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: Although he had a few full-time series gigs before being cast in one of the most popular sitcoms of the past few decades, the degree of recognition Matt LeBlanc earned from Friends and (to a decidedly lesser extent) Joey means that, for better or worse, people tend to think of him first and foremost as “the guy who played Joey Tribbiani.” After taking an extended break from acting in the wake of Joey’s cancellation, LeBlanc returned to TV in a role that he had a certain amount of familiarity to it, playing himself—or, rather, a fictionalized version of himself—in Episodes, the third season of which is currently airing on Showtime.
Episodes (2011-present)—“Matt LeBlanc”
Matt LeBlanc: When Joey ended, I had taken some time off… and that time off turned into about six years. I was really enjoying life, and I wasn’t really looking to go and do anything. I feel really fortunate and blessed that I was able to do that financially, so, you know, why not? I had gone through a divorce, and I was a single dad. Working on Joey was a lot of hours, and I wanted to spend time with this baby girl that I had, and I think it was the best thing I ever did. We have a great relationship, and she’s awesome.
In about the sixth year—or somewhere around there, I forget the timeline exactly—the phone rang, and it was Jeffrey Klarik and David Crane, and they said, “How’s it going?” [Laughs.] I said, “Hey, how are ya? I’m good!” They said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Nothing.” They said, “We have an idea.” You know, things had come across my desk over the course of that time off that I read and respectfully said no to, and some of those are still in the air, but I got together with them and we had lunch, and they pitched the whole first season of Episodes. They had it, not written down, they had it in their heads, beat by beat, all the way through the first season.
My only question was, “So I’m playing myself? What does that mean?” “Well, we’re not going to make it a documentary. We’ll bend and shape it and make sure you’re comfortable with everything. If there’s anything you’re uncomfortable with, we won’t do it.” So I was in. And it’s been a really fun time. I have so much respect and faith and trust in them as writers. I don’t know that I would try this, to play myself, with a writer I didn’t already have a relationship with and that I didn’t trust. But they’re like family to me. I’ve known them since the beginning of Friends, so I knew I was in good hands. That goes a long way in this kind of a thing. And it’s not really playing myself, you know? My approach to it is that it’s a fictitious character, just like any other role. He just happens to look and sound a lot like me.
The A.V. Club: There are some similarities between the two Matt LeBlancs’ lives, though. Do you make a judgment call as far as whether something’s too close to reality or too on-the-nose?
ML: The only thing I’m super-sensitive about is when it gets into my family. But we’ve given me a different family altogether. In the show, I have two sons, and in real life, I have a daughter and a stepson and a stepdaughter, who are older now. So it’s not close enough where I sort of bump on any of that, and that was by design, I think, for them. They knew that was an area I was uncomfortable with and said, “Okay, let’s make that one particular thing completely different.” Then we can do whatever we want with it, because it’s not me at all. In terms of being the brunt of the joke and all that kind of stuff, I don’t mind being the brunt of the joke at all, as long as it’s a good joke. If it’s low-hanging fruit? Eh, maybe not so much. [Laughs.]
AVC: It was interesting to hear during the Television Critics Association panel that you’ve tried to take it farther than the producers are comfortable with.
ML: Yeah, it’s really come full circle now. They’re like, “No, no, no!” [Laughs.] “That’s too bizarre and weird! We can’t do that!” But it’s fun. I think between the three of us we’ve carved out this guy who’s sort of interesting to watch.
AVC: When I talked to Jeff Klarik, he said that the guest appearance by Jay Leno this season was actually inspired by your real-life experience.
ML: Oh, yeah. [Laughs.] But that wasn’t on The Tonight Show. That was in England, on The Graham Norton Show. I didn’t realize that I was the second guest and Zac Efron was the lead guest, and he was, like, an hour and a half late. Everybody was freaking out, and I was, like, “Well, I’ve got something else to do, so I’m not gonna be able to wait much longer!” But it all worked out fine.
AVC: Do you have a particular favorite episode of this current season of Episodes?
