by Sam Trewick
photography by Gregg Delman
“Every day the GOP would do or say something that just made the text funnier, sincerer, or more ironic… I was hoping Santorum would stay in; it would be fun to watch that party just tear itself apart.”
“I’m proud to be an American.”
… utters Canadian actor Eric McCormack shortly after his entrance into Gore Vidal’s seminal political stageplay, The Best Man, running now through early July at the Schoenfeld Theatre. Alongside a cast including James Earl Jones, Candice Bergen, John Laroquette, Michael McKean, Angela Lansbury and more, McCormack assumed he’d be offered the role of “third guy from the left.” Not so. McCormack plays Joe Cantwell, a shrewd (but not “evil”) conservative candidate – the Rick Santorum to John Laroquette’s Barack Obama. (Laroquette’s grounded, cripplingly ethical character’s name is really William Russell.) But McCormack doesn’t shy away from roles that contrast both to who he is as a person, and to who we come to understand him to be. Indeed, he seeks them out: “I look for the thing that is as different from the last thing as possible… Even though Will Truman will be on my tombstone, I want there to have also been a lot of other journeys. I always want to prove my versatility and push the limits as far as I can.”
Mission accomplished. As he mentioned, McCormack is probably best known as the Will half of Will & Grace (though his turn as Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man on Broadway was the first thing to pop up on this writer’s Facebook wall when I mentioned this interview). Joe Cantwell couldn’t be more different than affable, milquetoast Will. Cantwell is ruthless to the point of nasty, and will do, it seems, (almost) anything to win the nomination of his party. I asked him if he was tempted to make his character more likeable: “I try to go exactly the other way. The thing about my character that’s so appealing – as opposed to the other character, who’s so redeeming and such an intellectual and a liberal, but his marriage is about to be over; they’re holding it together for the sake of the convention. Whereas my character, like Rick Santorum, does have a nice, sincere family life. Cantwell definitely has a tremendous relationship with his wife, so it’s interesting to have the audience see him as a monogamous guy, a one-woman-man, and then turn out to be just ruthless in the political arena.”
Will Truman be damned. McCormack savors the reaction the audience has to him on the street after the show. “[I’m] like this boyfriend that’s jilted them.”
Inspiration wasn’t exactly hard to come by. “Every day the GOP would do or say something that just made the text funnier, sincerer, or more ironic… I was hoping Santorum would stay in; it would be fun to watch that party just tear itself apart.” But McCormack clearly has both compassion for and an understanding of the realities of politics. He is clear to state and re-state that his conservative character is not “the bad guy.” He says that it’s the way the game is played, not the intentions of the people involved, that colors the American political climate. I asked if the play had changed his view of politics. “The thing about the play is, the stuff that goes on in hotel rooms, the stuff that goes on behind the scenes – the bartering – is fascinating. And we don’t get to see these guys that are there pressuring [the candidates] for the sake of the party. Everything’s for the sake of the party, so you wheel and deal and ‘suspend your campaign’ or whatever it takes, always for the party’s sake.”
Not shy with his political leanings, I wondered if McCormack was particularly drawn to roles that break boundaries, with Will being one of the first major gay characters on TV, and now playing the conservative candidate in a play that closely mirrors the race for the Republican nomination. But he demurs from taking too much credit for any changes that Will helped set in motion “We never thought of what we were doing as anything other than trying to be as funny and surprising a show as possible.” That said, he’s very candid about why how he ended up in The Best Man: “Let’s be honest: what led me to [The Best Man] was James Earl Jones and Laroquette and Angela Lansbury. The play could have been A, B and C in the phone book and I would have seriously considered it.”
In fact, he’s charmingly eager to give credit to the power of ensemble in general, and happy to offer up that “even in a show when you’re definitely the star and everyone else is the chorus, you can’t function without them.” I shared with him that I’d read in a review that he was part of “The most impressive ensemble in NYC right now,” and he’s clear about his admiration for all of his co-stars. He speaks glowingly of James Earl Jones (“generous and a tireless worker as an actor”) and emphasizes the “we’re-in-this-together” spirit of the production. He points out that the majority of the actors came from sitcoms, and though The Best Man is a departure from that world, to have that “power” in their back pockets has served them well. “Candice is finding lines in there, as Alice [Russell], that are funny to her that may not have played with another actress… [Vidal] is a man of letters. His humor can go over the average person’s head. It’s messengers like John, Candice, Michael and myself who work to make it a little more accessible.” As the reviews prove, the sitcom, film, and literary chops of these heavyweights has come together in a juggernaut of a production.
So what’s next for Mr. Variety?
“The new show is called Perception (TNT), and weirdly it starts the day The Best Man closes.” This is an hour-long TV drama about a neuroscience professor, played by McCormack, who also suffers from symptoms of schizophrenia. He’s sought out by a former student, who is now part of the FBI, to assist in their more perplexing cases. “He can’t resist her and he can’t resist helping to solve a puzzle. It’s his doing and his un-doing. He’s not on his meds, so the best way for him to deal with his symptoms is to keep his mind busy. He can get wrapped-up in the puzzles she brings him – the ones the Bureau can’t solve, that also have to do with his area of expertise – but they also threaten his stability, the calm he needs to live his life. He hallucinates, and sometimes the hallucinations are the very clues he is looking for.”
There is inherent drama in the premise of a man whose brain is his best friend and also his worst enemy, and that is part of what attracted McCormack to the role. “He’s certainly a guy who, as a doctor, would tell anybody else who’s schizophrenic to be on their meds, yet it’s a case of ‘physician, heal thyself.’ He’s his own worst enemy in that way, and it makes for a really interesting character. He’s a thinking character, and I love playing a character who’s much smarter than I am.”
To aid him in his journey inside the head of his character, McCormack and the team on Perception brought in the experts. It remains important to him to be accurate in his treatment of the characters he portrays, be they gay New Yorkers, conservative politicians, or schizophrenic neuroscientists. “As Will, I knew I carried a certain burden of responsibility. It’s the same kind of thing here: we have to make sure we represent schizophrenia properly, make sure we represent university life, represent the Bureau. There’s so many ways it could be inaccurate.” To avoid this, David Eagleman (author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain) and Ellen Saks (author of The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Into Madness) both assisted McCormack and the writers in creating this complicated character. Eagleman served as a kind of model for McCormack – his work is very similar to that of the character. And Saks, now a law professor, provided great insight into the descent into mental illness. “Her book is about the fact that when she was a law student, she was actually losing her mind. She was a brilliant law student during the week and would commit herself to an asylum on the weekend because she was hallucinating so badly. She wrote about her experience as an intellect and as a schizophrenic.”
Accidental or not, McCormack’s contribution in giving voice to maligned groups has had an inarguable, positive effect on American society. Simply seeing a gay man, week after week, as part of the NBC lineup did a lot of heavy lifting in terms of making middle America more comfortable with the idea, and his foray into mental illness pulls back the curtain on another social taboo. McCormack, however, credits the medium. “It’s the power of television. It’s the great equalizer. The kind of people [who would vote for my character] probably aren’t coming to New York and seeing Broadway so, yeah, the show is probably going to preach to the converted. But you put something on television, and everybody gets to watch it.”
Paul Smith suit, blouse, shoes, tie
Maurice Lacroix watch
Banana Republic sunglasses
photography Gregg Delman
stylist Ise White @ artists by timothy priano
grooming Assumpta @ susan price inc.
location Kitchen Studios nyc