Eric McCormack stars in the new TNT series, Perception (Mondays, 10/9C), as Dr. Daniel Pierce, a university professor with a doctorate in neuroscience – and an out-of-balance brain chemistry that renders him a paranoid schizophrenic. Non-medicated, he uses music and complex puzzles to force his mind into what we perceive as a state of normalcy – but occasionally, it requires puzzles of a higher order to fully engage him. Thus, when a former student, FBI Agent Kate Moretti (Rachel Leigh Cook), approaches him for help on a particularly difficult murder investigation, he turns his unusual skills and brain chemistry on the problem.
McCormack recently took part in a teleconference Q&A session with a number of bloggers/journalists to talk about the series, which premieres Monday, July 9th.
Eric McCormack: How are you, sir?
Doing great. How are you? I have to say what an incredible acting job in the premier episode, it’s incredible. What, you know, what drew you to the part? Was it immediately you read the script and went ‘I got to do it,’ or how did it all happen for you?
McCormack: Yes, I was a bit of – I mean 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 Housman.
And 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 audience in the palm of his hand and that he’s funny and passionate and finds an interesting way to approach what could be a very dry topic. He finds a very humorous ((inaudible)), okay I love this guy.
And then to find out outside of the classroom he is often crippled by symptoms of schizophrenia, I thought that’s a wild combination of the arrogant what becomes with an intellectual and the absolutely let us say crippling conditions that the disease ((inaudible)), you know.
What kind of research did you do?
McCormack: I did as much as I could because I just – 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.
So I – 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 she 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 and 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 Best Man. It’s really terrific.
McCormack: Thank you. It’s been…
And I know you’re working with some real legendary actors in that cast. I was wondering there’s still things you can learn from them, and also do you have a preference of live theater verses TV?
McCormack: Well, let me ((inaudible)). My preference always will be a combination. I just – I think it’s really – it’s important – it’s like 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 and they feed each other, for me they really do.
I never get a chance to – so far into one that I forget what the skills of the other can teach me. And in terms of teaching, I mean to – I’ve got James Earl Jones in my face every night. I mean ((inaudible)) 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 it’s – what I learned from him, from Angela is that you never stop. They’re in their 80s and they’re about to actually – after this show they’re going to go out and do Driving Miss Daisy together in Australia. They – I can’t ever imagine retiring when I stand on stage with them and realize this passion never goes away, you know.
And do you see yourself returning one day in a musical?
McCormack: I think I do. It depends – I think it would depend on the show. Musicals have become so operatic now, you know, 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 know, 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 an absolute gift it is to speak with you today and thank you so much, and congratulations on the role of Dr. Daniel Pierce.
McCormack: Thank you so much.
You’re very welcome. I have to ask, what aspects of your personality or idiosyncrasies did you bring to the role of Daniel?
McCormack: Well, I think – what I love about him like I say is that combination of so much confidence and so much crippling fear. And I think if there is anything that I can understand as an actor is, I think it’s that.
It’s that idea that sometimes the only way we see is by walking into a room and believing that we – that no one can do that better than us. And 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.
And 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.
And to have that disguising someone that ultimately would rather be in a laboratory then out to dinner with people is to understand the world that he lives in (is) mixed emotional.
Okay. Now what challenges have you found on taking on the producers cap now that you’re wearing that, and congratulations on that as well?
McCormack: Thank you. 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 and I love – I’m really excited how that worked out.
And then to say hey, it’s important 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 we always have – 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?
McCormack: If we did it would be another character. That is certainly – that’s not – he is not a multiple personality. But we certainly – I can definitely see – 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.
((inaudible)) episode 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 lets see what’s underneath that.’
And 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.
So, what do you enjoy more, the drama or the comedy?
McCormack: 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 mists of the crazy comedy. And nothing gives me a bigger better thrill than, you know, 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.
I always want to – in the play I’m doing right now it’s ((inaudible)) that was essentially a comedy, but my character is definitely has some very dark, dark moments and that combination ((inaudible)) thrilling.
Okay great, thanks. And what do you find challenging from an acting aspect?
McCormack: In Pierce?
McCormack: In the character you mean?
McCormack: 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 go, I have to make sure that I am – 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. And I like sometimes to discover he surprises me. That somehow my reactions are something – 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, you know.
Nice to talk to you, Eric. I’m really enjoying – I’ve seen the first four episodes I’ve really enjoyed them. Some of your best moments I thought were kind of 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?
McCormack: Well, 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 – I like that combination. I think 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.’ You know, and he’s not, you know, 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 solvers’ 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, you know.
Well I tell you what, how would you describe – 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, Daniel’s, relation with her, Kate Moretti.
McCormack: Well, it’s sort of the fun other element, I mean we’re still trying to sell this show. Obviously we’re focusing on who he is or what he does and what condition he has. But what I’m really hoping that the viewership of TNT, that the 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 and she’s – even though she’s considerably younger than him, she’s in her 30s and, you know, she’s fair game.
But 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 ((inaudible)) the moment he says, ‘Oh I remember you, you were the teacher she had the big crush on.’ All of a sudden it’s like so maybe ((inaudible)). 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.
And as for working with Rachael, I mean she is just – she’s so funny. She’s such a bright girl, I don’t know that – 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, you know, 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 – 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?’
And I think we’re going to get that sense with Rachael that she – as much as I have emotional things to overcome and I have my condition to overcome, she has her position in the FBI – a pretty, short girl at the FBI – that’s not going to get taken seriously by the bosses. So bringing me in, helping me help her is a big part of her emotional choice.
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?
McCormack: Well, it’s like I said, it’s Champaign problems, you know, I would never – 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 and 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 there’s other things I can do and you might enjoy them, too.’
So 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.
Okay I’m going to try not to be to fan girl for you but I’m super duper huge fan of yours ever since Will & Grace, so trying to keep it together so I can be professional but it’s such a pleasure to speak with you.
McCormack: I always welcome super duper fan girls.
I’ll try not to gush, but as an amazing actor yourself 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?
McCormack: Well, you know, it’s – I’m not a natural tweeter. I don’t – it’s kind of, it’s work to make myself tweet everyday. But having work that I’m excited about like the play that last few months when we first got started it was fun to tweet about that. And I’m really – as we’re getting closer now in the next few weeks I’m going to start tweeting a lot about it because I want people to see the show. I’m excited to share that. 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.
And I think this will be – this is particularly for summer, I think this will be a breath of fresh air. So much of summer programming is sort of fun and silly and ((inaudible)) reality shows and competition shows. I think this is – you know, 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 a lot of those shows we know – it’s nice to see coming from the angle of someone with a very extreme point of view on life. And 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 this – 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, and for anyone that likes the twists and turns in an hour long mystery there’s going to be some really surprising episodes.
Great. Thank you so much.
McCormack: Thank you so much.
Photos courtesy TNT.