ML: Not really, but it’s because the way we shoot it. We shoot it like a film, so we shoot out each set. So, like, the network studios, we shoot all of that, then we’ll shoot the Pucks stage, then we’ll shoot my house, and we’ll shoot Jamie’s house, Sean and Beverly’s house. On any given production day, we could be shooting scenes from five or six different episodes, so during the course of production, I don’t really remember what’s in each full episode. [Starts to laugh.] Driving here today, I was getting a little anxiety. “I hope they don’t say anything like, ‘In episode seven, you…’” I don’t know what was in episode seven! The way we shoot it, it’s so scrambled that it’s really tricky to keep an idea of what’s in what.
Storyline-wise, though, my favorite stuff to play is always the stuff with Sean and Beverly [Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig]. I just hold them in such high regard as actors—I think they’re so brilliant, both of them—that I love working with them. It’s like playing tennis with someone who’s really good. Your game is better. Not to say that the rest of the cast isn’t good, but working with them is my favorite. Also, I don’t really work with Kathleen [Rose Perkins] that much. Almost never, really. And Mircea [Monroe] once in a while, but there’s not too much there. Most of my stuff is with either Sean or Beverly. So I like that. And it’s fun when we’re all together. The way they write the season, how it all sort of builds and builds and then collides at the end each year, is a fun thing, to see it all come together.
Saturday Night Live – “Doll Day Afternoon” (1987)—“G.I. Joe”
AVC: Okay, so the farthest thing back in your filmography was playing G.I. Joe in something called “Doll Day Afternoon.”
ML: Wow. Yeah, that was a little skit for Saturday Night Live, and it was really right when I was just first starting out. I had just gotten an agent. There was no dialogue. I was dressed as G.I. Joe, and there was just, like, a shot of me walking by, and that was it. I was like, “Okay, great! I’m on my way!” [Laughs.]
AVC: So how did you find your way into acting in the first place?
ML: I had gone to New York to get into modeling. I was a carpenter outside of Boston, and someone said, “Oh, you should go be a model!” And I thought, “Hey, anything to not have to bang framing nails in the snow!” So I went and checked it out, and… I basically got rooked for $400 and a couple of rolls of film that really weren’t very good. I’m too short. So I’m walking back to the train station, and I met a girl on the street on Park Avenue, and she was an actress going on a soap opera audition, so I went with her. And she went to see her manager, and I went with her, just waiting for her day to finish so I could hopefully, you know, uh… well, you know. [Laughs.]
I met her manager, and her manager said, “Oh, my God! Who are you? What’s your story? You should be doing commercials!” And I was like, “Oh, uh…” I told her what I was in New York for, and she handed me three pieces of commercial copy. I went out in the hall and I looked at ’em. I think one was for Stridex zit pads, one was for Aquafresh toothpaste, and I can never remember was the third one was. I thought, “This is silly!” But then I had this weird epiphany, and I thought, “I’m never gonna see any of these people again, so I’m gonna give this my best shot and see what happens. If I embarrass myself, it’s okay, because I’m never gonna see ’em again.” And I went back in and read. And she said, “That was great,” and she handed me a five-year contract to manage me in commercials.
So I took it home to Boston and talked to my stepdad about it, because it was this big, long paper with fine print on both sides, and he said, “I mean, any money you make in the entertainment industry, she gets 15 percent of it. That’s basically what this says.” I said, “What if I get, like, a regular job to pay the bills?” “No, she doesn’t take any of that. It’s clear that she’s not entitled to that.” I said, “Okay,” and I signed it, and then I started going back and forth between home and New York. I ended up moving to New York, because a four-hour drive each way for a 10-minute audition is a long way to go. [Laughs.]
But I was in New York about a week, and I got a public service announcement for the Constitution, and that got me Taft-Hartley, my union card. And on that job, I met this guy—who’s still my best friend—who was in an acting class, and he said, “You should come check it out!” So I went and checked it out. I sat in the back, and I was like, “Wow, this is fun!” And I’ve been hooked on it ever since.
