David Schwimmer: ‘I’m very aware of my own privilege as a heterosexual white male’

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I used to think that post-Friends David Schwimmer was sort of a sad sack lost soul. But over the years, I’ve learned more about him and I’ve read many of his post-Friends interviews, and I have to say… David Schwimmer seems like a really nice guy, and like he was always a nice guy who’s been respectful of the women around him. Schwimmer is currently promoting a new British TV show, Intelligence, so he sat down for a surprisingly in-depth interview about his life, his divorce, how he views Friends in retrospect, and a lot more. You can read the full piece here. Some highlights:

Always being Ross from Friends: “I think I’m kind of over that. There was a period that I was very, very frustrated by being pigeonholed in this one genre, this one idea. I got Friends when I was 27 but I had done all this work on stage. But all that was just eradicated. As far as the public was concerned, I came out of the womb doing sitcom. So that was frustrating, as if it obliterated all the other training, all the other roles I had done… The older I get and the more my perspective shifts, the more you realise just how good you had it. That 10-year run with that particular cast, that group of writers, those directors. It was an amazing time professionally, but mostly creatively.”

He thinks Friends is still so popular because it was pre-smartphone, pre-social media: “That’s why Friends is nostalgic, because it was a time right before the world profoundly changed in terms of social media and where our focus was. It was six people who actually sat and talked to each other.”

On the criticism that Friends hasn’t aged well: “I don’t care. The truth is also that show was groundbreaking in its time for the way in which it handled so casually sex, protected sex, gay marriage and relationships. The pilot of the show was my character’s wife left him for a woman and there was a gay wedding, of my ex and her wife, that I attended. I feel that a lot of the problem today in so many areas is that so little is taken in context. You have to look at it from the point of view of what the show was trying to do at the time. I’m the first person to say that maybe something was inappropriate or insensitive, but I feel like my barometer was pretty good at that time. I was already really attuned to social issues and issues of equality.”

He always argued for Ross to date women of color: “Maybe there should be an all-black Friends or an all-Asian Friends. But I was well aware of the lack of diversity and I campaigned for years to have Ross date women of colour. One of the first girlfriends I had on the show was an Asian American woman, and later I dated African American women. That was a very conscious push on my part. It’s interesting also how the show handled the Judaism of the characters. I don’t think that was earth-shattering or groundbreaking at all, but I for one was glad that we had at least one episode where it wasn’t just about Christmas. It was also Hanukkah and, even though I played the Hanukkah armadillo… I was glad that we at least acknowledged the differences in religious observation.”

He grew up being aware of his privilege. “My mom was a very vocal, groundbreaking feminist activist lawyer [and occasional actor]. So my earliest memories of theatre were watching these feminist productions that my mom was in and being on the picket line with my parents and fighting for women’s rights and gay rights. That’s the environment I grew up in. I’m very aware of my own privilege as a heterosexual white male whose parents were able to pay for a private education for me. I’ve always felt a sense of responsibility to give back and to call things out if I see an abuse of power.”

How he felt when #MeToo happened: “Primarily I felt like: ‘Ah, finally! Yes, yes!’ My mom has been telling my sister and me stories since she was a young lawyer being sexually harassed by judges, clients, other lawyers. I don’t know a woman in my life that has not been harassed in some way.” All the same, he says, he was saddened by the “atmosphere of terror” that struck “all men … Some people called it a ‘witch hunt’. I disagree with that, but … there was a lot of over-reacting, I think. Some of the more complex situations were lumped in with the more egregious and criminal.”

[From The Guardian]

I’ve heard that before, that Schwimmer pushed producers to introduce more diverse guest stars and that he was largely behind Aisha Tyler’s character arc. The “too white” criticism happened in real time, as the show aired, but it wasn’t this larger conversation about diversity that we have now. And he’s right about the show being groundbreaking on some things, and for the representation of modern Judaism. As for the idea of a Friends reunion, he said that the cast does get together every now and then, and that he speaks to Matt LeBlanc the most regularly. He says he’s interested in a Friends reunion if it’s a one-off reunion show but he’s not interested in anything more than that.

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51 Responses to “David Schwimmer: ‘I’m very aware of my own privilege as a heterosexual white male’”

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  1. KTate says:

    Does anyone remember “Living Single” , the original “Friends”?

    • carnivalbaby says:

      Yep. Best show! I read yesterday that they chose the name Living Single from a number of names including Friends. Shortly after NBC debuted Friends. Same premise!

