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'Perception' star Eric McCormack discusses his twisty TNT drama
'Will & Grace' veteran knows just how much to spoil
For months now, TNT has been urging critics to say as little as possible about the new drama "Perception," for fear of spoiling the show's various twists.
Because most of those twists center on Eric McCormack's character, Dr. Daniel Pierce, I was wary that when I got on the phone with the Emmy-winning actor he might be cagey or entirely silent about his new role.
Fortunately, McCormack is a pro and he has found a very good approach to revealing and discussing certain aspects of the "Perception" backdrop without giving away the entire store.
"I would love the idea that I can tell people honestly that this is a show about a brilliant professor who gets involved with his ex-student and helps her solve crimes for the FBI," says McCormack, recently seen on Broadway in "The Best Man." "If that's all you know, I think there are some really fun, interesting, surprising things in store."
If that's all you want to know about "Perception," you probably don't want to read this interview before Monday's (July 9) premiere.
If, however, you want to hear more about McCormack's approach to Pierce's eccentricities, his eagerness to serve as a producer on "Perception" and getting audiences to move beyond Will Truman, click through...
HitFix: Normally I need to ask actors what drew them to a project, but with a role like this, I think I know. [He laughs.] So how early did you become involved and part did you play in steering this project?
Eric McCormack: It was really early. I've never seen a television thing gestate this long. We shot the pilot a year and a half ago, in December of 2010, in Toronto, and I got involved a few months before that and was involved in all the casting. It's gone on a while. The pilot was pretty much shaped by the time I came on-board, but then I got to help with the casting and sorta the look and the feel of the character. I think on paper initially, he was a bit more of your traditional professor -- a little bit more nebbishy. I think they envisioned somebody with your typical jacket with the leather on the elbows and I said, "I want this guy to be a weird mix of things." I said there was a time before he'd been through "it" that he was confident and kinda hip and probably got a lot of girls and some of that is still in there, but it has been completely mixed with the emotional problems and the lack of empathy and all of the things that come with symptoms of schizophrenia. So I think we managed to mix it up visually and in terms of how he relates to people and make an interesting character, I hope.
HitFix: You mentioned the thing he's going through both specifically and with euphemism there. TNT has really been asking critics not to reveal basically anything about the show. How do you think that viewers are going to benefit from coming into the series unaware of specific key pieces of information?
Eric McCormack: Well, I've been watching "Game of Thrones" every week and I haven't read the books and scene after scene, my jaw drops a little lower, because I didn't see it coming, story-wise. You know? And that's such a luxury these days. It seems like everything in movies and television is so pre-sold and like, "We can't afford surprises! They might not like surprises." I think people love surprises. I would love the idea that I can tell people honestly that this is a show about a brilliant professor who gets involved with his ex-student and helps her solve crimes for the FBI. If that's all you know, I think there are some really fun, interesting, surprising things in store. I certainly don't mind revealing that he does suffer from some sort of schizophrenia, but how that plays out, I think that's kind of the fun of the show, is not knowing everything.
HitFix: When you play a character with all of these eccentricities and paranoias, how aware does that make you of your own personal eccentricities and paranoias?
Eric McCormack: It really does. And I think it also creates an empathy, particularly for homeless people on the street. We have a time when we see them when we're young and we go, "What's the matter with THAT guy?" Well, very often it's mental illness and it's not mental illness because they're on the street. They're on the street because of mental illness that they simply couldn't control. They didn't get the meds they needed. They didn't get the support they needed. They couldn't get the jobs. So I think it creates a tremendous empathy and you do start to think about how lucky you are and also how you deal with your own little, as you say, eccentricities, how your own fear of what others saying about you and etc etc play into your personality. What I loved about this guy was that he's not a victim. He chooses a lot of these situations. He could be on meds. He very hubristically, if that's a word, decides that he, as a physician, can cure himself, that he can control it, that by controlling his routine, he can be on top of this, because who knows the brain better than he does? Which, of course, does not work out too well for him. I love the idea that the times that he's at his worst, when he's hallucinating the worst, somehow he knows, "There's a reason for this hallucination right now. Why? What am I seeing this for?" and it's somehow related to the problems he's trying to solve, where the average person suffering from these symptoms might not be able to connect those dots.
HitFix: Is it hard to find the balance between the intellectual quirkiness and potentially amusing aspects of this guy's personality, but also remembering the genuine sort of concern that we probably should be feeling for him and his well-being?