TV 101 (1988-1989)—“Chuck Bender”
ML: My first TV series! That’s the one that moved me out to L.A. from New York. That was a lot of fun. I played the class letterman, the jock, captain of the football team, captain of the wrestling team, captain of the track team. It was pre-90210, and it was very much like 90210. It was about a high school journalism class, and Sam Robards was the teacher. They’d kind of shit-canned the school paper and plugged in the electricity and made it a video journalism course that was broadcast on the school’s closed-circuit TV, like a newscast. And I was one of the kids that took the class. There was the nerdy guy, the stoner guy, the preppie girl, the smart girl, the jock, all your standard cliché characters. But we dealt with, like, teen pregnancy, a drunk-driving death… the sort of mature issues that high-school kids find themselves dealing with, unfortunately. And it was good. I think it was a little ahead of its time. Scott Brazil and Karl Schaeffer produced it, we did 18 episodes, and then it got canceled. And having moved from New York to L.A., I had an apartment, a car, and a dog… and I thought, “Well, no need to move back to New York. I’ll just stay here!” So there I was.
Married With Children (1991)—“Vinnie Verducci”
Top Of The Heap (1991) / Vinnie And Bobby (1992)—“Vinnie Verducci”
ML: Top Of The Heap was a pilot that I did that was aired as a spin-off of Married With Children, but it was really bizarre, because not much of the cast of Married With Children was in it. What they did was, they sort of backdated it. After we’d shot the pilot, I did a guest spot or two on Married With Children, and then they showed the pilot, with Joe Bologna and myself. I played a young ex-boxer who was sort of dim-witted—kind of the predecessor to Joey—whose father was, like, a two-bit con man and used me as a pawn in all of his little schemes. We did six episodes of that, and that didn’t seem to be working, so it got canceled and they sort of revamped it. Joe left, I stayed, and another guy came in to play my roommate, and they called it Vinnie And Bobby. That went six episodes, too, at which point they said, “All right, we’re out of ways to try and make this thing fly. Let’s let it go.” [Laughs.]
Grey Knight (a.k.a. Ghost Brigade) (1993)—“Terhune”
AVC: Between the cast and the plot summary, IMDB makes this movie sound more awesome than it probably is.
ML: [Laughs.] Yeah, that was a film with Corbin Bernsen and… oh, what’s the other guy’s name?
AVC: Martin Sheen?
ML: [Surprised.] Martin Sheen was in it?
AVC: According to IMDB, he was in there somewhere.
ML: Wow. I don’t remember him being in it. But it was set during the Civil War, and a band of Rebel soldiers that had been killed, their ghosts were now ambushing Union soldiers. I was in the first act and had a good little part. I was one of the Union soldiers that got attacked by these ghosts, and then at the beginning of the second act, the leads of the movie show up and find our dead bodies. So you see me, like, crucified upside down with my throat slit. Pretty gruesome. But when they tested it, it seemed like two movies, so they cut the whole first act out, and all you see is my dead body. So, yeah, I was great in that one. [Laughs.] And it actually wasn’t even me! It was a dummy, and they’d made a life-cast of my face and put it on the body… so I’m actually not even in it!
All The Queen’s Men (2001)—“O’Rourke”
ML: That was a really cool idea, I thought, that didn’t really seem to work. That had a really interesting moral issue in it that I thought was great. It was about this group of soldiers during World War II that were chosen to go behind enemy lines, into Berlin, and steal an Enigma machine… in drag. Because that was the only way you could get around. And there were actually spies during the war—this is true—that would go around in drag, because it was the only way you could get around Berlin. If you were a man, it would be suspect. “Why are you not in uniform, on the front? What are you doing?” You had to be a woman, ’cause… that’s who stayed at home.
