Intelligence duo talk culture clash, David Schwimmer's first sitcom since Friends
What do you get when you pair an unassuming, earnest Brit and a pompous, blowhard American?
In Nick Mohammed's hands, the answer is a sitcom set in the world of cyber-security that puts David Schwimmer in his first leading role in a sitcom since Friends. The show, which debuted on the U.K.'s Sky One earlier this year, is now one of the marquee pieces of original programming for the launch of NBC's new streaming service Peacock.
Mohammed and Schwimmer have been yearning to work together for some time, after meeting (and improvising) on a pilot that never took off nearly five years ago. When Mohammed came up with the idea for Intelligence, he immediately reached out to Schwimmer and they set out to craft a workplace comedy in the high stakes setting of national security: Britain's GCHQ (their equivalent of the American NSA).
With Intelligence dropping on Peacock and a second season already in the works, we called up Schwimmer, who stars as Jerry Bernstein on the show, and Mohammed, who plays Joseph Harries, to talk about their unique dynamic, why they both love (and excel) at physical comedy, and what might lie ahead in season 2.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You met on a previous show that didn't end up getting made, but how did your partnership get forged? Nick, did you then write this with David in mind?
NICK MOHAMMED: David had come over and done some improv workshop with us [on that other show], developing some new characters and story ideas. We hit it off then in terms of similar things made us laugh, we had similar sensibilities in terms of tone, and so it was an absolute no brainer when I wrote this pilot that the part of Jerry was absolutely written for David. Particularly because when we had done some of those early improvisations on the other show, one of the things that he and I particularly enjoyed with the stuff that he had done was playing up the dynamic of a strong alpha American pitted against a slightly shyer, happy-go-lucky British guy. We knew we wanted to build on that dynamic. I had a script commissioned and knew I wanted to write a sitcom with national security as the distinct backdrop. Then it felt right to involve this culture clash of someone from the NSA working alongside a team at GCHQ, so the part was absolutely David's for the taking. Fortunately, he said yes.
David, this is the first sitcom you’ve starred on since Friends. Were you intentionally staying away and why was this the one to bring you back to the medium?
DAVID SCHWIMMER: No. I guess the only conscious decision was after 10 years of doing Friends, I really wanted to focus on directing. I did that for a little while, and then, a couple of years ago, I started entertaining the idea of doing another comedy but the right scripts never really came along. I didn't feel there was a good enough idea or an exciting enough character that I wanted to play. As Nick said, we had known each other before and had done some improvisation together and got on well, and out of the blue, Nick sent me this idea which seemed like a no brainer. The idea of working with him on camera, and really being able to play and improvise more together. In addition to this idea which was really original, a workplace comedy set in the high stakes world of cyber-terrorism and national security. Combined with this character who I thought was a blowhard and a really fun departure to play. Nick, I think I got your email and immediately wrote back, "Yeah, let's do it."
The show also trades off fish-out-of-water humor and puts David into a lot of situations where your character is encountering Britishisms and cultural traditions. Did that arise out of either of your own personal experiences?
MOHAMMED: It wasn't really based on anything as specific as that apart from knowing how fun it would be to have a character like Jerry act as if he's the biggest person in the room in his brash American way in an institution that is as quintessentially British or English as GCHQ. We discussed a lot about backstory and how we don't make it feel like too much of a stereotype because I'm a British writer writing an American part. There were plenty of examples of, often white, powerful men on both sides of the Atlantic [at the head of] countries or industries who seem to stumble their way to the top, but they've got these outrageous personalities. We felt a little bit of a nod toward what was going on in the world, even though there was never kind of a direct intention to be satirical in that way. I've actually never been to America, which is bonkers really.
