David Schwimmer wants to be taken seriously, but more than that, he deserves to be taken seriously.
This can be discerned upon meeting the actor, after receiving a kind greeting and a firm handshake before watching as he scopes out various hallways within the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, CA, searching for just the right spot to talk about his role in “The People v. O.J. Simpson.” When you do sit down, facing him in a chair he dragged over so that he could be directly across from you during the interview, it’s easy to match his sincerity. Not only do the first few episodes of “American Crime Story” merit legitimate analysis, as does his empathetic turn as Robert Kardashian, but Schwimmer himself seems to will you into a discussion on that same level: one with high regard for everyone involved, including the passionate thespian carefully considering your questions.
When asked how he approached a project that could be daunting for any actor, Schwimmer gave a thoughtful and lengthy response, citing the “respectable” and “prestigious” reputations of producers Ryan Murphy, Nina Jacobson and Brad Falchuk as the reason he considered the script in the first place. “The fact that they were associated with this, I knew it was going to be handled seriously,” Schwimmer said.
“Seriously.” That seems to be a big deal for Schwimmer these days. Sure, he’ll do some voice work for his animated franchise “Madagascar,” but his last major onscreen role was in the crime drama “The Iceman” opposite Michael Shannon, where he played a car thief and drug dealer who was part of a gang that killed upwards of 100 people in the late ’70s. Schwimmer has spent a long time in the industry, performing a variety of roles as an actor but taking on larger responsibilities as a director and producer, dating back to his sitcom days. He’s put in the hours, and he’s been a part of other “prestigious” projects like “Band of Brothers” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” But Schwimmer deserves to be taken seriously for one reason above all the rest: Funnily enough, it’s the one thing he’s most famous for and the same thing he’s fighting against.
A Complicated Relationship with Ross
“Friends” fans have a complicated relationship with Ross. While each cast member is regarded as an integral part of making the show a landmark and legendary sitcom, the elder Gellar sibling was put through the wringer over 10 seasons of light-hearted comedy and intense romance. To add on to the ongoing saga of Ross and Rachel’s “will they or won’t they” relationship, Ross went through three divorces, which took a toll on fans’ psyches as much as his own. Ross became a manic presence in later seasons, trying to reconcile a second child out of wedlock, explain himself reasonably to new romantic partners and somehow keep putting off another romance with Rachel. Some became fed up with Ross’ moaning and groaning; his put-upon demeanor and refusal to step up when given an opening by the woman we all knew he’d end up with.
Sure, it was understandable how three failed marriages would make a man skittish, but in the world of network sitcoms, people aren’t exactly willing to step back and look at the performance more than the character; a fact exemplified by Schwimmer’s lone Emmy nomination for the first season of “Friends.” The only reason a voting body could think his performance faced fewer challenges as the years went on is that they must not have been watching the same show — or they were unable to separate Ross’ flaws from the talented actor portraying them.
The result was Ross ranking near the bottom of most fans’ “favorite ‘Friends'” list, even if Schwimmer himself gave a layered, committed and altogether excellent performance. He found the funny in Ross again and again, even as he and the show went down those all-too-crazy paths — Joey and Rachel’s romance! Everything with Mona (Bonnie Somerville). Although Ross was eventually redeemed by his reconciliation with Rachel, the actor playing him was saddled with the baggage of the role for, well, quite possibly the rest of his career.
“There Were Two Things That Excited Me the Most”
So can you blame him for wanting to be taken seriously today? You may see Ross when Schwimmer steps on screen, but he’s doing everything in his power to honor the characters he plays. Just look at Robert Kardashian and “The People v. O.J. Simpson” as a whole. It’s a story loaded with pertinent social and political issues for today, featuring a man carrying the weight of a name that has far more meaning to modern audiences than it did to anyone seeing Kardashian on TV during the ’90s. And Schwimmer is not only well aware of all it, but actively excited by the seriousness of the subject matter.
“There were two things that excited me the most: first, the idea that he was probably O.J.’s closest white friend of more than 20 years, and that fact that he decided to stick by him through thick and thin,” Schwimmer said to Indiewire. “I was interested in what he believed, and did those beliefs change over the course of the trial. Did their friendship change over the course of the trial? So that was really intriguing to me.”
At this, Schwimmer became noticeably engaged; sitting up a bit in his chair, his eyes widening slightly as he recollected what the project really means to him.
“They sent me the first two scripts before I had signed on, and when I read those I realized that this was an opportunity to contribute to the national conversation we’re having about race right now through the lens of events that happened 20 years ago. We have a chance to ask the question: Have things improved in 20 years? Suddenly, I thought it’s not just a retelling of this time capsule, it’s actually incredibly timely. I got even more excited about that.”
Finding Robert Kardashian Through Kris Jenner
Schwimmer’s excitement translated to a thorough analysis of Robert Kardashian, beyond even what was in the script. Though Ryan Murphy had him in mind for the role all along, Schwimmer dug deep into the nuances of his part.
“I did whatever research I could online first,” Schwimmer said. “I’ve seen old interviews he did with Barbara Walters, and him reading the infamous suicide letter on camera. I’m just trying to understand who the guy was, [but] even so, it was hard to decipher who he was as a person.”