    • Keekee says:

      One of my favourite 90s show… Black twitter was having a field day. But I do believe he meant well… Most people outside of the shows demographic have never heard of it.

      • KTate says:

        “Black Twitter” was having a field day because black people and their accomplishments are routinely copied then overlooked when appreciation (awards, money, etc) time comes…

    • Veronica S. says:

      There were actually quite a few fairly successful all black/non-white cast shows in the 90s, if I recall. At least, I remember growing up with plenty of them that had decent mainstream crossover, even as a white kid who wasn’t part of the intended demographic. If anything, it feel like the 2000s saw a demographic regression in media as a result of conservative cultural backlash.

    • KTate says:

      Arizona, oops! Thank you!

  2. Becks1 says:

    Yeah, there are certainly things to criticize about the show – lack of diversity being a huge one – but I can believe that Schwimmer was pushing for more since his character is the one who dated non-white women. And I liked the non-white women he dated were brilliant.

    I know there was such emphasis post Friends on these actors wanting to be known for more than Friends, but in the end, if your acting legacy is that you were a star for 10 years on an insanely successful sitcom, that’s not bad by any means. So I like that he acknowledges that.

  3. Janiet says:

    I always thought the gay wedding and resulting marriage (which included the gay couple being great parents, and as nothing to even think twice about) was given very short shrift by today’s wokies. For Genx that was impactful I believe . All I know is I always assumed marriage equality, as like a, doh of course! thing. Not saying that was Friends, but you’re kidding yourself if you think it didn’t impact the zeitgeist then.

  4. carnivalbaby says:

    Loved Friends, but now Ross’s character in particular upsets me. He was so controlling of Rachel. How he manipulated her to stay in the US at the end. How he tried to control her at the beginning of her job. Very upsetting. I appreciate now Jenifer Aniston’s skill as a comedian. She reminds me of Lucille Ball in I love Lucy with her voice sometimes. But Joey and Phoebe as characters have aged the best for me. Having said that I loved David Schwimmer’s character for the bit I saw in the new Will and Grace episodes.

    • Amanda says:

      I wish Rachel had gone to Paris

    • Dani says:

      Yep, I hated and still hate Ross. I don’t care how ‘woke’ he’s considered, he was THE WORST, most manipulative boyfriend and the whiniest friend.

    • Janiet says:

      Really? Ross is my favorite character, though through its original run I’d have to say it was Rachel. In later years, I came to appreciate how much smarter than the rest of the group Ross was, and he was very funny too. Phoebe is my least favorite, always was, and that has never changed, but for some reason, it was always a very “you’re crazy!” kind of opinion.

      • amayson1977 says:

        My husband also hates Phoebe and likes Ross. I agree with him somewhat; Ross was the “grown-up” of the group in many ways, and they picked on him for it. Phoebe is a terrible friend in a lot of ways, and was always particularly mean to Ross. Mostly, watching it now as a 42 year-old mom, I just cringe at how enmeshed, codependent and immature they are. Of course, it makes for a boring show if people have rational conversations about their differences, so I get the reasons for the “missed connections” and misunderstandings, but it’s painful to re-watch sometimes.

      • Veronica S. says:

        There are aspects of Ross’s character that I don’t think age as well and come across as very Nice Guy (TM), but I do think the Internet also overlooks a decent amount of abuse he tolerated from the other characters. I mean, yeah, criticize him for being passive aggressive with his ex-wife’s new wife, but don’t ignore that she was LITERALLY THE OTHER WOMAN and they were using the pretense of “open relationship threesomes” to violate his consent and make him party to his own cuckolding. Frankly, he handled that co-parenting situation far better than most divorcees would.

    • minx says:

      I loved Matthew Perry, he could make me laugh at anything.

  5. Sara says:

    I hear the frustration of the Friends actors. But Julia Louis Dreyfus has managed to win Emmys not for one of her post Seinfeld roles, but two. And she was a woman over 35 at the time.

    Sometimes talent does make it work.

  6. Eleonor says:

    I remember reading about how he proposed to a woman journalist if she wanted someone else present during their interview, to make her feel comfortable.
    He seems a very intelligent man.

    • Aims says:

      I also heard that. It’s refreshing to hear a man in a position of power be considerate to another.

  7. Mabs A'Mabbin says:

    “Primarily I felt like: ‘Ah, finally! Yes, yes!’”

    This! This is exactly what I expect to hear from men. Anything less, and I’m done trusting them.

