Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: For eight seasons, Eric McCormack made up one half of network TV’s most commanding duo on NBC’s Will & Grace. McCormack starred as Will Truman, a lawyer and out gay man who was usually playing the straight man to the more outsize characters around him. His grounded performance earned him an Emmy for Best Actor in a comedy, proving that comedy was very much where he belonged. Despite his affinity for sitcoms, most notably Seinfeld, it was a while before McCormack was earning laughs. The road to Will & Grace was a long and winding one, but one which covered virtually all of the TV landscape, with detours into adventure, sci-fi, Westerns, and crime dramas. His latest, Travelers, envisions a future where humanity can send a person’s consciousness back in time in an attempt to avert a tragic future.
The A.V. Club: I watched the premiere for this, and it kind of looks like a cross between Quantum Leap and Twelve Monkeys.
Eric McCormack: I guess so. I’m never one to compare shows to shows, but I think it’s more like The Americans than it is anything else. It is ultimately kind of a deep undercover espionage show. The spies just happen to be from a different century.
AVC: How did you end up involved in the series?
EM: Brad Wright, who created it, had me in mind. We’d actually worked together 20 years ago. He wrote an episode of The Outer Limits that I was in in ’96 or ’95? So we’d been aware of each other for years. I’d lived in Vancouver off and on, where he’s based. And it just came to me, and I’m always looking for something different. Perception was a different show than Will & Grace. Will & Grace was obviously a different show than anything I’d done before. So this was a chance to sort of go back and do a more leading man. But instead of just solving crimes like a CSI show, this leading man is, like the other travelers, not who he appears. And so that’s what I loved about it, that all of these characters are fish out of water, really. And the water that they’re out of is their own body.
They [the Travelers] know everything about the year that they’re coming into. But you can know everything and still be tripped up by the little stuff that you didn’t notice. And one character’s Facebook page is made up of lies. It’s an interesting comment on what’s been going on the last few months. We cannot rely anymore on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. People are making up their own truths.
AVC: Do you think the premise of trying to prevent some terrible event in our future is going to resonate with people more given the current sociopolitical climate in this country?
EM: I think so, yeah. We couldn’t have seen that one coming when we shot this in the spring. I mean, we were all worried about it, but we never thought it would happen. So to watch it happen now, day to day to day, you have people starting to, again, deny climate change or whatever… you can start to go, “Wow. This could very well be the roots of a very dismal future.” So suddenly this thing we made is not so far-fetched.
AVC: Given that trend, as an actor or a viewer, how do you prevent yourself from feeling really bogged down or bummed out by that kind of confine?
EM: I think because the show is essentially a hopeful show. The show says that as bleak as the future is, the one thing that mankind developed was the ability to send their consciousness back and where a lot of the institutions of modern life have fallen apart. We get a real sense from these people that they don’t even live above ground. The way they all react to sunshine, it’s pretty clear that they’re all living in bomb shelters or underneath the Earth. So, there’s a tremendous amount of hope in this show. They’ve come back to do a positive thing or series of things that will add up to a much more positive future for their children. And so I think that’s what gives the show not just a positive quality but there’s some humor in it. There’s that sense of people tasting food for the first time and seeing a dog. Things that we take for granted, the travelers don’t. As brilliant as they are and as well-trained as they are, they’re experiencing our world in a very positive way.
AVC: You worked with Brad Wright on The Outer Limits in the ’90s, but it was a while before you did another sci-fi project. With The Andromeda Strain miniseries, you got to appear in a Michael Crichton adaptation, which must have been pretty cool.
EM: Indeed. I really liked it, and I don’t know that it ever had the effect they were hoping for. I don’t know if they got the audience we were hoping for. But I thought it was very fun, and I loved the character I was playing. He was not in the original film, but he was kind of a Geraldo Rivera almost kind of reporter that had a drug addiction. We start the story in rehab, and then he gets the roots of the story. I loved him. He was very different than anything I’d played. In fact, there’s a scene I have in a tent with Louis Ferreira, who just did an episode of Travelers. He was in the fourth episode of Travelers playing another team leader, and we really have it out, not unlike the way we did in the tent in Andromeda.
AVC: Even back then, you were trying to stop some terrible thing from happening.
