The curse of brilliancy is the burden of the few and the gifted. It is a double-edged sword that can be used both to help and harm simultaneously. But in the world of Dr. Daniel Pierce, his genius is a remarkable gift that he shares with his students and those who seek his aid. When asked to assist a former student who now works with the FBI, he willing offers his services, but as everyone begins to learn, his grasp on his own personal reality is tenuous at best. In a recent press conference call, star Eric McCormack talked about what attracted him to the complex, volatile role and what he sees ahead in the world of PERCEPTION.
What drew you to the part? Was it immediately you read the script and went “I’ve got to do it” or how did it all happen for you?
ERIC: Yes, it was that first page where Daniel’s lecturing. That was a big one for me because I was a big “Paper Chase” fan from the 70’s with John Housman. And the idea of playing not just a neuroscientist, not just somebody brilliant, but the fact that he is a teacher, that he has that thing that audience in the palm of his hand and that he’s funny and passionate and finds an interesting way to approach what could be a very dry topic — I love this guy. Then to find out outside of the classroom he is often crippled by symptoms of schizophrenia, I thought that’s a wild combination of the arrogant what becomes with an intellectual and the absolutely let us say crippling conditions that the disease enhances.
What kind of research did you do for the role?
ERIC: I did as much as I could because I think it’s crucial that we represent all aspects of this, the neuroscience and also the academia but most importantly the schizophrenia, not to mention the FBI reality which is somebody else job, but with incredible accuracy. So we started with Dr. Michael Green at UCLA who is a neuroscience professor with schizophrenia as his expertise. Then I sat down with Elyn Saks, a fascinating woman who wrote a book called “The Center Cannot Hold.” She is a law professor at USC but she wrote a book about her own schizophrenia, which she completely blew her mind out in the 70’s. She was like writing brilliant papers one day and in the hospital strapped down to a bed the next and has such tremendous memory of it that she was able to describe it and some of the passages in her book about what it feels like to break psychotically were absolutely crucial to what I do in the show.
What aspects of your personality or idiosyncrasies did you bring to the role of Daniel?
ERIC: Well, what I love about him is that combination of so much confidence and so much crippling fear. I think if there is anything that I can understand as an actor is, I think it’s that. It’s that idea that sometimes the only way we see is by walking into a room and believing that that no one can do that better than us. And yet it’s really just a mask we put on disguising the fact that we’re terrified that we suck and we’re terrified that we’ll never work again. I think understanding that dichotomy is understanding what it must be like to have the drive that says I need to be in front of a classroom or I need to solve this puzzle even though I’m on a crime scene that is absolutely shutting me down. And to have that disguising someone that ultimately would rather be in a laboratory then out to dinner with people is to understand the world that he lives in mixed emotional.
Did you find there were any specific challenges working as a producer on the show?
ERIC: I am a producer on the show, I’m certainly not the producer. I couldn’t produce the whole thing and be in every scene. The guys that created the show Ken Biller and Mike Sussman do a fine job at producing it creatively and there are some great guys producing it physically. My contribution as a producer mainly I wanted to make sure that we all conceived the look and feel of the character and we’re on the same page. I wanted to have a say in the casting and I was certainly in the room for the casting of Rachael [Leigh Cook], Kelly [Rowan], and Arjay [Smith] and I’m really excited how that worked out. And then to say, “hey, it’s important the tone of the show,” whether it be dealing with how do we shoot a hallucination and accurately reflect what schizophrenia can look like or feel like. How do we have a scene where he’s angry but there’s also a comic element? How do we do that and accurately represent how a professional behaves? How would a schizophrenic behave? It’s important that I always have the ability to speak up and to take ownership of that. That’s the main way I produce.
Will your character explore D.I.D. multiple personality because it is sometimes associated with paranoid schizophrenia?
ERIC: If we did it would be another character. He is not a multiple personality. I don’t think we did this first season, but I can definitely see hopefully if we get a second season dealing with that as problem with someone. In an episode this first season, there is someone with a mental illness who clearly looks on the outset like the guy who did it. And it’s always Pierce as an advocate saying, “Wait a minute, just because he has schizoaffective disorder, or just because he has this condition lets see what’s underneath that.” And almost in every case their symptoms made them look guilty, in fact there was something else going on. So that’s the main way that he becomes an advocate for mental illness.
What do you enjoy more, the drama or the comedy?
ERIC: It’s kind of the same thing. I love doing both. When I was on WILL & GRACE nothing made me happier than having a big dramatic scene with Debra [Messing] in the mists of the crazy comedy. And nothing gives me a bigger better thrill than, you know, a dramatic crime scene in this show where he gets to suddenly say something inappropriate that clearly is going to be funny. I love the mix. I think the magic is in the combination and I’m never happy with just one. In the play I’m doing right now, it’s essentially a comedy, but my character is definitely has some very dark, dark moments and that combination is thrilling.
What do find challenging from an acting aspect?
