Eric McCormack gets by with a little help from his (imaginary) friends
Eric McCormack took a chance in 1997: he took the role of Will - the out New York lawyer in a new sitcom called "Will & Grace." American television had been making strides in the presentation of LGBT characters during the Clinton years; but was it ready for a "Friends"-like sitcom about a gay man and his BFF (played by Debra Messing)?
It turned out to be the right move: the show was a hit, making McCormack and Messing overnight stars. Both would go on to win Emmy Awards for their performances and the show itself - still thriving in reruns - is often cited as one of the key drivers in the assimilation of gays and lesbians into mainstream culture.
Since leaving "Will & Grace," McCormack has done theater in New York, independent films, television mini-series and one series - the short-lived "Trust Me" on TNT. This month he's back on TNT with "Perception," a new procedural where he plays a neuroscientist who assists the FBI on some of their most complex cases. He is also a producer on the series.
Not on his meds
On "Perception," McCormack plays Daniel Pierce, a professor and neuroscientist who also has schizophrenia himself. When presenting the show to the Television Critics Association earlier this year, McCormack joked about his television legacy.
"I said to [co-creator] Ken [Biller], ’Can we just make this guy a gay lawyer? It might be a little less work for me,’" McCormack joked.
The FBI enlists Dr. Pierce to help them solve crimes each week. The secret Pierce keeps is that he actually sees visions of imaginary people (weekly guest stars and series regulars) that help him solve the case.
"I think what I love about the character is that as a neuroscientist who is also suffering symptoms of schizophrenia, his brain is like his best friend and his worst enemy," McCormack said.
"It’s revealed in the pilot that he’s not on his meds, which is a controversial thing for someone to do (in his situation). In his case, it’s kind of like almost an intellectual hubris. He certainly wouldn’t recommend that to anybody else suffering with a condition, but for him it’s like ’Physician heal thyself.’ He figures that with the meds he loses a chunk of who he is and the way his magnificent brain works. He doesn’t want to dull that, so he takes the risk."
Sponsored by Red Bull?
Solving crimes may give Dr. Pierce the perfect forum to work out his personality conflicts. He wants to be right, but he also wants to educate.
"As much as he is a scientist, he’s also a teacher," McCormack said. "He has the intellectual hubris of a scientist, but he has the passion and the empathy of a teacher. He loves to share this. To mix that with the symptoms of his condition, to go from being a very funny, flirty lecturer one minute to absolutely crippled socially the next, or inappropriate because something comes out, is something we have to be careful with, but it’s also the secret to making him an interesting and complex character."
There’s so much inside Dr. Pierce’s head it sometimes comes out in a frantic jumble. McCormack gives an energetic performance, and joked about how he maintains it.
"The show is sponsored by Red Bull," he joked. "No, I love it. It’s a way to use my natural energy. He tries to keep up with his own mind, and the guys have written some speeches that just were fabulous that you’ve got to just dive into. There are certain words that I need a good three or four days of rehearsal just to gear up for some of the terms."
Getting it right
As someone giving a dramatic representation of an individual with schizophrenia, McCormack does take his portrayal of schizophrenia seriously though. To keep his performance accurate, he did proper research, along with the show’s creators.
"We did a lot of research together," he said. "[Co-creator] Mike [Sussman] and I, before while Ken was trying to get the show all together, went out and met with some fascinating people. Michael Green, a neuroscientist from UCLA, was really helpful in terms of being a professor but also his expertise is schizophrenia. We had lunch with Elyn Saks who wrote a fantastic book called ’The Center Cannot Hold’ about her days as a brilliant law student and having her first episodes, her first breaks with reality in the ’70s. [It was] a tremendous book in terms of understanding what it feels like to first experience that and to sit with her and see her in an academic setting was really, really helpful too."
McCormack continued his research after filming began. Just by coincidence, he met more people with access to neuroscience study.
"After we shot the pilot but before the series, I ran into a woman in the grocery store in Vancouver, who turned out to be a neuroscience professor at the University of British Columbia, and we became fast friends. So she took me around the brain center up there, and that was tremendously helpful too."
Pierce works with FBI Agent Katie Moretti (Rachael Leigh Cook), a former student who enlists his help. Their professional and personal relationship creates additional conflict for the show.
"I love it because it’s that sort of teacher/student ’Don’t stand so close to me’ relationship," McCormack said. "I do love that. I used to love John Houseman on ’The Paper Chase.’ I love that lecturer position, and I love the idea that the people you see the most are your students. Clearly we had some sort of connection that, A, led her into her job and, B, trying to use what she learned there. What I love is that, like I was saying about his brain, she is in some ways a detriment to my health. Her coming back into my life with these cases breaks my routine. If I’m going to be off my meds, I need routine. She comes in with these things that totally upset me, but at the same time it brings the kind of emotional and mental stimulation that Pierce can’t get out of a crossword puzzle. So he actually looks forward to that."
As the star attached to the show during development, McCormack was involved with casting his costar too. First, he joked about what he saw in Cook.
"I wanted to create the illusion of height, so I certainly wanted to go a little shorter for sure, which worked miracles with Rachael," McCormack said.
Then he got serious. "I think particularly with the character of Kate, we saw a lot of terrific actresses that you believe that they were cops, but I think we were looking for just that other little thing. What Rachael brought into the room was a sense of humor.
"There was something about her that reminded me, I’ve said this before, but it reminded me of Jodie Foster in ’Silence of the Lambs,’ someone you look at and go, ’Wait a minute. You’re going to come in here and bust this big guy? You’re going to solve this crime?’ But she did it in a surprising way, and it was having those odds stacked against her that I loved."
Since Pierce’s visions are played by real actors, it can be a big surprise to find out someone in the scene with him is just an imaginary character. McCormack promises "Perception" won’t play that card too often.
"That could get old pretty fast. Is somebody in his life today not real? It’s more about why that hallucination? Why now? When he hallucinates someone or something, it is some part of his brain helping him solve the puzzle that Kate’s brought to him. Very often we’ll reveal right off the top, yes, this is a hallucination. The fun will not be who’s real and who’s not, but why that vision now?"
There is room for humor in "Perception" given Dr. Pierce’s unique abilities and condition, but the format is one-hour drama. After the eight seasons of "Will & Grace," McCormack has wanted to switch gears. His first drama since "Will" was the short-lived "Trust Me."
"I needed to flex the other muscles that I hadn’t flexed in a long time. After doing ’Trust Me’ with Michael and TNT, it whet my appetite again for how much I love doing an hour and more complex characters. And then when this one came along, I couldn’t say ’no’."
"Perception" airs Monday nights at 10 on TNT.