SCHWIMMER: I was excited about the idea of tapping into this phenomenon that I've witnessed, which is a kind of American who presumes America is the best at everything and anything. There's this presumption of excellence about America and the kind of ignorance that accompanies that. Many Americans have not been out of the United States. Many Americans don't own a passport. I liked the idea of playing a guy who just assumes and presumes his way is the best way. He knows it's not the only way but surely it's the best. We haven't written this specifically, but I assumed it's the first time my guy has ever traveled in his life out of the country.
Jerry is pretty insufferable. Was your goal to play a character that would make all the people who dislike Ross have to throw up their hands and go, "You know what, you're right. Ross is not that bad?"
SCHWIMMER: Oh, I don't think that way. I don't really look backward and think about is this character going to make Ross feel different. It didn't really even cross my mind because they're so different. I was just focused on what makes this guy tick and what are his flaws and how does he operate.
This series is dotted with incredible physical comedy from you both from pratfalls to running into glass walls to fistfights. Did you guys trade tips? David, we've seen you here in the States excel at physical comedy for a long time. What is the key to it?
SCHWIMMER: Stretching [Laughs]. Nick and I are both huge fans of physical comedy. As a kid, I grew up obsessed with Monty Python. I would try to mimic every silly walk there was. We both love it and appreciate it. Nick is incredible at it. We just enjoy watching each other go at it. There are times that we would pitch ideas to each other if we're not in the same scene, but being able to do a scene like the one where he's trying to get me to the bathroom through all the security measures, a lot of that was improv and just being able to play with an actor like Nick, we're playing at the same level. It's so joyful; it's just such a treat.
By their very nature, we don’t really know a lot about how national security organizations work. What was your research like for this?
MOHAMMED: When I first got commissioned, I got what books there were about GCHQ in particular, but a lot of it was more historical stuff. Going back to World War II. Naturally, they are a lot more closed door and they keep what they do largely hidden. I found that quite invigorating as a writer because it meant that you could slightly stretch the truth. You had a little bit of artistic license to play with people's expectations. There's a couple of documentaries on YouTube but there's not a huge amount. A lot of our questions were more what does the canteen serve? We were never really fussed about the bigger questions. We can write about the cyber terrorism relatively easily. The show is about these characters and how they relate to each other, so we wanted it to always feel like a credible institution because it is based on the real workplace. We felt that we could sometimes stretch ideas a little bit further and you know no one would be able to prove us wrong, so it was quite fun really being able to blur the lines of reality a little bit.
Toward the end of the season, you have a wedding scenario. David, I know you said you're very forward-looking, but did filming a wedding in Britain bring back any memories for you? Were people on set perhaps ribbing you about saying the wrong name?
SCHWIMMER: [Laughs] No.
MOHAMMED: Our main memory of that wedding was that it was the hottest day of the year in the U.K. and we have no air conditioning, so everyone was going mad because we're all too hot. Everyone was laughing too much and then we got quite behind on filming because there's a lot of laughing and general hysteria because of the heat.
SCHWIMMER: We were all so hot and so dehydrated. It was easily 95 degrees on the soundstage with no ventilation so we were out of our minds.
Since this show is about culture clash, can you each name one thing about the other's culture you really love?
SCHWIMMER: I love the pub culture in Britain. It spills outside, and it's this lovely, friendly, open vibe.
MOHAMMED: I'm a big classical music fan. Or neo-classical music. I love Aaron Copeland and Barber and loads of American early 20th-century music. I'm a big fan of American film scores, so I guess that would be my thing that I would take from American culture.
What's in store for season 2? You end on a fairly significant cliffhanger.
MOHAMMED: Without telling you how it goes, that does get dealt with. We'll definitely be seeing more of Mary, which is exciting. I'm really excited about season 2. We're just putting finishing touches to it now, and hopefully, we'll be filming in a month or so.
SCHWIMMER: There's an episode dedicated to Valentine's Day, another episode dedicated to sexual harassment training with a special guest star. There's a plot that's kind of being ripped straight from the headlines about a malware developed by the NSA that they lose control of that gets to the wrong hands. But we don't want to say too much about that.