For eight seasons, Eric McCormack played jovial gay lawyer Will Truman on NBC's "Will & Grace," a man surrounded by voices competing for his attention: his neurotic roommate Grace, his flamboyantly peppy friend Jack and boozy socialite sidekick Karen. His latest TV role one-ups the babble: In TNT's new summer drama"Perception," premiering Monday, McCormack stars as Dr. Daniel Pierce, a scruffy neuroscientist and professor who helps the federal government solve difficult cases with the help of his own multiple voices. He is, after all, paranoid schizophrenic.
"I'm sure all of the critics will say there's fatigue there," McCormack said via Skype from New York, where he's just wrapped a run in Broadway's revival of Gore Vidal's"The Best Man." "But I don't think the critical fatigue reflects the audience interest.
"I think we're in the third phase of mystery shows," the 49-year-old actor added. "In the '60s and '70s, we had 'Columbo' and 'Quincy M.E.' — it was their personality as they solved a mystery. Then we go into the Dick Wolf years and the'CSI' years where it was about the case, not the cops. Now, I think with shows like 'Monk' and 'The Mentalist,' we're back to wanting to know about the person and understand their psyche and how it benefits the solving of the crime."
McCormack's character presents a new twist in that evolution. In the classroom, he commands attention with his impassioned knowledge of the human brain. Outside, he's socially awkward, finding comfort in Sudoku and the classical tunes he listens to on his Sony Walkman — when he's not experiencing hallucinations in which numbers and words jump out at him and conversations are imagined.
The actor said he hopes the character broadens people's concept of the schizophrenic community, much as "Will & Grace" increased American viewer comfort level with gay men. "Like with 'Will & Grace,' I didn't set out to change anything; with this, I'm not setting out to change anything," he said. "But I do hope that one of the byproducts is that it reminds people that there are a significant portion of the schizophrenic community functioning, working, dealing with it, holding down a job. It's a horrible, horrible condition, but it doesn't have to shut your life down."
McCormack and the show's writers met with UCLA doctor Michael Green, a neuroscience professor who is an expert in schizophrenia. The actor also consulted with Elyn Saks, a law professor at USC who is certifiably schizophrenic. She wrote a book, "The Center Cannot Hold," about her experience with the mental disorder.
"I couldn't just arbitrarily make choices," McCormack said. "I had to make sure that when the hallucinations are written, I played those accurately and that they were true to the condition. I love any role that demands that kind of responsibility."
But McCormack hasn't always let that dictate his decisions. In "Top of the Rock: The Rise and Fall of Must See TV," Warren Littlefield's account of his days as NBC president of entertainment, McCormack talked about his initial hesitation in accepting his defining role as Will Truman. Not so much out of fear of the responsibility but the fear of a successful show. As he put it, he didn't want to be the next John Stamos.
"I wasn't wrong. It is the way it works," he said. "There is typecasting in success. You just want to make sure it's a success that you're proud of. And I am so proud of 'Will & Grace' that I'm willing to do the uphill battle that is convincing people that I can do other things. I got really spoiled with that show. I need to let the genre be for a bit and remind people that I can do drama on TV. It's an ongoing battle."
"Perception" is the actor's second drama on TNT. The first, "Trust Me," set inside a present-day fictional advertising firm, was canceled after one season (perhaps indicating that audiences were already satisfied in that arena with that other advertising-themed cable drama). The post-"Will & Grace" years — TV-wise — have otherwise largely consisted of a few Lifetime network ventures, including a short-lived comedy he produced called "Lovespring International" and guest-starring roles on network shows.
McCormack, though, is hoping that getting into the crime-solving business will improve his chances for a show with longer staying power. If that means playing a neuroscientist with pages of dialogue he barely understands, he thinks he can withstand the mental challenge.