So we’re this band of misfits that’s put together to go, and I guess it was in the second act when we realized that our mission was to get caught stealing an Enigma machine. The Allies had already broken the code, but they sent us in to get caught, they chose us because they were betting, “There’s no way they’ll pull it off,” and then the Nazis would feel that their code was safe. So we find that out, and then it’s this moral issue of, “Well, if that’s our mission, to get caught, then that’s our mission. What makes us any different than the guys on the front line that lay down their lives? If that’s what we’re meant to do…” And my character’s like, “Fuck that!” [Laughs.] “I’m not getting caught!”
So it was a really interesting story, and Eddie Izzard was in it, along with myself, James Cosmo, and this really great German actress, Coco [Nicolette] Krebitz, who I think is a director now in Germany. But the drag element… I don’t know, it was supposed to be a comedy, but it just wasn’t that funny. I think there was a little too much going on there, maybe, but who knows? But I was attracted to the moral dilemma in the movie. I thought that was really interesting.
Red Shoe Diaries (1992, 1993)—“Kyle” / “Jed”
ML: Oh, you mean the only time I’ve been naked on-screen? [Laughs.] Well, it was drafty… but that’s all I’ll say!
Ed (1996)—“Jack ‘Deuce’ Cooper”
ML: That was, on paper, a great idea. [Laughs.] It was supposed to be like a Disney movie for kids, but made by Universal, about a guy who played baseball, and there was a chimp on the team who played third base. The script was great, and the guy learned about his life, turned his life around. It was just this kind of warm, sweet little kids’ movie. I went to a few screenings, and the kids did love it. It was a cute little movie.
AVC: How was the experience of actually making it?
ML: Well, there was never, at any point, a real monkey. It was an animatronic monkey head, with a guy in a suit. This guy Roger Fouts, who’s a very famous primatologist… You remember all those chimps that they did hepatitis tests on, so they were all quarantined? He was in charge of that whole thing and dealt with trying to rehabilitate those chimps and help them. And he’s really the number one guy in terms of primate behavior. Anyway, he was a technical advisor on the movie. He was a fascinating guy to talk to. So he worked with the guy in the suit, Jay Caputo, this little gymnast guy, a great guy, and we had a great time making it. It was fun and a good experience. But I had to do a lot of ADR, looping to redo the dialogue, because the motorized head made so much damned noise. [Laughs.] All of my close-ups, all you could hear was a constant stream of buzzing and whirring. I forget how many motors were in that thing. The head was a very expensive piece of equipment… and a noisy one!
Friends (1994-2004) / Joey (2004-2006)—“Joey Tribbiani”
ML: Joey Tribbiani was a lot of fun. I’m probably his biggest fan. [Laughs.] There’s not a lot I can say about him, except that that was 10 years of an absolute blast. It was so fun. It really was.
AVC: Is there a particular personality aspect of Joey that you enjoyed playing?
ML: Yeah, his ability to sort of turn on a dime. He could be super invested in something, and if it didn’t look like it was gonna pan out, he’d go, “Eh, what are you gonna do?” And he’d turn and go in the other direction with the same conviction. And that was always great for a laugh. It worked because people really just don’t tend to behave that way. If you’re really invested in something, you get disappointed. You don’t just go, “Eh, I’ll go be invested in this instead.” So that was fun.
AVC: Critics will sometimes say that a show’s gone on too long. Did you ever hear that about Friends at the time you were doing it?
ML: No, there was talk of, like, “We don’t want to jump the shark,” but I think we ended it before any of that happened. I would’ve kept going, though. I thought there was life left in it. It wasn’t my decision to leave.
AVC: When you look back at Joey, do you feel like there was anything wrong with it, or was it just a case of viewers not embracing it?
ML: Oh, I don’t know. It’s sort of hard to say. There was a lot of pressure on that show to sort of fill the shoes of Friends, but it was only one-sixth of the original cast, you know? [Laughs.] That’s a lot of pressure! Maybe the direction the stories went wasn’t right, but who knows? I don’t know what the wrong thing was. We did two seasons, so it wasn’t a colossal failure. I thought we did some funny stuff, and I had a good time. That’s half the battle, right? As long as you’re having fun.