Eric McCormack: It's entirely and absolutely difficult and it's the point. I had experience with this before, simply by playing Will Truman. Everyone in 1998 was going, "How do we do this? How do we play a gay character on an otherwise very funny show and represent that without being..." It's about figuring out what that line is and the same thing here with schizophrenia. Like I said, him being a professor of neuroscience, him understanding the brain better than anybody, that was a big key to it. It's like, OK, here's a guy who can make fun of his own symptoms. If we needed a lighter moment, he's the one that can say, "Hey, what can I do? I'm crazy." Nobody else can in the same way. So in the humorous moments, the sympathetic moments, we simply didn't want it to ever scare people. We want to actually help them understand a little bit. There's an understanding that comes over time once you get to know characters. We think, or we hope, that because he's someone that can articulate his own condition, that maybe the same thing will happen here, that you'll start to understand that it doesn't matter if you're brilliant or on the street, schizophrenia can knock you to your knees at any point, but there are also ways to come back up, whether it be meds or understanding a routine or diet, whatever it is, there's something you can learn, I think, from seeing this character go through these situations.
HitFix: We're in a phase full of Sherlock Holmes-style problem solvers in TV or movies, these quirky or eccentric geniuses with serious problems, but who also use their differentness to fight crime. Do you think that "Perception" is part of that tradition or wave?
Eric McCormack: I think it probably is, yeah. I'm not gonna run around for the next two weeks batting away every reference to "Monk" or "House" or whatever you want. Yeah, there are lots of cop shows and there are lots of lawyer shows and there always have been. We went through a period there when cops were someone that we really, really knew. We knew their home lives. And then we went through a period with "CSI" and "Law & Order" where it was just, you know, "Just the facts, ma'am" and we didn't want to know anything about them. And now the idea is that the people solving the crimes, we don't really know about them, but they're not perfect. They are odd. They're coming from a different point of view. I think it's a natural progression for crime-solving shows. This show is never about a whodunnit. This show will almost always be a "Why?" The guys are very good at writing the twists and turns that a show like this needs. I think some of these episodes will be really fun and surprising for people that just like not knowing what's around the next corner. But for the Pierce character, it's not about "Who?" It's about "Why?" and thinking it through from a neuroscience point of view, from being sucked into solving a puzzle. For him, he's never going to be busting anybody. He'll be solving a puzzle in the same way he would a Sudoku or a crossword puzzle.
HitFix: You obviously have a strong ensemble around you, but this is still very much your show. You're in basically every scene of the three episodes I watched. Did you have worries or concerns or reservations about that as a workload?
Eric McCormack: Yeah, I did, except that it's a really fun thing to try. I've been working working with Angela Lansbury here on Broadway and she spent 14 years on "Murder, She Wrote" and she said that over time, she was letting everybody else carry the load and there were episodes she wasn't even in, I think. So it's definitely, down the road, probably something to think about, but up-front, we were only doing 10 episodes and I loved diving in. We were shooting close to my home and I loved diving in and being there all the time and shaping the feel of the show and what his presence brings to things. When he comes into the FBI, that's not his home. He's not comfortable there, he's a little unpredictable, he ticks people off. Whatever it is, I liked the idea that he's not guiding us through this from one scenario to another with any kind of confidence. He's a bull in a china shop most of the time. I'm curious to see how the audience likes that and how they relate to him.
HitFix: Doing Broadway as you are now, is that making you miss the process and feedback of doing multi-cam comedy?
Eric McCormack: Yeah, nothing's ever off the table. I did the best multi-cam I can possibly image, so the idea of trying to match that any time soon, that went off the table for a while. But for me, I got my start as a serious actor and I stumbled backwards into sitcom and I'm so glad that I did, because certainly growing up, it was a very big part -- between "M*A*S*H" and "All in the Family" and "Get Smart" -- it was a huge part of me, but in terms of my education and in terms of my aspirations, it was always dramatic and it was always variety. The examples of people that I thought of as successes were always people that played a wide variety of parts, someone like a Kevin Kline, who was never the same from role to role. That, to me, represented success. So I'm just pushing the envelope a little bit, trying to figure out what the post-"Will & Grace" audience will accept. In this play right now, I'm playing a total asshole, as I did six years ago in a Neil LaBute play Off-Broadway, and it's really fascinating to see people's reactions. They're not entirely happy. They don't need Will Truman to be an asshole, but I need them, over time, to understand that to be happy as an actor, I need to find all the colors.
HitFix: In terms of, as you say, pushing the professional edge of the envelope, how important was it for you to serve as a producer on "Perception"? And how actively have you taken to that responsibility?
Eric McCormack: It was important for me to have that as a mantle so that I had the opportunity to speak up when I could. It was in no way a show of doubt about Ken. [Co-creator] Ken Biller knows the show he's making. I love that he's the boss. I also love that he's completely collaborative. I think he would have been anyway, even if I weren't a producer, but I liked knowing that we were partners, that we came at it from a point of view that when I spoke up... You can't be in every scene scene and truly produce a television show. Luckily we had several terrific producers and Ken is at the helm, but it was important to me just to know that I always had a voice, because I'm the one, it's my head on the chopping block now, so I'm gonna make sure that I can be proud.
"Perception" premieres on Monday, July 9 at 10 p.m. on TNT.