  8. Lucy says:

    I’ve always liked DS. He’s a great actor, very funny and seems like a kind human being.

  9. Lily says:

    I kind of wanted to punch Ross in the face. He was the worst of the group.

    I wish it was still on Netflix

  10. lucy2 says:

    I remember that he was very much a theater guy, and went back to that after the show. I can imagine always being Ross was a little frustrating, but he seems good with it now.

    I appreciate him talking about the diversity, but I don’t love the way he said “I don’t care” about it not aging well. It’s a very, very fair criticism, and hopefully an example of progress in the 20+ years since it aired, but I think he could have handled that with a bit more grace.
    It’s true that they did have a same sex couple and marriage, but that was the butt of a lot of the jokes in the beginning. But again, a sign of progress that we all recognize the issues with it now.

  11. savu says:

    I’m really impressed with him here. I took him as saying “I don’t care” that it doesn’t hold up perfectly, because few things will 20 years later. Which is true. I think he’s saying we just wanted to include others. Even though we were way too white. 😉 Or maybe at this point all it takes is a man who recognizes privilege to impress me these days, which is sad.

    Instead of Ross, I will always see him as Robert Kardashian saying “Uncle Juice”.

  12. Valiantly Varnished says:

    Friends is still one of my all time favorite shows and Ross was my favorite character. And yes there discussions even then about how white the show us. I remember them. But I do agree with him about looking at shows within the context of when they were produced.

    David had a theater company here in Chicago for YEARS during the Friends run and after. He’s always been a part of the theater community.

    I also want to say that the idea fro Friends was born from BLACK TV. Specifically Living Single. Friends was a white-washed version of that show and though I adore Friends that should and needs to be acknowledged.

    • Sarah says:

      I don’t know what are the two most famous American tv shows from that era, but I know that the two most successful in my country are Friends and ER. I know that ER was a drama series, not a sitcom, but it was so much more diverse from the get-go! And it premiered the same year (1994), only a few days before or after Friends.
      The context is not an excuse. It was the mid-90’s, and it was a show taking place and being shot in New York. Again, there is no excuse.
      Everyone involved in the casting and production of that whitewashed show will forever get a side-eye from me.

      • Valiantly Varnished says:

        Hence why I said “shows” and not Friends specifically and why I said that the conversation about Friends being all white was in fact a discussion back then.

      • Marigold says:

        I agree, Sarah. I remember thinking it was weird that they lived in a city, but there were six of them, super close, and not one member of the squad was a person of color. I went to high school in a super white, upper middle class suburb of a large metro area. Even in that sort of artificially segregated (by age and tax bracket) environment, you didn’t have social groups with nothing but rich white kids in it. Diversity was a thing in the 1990’s, and though we didn’t acknowledge it or promote it as we should have, it struck me watching Friends (as a kid fresh out of high school at the time) how unrealistic the ensemble was. It was so unlikely that a peer group like theirs wouldn’t have at least one (and probably 2 or 3) people of color in it. America IS diverse, even if certain people don’t like thinking about it, and you don’t live in a major U.S. city without encountering diversity in your peer group. Even in the context of the 90’s. The show was criticized, and fairly, for that lack of acknowledgement and for being hilariously unrealistic and all-white.

        My debate team, which was my group of peers and close buddies in the 1990’s, had Western European white kids as the majority, but we had black kids, Indian kids, East Asian kids, Muslim kids, Jewish kids, gay kids, conservative kids, liberal kids, and a 50/50 split of boys and girls. That was just the debate team, and it wasn’t even New York. Friends had to be utterly manufactured to be that white, so I don’t buy the context excuse.

  13. Sarah says:

    Friends was not just white or too white, it was aggressively, suspiciously white. Everyone was white. Not just the six main characters, not even the revolving door of work colleagues, love interests or single episode guests. Even the EXTRAS were white. If you look in the background of scenes at the Central Perk, everyone was always white.
    The show was shot in NYC, the extras are usually locals in this case, and yet… Everybody was white. And yet, friends fans are always going on about Friends being so representative of an era, of a generation. Oh, really? Like, what are you really saying there?

    • lucia says:

      Lmao what? Every single season of Friends was filmed at Warner Brothers Studios in LA.

      • Sarah says:

        My bad Lucia! I always thought it was shot in NYC. But it does not change my overall point, doesn’t it? I’m sure there are some actors of color in the LA area, but the people working on Friends seemed hell-bent on ignoring them. Shady.

