Eric McCormack returns to the TV screen this summer as Dr. Daniel Pierce, a neuroscience professor with paranoid schizophrenia, who is recruited by the FBI to help solve complex cases in TNT’s new series “Perception” (Monday, July 9 at 10/9c).
According to McCormack, Pierce, who is excellent at mind games like crossword puzzles and seeing patterns, is 180 degrees his opposite. The former “Will & Grace” star says, “That is part of what drew me to this. I am not a crossword guy, I am not a Sudoku guy, and I didn’t minor in neuroscience. I love playing someone whose brain works entirely different than mine.”
It is Pierce’s quirkiness makes him such an excellent teacher and keeps his classes full of eager undergrads. One of his former students Kate Moretti (Rachael Leigh Cook), now an FBI agent, frequently calls on Pierce to consult on her cases. Even though she gets a lot of flak from her fellow agents, Kate knows that Pierce’s condition gives him exceptional abilities to see inside the human mind.
The “Perception” cast also includes Max Lewicki (Arjay Smith), who serves as his teaching assistant, Natalie Vincent (Kelly Rowan), Daniel’s best friend and his intellectual equal, and Paul Haley (LeVar Burton), a dean at the university and Pierce’s friend.
In this one-on-one interview with McCormack, he discusses his favorite things about Daniel, the cases Daniel helps solves and how his character is able to function off his meds.
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The show reminded me of BBC’s updated “Sherlock.” Do you see any resemblance between Daniel and Sherlock in that they both use deductive reasoning to solve their cases?
There is a humanistic point of view they have in common, but with Daniel it always starts with something scientific. His expertise in how the brain works is often what begins the cases. And in many cases that is all Kate needs. She is, “Okay, you can go now.” Where he gets mixed up is it is not only science for him. He is fascinated by humans. I think he is very outside of it now. Because of his condition, he is outside looking in. He is fascinated by: If you have that particular condition, why does it make you act that way? So there is a deductive reasoning there, but it starts scientifically and it goes deeper.
You keep saying his condition, so are we not saying he has schizophrenia?
I always try to be careful because of the community. They prefer that you say “symptoms of schizophrenia,” rather than “schizophrenic.” Mostly because they are trying to get the onus off. It is a word that the average person has heard but doesn’t really know what it means. There is a lot of negative connotation. That is why I think it is brilliant that he is a neuroscience professor. If there is anybody that can understand the brain and schizophrenia, it is him. It doesn’t mean that he is any less of a victim of it. It is kind of like a cowboy riding a wild horse. He knows horses, but that horse is still wild and unpredictable. The idea of someone whose brain is his best friend and his worst enemy at the same time, I think, makes for a really interesting hero on a television show.
What kind of research did you do for the role, especially because he is off his meds and I am curious if there is science to support that?
That is a good question. Pierce, himself, would be the first to say to anybody with the same condition, “Get on your meds.” In his case, there is a lot of hubris, a lot of intellectual superiority: “If anybody can deal with that, it is me. I don’t need that.” There are also a lot of emotional reasons that he doesn’t like the idea of being controlled. That is a big problem with the schizophrenic community. Most of them, when they get on their meds, feel better. They go, “Ah, I feel better. That is good.” But they also get a false sense of: “Okay, I am good now. I can go off them.” That is why we see so much roller coastering with patients. There actually is science … there was a woman in the New York Times … I forgot her name. She was working in the public sector, who was basically not on her meds and was keeping it [together] by simply keeping her diet, her routine and her day-to-day the same, including in some cases, wearing the same clothes, or whatever it takes. In Daniel’s case, we decided on his coat, his scarves, his sneakers and his Walkman — a Walkman, rather than an iPod — are all things of comfort that give him a routine.
What are you looking for in the cases he works on? With a producer credit, are you a little involved in that?
I am not too involved in the writing of it. The guys who created the show, Ken Biller and Mike Sussman, were involved in that. Once we got the pilot made, our resident expert David Eagleman, who wrote a fantastic book called Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, was pitched a lot of things. Between his book and Oliver Sacks’ book [Awakenings] there are conditions that are so fascinating that we haven’t heard of a lot of them. They make for interesting jump off points for us to use.
Do you have a favorite scene? Or would you rather talk about your favorite thing about Daniel?
Both. Certainly in the pilot, we were careful about the idea of his hallucinations. We want the audience to discover it as we go along. When his brain is overworked, especially when he is working on one of these cases that Kate brings him, anything can happen. In one of the upcoming episodes, he starts to hallucinate historical figures. He knows full well that it is a hallucination, and whereas the average person diagnosed with schizophrenia might truly believe: “Oh, my God. The real Joan of Arc is here.” He has enough detachment as a professor to go: “Okay. I know this isn’t really happening, but why is it happening? Why now? Why this person? What is this vision here to tell me?”
Do you think you are far enough away from Will that people can accept you in these more dramatic roles? When you played Clark Rockefeller that was very dark. This does have some humor in it because some of the things he does are funny.
We couldn’t do it funny, where someone else was laughing at him. We are walking a line and we are trying to figure out where that line is. If Marlee Matlin makes a joke about her own deafness, it is telling us, “I am okay with my condition. Relax.” It is sort of the same thing here. If she is telling us, “I have a sense of humor about this. I am doing okay,” it makes it okay. It is sort of the same thing with him. If he can say, “I am crazy and it is okay,” it is okay because he has it under control. As writers and performers, we don’t comment. We have been very careful about that. As for me, you throw it out there. I have no regrets about how much people loved Will Truman and bought me in the role, but now it is my job to do other things. I have tried to do extremes, like the character I am doing on Broadway right now [hard-headed presidential candidate Joe Cantwell in Gore Vidal's The Best Man] and you put it out there and you see what people will accept. As a viewer, I love seeing actors surprise me.
“Perception” premieres on Monday, July 9 at 10/9c on TNT.