ERIC: Like I say it’s a combination of being accurate enough to plot out. Okay in the course of an episode – and we were often shooting two episodes at the same time just for cost reasons, so it was really a lot of work on my part to go, I have to make sure that I am – that there is accuracy here in how he behaves situation to situation. But you also want unpredictability, that the fun of the character is that he surprises the people around him and he surprises himself sometimes. I like sometimes to discover he surprises me. That somehow my reactions might be something I hadn’t thought of. Yet still remain within the realm of being accurate and being sympathetic and being responsible to the mental illness community.
How would you characterize your character, Daniel’s, relationship with Kate Moretti [Rachael Leigh Cook]?
ERIC: Well, it’s sort of the fun other element, I mean we’re still trying to sell this show. Obviously we’re focusing on who he is or what he does and what condition he has. But what I’m really hoping that the viewership of TNT, that the particular women watching get into is this relationship is very much what I call a “don’t stand so close to me” teacher/student relationship. She clearly was his favorite back in the day and now she’s all grown up and even though she’s considerably younger than him, she’s in her 30’s and, you know, she’s fair game. But there’s something about the combination of “well I used to be your teacher” and also the emotional detachment that you see with his condition that he feels even though he definitely has feelings for her, he doesn’t feel worthy. He doesn’t feel he’s emotionally equipped. There’s this episode coming up one of the early ones where I meet her father who’s an ex-Chicago cop and the moment he says, “Oh I remember you, you were the teacher she had the big crush on.” All of a sudden it’s like, “So maybe.” I love that. I think that the audience will start to see – and we don’t push it too much early on — but over the course of ten episodes there’s definitely feelings there on both sides they don’t know what to do with. As for working with Rachael, I mean she is just – she’s so funny. She’s such a bright girl, I don’t know that – if you really want to see how bright she is you have to follow her on twitter because she has the kind of ironic one-liner perspective of, you know, a comic even though she looks like a beautiful actress. She’s going to be a big surprise I think to people. Mostly on this show she has to be the FBI detective, but I think there’s an element hopefully that people – I remember Jodi Foster in “Silence of the Lambs” where she’s like 5 feet tall and she’s standing with all these big uniformed cops and they’re all staring at her like, “You work for the FBI?” And I think we’re going to get that sense with Rachael that – as much as I have emotional things to overcome and I have my condition to overcome, she has her position in the FBI a pretty, short girl at the FBI that’s not going to get taken seriously by the bosses. So bringing me in, helping me help her is a big part of her emotional choice.
What do you think it is about PERCEPTION that’s really going to connect with the viewers? And now that you’re on Twitter how is that going to help with the promotion of the show?
ERIC: Well, I’m not a natural tweeter. It’s kind of, it’s work to make myself tweet everyday. But having work that I’m excited about like the play that last few months when we first got started it was fun to tweet about that. And as we’re getting closer now in the next few weeks I’m going to start tweeting a lot about it because I want people to see the show. I’m excited to share that. I never do work just for the sake of doing it. I do it because I want as many people as possible to enjoy it. And I think this is particularly for summer, I think this will be a breath of fresh air. So much of summer programming is sort of fun and silly and there are so many reality shows and competition shows. I think people love a good mystery solving show. I love the point of view of this. I think we’ve gotten to the point now where we can’t just see regular cops following regular things because a lot of those shows we now. It’s nice to see coming from the angle of someone with a very extreme point of view on life. And a guy that is a neuroscience professor with schizophrenia is coming at a crime scene from a very, very different perspective, sometimes humorous, sometimes extremely intellectual. Some of the cases that we’re going to tackle are things that wouldn’t necessarily come up on a lot of other shows because there wouldn’t be anybody. They’d have to go to an expert, someone like a Daniel Pierce, to solve it. So, having our guy David Eagleman who wrote a book “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain,” to have him as our resident expert allowed us to come up with some plot lines that are really fun, and for anyone that likes the twists and turns in an hour long mystery there’s going to be some really surprising episodes.
Some of your best moments were when Dr. Pierce sort of gets into his rants about big business and his conspiracy theories, are those fun to play? And do you think that it makes it kind of ironic that he sort of ends up working with the FBI? How does he justify that?
ERIC: Well, my favorite things about the show are the dichotomies. I know I keep throwing that word around, but that idea that he can go from confidence to not confident. The idea is he’s kind of working for the man when he’s in there and yet completely paranoid about big business, about big law enforcement. I like that combination. I think in the pilot there’s an interrogation room scene where he basically just says, “Now look I’m not one of them, so don’t be afraid of that.” And he’s not. He’s such a fish out of water when Kate brings him into the FBI that his behavior is coming from the point of view of someone that doesn’t trust any of these people. He just knows somewhere in here is somebody innocent. I think he’s more interested in that, it’s not so much “I’ve got to find a guilty party” that’s the crime solvers job. He wants to make sure that the innocent people who perhaps have a mental illness or perhaps are hiding something because of some condition they don’t know about, don’t get thrown under the bus by Big Brother.
To see how the dual realities of Dr. Daniel Pierce make his world a marvelous place to live, learn and solve crimes, be sure to tune in for the premiere of PERCEPTION on Monday, July 9th at 10:00 p.m. on TNT.
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