EM: Yes. The Andromeda strain is a killer disease that they’ve got to prevent from spreading to being 100 percent contagious. It’s another one where we’re racing to save humanity.
AVC: It sounds like you take on a whole lot of responsibility every time you take on a role.
EM: [Laughs.] Well, it is fun when the stakes are high, when there’s jeopardy. That’s for sure.
AVC: Before you played a journalist in The Andromeda Strain, you were a rookie reporter in these back-to-back Arthur Conan Doyle adaptations.
EM: [Laughs.] Yes. The things had been made a half a dozen times from silent pictures through the ’30s and ’40s. In fact, I think there’s a version in the ’50s. And then, of course, Spielberg eventually did a version of The Lost World, but this [filming] was ’91, I think. And we shot it in Zimbabwe. I’d never been to Africa. This really was my first film. I’d done 10 years of stage. I’d done a little bit of television. But this was my first film. It was a film, and it’s a sequel at the same time. The first shot on the first day was from the sequel to the movie they hadn’t made yet. But yeah, it was a pretty amazing experience running around the jungle for that.
AVC: This being your first major film role, how did it compare with your stage work?
EM: I was still in transition, I think. I told this story the other day—I got Michael Caine’s book, Acting In Film, and I read it on the plane, desperately trying to glean information from him about how to adapt my craft, which was actually very helpful. But you know, I was working with David Warner and John Rhys-Davies, who is from the Indiana Jones movies—“Indie, Indie…” [In a John Rhys-Davies voice.] He’s a very strong, strong presence, and so I had to assert myself. I was going to be the hero of the movie. I had to speak up and be like, “Shouldn’t I be the one doing that?” [In a John Rhys-Davies voice.] “I think at this point, my character would save the girl.” [In his own voice.] “Well, no, because it says here in the script…”
So it was a learning experience. I remember we were shooting a scene in which I dive out of a boat into a river to save the kid that’s in the movie. And there’s no mention of a stuntman, and I was like, “No, I’ll go in.” Nobody questioned. I never asked if maybe there was malaria in the water. And I was wearing these tall boots. They go, “Here we go, take one, and action.” And I jump out of the boat, and I’m trying to swim to the kid, and my boots fill with water, and I start to drown, and the director has no idea why I’m flailing around. He’s, “Come on, come on!” And I managed to rescue myself. I’m wet and sitting on the banks of the river, and John walks over to me and says, “Are you all right, dear boy?” “Yeah, I’m all right.” He leaned over and put his hand on my shoulder, and his face was right in front of my face, and he said, “Never again in your career should you ever do anything that fucking stupid.” [Laughs.] Thank you, John. And he was right. From that moment on, if there was a stuntman to be had, I was like, “Well, we should let the stuntman do it. It’s his job.”
AVC: At least it was something you got out of your system, right?
EM: Yeah. You make a lot of mistakes. I haven’t seen that movie in 20 years. But if I saw it, I’m sure I could pick out a whole lot of mistakes.
AVC: You have two episodes of The Commish under your belt, but they were for different roles.
EM: Right. Right. So I made Lost World in September of ’91, and by the end of that year, I was living in Toronto. I think they [TV productions] were just kind of drying up. I’d done a couple of episodes, but nothing was happening. So I went to Vancouver to visit a buddy and see what was going on, and that year was crazy. Vancouver was on fire at that point. It was all these Stephen J. Cannell productions—The Commish being one of them—and in one I was a bartender, and I think I had five lines.
I remember I had scenes with Melinda McGraw in “Ides Of March” that I didn’t have in “Video Vigilante,” but I can’t quite picture that other character. But it was Vancouver, and that year was crazy. I did The Commish and an episode of Neon Rider, and then I got the series called Street Justice, which I ended up doing about 18 episodes of. And then all of these movies of the week. Back then, all the networks were still making a movie a week, virtually. So I did five of them that year. So it was just a nonstop… ’92 was a great, nonstop ride in Vancouver.
AVC: And you followed that up with two Lonesome Dove series.
EM: Yes. That was my big break. My first real kind of adult role on something really well-written. It was a spin-off of the miniseries, and I played Col. Mosby, a very dangerous, Southern colonel in post-Civil War, wandering the West. And it was hard to tell if he was a good guy or a bad guy sometimes. But it was just a wonderful experience. That’s where I met my wife, on that show. She was the director.
