Best known as the “Will” half of the acclaimed long-running comedy Will & Grace, Eric McCormack is a funny guy. But for his role on TNT’s Perception he is happy to get dramatic. “I needed to flex muscles I hadn’t flexed in a long time. I whetted my appetite again for how much I love doing an hour drama, and more complex characters. When this came along, I couldn’t say ‘no,’” says McCormack, who just started the second season of the cable series.
We recently talked to Eric when he was on his way to pick up an award, the 2013 Courage Award given by Friends of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior, named after former Warner Bros. top executive Terry Semel. He was honored because of his portrayal of Dr. Daniel Pierce on Perception. The character is a brilliant neuroscientist living with paranoid schizophrenia. Eric is one of the show’s producers and he is proud that the stories are able to shed some light on mental illness and misconceptions.
Talking about his character, McCormack explains, “The character is into solving crime. And his understanding of the mind makes solving crimes and catching the bad guy, good, smart and fun storytelling. He teams up with the FBI to crack very difficult cases. Dr. Pierce’s knowledge of human behavior and understanding of the mind, gives him extraordinary ability to read people. The problem is that sometimes his eccentricities often interfere with his work.”
Research for his role was easy because McCormack reports, “By sheer coincidence, I ran into a woman in Vancouver, in a grocery store, and she turned out to be a neuroscience professor at the University of British Columbia. She took me around the brain center up there, and that was tremendously helpful.”
He adds, “The interesting part of the character is that he is as much a teacher as he is a scientist. He has the intellectual hubris of the scientist, but he has the passion and empathy of a teacher. He’s an interesting and complex character.”
His co-star, actress Kelly Rowan (who did Lonesome Dove with McCormack 17 years ago), explains, “I am so impressed working with Eric, because I don’t know of very many people that could do what he does in this show. Just in terms of intelligence he brings to the part.”
It seems McCormack, 50, has done that throughout his career. Born in Toronto, he began acting in school plays through college, but he left to perform with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, where he spent five years performing. He did Canadian television then moved to Los Angeles, making his U.S. TV debut in the CBS crime series Top Cops. Many roles came after that, highlighted by 42 episodes of the western series Lonesome Dove. “That was a fantastic role,” he recalls.
His star-making role came in 1998 when he was cast as the lawyer Will Truman, the gay best friend to Grace on the NBC sitcom Will & Grace. “Will was much like me. He was relatively funny, and the gay issue just wasn’t really a big thing,” reports the straight McCormack. That role earned him various awards nominations and acting honors.
Several movie parts followed, and then came the call to New York for various Broadway shows. He got a Tony Award for The Best Man, and showing off his musical talents he starred in The Music Man revival. In Hollywood a couple of years ago he was lauded for his singing and performing in The Fantasticks for the Reprise Theatre Company headed by Jason Alexander.
Now it’s back to drama for the second season of Perception, and he enjoys playing a guy who’s somewhat tortured. McCormack says, “I think what I love about the character is that he’s a neuroscientist who is also suffering symptoms of schizophrenia. His brain is his best friend and his worst enemy. And the relationship he has with that when he’s not on his meds is a controversial thing. 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. The symptoms of his condition have him going from being a very funny, flirty lecturer one minute, to absolutely crippled socially the next, or inappropriate. That is something we have to be careful with, because I want to play this interesting and complex character for a long time.”