    • lucy2 says:

      Lucia’s right, it was all filmed at WB in LA.
      I will agree with you on the love interests, recurring, and guest characters, but the background extras were more diverse. I rewatched the show a few years back when it came on Netflix, and it was in the midst of a lot of commentary on how it was so white, so I looked in the background quite a bit and remember noticing that at least they did cast some people of color as extras (could have been more thought).

    • Marigold says:

      It was SET in New York, even if it was filmed in L.A., and Los Angeles isn’t starched white, either. It’s a huge metropolitan area, and you don’t have go searching to find actors of color. So…Sarah’s point stands valid.

      Sarah, you are saying exactly the things I always thought about Friends.

      • lucy2 says:

        Absolutely, it was supposed to represent NYC. So yes, the criticism has always been valid about it.

  14. Jess says:

    I figured he was pretty awesome since he pushed the Friends group to go in together for salary negotiations. He was the break out star those first few seasons and he could’ve easily been top billed, but he included everyone and saw the big picture. He’s always seemed awesome to me.

  15. Jane Doe says:

    The entire premise of Friends was lifted from Living Single

    • KTate says:

      Yes it was!!!

      • enike says:

        I started to watch Living Single, I really like it, very good, but I am not sure anymore about what people mean by diversity? (If Living single is to go by how to do diversity?) confused

  16. Rose says:

    Living Single>>>>>Friends.

  17. MellyMel says:

    I loved Friends, but Friends was an all-white Living Single, which is a fantastic show! I hate that so many people never heard of it or chose to ignore it. But I believe the whole show is on Hulu so someone should tell David.

  18. Tanesha86 says:

    He sounds really out of touch pushing for “an all Black Friends” like the show he starred on wasn’t an all white Living Single. This is as bad as Rebel Wilson claiming to be the first plus size woman to star in a RomCom. It really grinds my gears when people erase Black achievement like this…

  19. Chickaletta says:

    I don’t think I have ever read anything significant that DS has commented on (except a few group interviews), but he does sound intelligent and thoughtful. He was also very good in The People Vs OJ Simpson. I might become a fan.

    But, also I, as a white woman in her late thirties who grew up in the south, have watched Living Single and can sing the theme song. Have people seriously not heard of or forgotten that show? Really?

  20. tealily says:

    I think it’s weird that he refers to the character Ross as “I.” “I attended the wedding…, I dated…,” etc. Do other actors not do that? For some reason it leapt out at me.

  21. Alyse says:

    I don’t like Ross, but I do like David

  22. Momof2rats says:

    I grew up watching mostly black sitcoms. Good Times, the Jeffersons, Sanford and Sons, What’s Happening, Different Strokes, 227, etc. I think the only really white sit ones I watched were Three’s Company and Family Ties. And I grew up in the south. Interesting that white people watched these mostly black character run shows during the 70’s and 80’s. Now it seems that we have regressed in some ways. Name some famous black shows that white people watched regularly 90’s until now. I can’t name one.

    Sometimes I think kids of my generation were less racist than kids these days.

    • Emily says:

      Umm the Fresh Prince, Sister, Sister, Family Matters, The Cosby Show were all big in the 90s. That’s So Raven on Disney Channel, Girlfriends which Tracee Ellis Ross starred on (I think I was the only white person who watched Girlfriends? I thought it was so funny), and nowadays Blackish, Insecure… I’ve watched all those shows and I’m white! There are probably more TV shows with all black casts I missed out on though so if anyone has any recs let me know!

    • amayson1977 says:

      I wholly disagree. Who is making the shows “these days”? It’s not “kids”, it’s adults in their 30’s and up, with a large segment of old white dudes ™ who won’t go away.

      My kids (12 and 7) are friends with a mix of kids from lots of different racial groups, and it’s completely and totally normal to them. My older one also routinely has thoughtful, nuances conversations with me about race, ethnicity, privilege, gender, and equality. Conversations that he prompts at least half the time, I might add. “Kids today” are more accepting, egalitarian, and open-minded than any generation before them. Period.

  23. Scorpio ♏️ Rants says:

    I still seek out the Friends holiday shows each Thanksgiving and Christmas. The Thanksgiving with Brad Pitt and yes, the Holiday Armadillo are classics. Hilarious.

  24. Greenthumb says:

    I enjoyed this interview. I knew he pushed for more diversity on Friends such as Ross’s GFs but didn’t know his background with his mum and everything. That’s so awesome. He’s so much more likeable now.