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THEATER

What 'Friends' is for

His TV job as nice-guy Ross allows David Schwimmer the freedom to play a Hollywood sleazeball in 'Turnaround,' a collaboration with some real pals.

January 19, 2003|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

David Schwimmer is describing an awkward moment that occurred during a recent rehearsal for "Turnaround" at the Coast Playhouse and the creative suggestion that co-star Jonathan Silverman made on how to break the ice.

In "Turnaround," Roger Kumble's extremely dark new comedy about Hollywood that opens Wednesday at West Hollywood's Coast Playhouse, Schwimmer plays an unscrupulous industry sleazeball who'd sell his soul for a six-figure deal, his name above the title or a line of good cocaine. Silverman, an old buddy from Schwimmer's days at Beverly Hills High School, plays the character's similarly debauched best friend. But as he talks about his scene with the play's only female character, Schwimmer sounds less like a jaded Hollywood shark than like Ross Geller, the perpetually embarrassed nice guy he's portrayed for nine seasons on "Friends."

"There is this moment of ... of sssssssexual tension," he says, clearing his throat before the "sssss" and ending the sentence with an apologetic squeak. "It's really an exploration of using sex as a powerful weapon in this town. In this particular scene, the one character that is a woman happens to grab this particular character by the ... by the so-called ... how do you call 'em? Let's just say she's got his number, so to speak.

"Roger, the director, was saying you do this, then she grabs you there; we were all kind of skating around it," Schwimmer continues, seeming less comfortable by the second; if the director was skating around the issue, Schwimmer's trying to land a triple lutz. "And Johnny [Silverman] calls me backstage and presents me with this giant cucumber, freezing cold, from the market across the street.

"We got to the point in the scene when she grabbed me for the first time, and she just had this complete look of shock and bewilderment, and then she burst out laughing," Schwimmer says. "And then I got it out of my pants because it was freezing and, ummm, had the opposite effect than was intended."

Just another example of the role of fresh produce in the actors' process. The point is, Schwimmer was game -- as he seems to be for just about anything when it comes to live theater.

'DOWN TO THE WIRE'

It was Dec. 21, during rehearsals for the last "Friends" episode to be filmed in 2002. As with every other workplace in America, the "Friends" soundstage and backstage areas on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank were a festival of decorations, holiday cards and tables laden with too many sweets.

In this episode, to be filmed later in the evening in front of a live studio audience, Phoebe and Joey (Lisa Kudrow and Matt LeBlanc, if you spent the last decade on some other planet) set up Ross and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston, if you spent the decade in some other galaxy) on bad blind dates, to prove to the on-again, off-again couple that they're really meant for each other.

Offstage between scenes, unbeknown to the audience and crew, the six leads of "Friends," including Courteney Cox and Matthew Perry, were busy dotting I's and crossing Ts on their contracts for a 10th year of the show -- big news in the entertainment press the next morning. No raises, however; all six will continue to work for only $1 million per episode.

"It came down to the wire -- that was the last day that all six of us were going to be all together in the same room with the executive producers, to kind of talk it all out, to have heart-to-hearts and really get back to, how do people feel about this?" Schwimmer explains a few days later.

"There was a certain amount of pressure involved, but I think the cast and the writers and the crew have such a well-oiled machine by now, it went pretty smoothly, without a hitch The general decision of all of us coming back had already been made in our hearts and in our minds -- this was just the nuts and bolts. If just one of us wasn't into it, we were going to call it quits."

In characteristic nice-guy fashion, Schwimmer apologizes for "disappearing into meetings" to finalize his commitment to another year of sssssssexual tension between Ross and Rachel while also trying to conduct an interview about "Turnaround." But he manages to squeeze in some words about his longtime commitment to theater even in the midst of the day's chaos.

In 1988, during his senior year at Northwestern University, Schwimmer and a group of other Northwestern drama students founded Chicago's Lookingglass Theater Company, devoted to presenting inventive stage adaptations of literary classics, including Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" and Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." The theater company recently moved into a new space in Chicago's historic Water Tower Water Works building.

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