That was back in ’94. So, a long time ago! But it was amazing. They built a whole town, which I think is still there. And we shot everything about 45 minutes outside of Calgary, Alberta. And they taught us how to ride before we started to shoot, so when we got to riding, except for really extreme stunts, they let us do all our own riding out of scenes and into scenes and leaping off the horse. It was like a little boy’s fantasy.
AVC: You played the same character across both shows, so it doesn’t sound like he was so bad that he got his comeuppance right away. What happened on the second series? Did he get worse?
EM: It was essentially the same show. What happened was the first season had been very gentle, let’s put it that way. It was a little bit A Little House On The Prairie, and as the season was winding down, we did about 22 episodes. We did a full season. There was much talk of, “How do we mix this up? How do we make this more dangerous?” And so in the season finale of season one, the lead female character is killed in a fire, much to the actress’ disappointment.
And we pick up the second season where the town is now… it’s like It’s A Wonderful Life, where he comes back and realizes the town is not as nice a place as it used to be when he was alive. The town becomes very dangerous. My character becomes a real villain. And the lead kid, who in the first season had been so sweet [because he was] based on the Newt character from the miniseries, has now become a really dangerous loner gunslinger. That’s why they changed the title of it to The Outlaw Years, because it was a very different show, and I think, a much better show. We had a lot of rain in the spring of ’95, and so this dusty town that had been so much a part of season one was now muddy all the time. And so the whole show looked dirty and real. And it was more like McCabe And Mrs. Miller. It just had a real gritty feel, and I loved it. I loved season two a lot.
AVC: A lot of the cast from the first series made its way to the Outlaw Years, where you had guest stars like Billy Dee Williams. In a Western, for crying out loud.
EM: Yeah, Billy Dee… When we started the show, Suzanne De Passe—who had done the original miniseries and still owned the property and was turning it into this series—she brought in a lot of old friends—Diahann Carroll and Billy Dee Williams and Dennis Weaver. And we had an interesting collection off the top of these old seasoned actors. Billy Dee was lovely and iconic. In fact, I ended up doing a movie with him [Giant Steps] a few years later, in Toronto. He played a jazz musician. I ran into him at a restaurant a couple of years ago here in L.A., and we reminisced about the few times we worked together.
EM: I’d done a pilot with Caroline Rhea [Pride & Joy] that didn’t go anywhere. Then I did five episodes of Townies as Jenna Elfman’s boyfriend. I was a guest star, but it was the first time I really got to play laughs in front of a sitcom audience.
AVC: Was that kind of a relief after wrapping up two Lonesome Dove shows?
EM: They’re such different things. I certainly love them both. Certainly Lonesome Dove would be way hard now, because, I mean, back then I wasn’t married. I didn’t have kids. So location work like that and those long hours become tougher. But for me, I had such a variety of influences. As much as I loved Pacino and De Niro and wanted to be a dramatic actor, I also grew up on sitcoms. I grew up on M*A*S*H and All In The Family and Cheers. And then around this time, this would have been ’95, ’96, I was so into Friends and Mad About You, the idea of being on a sitcom became a very real thing that I wanted. It was not so much a relief. It was really exciting. It’s an amazing thing to be in front of an audience. But the thing you realize pretty quickly, though, is that being in front of an audience whose job it is to laugh is a big pressure if the writing is not hilarious. So, I had a couple of decent laughs on Townies, but for the most part, delivering a joke that you just know is not funny is hard.
AVC: Townies had kind of a Friends vibe to it, with a bunch of attractive young singles making their way in the world. You had your established stars like Molly Ringwald and then people who became huge, like Lauren Graham, Jenna Elfman, and Ron Livingston.
EM: It was a huge cast. It was a bit ungainly, I think with 12 regular characters they had to keep writing for. But yeah, the three main leads were Lauren and Jenna and Molly, and then Ron Livingston was on it as well. There was a lot of people to write funny stuff for. But it was a great springboard, obviously, because Jenna went from that to Dharma & Greg, and a few years later, Lauren went to Gilmore Girls.
AVC: It worked out indirectly for you, too, since you landed one of the lead roles on Will & Grace a couple of years later.
