It’s All a Matter of Perception
by Jay S. Jacobs
Eric McCormack is already something of a TV icon, after spending most of the past decade as Will Truman, the best friend of a neurotic Jewish New Yorker in the groundbreaking sitcom Will & Grace. The series – which ran from 1998 to 2006, made stars out McCormack and co-stars Debra Messing, Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes. However, beyond breaking down walls of tolerance (McCormack and Hayes’ characters were both proudly out gay men), the series was one of the biggest popular hits of the decade.
However, if Will & Grace is all you know about Eric McCormack, you don’t know nearly enough of the story. The Canadian-born actor (his sister, Mary, is also a well-known actress, just finishing five seasons starring the series In Plain Sight) has had a fascinating career which has encompassed television, theater and film.
McCormack’s latest role is just another left turn in a career that has taken many. He plays Dr. Daniel Pierce in the series Perception, a brilliant college psych professor with no social skills who is also battling with schizophrenia. Due to his unusual empathetic understanding with mental illness, he is often contacted by the FBI – in the form of his beautiful former student Kate Moretti (played by Rachael Leigh Cook of She’s All That and Psych) – to offer insight into crimes in which the perp appears to be psychologically unstable. Dr. Pierce tries to use the puzzles of the crimes to fight off his own massive demons.
While he is waiting for the Perception premiere, McCormack has also been putting in duty in the Tony-nominated Broadway revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. The show allowed him to work with an all-star cast including James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Candice Bergen, Michael McKean, Kerry Butler and John Larroquette. McCormack is leaving the role (to be replaced by John Stamos) the day after Perception premieres.
A few weeks before Perception was set to premiere, we were invited to take part in a conference call with McCormack about his new show, his current Broadway role and his career.
What drew you to the part? Was it immediate, you read the script and went “I got to do it?”
Yes, it was that first page where I’m lecturing was a big one for me because I was a big Paper Chase fan from the 70s with John Houseman. The idea of playing… not just a neuroscientist not just somebody brilliant… but the fact that he is a teacher, that he has that thing that obvious talk with his hand. He’s funny and passionate and finds an interesting way to approach what could be a very dry topic. He finds a very human approach. I thought, okay, I love this guy. Then to find out that outside of the classroom he is often crippled by symptoms of schizophrenia, I thought that’s a wild combination of the arrogant hubris that comes with an intellectual and the absolutely let us say crippling conditions that the disease brings.
What kind of research did you do?
I did as much as I could, because I think it’s crucial that we represent all aspects of this: the neuroscience and also the academia but most importantly the schizophrenia. Not to mention the FBI reality which is somebody else’s job, but with incredible accuracy. We started with Dr. Michael Green at UCLA who is a neuroscience professor with schizophrenia as his expertise. And then I sat down with Elyn Saks, a fascinating woman who wrote a book called The Center Cannot Hold. She is a law professor at USC, but she wrote a book about her own schizophrenia, which completely blew her mind out in the 70s. She was like writing brilliant papers one day and in the hospital strapped down to a bed the next and has such tremendous memory of it that she was able to describe it. Some of the passages in her book about what it feels like to break psychotically were absolutely crucial to what I do in the show.
I wanted to congratulate you on the success of The Best Man. It’s really terrific.
Thank you. It’s been a fabulous experience.
I know you’re working with some real legendary actors in that cast. I was wondering if there’s still things you can learn from them, and also do you have a preference of live theater versus TV?
Well, second question first, my preference always will be a combination. I just I think it’s really important – particularly if you come from the theater and you get in television – just to keep going back and forth. I love being on film. I love being on stage. They feed each other, for me they really do. I never get so far into one that I forget what the skills of the other can teach me. In terms teaching, I mean I’ve got James Earl Jones in my face every night. I mean at the end of that show he is in my face growling that growl and yet I’m playing the bad guy. You know, here’s Darth Vader and I’m worse than him. It’s so much fun and what I learned from him, from Angela [Lansbury] is that you never stop. They’re in their 80s and after this show they’re going to go out and do Driving Miss Daisy together in Australia. I can’t ever imagine retiring when I stand on stage with them and realize this passion never goes away.
Do you see yourself returning one day in a musical?
I think I do. It would depend on the show. Musicals have become so operatic now, the age of the 70s musicals that I grew up in where you have to be an actor first then a singer second is almost gone. You’ve got to be a contestant on American Idol to star in musicals now. But if the right one came along, I would love to do it. I do love my singing.
