On the plus side, Eric McCormack is a "crazy recycler" at home, but he admits to a bad habit he hopes to break. "I gotta quit my plastic water bottle habit," admits the actor, the star of TNT's new series "Perception," premiering July 9 following the final season premiere of "The Closer." In this "A Beautiful Mind"-as-procedural drama, McCormack plays Dr. Daniel Pierce, a brilliant neuroscientist and professor who is also a hallucinating schizophrenic and uses his unique abilities to help the FBI — in the form of a former student turned agent (Rachael Leigh Cook) solve cases. His quirks include a penchant for conducting an imaginary classical orchestra, making inappropriate comments to colleagues, and constantly working crossword puzzles, a skill McCormack hasn't personally mastered ("I suck!" he admits).
"What I love about the character is his brain is his best friend and worst enemy. He's not on his meds. 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," says McCormack, who loves the character's combination of "so much confidence and so much crippling fear. If there is anything that I can understand as an actor is, I think it's that."
McCormack was also drawn to the idea of playing a teacher, one who is "funny and passionate and finds an interesting way to approach what could be a very dry topic" yet outside the classroom is often crippled by his symptoms. It was important to him "to represent all aspects of this, the neuroscience, the academia, the schizophrenia and the FBI reality with incredible accuracy. He's completely paranoid about big business and big law enforcement and he wants to make sure that innocent people don't get thrown under the bus by big brother."
A producer on the series, McCormack had a say in casting and sees his current job as maintaining the continuity of the tone and upholding the accuracy of Pierce's schizophrenic and professorial behavior. He diligently researched by befriending several neuroscience professors including UCLA's Michael Green, USC's Elyn Saks (herself a schizophrenic), and Baylor's David Eagleman, a consultant to the show. As someone who enjoys playing both drama and comedy, he also wants to ensure that the series has the right blend of both. "When I was on 'Will & Grace,' nothing made me happier than having a big dramatic scene in the midst of the crazy comedy. And nothing gives me a better thrill than a dramatic crime scene in this show where I get to suddenly say something inappropriate that is clearly going to be funny. I love the mix," he says.
On Broadway of late in "The Best Man," flexing his stage muscles as the villain opposite James Earl Jones, McCormack loves being able to work in TV, theater and film. "They feed each other, for me they really do," says the actor, who'd love to do a musical in the future. He's not concerned that most people still think of him as Will Truman from "Will & Grace." "It's champagne problems, you know. 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, I have to play different parts, and just as I have to push and stretch myself, I need to ask my fans to do the same. There's other things I can do and you might enjoy them too. It's always just about challenging me and challenging the viewers."
He thinks that "Perception" is the perfect way to do that, calling it the "breath of fresh air" that sets it apart from the typical summer comedy and reality fare. "People love a good mystery solving show, and this a guy that's coming at a crime scene from a very different perspective, sometimes humorous, sometimes extremely intellectual. Some of the cases we're going to tackle are things that wouldn't necessarily come up on a lot of other shows," he says. "For anyone that likes the twists and turns in an hour-long mystery, there's going to be some really surprising episodes."