EM: Well, so in the ’97 pilot season, I got the male lead on The Jenny McCarthy Show. I was playing this sort of asshole actor. And we shot the pilot, and it was a guaranteed go. It was going to be 24 [episodes] on the air. No questions from NBC. And we shot the pilot, and I was in Toronto doing a movie, and I got a call saying they cut the character, that I was off the show. While I knew it was not going to be God’s gift to television, it was going to be a good year, and I was expecting to make that money, and I was getting married in the summer, and so it was a big deal. And it was the following pilot season that I got Will & Grace and shot that.
The night of shooting, we finished and it went incredibly well, and Debra Messing and I were sitting on the couch on the set just staring at each other like, “Holy cow. Was that as good as we think it was?” And at that moment, Warren Littlefield, who had been running NBC for years, walked up to me and said, “So, aren’t you glad I fired you?” I said, “Yes, sir, thank you so much.”
AVC: It sounds like you gelled with your costars right away.
EM: Yes, absolutely. It was one of those things, for sure. It was a strong pilot and while everything wasn’t… We didn’t exactly find all the elements in the pilot. But certainly Sean Hayes was Jack from the beginning. And Megan [Mullally] found Karen. We did a couple of episodes, and she found that voice. Messing and I just had a great chemistry from the beginning.
AVC: I regularly watched the show while it was on, and I do think that’s something that comes across right away. That particular relationship feels very lived-in from the pilot.
EM: I got the role in February of ’98, and there was easily a month before Debra signed on. So within that month, I was auditioning with other actresses—there had to be at least a dozen that I read with. And just thinking to yourself, “I’m not sure what I’m looking for here. How will we know when the right one walks in?” But also, “If it’s not the right one, I’m stuck with someone for a long time maybe!” Or, it’s not a long time, because there’s no chemistry, and so the show doesn’t work.
So we all knew how important it was to maybe not even go forward with the show if we didn’t have the right thing. And Debra was literally the last person that came in. She had just gotten released from another contract, and it was just so clear. The room, it was at Jim Burrows’ house on a Sunday, and the room was filled with network executives who were taking an hour off just because this is the only time Debra could do it. And everyone in the room, you could just feel their shoulders drop. It was like, “Ahhhh. This is the show.” And we both felt it, too.
AVC: What was that like, getting the gang back together again earlier this year?
EM: Oh, it was kind of strange, in light of Travelers, because it was like traveling back in time. First of all, it was all top secret. It was something we put together in such a top-secret way that even our agents and employers didn’t know we were doing it. But we had the set reconstructed to a prop. It was perfect. And all the heads of the departments came back and some of the writers. And Jim Burrows was there. So it felt like a Tuesday night in 2002. We had an audience of about a hundred, most of whom did not know what they were about to see. They were friends of friends and were kind of given the impression that Max was trying something and they wanted to try this out and see if this worked. And then they pulled the floaters out of the way, and there was the set and the four of us standing on it, and it was pretty awesome.
AVC: So, given how well it went, is a reunion or sequel series something you’re all interested in doing?
EM: Yeah, we’re talking about it. NBC loved it. They didn’t even know what we were doing with that 10-minute YouTube video. But when they found out about it, they were very gracious and said, “We love it. Go ahead and do it.” And when they saw the response to it, they did come and say, “What about doing a limited return?” So we’re in discussions for that at the moment, and the four of us would love for that to happen. That would be great.
AVC: I learned years later that you beat Arrow’s John Barrowman out for the role of Will Truman. Did you know that?
EM: I don’t remember knowing who else… I don’t remember Max ever saying that it had come down to me and anybody else. I walked away for a little while is the real story. I was seen for the role in December of ’97, which is very early for pilot season. And even though I knew I was in the running, I kind of pulled back and said, “I don’t want to commit to this.” And Max was saying, “You’re insane. This is the best role you’ll ever get in your life.” And I said, “Max. I just don’t know if it’s too early. I want to see what else is out there.” And I think I woke up New Year’s Day in Vancouver and turned to my wife and said, “I think I might have made a mistake.” And she said, “Yep. Maybe you did.” And so I phoned up, and the role had not been cast. And so it could have been this John guy was in contention at that point. But from the moment I came back, I went to network a week later I think.
