had been working 12- to 15-hour days on set, which in turn has shielded him from any sort of response he’s gotten, or shift in opinion about him, after his work in People vs. O.J. Simpson.
“I haven’t even watched the ‘Juice!’ video!” he says, in reference to the viral video of every time Schwimmer as Kardashian calls O.J. Simpson “Juice” in the series. A wrap gift to himself now that production is over, I suggest? He laughs: “First thing.”