Of Good Character: Perception's Eric McCormack
Will & Grace alum Eric McCormack shares why legendary crime solver Lt. Frank Columbo and his character on popular TNT crime drama Perception, Dr. David Pierce, are quite kindred spirits.
Eric McCormack — or Dr. Daniel Pierce to Perception fans — is definitely feeling the love.
Not only did TNT bring the Primetime Emmy winner’s crime procedural back for a third season, the network even whisked him away to Paris for an episode.
And when the drama — which pulls in an average 3 million viewers —airs on Tuesday, June 24, fans will get to see McCormack’s directorial debut on the series.
We caught up with the 51-year-old Will & Grace alum to talk about his character’s continued battle with paranoid schizophrenia, what viewers love about the show and why Lt. Frank Columbo and Pierce are kindred spirits:
Did you all really shoot the Season 3 opener in Paris?
We did. We ended Season 2 with a single green scene shot in front of the Eiffel Tower and we canned the footage.
With Season 3 starting in Paris, I told (executive producer Kenneth Biller), “That’s a lot of green screen.” And he said, “No. Let’s go to Paris. Let’s do it.” And so we did and it’s a place you can show off.
I was outside of the Notre Dame and Pierce lectured at the Sorbonne. It’s quite remarkable.
That has to be a testament of TNT’s faith in you, right?
Absolutely. That’s one of the things that’s so exciting.
When The Brady Bunch went to Hawaii, you knew there was money put into that show. When you go to Paris, there’s something to that.
What do you think draws viewers to Perception?
Obviously, there’s a crime to solve. A segment of our audience loves to solve the mystery. The fact that this guy is so fallible – he knows he’s the smartest guy in the room, but also he’s the most terrified guy in the room.
I think he’s not an antihero by any means. But he’s a hero who we feel his humanity. You know, he’s so vulnerable sometimes. I think that appeals to people.
What I love about the character, he’s essentially academic. There are so many people who love the lectures at the top of the show. There are no other shows right now that are taking place at a university.
You know, there are certainly high school shows. But the idea that secondary education matters and can fuel a show like this.
Those scenes sort of frame each episode, in terms of what the crime is about. Are the lectures hard to perform?
Sort of. The hard part of those is that we often do like four at once. We shoot some episodes at the same time.
It’s supposed to be to save money but it can be – it can almost induce schizophrenia with four lectures in your brain and we shoot them four in a row. It can be a little nuts but I love it.
I love to be able to learn how off he can get, how acerbic he can get.
And he’s good at it. That’s part of the appeal too, right?
Exactly. Most people don’t know much about schizophrenia. And what they do know is, “Oh, this person must be completely incapacitated.”
While that is true for some people, the side that people don’t get to hear is that there’s quite a segment of people living with paranoid schizophrenia that can hold down a job. And forge friendships – the way Pierce has Lewicki (Arjay Smith) and Kate (Rachael Leigh Cook).
They can do great things. They can head companies. One of my models is a woman named Elyn Saks, who is a professor at USC, and she’s been living with paranoid schizophrenia for 40 years. And when she writes about it, she makes it very clear that it’s still there and at any moment, if she weren’t on her meds, she’d be in grave danger of really going off the rails. In the meantime, she’s a respected lecturer and loved by her students.
Where do you guys shoot this because it’s a beautiful campus? Are you on location?
We’re on location. The panoramic campus view is the University of Toronto, which is were I’m from. There are lots of those old buildings.
There’s not so much here in L.A., where we shoot. But we do have this great church in Pasadena. That’s where we shoot all of the exteriors of the university.
So what are some things that viewers can expect in season 3?
At the beginning of season 3, he really wants to be with Perrey Reeves’ character. He drops everything and quits his job at the end of Season 2 and he moves to Paris for love.
Not realizing how much he’d be lost. As you saw at the end of that episode (season 3 opener), he did suffer some heartbreak. This season you’re going to see a stronger Pierce. A Pierce who is going to get a little bit more honest about his feelings for certain people – like maybe Kate.
This is a pretty fun thing. Meanwhile, Kate – of course Scott Wolf is part of the show, which is great. And Kate and Donnie (Wolf) are a couple. And Peter Coyote is coming on to play my dad with Alzheimer’s.
They basically haven’t spoken in 20 years. They don’t like each other. But there we are, the blind leading the blind me with schizophrenia and him with his Alzheimer’s they’re flying and have seats together. And a very interesting thing happens to Natalie (Kelly Rowan).
Natalie’s been part of the show since season 1. It’s fascinating to see that she’s still part of Pierce’s world.
Having her is great. Things are going to change this season. A lot of people love that character and love Kelly Rowan in that role.
But part of having her around is when he’s at his weakest. As he gets stronger that’ll be a challenge to their relationship.
And will he ever make the move to digital music? How long is he going to listen to cassettes?
It’s part of the character. It’s that idea that more things change, the more he needs them to stay the same. He certainly is up on the latest technology when it comes to neuroscience and his profession, but not when it comes to the things around him.
My wardrobe person keeps saying, “I want to buy him some new clothes.” It’s like, “Whoa. He wants the same shoes. The same cassette deck.” That’s what makes him happy.
Whenever those things change – that’s why going to Paris turned out to be such a terrible idea – whenever he makes the big changes, life gets harder.
Perception seems like a nod to shows like Columbo. Were you a big fan of those shows and see the similarities?
Totally. In fact, I probably haven’t seen the newer cop shows in the last 10 years –The Following, CSI and that kind of thing. No time goes into the cops lives like it used to be. Whether it be Columbo, or Barnaby Jones or Rockford Files – whoever was solving the crime, their personality mattered and affected the show.
Once you get to Law & Order, I think Dick Wolf said something like, “Let’s worry about the crime. Let’s not worry about the cops going home.”
You know, you never went home with the cops on Law & Order. So I think it’s gone back the other way where people like seeing a very interesting person doing the crime solving. Whether it be Dexter or Pierce or Monk, or whatever it is. It’s a throwback to that — and I did love Peter Falk as Columbo. He’s one of the reasons I stuck to my uniform on the show; it’s hard sometimes to shoot in the heat of Los Angeles with jacket and a scarf.
We have a new director this week and she said, “It’s kind of warm out. Want to take your jacket off?” I said: “Has anyone said to Spider-Man, ‘It’s kind of cold. Put something on’?”
This is what I wear. Columbo wore a [raincoat], this is what I wear.
Creating those kinds of iconic looks, even for someone like Pierce, has got to be consistent for an audience to believe the condition, to believe the disease, to be sympathetic to him and they’ll look forward to it.