David Schwimmer Feared The Kardashians Would Ruin 'American Crime Story'

The actor also worried that his history as Ross would distract viewers from the story.

21/04/2016 10:26 PM AEST | Updated 21/04/2016 10:30 PM AEST
"American Crime Story"

It sounds ridiculous to task an actor most remembered for a '90s sitcom with trying to find a way to humanize O.J. Simpson's best friend and legal defender, especially when that character also happens to be Kim Kardashian's father. 

But David Schwimmer beat the odds and portrayed the role of Robert Kardashian masterfully on "American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson," additionally reminding television audiences just how much they missed him.

In wondering how he approached juggling so many tasks in portraying Kardashian, The Huffington Post spoke with the actor about reality TV's first family, "Friends" and what mattered most to him about the "O.J." series.


Schwimmer initially tried not to think about his character's "Kardashian" name when approaching the role.

VINCE BUCCI via Getty Images

Although the Kardashian family first came to tabloid popularity through Robert Kardashian's involvement in the O.J. Simpson trial, the lawyer's ex-wife, Kris Jenner, and their progeny have since far surpassed this origin in terms of prominence. Because of this, there is perhaps no explanatory sentence less necessary in a pop culture article than one explaining who Kourtney, Khloe, Kim, Rob, and, through association, Kanye are.

Understanding the potential weight of this going into the role, Schwimmer attempted to avoid drowning in this potential K-hole by preemptively disassociating himself from the name.

"I was trying to not think too much about what the family name means today to people," said Schwimmer. "I was really just trying to approach [the role] almost like a historian [figuring] out who the man was. What he was really like in person."


Since little information exists about Robert Kardashian's private life, Schwimmer spoke with Kris Jenner for insight.

Ron Galella via Getty Images

A running joke on the recently debuted second season of "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" features various characters spewing Kardashian knowledge as an uncontrollable personality tic, and then admitting they have no idea how they even picked up that particular minutia about the Kardashians' lives. You probably relate to this problem on some level.

But this unprecedented tabloid scrutiny did not attach itself onto the Robert Kardashian of the '90s. A woman with a similar name to Blac Chyna could have helped him lose weight at some point in his life and that piece of trivia wouldn't have made its way into an extremely popular song, unlike his son's sex life showing up in his brother-in-law Kanye West's song "Highlights."

"Very little is known about him," Schwimmer said of Kardashian, continuing, "Or [very little is] on camera. Other than when he knows he's on camera. So there's very little public record of who he was as a person. [What it was like] sitting down with him, having dinner with him, going to a ball game with him."

In trying to figure out how he should portray the lawyer, Schwimmer reached out to his ex-wife, Kris Jenner. "The one phone conversation that I had with Kris Jenner was really valuable," said the actor. "Just to hear from her, over the course of two hours, what kind of a guy he was and why she loved him."

Through the conversation, Schwimmer learned that Kardashian was "a man of great faith" and that his relationship with God drove his decisions in life.

After learning what he could from Jenner, Schwimmer then worked with the show's writers and creator Ryan Murphy to integrate these aspects into "American Crime Story." 


Still, the actor was scared that the Kardashian name would distract audiences from the more important stories in the series.

Kevin Mazur via Getty Images

Even if Schwimmer tried to keep the tabloid aspects of the Kardashians out of his mind as he approached the role, a fear over whether their fame would ruin the series still affected him.

The actor said he worried "that [he] was playing a Kardashian [and] that might distract at first." Schwimmer appreciated the positive elements of bringing a more complex discussion of fame into the beginning of the series, but felt it was then his job to make sure audiences stuck around for the stand-alone character development and weightier questions of race that came later.

"Our job was to play the long game [and] know that this was a 10-episode arc," said Schwimmer.

"Hopefully, people would return to watch not because it was some kind of indulgent, I dont know ..." Schwimmer trailed off and began to laugh, then continued, "Not just for fun. They'd realize, 'Oh my gosh, this was a real guy going through a terrible ordeal and that these were two innocent real victims that were overshadowed by everything else going on in the trial at the time.' It was a real challenge."


He also feared his portrayal of Ross on the show "Friends" -- which became popular at the same time as the O.J. trial -- would similarly detract from "ACS."

NBC via Getty Images

"Friends" debuted in September 1994, less than two months before the O.J. Simpson trial began. As Schwimmer played one of the lead characters on the show, Ross Geller, the actor was entering headlines at the same time as the murder case.

In terms of pop-cultural ubiquity, Schwimmer and the Simpson trial both defined the mid-1990s.

Schwimmer worried this also had the potential to confuse audiences and said, "I knew going into it that there would be almost a distraction." The actor added that this distraction could come from "the combination of [him] having come to fame or celebrity at the same time that this trial was happening."


His qualms were unfounded in the end. 

"American Crime Story"

Along with the show being critically praised and millions of viewers sticking with it until the finale, Schwimmer's portrayal of Robert Kardashian has also been singled out for doing exactly what he had hoped. Somehow, Schwimmer found a way to balance the inherent necessity of raising critiques on fame with portraying Kardashian as a character struggling deeply with morality as the series progressed.

Vulture's E. Alex Jung summed up Schwimmer's performance with an article titled, "Robert Kardashian Was the Moral Heart of 'The People v. O.J. Simpson.'" Jung's article concluded:

Indeed, it’s Robert Kardashian who serves as the mirror for America’s growing disillusionment with the trial. As The People v. O.J. unfolded in the courtroom, Schwimmer stole every reaction shot, no more so than in the finale. His face, that long, drooping canvas of self-doubt, falls in disbelief when the prosecution presents the blood and DNA evidence, and by the end, he can hardly look his old friend in the eye. It's a beautiful creative decision on the show's part, and as the trial further propelled American culture into the free-for-all of the 24-hour news cycle and reality television, one that encapsulates our collective loss of innocence.

Schwimmer's character was explicitly set-up as an "I'll be there for you" character for the audience, with his background on "Friends" purposefully entering the narrative. The actor had to wink simultaneously with conveying increasingly distressed facial expressions nuancing the highlights of Kardashian's grief throughout the series. That should have been an impossible task.

But when threatened with the possibility of drowning in the weight of these expectations, you could say -- in keeping with the jokey, self-referential yet earnest tone -- that the actor found a way, somehow, to be himself ... a schwimmer


HuffPost also spoke to Schwimmer about his new AMC series, "Feed the Beast," how he hasn't seen the viral video of him saying, "Juice," and whether or not Ross and Rachel were actually on a break.

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