Schwimmer said he didn’t know much about Kardashian, the former lawyer who had his law license reinstated to help O.J., his friend, during the trial. “The way in for me, actually, to understand the character and the choices he makes, was after a phone call I had with Kris Jenner,” Schwimmer said. “We spoke for about two hours, and she was incredibly generous with her time and really open. She communicated about his qualities: He was an incredibly generous, compassionate, loyal, fun and spontaneous guy, but also a man of deep faith. That was the thing where I was suddenly like, ‘Wait, what?’ — to realize and to learn that he was a very religious man. He prayed every day, many times a day. He had a very personal and strong relationship with God. That suddenly informed everything to me about the character, and why he made the decisions he did. It’s not for him to judge someone else. […] Maybe it wasn’t even a choice, why he just believed [O.J.]”
Kardashian’s faith no doubt played a huge role in how he reacted to O.J.’s run from the law via the infamous white Bronco chase — perhaps the most damning and public evidence of his guilt up to that point in time. Kardashian was put in a difficult position, forced quickly into the spotlight to follow through on his friend’s wishes, even as many were questioning his innocence. But O.J. wanted a letter read to his fans, and that meant speaking to reporters — a public act Kardashian was clearly quite uncomfortable with, given how he acted at the press conference.
“You have to think about the series of events and how compressed time was,” Schwimmer said. “He was in shock still at everything that was happening. O.J. was at his house with a gun to his head, about to kill himself in his daughter’s bedroom, the day before basically. Then he flees, and Shapiro is suddenly telling him, ‘You have to do this. You have to be the one to do this. You owe it to O.J. You’re his best friend. You have to read this letter.’ He’s not in any condition to know what the right thing to do is here. He’s really taking orders and following instructions because he has no idea what’s happening. He’s in way over his head, as any of us would be in that situation, in complete shock and a huge amount of guilt. He doesn’t know where his friend is. He might be, in all likelihood, finding somewhere to kill himself, or so they believed.”
This sort of perspective shades Kardashian’s next move: telling the Simpson family that O.J. was likely dead.
“People ask me, ‘Why did he do that?’ and we don’t know, but my feeling is that he grew close with O.J.’s kids and the whole family. He wanted them to hear it from him, and not on TV.”
The Significance of a Name
Yet Kardashian’s purpose in the story is focused more on how celebrity can distort opinion, and how an influenced opinion can manipulate the truth. It’s a lesson that seems all too perfect coming from the father of Kim and Khloe Kardashian; names that come loaded with negative associations for modern audiences looking for a great, serious TV drama. Schwimmer’s role became a double-edged sword, of sorts, in that Robert can serve as a direct connection to modern day events for a narrative wanting to parallel present day issues, but whose direct references to his daughters while warning of fame’s dangers can also be seen as overly on-the-nose examples of the very thing they’re critiquing.
When asked if he considers the current perception of the Kardashian name in his performance, Schwimmer thought silently for a moment. “Well, I don’t focus on that, but I don’t think it’s wise to completely put it out of your head. I don’t think it’s possible because, as you’ve said, context is everything. It wasn’t on my mind a whole bunch. It was only on my mind in that scene, really, because there are no other scenes that I have with the kids. But it was on my mind in that there are going to be some people who just tune in as a kind of guilty pleasure sensibility. It’s my job, along with everyone else on the show, to eventually get them to tune back in for another reason.”
The scene Schwimmer refers to — and the most divisive example of how the Kardashian family is integrated into this story — came in Episode 3, “The Dream Team,” which opened with Robert taking his kids out for a Father’s Day lunch. As they walk up to the restaurant, Robert is wary of even going inside for fear of a long wait, but someone recognizes him from television and he and his kids are seated right away. “You can have any table you want,” the hostess says. Noticing how his kids might interpret the event, Robert takes a moment to caution them about the trappings of fame — a speech that, if it happened exactly as presented in the series, clearly was not taken to heart by Kim and Khloe.
“As a human being, you can’t help but feel inebriated or intoxicated by the experience of special treatment,” Schwimmer said. “In that scene in particular — when he’s telling his kids 10 minutes later, ‘This is not what’s important. What’s important is being a good person.’ — for me, he’s really telling himself because he can sense he’s about to be thrust into this world. He’s almost telling himself what’s important.”
The scene carries obvious parallels to Schwimmer’s life, as well. As an integral player on one of TV’s most beloved sitcoms, he can’t so much as go to the grocery store without being noticed — and he certainly wouldn’t have any trouble snagging a table at any restaurant, especially at a strip mall in the Valley.
“It was important that people understand that he was a private person,” Schwimmer said, after agreeing that the scene “absolutely” helped him identify with the character. “He’s not an actor. He’s a private businessman, and a very modest person in real life. […] He never was a very public person. He was a modest, private man, and was not interested in publicity or the spotlight. […] For him to be inadvertently thrust into the spotlight was embarrassing and awkward. There was something distasteful for him about it, I think — just inherently distasteful.”
As the remaining episodes roll out, Kardashian will be tested like never before. Schwimmer spoke of a “crisis in faith” in Episodes 7 and 8, and those scenes should continue to push the actor to new dramatic depths. Yet just as Ross was tasked with some of the more challenging aspects of “Friends,” Robert will continue to carry the weight of his name and all the complicated relationships attached to it. In a way, the parallels make Schwimmer’s casting all the more fitting, even if a pessimist’s perspective could argue the actor will still be striving to be taken seriously when Season 1 of “American Crime Story” comes to a close.
Just don’t expect Schwimmer to complain about it. He’s put in the work and done all he can do for the character. Just before he said his goodbye with a sincere “thank you” and another purposeful handshake, Schwimmer said, “Playing someone who’s passed on, there’s added responsibility, at least for me. I feel like I want to honor him, and be as respectful and truthful as possible.”
If you can’t take that seriously, then perhaps the onus is on you.
“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” is available to stream on FX NOW.