We Were on a Break

David Schwimmer holds the sip of Riesling in his mouth, using skills he’s learned from playing an alcoholic sommelier on AMC’s new series Feed the Beast, to come to the stunning conclusion that … yup, he likes Riesling. It also seems to be the only varietal he feels confident about ordering.

Schwimmer’s knowledge of wine before signing on for Beast was very much in the “Hey, tastes good to me!” range of Thomas Haden Church’s character in Sideways. Even now, after four months of saying lines about wine for 12 to 14 hours a day, five days a week, on the Astoria set of the foodie drama, he’s learned, he says, “pretty much nothing. Really. I would say I know 10 percent more than I did, which is not much to begin with. But I’m enjoying the research!”

He’s taken me to a private room at the Dutch in Soho to meet his friend Josh Nadel, the restaurant’s boisterous sommelier. “Can I bring you a coffee, or seven beers?” asks Nadel, who likes to call Schwimmer “Young Jedi.” He chose the wines for Schwimmer’s 2010 wedding to now-30-year-old British artist Zoe Buckman, and Schwimmer brought him on as a consultant for Beast — which Dexter showrunner Clyde Phillips adapted from a Danish series, Bankerot. The new series is about two childhood friends, Schwimmer’s sommelier Tommy and Jim Sturgess’s screwup chef Dion, starting their dream restaurant together in the Bronx under duress from both the mob and the law. Schwimmer has plenty of fight scenes, but the most crucial part of his prep work was probably Nadel’s teaching him the importance of spitting. “When we first started,” says Schwimmer, “he’d put out six glasses, three reds, three whites. And after an hour of that, I was hammered. He was like, ‘Yeah, you should probably not swallow all of the time.’ ”

Schwimmer certainly has plenty to toast to; he’s in a veritable renaissance these days, at age 49, more than 20 years after he first entered megastardom as lovelorn paleontologist Ross Geller on Friends. His comeback, which he insists was completely uncalculated, traces back to January 2015, when Friends began streaming on Netflix and somehow once again became the most popular show among teens and 20-somethings. (At least anecdotally; Netflix doesn’t release ratings numbers.) Then there was his tortured turn as Robert Kardashian, the moral center for FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson, caught between loyalty to a friend and increasing certainty that that friend is a murderer. O.J.,with its bonanza ratings and all-anyone-could-talk-about appeal — including a genius viral video compiling the many, varied ways Schwimmer says O.J.’s nickname, Juice (“Juice?” “Juice!”) — is arguably the most prominent acting gig Schwimmer has had in a decade.

Schwimmer, who lives in the East Village with Buckman and their 5-year-old daughter, Cleo, is the only Central Perk regular not based in L.A., mainly for purposes of sanity and freedom of movement. If traffic gets too bad heading to the Beast set, he’ll ask his driver to drop him off at the subway: “I just throw a hat on and some earbuds and I’m good to go.”

No member of that $1 million-an-episode club has a financial imperative to ever work again, but among the men, who all took longer than the women to find their postshow grooves, Schwimmer probably took the longest and has been the least eager to reenter the spotlight. “Even that first year [of Friends], I immediately became worried about being typecast for the rest of my life,” he explains. “And then I said, ‘This is not something in my control. I’m just going to play the long game. I hope to be acting until I’m 80, or am physically able to do so. And hopefully in the meantime I’ll be able to change people’s minds or let them see that I have more to offer.’ Because there was nothing else I could do.”

