Eric McCormack – The Depths of Perception
by Jay S. Jacobs
We’ve been following Eric McCormack’s cult drama Perception on TNT for three seasons now. Surprisingly the third season may be the best yet, a mixture of deep twisty mysteries and intriguing personal interactions. It is a show that is unashamedly intelligent and academic, and yet at the same time effortlessly intriguing.
McCormack has created an distinctive character with Dr. Daniel Pierce, a brilliant Professor who specializes in brain dysfunction, who also happens to be schizophrenic. Because of his unique perspective to mental illness, he has become a specialist for the FBI, consulting on murders in which the sanity of the suspect is in question. However, sometimes Dr. Pierce puts his own mental acuity on the back burner.
We have been lucky enough to speak with series star McCormack each season of the show’s first three seasons, so we feel a certain personal connection to the series’ twists and turns. (The first two seasons we also had the wonderful opportunity to speak with his co-star Rachael Leigh Cook.)
A few days before the summer finale of Perception’s third season (the final five episodes of the season will air this winter), we were able to chat again with McCormack, together with a few other media outlets, to discuss the show’s growth and its inimitable charm.
You have such an incredible role. Is playing someone who’s reality is pretty broad, is that reaching or is it fun? Is it exhausting?
It’s totally all of the above. I have a lot of energy in life anyway. So when I’ve tried to play cooler heads, when I’ve tried to play macho guys with little to say, it doesn’t work. (laughs) I’m better off in a part like Daniel, where my brain is racing and my physicality is a plus. I love playing a guy that is much smarter than I am. Whose verbiage gives me a chance to throw my ability to memorize and my ability to describe into play. He’s a workout, but you feel good after a workout.
Have you found out yet whether there’s going to be a next season or is it too early to tell?
It’s not too early for me, but you’ll have to ask TNT. It seems to be too early for them.
I hope you get one..
There’s been a running arc through this season about your dad. How Dr. Pierce is trying to come to terms with his bad relationship with him and also his struggles with Alzheimer’s. As a brain specialist, do you think that it makes it sort of harder knowing his helplessness in this situation? And also, what’s Peter Coyote like to work with in the role?
Well, first of all I was just delighted. The exciting thing about TV sometimes is that you can plant seeds that show up and grow later on. When JoBeth Williams appeared as a hallucination of my mother in the second season, she mentioned that my father and I had a very distant and not good relationship. It was literally one line, but I love that that planted the seed for this year where Peter shows up, who’s great. I mean, an underrated actor. I just loved having him there. It was one of those pieces of casting that once he’s on set, once we’re in similar clothing, it was just kind of magic. It worked. He and I were just naturally fractious and it was a great piece of chemistry. I think for Daniel – for someone who’s constantly wrestling with the idea of his disease not debilitating him, that he’s going to get the better of it or he’s going to use it to his advantage – to see his own father, another very hard-headed man, being brought low by a brain disease. It gives him that much more fuel. It makes him that much more sympathetic.
How do I put this? Was it Malcolm Gladwell (ed note: Canadian journalist and author of Outliers) that was talking about the 10,000 hours? This concept that you really don’t get good at something until you’ve put 10,000 hours into it. I feel like, for me, I’ve learned that I don’t know what I would’ve brought to this 15 years ago. Daniel and I intersected at exactly the right time. I’m enough of an actor now to play this part in a way that I might not have been before. The idea that I had about acting in theater school was very much about putting on costumes and “my dad’s got a barn, let’s put on a play.” It’s a much deeper and richer experience than that. To play someone like this, I think I have a real responsibility to the mental health community and to the academic community to get it right. I’m glad that happened at a time in my life where I could do it justice.
It’s been a great season. We’ve enjoyed seeing Daniel in so many different aspects of his life and in different situations. What can you tease us, though, is in store for the summer finale?
I loved watching the one last week. I thought it was one of the best ones we’ve done in terms of just a great set of fast-paced emotional storylines. It was the LeVar Burton’s first directing for us. This next one is also LeVar. They go together very nicely, these two episodes. What we tease at the end of the episode that aired the other night was this idea that Donnie’s pursuing being an Alderman in Chicago and the relationship he has with this woman, Shelby [Brooke Nevin]. That’s the big drive in the next episode. Quite frankly, I wish it’s something we teased out a little longer because the idea of Scott Wolf as a candidate, I think, is a great idea. In fact, a lot of it is going to come to a head in this next episode in a very shocking way. The episode opens quite shockingly, I think. That’s about all I can tease.