What aspects of your personality or idiosyncrasies did you bring to the role of Daniel in Perception?
What I love about him is that combination of so much confidence and so much crippling fear. If there is anything that I can understand as an actor, I think it’s that. It’s that idea that sometimes the only way we succeed is by walking into a room and believing that no one can do that better than us. Yet it’s really just a mask we put on disguising the fact that we’re terrified that we suck, and we’re terrified that we’ll never work again. I think understanding that dichotomy is understanding what it must be like to have the drive that says I need to be in front of a classroom or I need to solve this puzzle even though I’m on a crime scene that is absolutely shutting me down. To have that disguising someone from one that ultimately would rather be in a laboratory than out to dinner with people is to understand the world that he lives in, mixed emotionally.
What challenges have you found on taking on the producers cap now that you’re wearing that?
I am a producer on the show. I’m certainly not the producer. I couldn’t produce the whole thing and be in every scene. The guys that created the show – Ken Biller and Mike Sussman – do a fine job at producing it creatively and there are some great guys producing it physically. My contribution as a producer. mainly I wanted to make sure that we all conceived the look and feel of the character and we’re on the same page. I wanted to have a say in the casting and I was certainly in the room for the casting of Rachael, Kelly and Arjay. I’m really excited how that worked out. Then to say just, hey, it’s important that the tone of the show, whether it be dealing with how do we shoot a hallucination and accurately reflect what schizophrenia can look like or feel like? How do we have a scene where he’s angry but there’s also a comic element? How do we do that and accurately represent how a professional behaves? How would a schizophrenic behave? It’s important that I always have the ability to speak up and to take ownership of that. That’s the main way I produce.
Do you think that you’re going to explore the DID multiple personality because sometimes that is connected with paranoid schizophrenia? Have you decided maybe you want to delve into that?
If we did it would be another character. He is not a multiple personality. I don’t think we did this first season, but I can definitely see, hopefully if we get a second season, dealing with that as problem with someone. A number of the episodes this first season, there is someone with a mental illness who clearly looks on the outset like the guy who did it. And it’s always Pierce as an advocate saying, “Wait a minute, just because he has schizoaffective disorder, or just because he has this condition, let’s see what’s underneath that.” Almost in every case their symptoms made them look guilty, in fact there was something else going on. So that’s the main way that he becomes an advocate for mental illness.
What do you enjoy more, drama or comedy?
It’s like I said before with stage and screen. It’s kind of the same thing. I love doing both. When I was on Will & Grace nothing made me happier than having a big dramatic scene with Debra in the midst of the crazy comedy. Nothing gives me a bigger better thrill than a dramatic crime scene in this show where he gets to suddenly say something inappropriate that clearly is going to be funny. I love the mix. I think the magic is in the combination and I’m never happy with just one. In the play I’m doing right now it’s definitely humorous, it is essentially a comedy, but my character is definitely has some very dark, dark moments and that combination is always thrilling.
What do you find challenging from an acting aspect?
In Pierce? In the character, you mean?
Like I say it’s a combination of being accurate enough to plot out: okay in the course of an episode – and we were often shooting two episodes at the same time just for cost reasons, so it was really a lot of work on my part to make sure that there is accuracy here in how he behaves situation to situation. But you also want unpredictability, that the fun of the character is that he surprises the people around him and he surprises himself sometimes. I like sometimes to discover he surprises me. That somehow my reactions might be something I hadn’t thought of. And yet still remain within the realm of being accurate and being sympathetic and being responsible to the mental illness community.
I’ve seen the first four episodes I’ve really enjoyed them. Some of your best moments I thought were when Dr. Pierce sort of gets into his rants about big business and his conspiracy theories, are those fun to play? And also do you think that it makes it kind of ironic that he sort of ends up working with the FBI? How does he justify that?
I think yes. My favorite things about the show are the dichotomies, I know I keep throwing that word around, but that idea that he can go from confidence to not confident. The idea is he’s kind of working for the man when he’s in there and yet completely paranoid about big business, about big law enforcement. I just like that combination. In the pilot there’s an interrogation room scene where he basically just says, “Now look I’m not one of them, so don’t be afraid of that.” And he’s not, he’s such a fish out of water when Kate brings him into the FBI that his behavior is coming from the point of view of someone that doesn’t trust any of these people. He just knows somewhere in here is somebody innocent. I think he’s more interested in that. It’s not so much “I’ve got to find a guilty party” that’s the crime solver’s job. He wants to make sure that the innocent people who perhaps have a mental illness or perhaps are hiding something because of some condition they don’t know about, don’t get thrown under the bus by big brother.