During hiatuses from the show at the peak of its popularity, he actively sought out anti-Ross parts — and alienated more than a few fans — starting with his first lead movie role, in the 1996 indie rom-com The Pallbearer, about a guy who starts dating the mother of a childhood friend at said friend’s funeral (he turned down Will Smith’s role in Men in Black around the same time, he says). And he was memorably evil as a disciplinarian commanding officer in HBO’s 2001 mini-series Band of Brothers.Since the Friends finale in 2004, though, other than voicing Melman the giraffe in the Madagascar franchise, he’d mainly done theater, both acting and directing, in New York, London, and Chicago, where he co-founded the Lookingglass Theatre Company 28 years ago. And he directed a couple of movies: Simon Pegg’s Run, Fatboy, Run, a romantic comedy, and 2010’s Trust, starring Viola Davis and Clive Owen, a thriller about a man dealing with his teenage daughter’s sexual assault. Then, five years ago, he almost completely disappeared from public view upon Cleo’s birth.

“To be honest, I needed a break from this kind of work ethic that I realized I’d inherited from my parents and then self-imposed,” Schwimmer says. (Both his parents and his sister are lawyers. “I’m the black sheep.”) “For 40 years, I just worked. In hiatuses from Friends, I was always doing a play in Chicago with my company or something.” And while he was achieving financial freedom, all his friends were struggling. “So I was never unaware,” he says, “and not a day went by that I wasn’t incredibly grateful for having hit the jackpot in a way. I felt guilty if I wasn’t working. It was indulgent, you know?” Meeting Buckman through mutual friends in London changed that, though, and he realized he didn’t want to miss out on the experience of being a husband and a father. “I felt like I really wanted to enjoy this chapter of my life and not work as hard.”

His friends, in case you’re wondering, are mainly Schwimmer’s crew from Chicago or other pre-fame acting buddies like Spotlight director Tom McCarthy. He’s currently playing chess on his phone with four of them and is also into “speed Monopoly,” Uno, canasta, and cribbage. He can’t play poker anymore because, he says, he gets too much Jewish guilt when he loses. (“I was at a high-stakes game in L.A. once, and I’m not going to say the amount I lost in one night, but on the drive home, all I could think about were all my closest friends and how much that amount of money would have meant to change the quality of their lives.”) And, yes, he does stay in touch with the gang from Friends; he’d just seen Lisa Kudrow, and the day we spoke he was texting with Matt LeBlanc about a play Matthew Perry had written and was starring in on London’s West End.

The last project Schwimmer did before his extended break was directing Trust, a movie about children groomed via the internet to be sexual victims, which consumed four years of his life at the start of his relationship with Buckman. Schwimmer considers himself a staunch feminist and advocate for reproductive rights. He won’t say which Democrat he’s supporting but hints that he’s a fan of the socialist tenets of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. “My earliest memories,” he says, “were being on pro-choice picket lines with my mom,” a prominent L.A. attorney on child-custody cases. The first works of theater he can remember seeing were feminist plays his mother acted in. “So that always informed how I related to women, as equals,” he says. “I would observe injustice and inequality regularly and kind of clock it more than a lot of my male peers.” During Friends, he became involved with the Rape Treatment Center in Santa Monica and started doing NBC’s “The More You Know” PSAs trying to encourage fraternity brothers to speak up about campus assault. “At the time, 18 years ago, at the height of Friends, my celebrity was bigger than it is now, and I felt like the campaign could use a young heterosexual-male voice,” he says. He was also in a relationship with a woman who’d opened up to him about her own repressed history of childhood sexual abuse and date rape. “I went through that with her as her boyfriend and best friend,” he says. “And at the same time, more and more of my friends — a couple of guys and several women — I became more and more aware of their history of sexual abuse, and I found it really, obviously — I hope it’s obvious — upsetting and distressing, just how prevalent it is.” Those are the stories that inspired him to do Trust.

