INTERVIEW: The Best Man‘s Eric McCormack Has a New Perception
Beginning in 1985, Eric McCormack spent five years performing in numerous plays with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Over the past three decades, he has made periodic visits to the stage, most notably in The Music Man and Some Girl(s), and is now finishing up his run as the ambitious presidential wannabe Joseph Cantwell in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man at Broadway’s Schoenfeld Theatre on July 8.
However, he won’t be out of sight for more than an instant. The Emmy Award-winning actor — best known for his star-making role as Will Truman in NBC’s Will & Grace — returns to series TV on July 9 in TNT’s Perception, in which he’ll play an eccentric neuroscience professor with paranoid schizophrenia who is recruited by the FBI to help solve complex cases. TheaterMania recently spoke to McCormack about his Broadway run and his new series.
THEATERMANIA: Has it been fun playing the sort of “bad guy” in The Best Man?
ERIC MCCORMACK: I love playing the bad guy. Like anybody who plays the bad guy, you don’t think of him as a bad guy. In Senator Joseph Cantwell’s mind, he’s just playing the game the way Americans play the game. You fight hard, and the best man wins. So the idea of an intellectual like his opponent saying, “I’m not going to play those dirty tricks, I’m not going to haggle,” makes no sense to him. That’s how I embraced him. He’s not Darth Vader. He’s the guy that believes he’s the best man for the job, and anything will work.
TM: Most of your co-stars also had major television hits. Which one were you most excited to work with and why?
EM: Michael McKean. I’m so sad he’s out of the show. It wasn’t because of Laverne & Shirley though; Spinal Tap was my big one. And I was thrilled to work with Angela Lansbury because of Sweeney Todd. To be in a show with Mrs. Lovett is pretty crazy every night.
TM: Dr. Pierce, your character in Perception is very complex. How much input did you have in his creation?
EM: I think they were initially thinking of him as more of a traditional academic, a nerdy professor. So I said, “Well, it’s me playing him, so there’s something else going on here. What does he look like and why? What does he wear? What are his tics and behaviors?” I didn’t know the answers at the time, because I hadn’t done the research yet. So I started talking to neuroscientists and people with schizophrenia. And I spoke with Elyn Saks, who is a law professor, but who wrote a book about her experiences as a schizophrenic before she was on her meds. So all those things influenced how Dr. Pierce would walk into a room. We had to create something authentic and believable, but also somebody sympathetic and fascinating, because he’s the lead on a TV series. It’s about finding the variety of responses that he has socially and romantically and intellectually, and put those all into one package.
TM: You have said that when you were growing you often felt like an outsider, as does Dr. Pierce. How else were you able to relate to him?
EM: I think that as actors, most of us probably felt like we didn’t belong, we felt like outsiders, and yet our job requires an outrageous amount of bravado to walk into a room and say, “No, no, no. I’m the guy. Hire me.” That combination was very helpful in playing Pierce because he’s a guy who, when he gets in front of the classroom, can just kill it. He has the passion and the arrogance to say, “You’re never going to learn from anybody better than me.” You get that side of the spectrum, yet he can completely shut down and be a victim of his symptoms. He’s fascinating in that way, and I can relate to him in that way.
TM: Dr. Pierce listens to music when he gets anxious, and as an audience we get to experience what seems like a soundtrack for his life. What would your own soundtrack sound like?
EM:. I could never pick one song or genre for my soundtrack. It would be a combination of all stuff from the 1970s, AC/DC, one-hit wonders. And there would be
some musical theater too.
TM: Is there any chance we’ll hear your own singing voice on the Broadway stage again?
EM: Not today, I know that! But when the right show comes around, yes. There have been some offers, but the thing with musicals on Broadway is that they need you to commit for a year, and I can’t do that with my family right now.