I really like the dynamic between you and your co-star Rachael Leigh Cook. How would you describe your working relationship with her? And characterize your character’s relation with her, Kate Moretti.
Well, this is kind of the fun other element. We’re still trying to sell this show obviously we’re focusing on who he is and what he does and what condition he has. But what I’m really hoping is that the viewership of TNT, that in particular women watching get into is this relationship is very much what I call a “don’t stand so close to me” teacher / student relationship. She clearly was his favorite back in the day and now she’s all grown up. Even though she’s considerably younger than him, she’s in her 30s and she’s fair game. There’s something about the combination of “well I used to be your teacher” and also the emotional detachment that you see with his condition that he feels. Even though he definitely has feelings for her, he doesn’t feel worthy. He doesn’t feel he’s emotionally equipped. There’s this episode coming up, one of the early ones where I meet her father who’s an ex-Chicago cop and all of the sudden Dan Lauria [who plays the dad], in one particular moment he says, “Oh I remember you, you were the teacher she had the big crush on.” All of a sudden, it’s like, oh, so maybe this goes two ways. I love that. I think that the audience will start to see – we don’t push it too much early on, but over the course of ten episodes there’s definitely feelings there on both sides they don’t know what to do with. As for working with Rachael, she is just so funny. She’s such a bright girl. If you really want to see how bright she is you have to follow her on Twitter because she has the kind of ironic one-liner perspective of a comic, even though she looks like a beautiful actress. She’s going to be a big surprise I think to people. Mostly on this show she has to be the FBI detective, but I think there’s an element hopefully that people [will appreciate]. I remember Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs where she’s like 5 feet tall and she’s standing with all these big uniformed cops and they’re all staring at her like, “You work for the FBI?” I think we’re going to get that sense with Rachael that as much as I have emotional things and my condition to overcome, she has her position in the FBI. A pretty, short girl at the FBI is not going to get taken seriously by the bosses. So, bringing me in, helping me help her is a big part of her emotional transformation.
Obviously most of the people that recognize you now recognize you from Will & Grace. How important is it to you that you don’t get pigeonholed as Will Truman?
It’s like I said, it’s champagne problems. You’ll never hear me complain about being Will Truman. It was a gift and it’ll probably be on my tombstone. But, in the meantime between now and my tombstone, I have to play different parts. Just as I have to push and stretch myself, I need to ask my fans to do the same. I need to say, “Look, you can always go back and watch the DVD’s but in the meantime open your mind a bit and see that there’s other things I can do, and you might enjoy them too.” It’s important to push that without ever losing the perspective that I’m only starring on this show because Will & Grace was such a hit. It’s always just about challenging me and challenging the viewers.
What do you think it is about Perception that’s really going to connect with the viewers? And now that you’re on Twitter how is that going to help with the promotion of the show?
I’m not a natural tweeter. It’s working to make myself tweet every day. But having work that I’m excited about like the play in the last few months, when we first got started it was fun to tweet about that. As we’re getting closer now in the next few weeks, I’m going to start tweeting a lot about [Perception] because I want people to see the show. I’m excited to share it. I never do work just for the sake of doing it. I do it because I want as many people as possible to enjoy it. This is particularly for summer, I think this will be a breath of fresh air. So much of summer programming is fun and silly and escapist and reality shows and competition shows. People love a good mystery solving show, but I love the point of view of this. I think we’ve gotten to the point now where we can’t just see regular cops following regular things because [there are] a lot of those shows. It’s nice to see it coming from the angle of someone with a very extreme point of view on life. A guy that is a neuroscience professor with schizophrenia is coming at a crime scene from a very, very different perspective, sometimes humorous, sometimes extremely intellectual. Some of the cases that we’re going to tackle are things that wouldn’t necessarily come up on a lot of other shows because there wouldn’t be anybody. They’d have to go to an expert, someone like a Daniel Pierce, to solve it. So, having our guy David Eagleman, who wrote a book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, to have him as our resident expert allowed us to come up with some plot lines that are really fun. For anyone that likes the twists and turns in an hour-long mystery there’s going to be some really surprising episodes.
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Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 7. 2012.