I’m sure you’ve been asked this question a million times but do you think there’ll ever be any of your former costars from Will & Grace appearing on your show?
Well, it turns out my main costar, Debra [Messing], is about to solve crimes herself on her new NBC show [The Mysteries of Laura], so I think eventually everyone from, Will & Grace will solve crimes. I do think that’s the fate of all of us. But I don’t know. I know Sean [Hayes] is going to be busy with The Millers.But I’ve always said I’d love to show America what Megan [Mullaly] can do when she’s not being funny, because she’s such a good actress. I’d love to get Megan on in some form, if we get another crack at it.
Earlier this season you filmed an episode in Paris. What was that like for the show to go on the road like that? And do you think in the long run that Dr. Pierce might’ve been happier had he just stayed there and tried to live his life as it was going there?
The experience of doing it was fantastic because of the nature of the show. He is an intellect and an appreciator of history. The fact that he could walk the streets of Paris and be a fish out of water – in terms of his disease – but be very much at home, too. When we shot the scene where Pierce lectured at the Sorbonne, it was just magical, just magical. But in fact, I think that what turned out in the end with this episode, was the idea that he did believe he could be there. He did believe he could change his life, again, without meds. He could just make a giant shift and everything would be all right. And, in fact, it went completely wrong. I think that was a good thing to show the audience. To remind them that this man that so often seems quite confident is, in fact, at the whimsy of his disease. [He] can’t just ride the horse any way he wants. So Paris was a great reminder that there’s still a lot of adventure out there but he not necessarily able to handle it all.
We’ve talked about what’s in store for the remainder of this season but what would you like to see Daniel explore next season?
Well, it’s funny, with the way TNT teases it out. We have five more episodes that we’ve already shot, that will air in the winter which is technically part of season 2. It becomes this kind of season 2A, I suppose. Those get into a new area, which I think is a logical extension of what happens Tuesday. As Rachel and Scott’s characters start to head towards a second marriage, a second wedding, Daniel, as a result of what happens in this episode next week, starts to come out of his own emotional shell and starts to speak up a bit more. It’s an interesting dilemma with people online in terms of how happy they are or not happy they are, that Kate may end up with Donnie again. There’s a whole contingent – the shippers, I love the shippers – the shippers that want Kate and Daniel together. And there are those that actually like Daniel meeting these few women he’s had over the course of the season and actually getting some action. As much as I love our crimes of the week, I do love the emotional territory that we’re starting to get into, particularly with Kate and Daniel.
You mentioned there’re five more episodes to the rest of the season. So I hope you get more seasons, but if not, will the final one from this season be a good ending for the story?
Well, the honest answer to that is no. (laughs) It will be much better to have another season. We certainly didn’t shoot anything with the idea that this was the ending. It’s an ending to an element of the story but it, in fact, sets up a lot more stuff for a hopefully future season.
You had mentioned earlier that LeVar Burton had directed the last episode and has done the next one. What was he like to work with in that capacity compared to working with him as a costar?
It was honestly, I think the whole crew would probably agree, everyone’s favorite experience. He’s just so much fun, LeVar. He’s so full of joy. He’s always fun when he drops in to play the dean for a scene or two. But when he’s in charge, there’s a tremendous sense of trust of everyone. He’s a guy that’ll print after the first take. Everyone’s like, “Wait, wait, wait. No, wait. Give us one more.” He’s like, “What? That was great.” And he’s very often right. That kind of confidence and positive energy is such a thing, particularly in television where crews can get so worn out by people doing six, seven, eight takes, over and over and over again. He was a real leader and he was a joy.
You know, Eric, there are so many shows now on cable, on television, period. And there’re so many things to choose from but why do you think people are honed into watching Perception every week when they have so many other choices? To you, what do you think makes a show great to fans?
My hope was always that it would bring in different groups. And it is. I mean, I’m hoping we can build on what we have, but it certainly is. To anyone that likes, you know, Castle and The Mentalist, there’s all of that crime solving and chemistry. A lot of what I get is college students who maybe don’t watch a lot of television, or at least not this kind of traditional mystery show. They love the opening and closing. They love the lecture scenes. They love that it’s an academic setting. There really aren’t a lot of shows, ever, set in universities, and with such an unabashed, unapologetic academic approach. I think Daniel is that. Daniel gets to be our crime solver, our Sherlock Holmes, but he also gets to be terrified. He gets to be academically brilliant and not just forensically or going from his street sense. He’s a very different character and I think it’s appealed to people in ways that they maybe didn’t see coming.
All photos copyright 2014. Courtesy of TNT. All rights reserved