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'Perception' On TNT: Eric McCormack On His Schizophrenic New Role And Getting Away From 'Will & Grace'

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Eric McCormack previews his new show
Eric McCormack previews his new show "Perception"

Eric McCormack is back on TV with a new series, "Perception" (premieres Mon., July 9, 10 p.m. ET on TNT), but don't expect his character, professor of neuroscience Dr. Daniel Pierce, to be anything like Will Truman from "Will & Grace."

I caught up with McCormack to talk all about his new gig, and he was very matter-of-fact about why he wanted to take on such a dramatic and complicated new role. "Certainly the intention here was finding something as far from Will as possible."

Not only is Daniel an expert in his field, he's also schizophrenic, which gives him a unique perspective on the inner-workings of the brain and on major crime cases, something he's called in to provide assistance with by his former student-turned-FBI agent Kate Moretti (Rachel Leigh Cook).

With a tenuous grip, at best, on reality, Daniel's unorthodox methods and total conceitedness make for a pretty tricky balance. "The idea that someone is smart enough to deal with their own condition, and yet arrogant enough to not deal with it properly is, I think, a really interesting combination," McCormack agreed.

He also said that he thinks a show like this is just what the summer TV schedule needs. "For several years, when the reruns became less of the thing and it became about new shows in the summer, suddenly there were more reality shows and just goofy shows -- I think we're going to challenge the audience with something like this in the summer. I hope people are into it."

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I've never seen you play a character as frenetic as Daniel. How are you describing him?
Certainly the intention here was finding something as far from Will as possible ... finding a new thing to challenge me and also challenge the viewer. I loved the idea that he's a professor, and that he's a professor often out of his element -- he doesn't belong at a crime scene. Everything in his life is now defined and determined by his symptoms, by his schizophrenia. The idea of someone that had things like his scarf and his Sony Walkman that he clings to for emotional support, that he isn't a vain person, added up to someone very, very different than I'd had a chance to play. I love being him. I love the unpredictability of him.

You're right that he isn't vain at all, but he's a pretty brilliant professor, and he knows it.
It's that complete dichotomy -- he has the hubris and arrogance of an intellectual, but he also has the drive that a teacher has to share that, the passion to make sure that as many other people as possible understand not just the science behind the brain, but the human possibilities. That combination of someone that, in a classroom, can totally be open and give, and then can shut down outside of it because his symptoms deny him the emotional accessibility ... it's just fascinating.

When he connects with his old student, Kate, she knows him from that powerful classroom realm, but she also knows about his schizophrenia. To trust that he can set it all aside to help her out with FBI cases is a big leap of faith, isn't it?
Totally! And very dangerous for her because all it would take would be one day where he insults the wrong person or behaves improperly. When people say this is a procedural ... he wouldn't even know how to follow procedure! What I think of as a procedural is "CSI" or "Law & Order"; this is sort of that through the looking glass. He is not a crime solver, he doesn't arrest anybody. He is there because the mystery -- the idea that there's some puzzle to unlock -- is just too delicious for him to leave alone, even though it risks messing up the order and the logic to his life that keeps him sane.

And we see that already in the first episode. When his life gets a bit shaken up, even tiny changes have a trickle effect and start to really mess up his perception of the rest of the world.
Exactly. I think we'll see over time, when we get to learn more about his relationship with LeVar Burton, who plays the head of the university, that there is tremendous potential for Daniel. He was a young, good-looking guy who could do whatever he wanted and had such a huge brain, but when he had his first psychotic break, once the symptoms became crippling and he had to protect himself, he ended up at a relatively small university outside of Chicago and has kept a pretty small life for a guy that could've been so much more. That's why there's that sense of somebody who's bursting out of this straight jacket of a life. He has so much more desire, but that very desire -- intellectually and otherwise -- is something he's not really emotionally capable of.

How did you research for this role? I feel like you'd have to shadow two very different people: Someone who works in higher education, and then someone who's schizophrenic.
I did all of that. There were a bunch of happy accidents -- one, before we started the pilot, we talked to Dr. Michael Green at UCLA, who certainly could give me the point of view of a neuroscience professor, but also his area is schizophrenia, so he was able to help us with what was accurate and what wasn't, and how we could be careful to represent it accurately. And, as another happy accident, I ran into a woman at the supermarket in Vancouver -- after we shot the pilot but before we'd shot the rest of the season -- Dr. Jane Roskams, who is the head of neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. Her take on the academia of it was really interesting.

But there was no one more helpful than Dr. Elyn Saks, who wrote a book called "The Center Cannot Hold," and she's now a law professor at USC. She wrote this book about her own experience of basically losing her mind while being a student. Her descriptions of what it feels like to hallucinate or to have a psychotic break were the most helpful. [Show creator] Mike Sussman and I actually sat down with her for lunch. She is on her meds, but when she wasn't, her ability to remember what that felt like was probably the most helpful research I could get.

And having lived it, she was probably a good reminder for all of you to make sure your portrayal helped erase some of the myths about the illness.
I hope so. Most people, if you live in a big city, you see some form of schizophrenia every day, and it's always in the form of someone homeless. "Look at that guy -- he's crazy. He looks dangerous." Well, he's on the streets because of mental illness. He probably had a job and a home ... mental illness can make people lose these things, not the other way around. We lose empathy for those people because they look like they're going to hurt us. By doing this research for the show, it reminded me that when I see these guys, I have to look and know that there's someone there that had a life and lost it because they didn't get the right help, they didn't get on their meds ... so hopefully the show can help with that kind of empathy.

Do you have a favorite episode in this first season?
There's one episode where we show a young man that has full-blown schizophrenia, and he appears to be dangerous when, in fact, he's only a danger to himself. To see his symptoms contrasted with my character's symptoms reminds people that there's no cookie-cutter variation of any condition or any disease. There are subtleties, there are levels. I think it's exciting that this character isn't on his meds; I think it shows a real intellectual arrogance to think that you of all people can be the one to go without. Like a fireman living in a house with no smoke detectors -- "I'm a fireman! I think I'll know! I think I can handle it." [Laughs.] So I love that idea. Because he is an expert on the brain, he'll be able to experience it -- there are moments of fear and of "I don't know what's happening to me," but he does know what's happening. Once he gets past that initial moment of a hallucination, then the intellect can kick in and say, "Why this hallucination? Why now? What is it telling me?"

Read Mo Ryan's review of "Perception" here, then tell us: Will you watch "Perception"?

"Perception" premieres Mon., July 9, 10 p.m. ET on TNT.

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