Culture Trips

David Schwimmer: ‘I was a roller-skating waiter’ | Life and style

My parents are my heroes. I marvel how they were able to work as young lawyers while keeping family as a priority. They raised my sister and me with a hyper-awareness of justice, equality and gay rights. I have memories of protesting on picket lines. It really informed my worldview and perspective.

I wanted to be a surgeon. I was fascinated by the human body: I knew everything about the lymphatic, the vascular and the skeletal systems. I was a big science geek, but I found that I could talk to more girls in acting class than in the science lab. So that kind of derailed my medical career.

I had some really crappy summer jobs. I worked at this place called Steve’s Ice-cream where you had to mix in all the candy or cookie crumbs by hand on this big marble slab for three bucks an hour. At 16, I worked at this copy machine place. I had to pretend to be some guy from Xerox. I’d phone up customers and say: “I see you have a Xerox 2-2500. Looks like you’re running out of toner.” Some innocent secretary would say: “I don’t think we are?” and I’d say: “I think you are, let me send you a couple of boxes.” It wasn’t exactly legal. I turned up one day and the whole place had been raided.

I was a roller-skating waiter in Chicago for a summer. You make your real money by doing stunts. Everyone gets their burgers and fries, then you say: “Hey, you want me to jump over your kids for five bucks?” They’d have their kids lie on the ground and I’d just jump over them at 30mph.

The summer after my freshman year, I got into a summer programme at Oxford University called the British American Drama Academy. I got to work with Rosemary Harris on Shakespeare and Brian Cox on Chekhov. There was also a clown course that just spoke to me. So I went to clown school, too.

I’d love to do Shakespeare, but I don’t think I have the vocal ability to give the language justice. Plus, I’m rusty when it comes to being on stage for eight performances a week.

I have no idea what Ross from Friends is up to at the moment. I don’t really think about it. Though we did kind of speculate what the characters might be up to in the reunion show.

There are a lot of Schwimmers here in the States. People are forever reaching out: “Are you related to Barney Schwimmer?” Or: “Did your uncle go to…?” I have to say: “No, I have no idea who they are.”

Being a dad is the highlight of my life. When I was younger, I was a workaholic out of necessity and, I guess, blind ambition. I’m grateful I waited until I could make it a priority. Spending time with my daughter is more fun and meaningful than anything I’ve ever done.

I was born two years after the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner – the young, Jewish civil rights workers who were thrown in jail and then murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. My parents made it very clear to my sister and me that we were Jewish and that just by being Jewish our lives were in jeopardy. It was really formative growing up with that kind of understanding. As a director and an actor, I think it was easy to gravitate towards telling stories that reflect or expose injustice. I try to do what I can to fight the good fight.

All episodes of Intelligence, series 2, are on Sky and NOW TV

This article was amended on 19 June 2021. An earlier version referred to Schwimmer working as “a roller-skating waiter in Chicago for seven years”. To clarify: he worked as a waiter for seven years and one summer the role involved roller-skating.

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