Interview: Eric McCormack on ‘Perception’

For eight years, Toronto native Eric McCormack made our living rooms a better place to be on Thursday nights, thanks to his role as lawyer Will Truman on the hit NBC sitcom, Will & Grace, opposite Debra Messing. As comfortable in comedy as he is in drama, McCormack returns to the small screen on July 9th for TNT’s new series, Perception, as Dr. Daniel Pierce, a neuroscience professor recruited by the FBI to help solve complicated cases. McCormack spoke to about his new dramatic role, working with his co-star Rachael Leigh Cook, and life after Will & Grace.

Q: What drew you to the part?

Eric McCormack: The idea of playing not just a neuroscientist not just somebody brilliant — 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. I love this guy! And then to find out that, outside of the classroom, he is often crippled by symptoms of schizophrenia… I thought that was a wild combination.

Q: What kind of research did you do?

Eric McCormack:  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 — 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. She was 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.

Q:  What aspects of your personality or idiosyncrasies did you bring to the role of Daniel?

Eric McCormack:  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 see is by walking into a room and believing 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. I think understanding that dichotomy — 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 who ultimately would rather be in a laboratory than out to dinner with people — is to understand the world that he lives in.

Q:  So, what do you enjoy more, the drama or the comedy?

Eric McCormack:  I love doing both. When I was on Will & Grace, nothing made me happier than having a big dramatic scene with [Debra Messing] in the mists of the crazy comedy. And 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.

Q:  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 character, Kate Moretti?

Eric McCormack: I’m really hoping that the viewership of TNT, particularly the women watching, get into is this relationship. It 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, you know, 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. 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, where he says, “Oh, I remember you. You were the teacher she had the big crush on.” I think that the audience will start to see — we don’t push it too much early on, but over the course of 10 episodes — that there are definitely feelings there on both sides that they don’t know what to do with.

As for working with Rachael, I mean, she is just — she’s 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.

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?” 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 as a pretty, short girl at the FBI who’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.

Q: 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?

Eric McCormack:  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 DVDs, but in the meantime, open your mind a bit and see there are 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.

Q:  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?

Eric McCormack:  Well, I’m not a natural tweeter. It’s work to make myself tweet every day. As we’re getting closer, 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.

I think this will be, particularly for summer, a breath of fresh air. So much of summer programming is sort of fun and silly — reality shows and competition shows. People love a good mystery-solving show. I think we’ve gotten to the point now where we can’t just see regular cops following regular things. It’s nice to see [this kind of show] coming from the angle of someone with a very extreme point of view on life. A guy who 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 they’d have to go to an expert, someone like a Daniel Pierce, to solve it. Having David Eagleman, who wrote the book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, 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.

[Photo courtesy TNT Drama]

Free to join! Get the hottest fashion, beauty and celebrity news, enter exclusive subscriber giveaways and be the first to receive the full digital version of REAL STYLE magazine every month.