Buckman, too, is deeply feminist. One art series of hers involved hand-embroidering rap lyrics about women from Biggie and Tupac onto vintage lingerie. For another, she had her placentafrom Cleo’s birth plastinated (the same method used to preserve human anatomy for the “Bodies” exhibit) and then mounted on marble. “I was absolutely amazed by the placenta itself,” Schwimmer says. “The fact that women are able to generate an entire organ and then once it serves its purpose, it’s just gently shed — it was amazing. It’s enormous! My wife is an average-size woman, and I just had no idea of the size of the organ that is produced along with the baby.” Buckman photographed it and then sent it off for the plastination, which took, “ironically, nine months,” Schwimmer says. More recently she’s been working with neon, including one piece that’s a light-up uterus with boxing gloves as the ovaries.
It was playing with Cleo, actually, that made Schwimmer realize he wanted to get back into acting onscreen. He started “feeling the itch again,” he says, about a year ago, “because there was something about just telling stories and role-playing and going on imaginary adventures with her in that very childlike way that re-engaged a part of me that I kind of lost touch with. A less cynical part, a less hardened-to-the-industry part.”
He slipped word to his agent that he was back on the hunt, and soon the O.J. part came up. He liked that Kardashian was the one person in perhaps the entire saga who had nothing to gain by sticking by his friend, and who’d been friends with Nicole Brown Simpson, too. “I was interested in, what makes a person do this?” he says. “I genuinely didn’t understand his choices.” Schwimmer turned for help to Kardashian’s ex-wife Kris Jenner, who explained just how close her family and the Simpsons had been — ski trips, daily tennis matches. She also described Robert as a devoted dad and devoutly Greek Orthodox; he prayed before every meal and business meeting and carried around a Bible. “My personal choice, and I could be wrong — we’ll never know, because he’s not with us anymore,” says Schwimmer, “was that he had a crisis of faith, not only in his friendship but in his God. Justice was not served, and he somehow felt complicit in that.” Schwimmer did not, however, dig deep enough to watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians, or meet with the children; they wanted to do it on-camera.
Schwimmer’s biggest takeaway from O.J., though, was that he never wants to be away from his family for that long again. He shot seven months in Los Angeles, and, he says, “that was really tough for me, seeing my daughter only every two weeks and then just for a couple of days at a time.” (She had to go to school in New York.) He freely admits that Feed the Beast’s shooting in Astoria was a major selling point.
After this, though, he and the family are headed to London, near Buckman’s parents, to do a six-part Curb Your Enthusiasm–style improv comedy for Channel 4 from U.K. actor-writer Julia Davis. Schwimmer plays an American TV exec who comes over to add more sex and salaciousness to a flailing morning talk show. “It’ll kind of be liberating to play a character who’s a sexual predator,” he says. “I think one of this guy’s goals is to sleep with everyone, age, race, sexual orientation. He’s just a marauder.”

We’ve been chatting for over two hours, the bottle of Riesling is kicked, and I’m pretty sure we’re both a little lit. Schwimmer notices for the first time that the walls of this private room are covered with bottles of whiskey. “What’s your drink of choice?” he asks.

I say a Sazerac, the first thing that comes to mind. “Wow! So you just go crazy!” he says. “You just lose your mind! A couple of those and you’re just out! You’re another person.”

His would be a martini, particularly the house martini at a London bar called Dukes where they use a vodka called Potocki. “It’s incredible,” he says. “It’s, like, a perfume bottle of vermouth, then the ice-cold Potocki vodka pours in like a syrup. Then they do a lemon peel with these special lemons from Italy. I’m telling you, it’s one of the best martinis you’ll ever have. And one of them? You’re just toast. If you can have two of them, I’ll be very impressed.”

Schwimmer checks his phone. “Oh! My wife’s like, ‘Where are you?’ ” he says, laughing and gathering up his stuff. They’re supposed to see Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster in A Streetcar Named Desire at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. I have one last question, since I may never witness it: What does hammered David Schwimmer look like? “Oh, you know, uninhibited, probably very silly. I love to dance. In the old days, it was probably a little more reckless. Uninhibited and reckless,” he says, and laughs at a memory he’s clearly not going to tell me. “But I haven’t been that way in a while.”

*This article appears in the May 30, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.

Top photo: Grooming by Rheanne White using Dior Homme.

David Schwimmer Isn’t on a Break Anymore