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Perception, Daniel Pierce, & Mental Health Awareness: A Q&A with Eric McCormack

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The summer finale of TNT drama Perception airs tomorrow night. Now in its third season, the series stars Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) as Dr. Daniel Pierce, a neuroscience professor whose help is enlisted by former student and FBI Aent Kate Moretti (Rachael Leigh Cook, She’s All That) to consult on some of the Bureau's more puzzling cases. Complicating matters, but also giving him insight into the often odd behavior he witnesses, is the fact that Daniel is schizophrenic and frequently struggles to discern actual reality from that created by his mind.

I spoke with McCormack last week about the show, his character, and the important issues that both bring to the forefront every week.

Now that you’re three seasons in, how have you been able to develop the character of Daniel Pierce?

Because we’re dealing with someone with a major mental disorder and because he is a major academic, both of those things had to be completely viable and believable and authentic right out of the gate. So a lot of the work that I did was before we even shot the pilot; to create a bedrock, so that there was no fear of the mental health community saying, “no, that’s bullshit”. Luckily that paid off and gave me a sense that, from the beginning, I was doing something right. So I think I mostly built nuance because I could trust myself and my instincts.

The fun part of television, always for me, is that the writers surprise me. Suddenly they’ll say, “Oh, you have a father and he has Alzheimer’s”. It’s exciting – it’s something that doesn’t get to happen in a play or a movie, where you know everything that you’re doing from the beginning. In television, the script shows up and you’re like “Holy crap, I didn’t realize that I would have the capacity…” Like we did that episode this year about babies, where some women who were troubled had life-like dolls that they were putting all of their love into. It brought up the question “well how does Daniel feel about that?” and all the ideas of someone with a mental disorder not wanting to father children. Things like that are from left field and yet they’re part of what you’ve been doing from the beginning. So the writing has a lot to do with what I’m able to do with the guy.

Daniel is such a likeable character, but what do you personally like about him? Is there anything you dislike about him?

I like that he’s brave. I think the idea of having someone smart enough to be a neuroscience professor and yet belligerently not taking his medication sounds like something not to applaud, it sounds like something where you want to smack the guy and say “Take your medication”. But I like that he is brave enough to say “I don’t like who I am when I’m on those meds. I need help, I can’t be not on my meds and not have the help of Lewicki and the help of Kate…but I know that when I’m just me – whatever that means, even if it means hallucinating it – I will ride that bull and be true to myself”. It’s not something that he would recommend to any of his patients, but I like that about him.

In terms of what I don’t like about him...once in awhile the crew will turn to me and say “he’s so mean to Lewicki”. Yes, he is! In the first season, one of the camera crew said to me, “No one’s going to like you if you’re mean to Lewicki”. Because Arjay Smith is such a sweetheart! So if there’s anything I don’t like about him, it’s that. But I also know why he does it – because he needs Lewicki so much.

You were a producer for the series and also directed an episode this season…how did you enjoy the experience of having a higher level of involvement on the production side of things?

I love being a producer. I’d have a great relationship with the creator of the show, Ken Biller, anyway – it would just be a natural thing to come out of being a lead actor and a writer. But I think we connect because we are partners. It allows me part of the dialogue that I think has led to some great conversations, some great changes…and I love being actively involved in where the story goes and where the character goes.

As a director, it’s a very hard thing to do when you’re in virtually every scene and you’re manic, but it was really exciting. And that was Ken. I have to applaud him – a lot of producers don’t necessarily want to encourage their lead actor to direct. It involves a lot of schedule changing and a lot of other issues. But he was the first one to say “You’ve got to do this at some point”.

Looking through some of the comments on social media, there are a lot of “Donnie haters” and fans of a Daniel/Kate romantic storyline…what are your thoughts and what can you tell us about the summer finale?

I think it was a stroke of genius on our part to cast someone so lovable, and Scott Wolf is just a lovable guy. In a role where, perhaps, we were setting him up for some of this reaction – because people were already feeling this way. I’m fascinated! Some people are totally just pushing Kate and Daniel. And others are like “No! They’re like brother and sister, I don’t want to see that!” So it’s definitely opinions, which I love. There are reasons that Daniel would have for withholding his feelings about Kate and there are very smart reasons on Kate’s part that she would withhold her feelings.

But in this next episode, we get to see a little of what Daniel doesn’t trust about Donnie. We get to see him, for the first time, start to put a little bit of a wedge there – which will definitely pay off in future episodes. I can’t say what happens in this finale, but there’s a great ending, a very surprise ending, that will hopefully carry the audience through until next year. But it will also explain why Daniel starts to open up emotionally – in ways that perhaps he shut down after Paris, because he realized he was right. He should never go after a woman and he should never get involved emotionally because he’s not capable of it and they’re not capable of it. But something happens at the end of this episode that will change all that.

You’re obviously well known for both comedy and drama. Do you prefer acting in one genre over the other?

Honestly, it’s like “which would you rather, Italian or sushi” – I love both. I truly need both. When I look back at Will & Grace, what I remember most are the dramatic moments. And on Perception, I love finding comic moments that reveal characters. I’ve always loved the mix of both. I love going from stage to screen, I loved being in front of an audience for Will & Grace, and I love the silence of just a crew and me and the camera on a drama. So it truly is the best of all worlds.

Obviously Perception deals with issues pertaining to mental health…and the world was given such a sobering reminder this week of its prevalence and the dangers that can come from not being able to escape one’s own mind. You never know what’s going on under the surface. Now after having delved into this role of Daniel Pierce, what have you learned about the issue and what do you see as the biggest barriers to our progress?

If there’s anyone that can confound our understanding of mental health, and of particularly depression, it’s Robin Williams. How can someone so loved, so talented, so funny, so full of life…have taken his own life in such a tragic way? It doesn’t seem possible. But in fact he has reminded us that it’s very possible. That someone with everything can inside feel like he has nothing to contribute. We have to always remember that we can’t know a person; we can’t know that guy on the street corner, talking to himself and screaming at nobody. He’s screaming at somebody. And the pain that Robin Williams felt was real, and his attempts to overcome it by entertaining the world were real.

With someone like Daniel, people have said, “How is it that he’s so good in the classroom and then the next minute he’s crumpled up in a ball?” And it’s like, “well exactly”. I don’t know. The brain’s capacity for joy and for sorrow is the next forefront. We have to spend money. As a people, as a government, money has to get spent to understand what drives a person to kill, what drives a person to suicide. If such a thing can bring down someone as full of life as Robin, then we all have to wake up and pay attention.

Watch Eric McCormack as Daniel Pierce in the summer finale of Perception airing Tuesday August 19 at 10pm EST/PST on Bravo in Canada and TNT in the US.

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