Actor-director and School of Communication alumnus David Schwimmer (C88) talked with students on May 20 in the Josephine Louis Theatre in a Q&A moderated by Anna Shapiro, the Marjorie Hoffman Hagan, Class of 1934, Chair in Theatre.
This year’s Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Visiting Artist, Schwimmer is in town to direct Big Lake Big City for the Lookingglass Theatre, a company he helped co-found with eight fellow alumni the year he graduated from Northwestern.
Schwimmer was well known to Monday’s audience for his role as Ross Geller in the ten-season TV sensation Friends, a performance that won him a Screen Actors Guild Award, as well as an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. He’s appeared in many movies, plays, and television shows, including the award-winning HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. He’s also directed the films Run Fatboy Run and Trust, in addition to numerous theatrical productions.
Schwimmer and Shapiro spent some of the afternoon discussing his big-star status. “How people start to treat you is quite strange,” he said, of the period following his debut on Friends. Though he nonetheless described himself now (accurately, by all appearances) as “a guy with a backpack and a hat” who doesn’t “have a big black car waiting” when he walks out the stage exit after performing in a play.
He also drew laughs when he told students that, in spite of attending Beverly Hills High School, he had not spent his youth hobnobbing among the Hollywood elite. “The closest I came to a famous person,” he said, “was Nicholas Cage, who was three years older than me in high school. He was Tony in West Side Story and I was a Jet. That’s the closest I got.”
Schwimmer spent much of the conversation talking about the creative pursuits of acting and directing and what distinguishes them. He talked about how the digital age is affecting art. “People think everything they do is really interesting and it needs to be tweeted or it needs to be exposed or shared,” he said. “And, actually, it’s not that interesting or dramatic or illuminating.”
“Make sure that you’re taking the time to take things in, rather than put things out,” he said. “Read. Go to a museum. See the world. All those things will inform the story you want to tell.”
To the many aspiring actors in attendance, Schwimmer offered tips on staying balanced in the face of difficult odds. “Take care of yourself,” he said. “And I mean that in many ways. Take care of your physical health. That’s number one. Number two is surround yourself with people who help you control your creative life. Don’t let auditioning control your creative life. Take classes. Organize play readings. The more you can control your creative life, the more you’ll be able to handle the brutal task of going out there and putting yourself on the line every day, because you’re being fed in other ways.”
As for auditioning, Schwimmer explained, he has always followed his own set of rules. “My idea is this,” he said. “Your job, as a working actor, is auditioning. That’s your job. And to be the best at your job, you need time. Unless I had two days to prepare, I would not go in. Now that cost me jobs. I’m not saying it didn’t. But I would rather leave a great impression than get the job. Because the odds are you’re not going to get the job. Those are the odds. But the odds are good that that person will remember you and bring you in for the next one. So my feeling is I’d rather be remembered.”
The Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Visiting Artist program was established through a generous gift by Wirtz’s grandson, W. Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz (C75). Wirtz, who studied communication studies at Northwestern, is president of the Wirtz Corporation and Chairman of the Chicago Blackhawks. He is a member of the Northwestern University Board of Trustees and has served on the School of Communication’s National Advisory Board since 1986.