Campus makes ‘Friend’ of alum

Campbell Roth

He’s an actor, director, theater producer and a former waiter. But when David Schwimmer was a student at Northwestern, he said he fell under a different classification.

“Basically, I was a self-absorbed dick,” Schwimmer, who plays Ross on the popular NBC sitcom “Friends,” told a sold-out crowd of about 1,000 students at the inaugural Alumni Speaker Series on Monday night at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.

But now that he’s moved past that stage of his life, Schwimmer, Communication ’88, said he takes pride in helping people and giving time to others — and he encouraged NU students to do the same.

“This country has so many problems,” Schwimmer said. “If everyone here could donate their energy, we’d be well on our way to making a difference in people’s lives.”

Weinberg junior Douglas Yamada said Schwimmer’s comments were appropriate for the audience — and likely helped students remember their obligations to their community.

“I’m not going to go out immediately and volunteer,” he said. “It’s a good idea for (students) to do something that will make a difference.”

After 20 minutes of a prepared speech, Schwimmer responded to more than an hour of questions from the audience. The questions ranged from the serious — “How do you see yourself in 15 years?” — to the silly — “Would you come to The Keg (of Evanston) tonight?” Although some students asked Schwimmer about his professional life, others preferred to hear stories from his time as an undergraduate.

Schwimmer said one of his favorite experiences was directing “Alice in Wonderland” off-campus and helping raise $10,000 to perform the show at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. But Schwimmer wasn’t as forthcoming in answering questions about his college dating life.

“How many girls did you date at NU?” one student asked.

“Uh, what do you mean by ‘date’?” he responded.

Schwimmer also discussed the way his life has changed since becoming famous and the role celebrities should play to help improve society.

“The whole (fame) thing is just a trip,” Schwimmer said. “I was 27 when it hit. I was pretty secure with myself. … But you notice when people start treating you differently than the next person.”

After discussing his work to increase awareness of sexual abuse, Schwimmer later said he isn’t uncomfortable with celebrities who use their position to make political statements.

“They can’t help being a celebrity — they’re citizens,” he said. “I think they should know what the hell they’re talking about.”

Overwhelmingly, though, students wanted to talk “Friends.”

One curious student had his friend ask Schwimmer what it was like “to make out with Jennifer Aniston.”

Schwimmer replied, “It’s very nice.”

After “Friends” ends its 10-year run in 2004, Schwimmer said he will devote more time to the Lookingglass Theatre Co., which he founded in Chicago with seven other NU graduates, and to the development of television pilots. Schwimmer now is directing an adaptation of Studs Terkel’s book “Race,” which opens June 14 at the new Lookingglass Theatre, at Michigan Avenue and Pearson Street.

But the post-“Friends” phase of his life is not one he is ready to tackle yet, he said.

“The last day of filming is something none of (the cast) wants to think about,” Schwimmer said.

He also answered the question that rankles hard-core “Friends” fans.

“When Ross and (Aniston’s character) Rachel broke up, whose fault was it?” one student asked.

“Look, we were on a break,” Schwimmer said.

Students said they appreciated Schwimmer’s willingness to answer such a wide range of questions — even though his experiences at NU differed a bit from those of current students.

“His college experience didn’t really resonate with mine,” said Alexis Klein, a Weinberg freshman. “But it was good to hear him talk in retrospect, to hear how he changed.”

The Office of Alumni Relations and the Provost’s Office, along with student groups Associated Student Government, A&O Productions and NU Arts Alliance helped bring Schwimmer to NU. The next scheduled speaker is comedian Ana Gasteyer on May 19.

Schwimmer was ideal to open the Alumni Speaker Series, organizer Joel Richlin said, because he remains a part of the NU community.

Richlin, a Weinberg senior added that he was pleased with the range of students in attendance — though one group was particularly well-represented.

“From the screaming sorority girls, I think it was pretty clear people enjoyed it,” Richlin said.