AVC: Speaking of NBC, you teamed up with Ed’s Tom Cavanagh in 2009 for Trust Me.
EM: Loved it. Whenever I see Tom—we’re good friends—we just mourn that we didn’t get a longer shot. It was TNT, and they were really supportive of the show, but in the end they just didn’t feel it was their audience. I never really understood why we didn’t get a longer run at it, because it was Griffin Dunne and Monica Potter. Just a really strong cast.
It was well-written and created by the guys who actually write Longmire—Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny. They created Trust Me. And they were ad agency guys, John and Hunter. They really knew this world. So it felt real. It was funny—it had a great pace to it. And the thing that always makes me crazy is this idea that, “Somebody else is doing something similar, so this will never work.” They were talking about Mad Men. I was like, “Mad Men takes place in the ’60s.” That plus Bewitched make them the three only ad agency shows that had ever existed [at the time], so how is that a problem? But it seemed to work against us, which is too bad. But the 12 episodes that we did, I think, are great fun. They’re really good.
AVC: Around the same time you popped up on The New Adventures Of Old Christine, which was another big sitcom starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It ended up being canceled that year, but you were there to the end.
EM: As it turns out, yeah. I’m blanking, hold on. The creator of the show.
AVC: Oh, Kari Lizer, who was a guest star on Will & Grace.
EM: Yes. Kari. I had run into her at an airport, I think, and she said, “Would you come on the show?” And I said, “God. Absolutely.” I mean, because Seinfeld had been so huge for me. It was one of those things where I discovered Seinfeld really early and was making sure everyone I knew was watching it. I would tape it on VHS and show it to people that hadn’t seen the show yet. So Julia, to work with her, was huge. And Andy Ackerman directed the episodes that I was doing, and he directed a lot of Seinfeld [episodes]. And that was great. Every actor has periods of their life that are a little less busy than others, and that was just a time when I needed that. And to be back on a sitcom stage, with Julia, was really, really fun.
AVC: In 2012, you were not only back in a lead role, but you had returned to TNT. But Perception was a very different type of show from Will & Grace and Trust Me. You were playing a neuropsychiatrist on this crime drama.
EM: He was a neuroscience professor at this small college, who was dealing with paranoid schizophrenia and didn’t tell anyone. So he was kind of secretly sick and not on his meds. He was someone that, in his classroom, was on fire. He could do that. He could engage a hundred students. But in the rest of the world, he couldn’t function that well. So he was brilliant but very much crippled by his disease, and yet, it was the fact that he was not on his meds—his hallucinations became a big piece of how he functioned and how, because the FBI used him as an expert, these hallucinations would speak to him and help him, in the end, solve mysteries.
AVC: And you got to work with Rachael Leigh Cook, who was better known at the time for teen movies like She’s All That and Josie And The Pussycats. Her character was like your protégée.
EM: Yeah, she was my leading lady. She was awesome. We loved the show. Again, it was more of a TNT show, because there were crimes that got solved, which [going] back five years ago, was a mandate. But there was something innovative about the mental illness side of it. There was not an episode that didn’t deal with some form of mental illness, either my own, or I would be the first to notice if a defendant did a certain thing that perhaps he was suffering from this. And so we got to do some really outspoken stuff for what was otherwise a crime-solving show. And it was just a really good team.
AVC: I just realized that the last two shows we’re talking about were set in Chicago, which is where we’re based out of. There was Perception, and then you were in Audience Network’s Full Circle, with Calista Flockhart, David Koechner, Rita Wilson, and David Boreanaz. It had been this Neil LaBute show, where every episode you added a new character to the group.
EM: Yeah, it was based on the French play, La Ronde, in which, with each new scene we’d have someone from the previous scene and a new character and that just goes around full circle. It was shot very fast. The idea of it was each episode was virtually a scene, and a long scene at that. And some characters were only in two episodes—the one they were introduced [in] and then the next one. I have a big, long episode with Calista, and then my character actually carries out through a lot of it because he was a cop investigating this crime. But it is almost hard to remember, even though it wasn’t that long ago. We shot it so fast. We literally shot that whole episode in one day. It was like doing a play, which I guess brings us right back to where we—I—started.