INTERVIEW: Friends‘ David Schwimmer Brings Detroit to New York City

The popular actor previews Lisa D’Amour’s Off-Broadway play, talks about fatherhood, and shares his feelings about a musical version of Friends.

David Schwimmer
(© Zoe Buckman)
David Schwimmer
(© Zoe Buckman)

As a director, writer, and actor, David Schwimmer has worked in a multitude of media, but his heart belongs to theater. In addition to being a founder of Chicago’s award-winning Lookingglass Theatre Company, he has starred on Broadway in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial and in the London production of Some Girl(s).

Now, he’s co-starring with Oscar and Tony Award nominee Amy Ryan in the Playwrights Horizons production of Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit. He recently spoke with TheaterMania about his return to the New York stage, how fatherhood is affecting him, his plans for the future, and his thoughts on musicalizing his hit television series Friends.

THEATERMANIA: What made you decide to come back to New York theater now?
DAVID SCHWIMMER: The last several years I’ve been directing movies, and each movie takes so long to actually develop and shoot and do the post-production — especially Trust. Then my wife (Zoe Buckman) and I had a baby, so I wanted to be home a lot, but I’ve been chomping to get back on stage. So, when Detroit came about, I jumped.

TM: What did you think when you first read the script?
DS: I just thought it was fantastic for several different reasons. I thought, “Wow, this is really funny, but really unsettling.” It was unnerving, but it tapped into something that I felt was really powerful and relevant and timely about the climate of the country right now. I felt like it tapped into a kind of vulnerability and an insecurity in that we are in financially troubling times. All of that combined, plus hundreds of other things that are happening in science and technology and health, it seems like there’s a kind of anxiety that we can’t really find solid ground. Detroit demonstrates that feeling of uneasiness.

TM: Why is the play titled Detroit?
DS: The title is really metaphoric for a city that has fallen in a way, and needs to reinvent itself. The play is also a celebration of the invention, and through these characters we see that some of them are just at a point in their lives where they’re lost, and need desperately to reinvent and to start over and to connect. I think each couple in the play has a great effect on the other. The play is really quite funny, entertaining, and high octane. Some of the stuff that’s going on in this play is just wild!

TM: You enjoy doing many projects that are equally funny and dark. Would you describe yourself as being a funny, dark person?

DS: I think those are two very strong sides of me. I’m probably a little less dark now that the baby’s in my life. It’s hard to be glum when you have this little girl running around and laughing.

TM: Your parents wanted you to have a college education as back up for a career in acting. Would you give your daughter that same advice?
DS: I think I still agree with that advice. Back when I went to college, I think it was more important to have that liberal arts education, a degree to fall back on. It might be considered less important now. But what I wouldn’t trade for anything is the college experience, and learning stuff outside your very narrow, specific field. Some of my favorite courses at university were History, History of Ancient Greece, Science, Speech Pathology, and Philosophy. Getting a broader education makes one a better artist.

TM: You co-founded Lookingglass Theatre Company. If you were to peer through your own “lookingglass,” what would you like to see in your future?

DS: I’d love to continue to work in TV, theater and film — and directing, writing, acting, and producing. I’d love to do another play in London, it’s a wonderful city. I directed a film there as well. I also want to stay healthy, and hopefully watch my daughter go to school and start learning.

TM: Is there an added pressure to the artistic choices you make because of the level of success you achieved on Friends?
DS: I learned a long time ago to just kind of tune that out. I think if I’m honest with myself, I occasionally — maybe five percent of the time — think, “Oh, I wonder if people are coming with a certain expectation because of what they’ve seen me do before.” But for the most part, I can’t. I can’t control any of it, so it doesn’t matter. I’ve learned to just focus on the work and my experience.

TM: Can you envision Friends rolling onto Broadway? Do you think Ross would sing and dance?
DS: Uh, no. I can’t really. I’ve always thought a great adaptation of a film for the stage would be Dog Day Afternoon, because the entire thing takes place inside and outside a bank. But Friends, I can’t even imagine it!

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Closed: October 28, 2012