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Eric McCormack.

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Eric McCormack on The Best Man, Channeling Don Draper, and Looking 35 Forever

In Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, recently opened on Broadway, Eric McCormack plays Senator Joe Cantwell, the slick young charmer to John Larroquette’s senior intellectual in a battle for the Democratic nomination during a sixties presidential campaign. In a cast full of thespian giants, the Will & Grace alum might at first seem like surprise casting, but McCormack is a stage vet in his own right: He spent a decade in theater before network television came calling. Most recently, he sang and danced as Harold Hill in 2001 Broadway revival of The Music Man. He spoke to Vulture about holding his own with heavyweights like James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury, and the joys of looking perpetually 35.

I hear you’ve taken to calling yourself the ingenue of the cast.
[Laughs.] Well, it’s kind of a nice feeling to look around and, based on everyone else, think that I might have another 30, 40 years in this business. Thirty years ago this month, I saw James Earl Jones do Othello on Broadway — it was my second Broadway show ever. I think of that every night as he enters the stage. Particularly since I’m playing a sort of Iago-like character; it’s bizarre. And back when I was in theater school, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life, Sweeney Todd was a huge touchstone for me, my favorite musical for sure. So staring at and listening to Angela, there’s one part of me trying to stay in character and the other part’s going, “Oh my GOD! That’s Angela Lansbury!”

I can only imagine what your first rehearsals must have been like. It almost seems like a "man walks into a bar" joke: “Man walks into a room with Angela Lansbury, James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, Candice Bergen ...”
As it always happens with people like that: The room is just nothing but reverence and politeness ... and then you realize very quickly that James likes a dirty joke, and Angela likes to laugh, and everyone relaxes. We’d sit and talk about certain references in the play — Gore Vidal and Jack Kennedy were good friends, and someone was saying that when Kennedy got to California, he’d get laid practically the minute he got off the plane, and there’s Angela reading the newspaper and suddenly looks up and goes [affects Lansbury’s voice], “Oh yes, at Peter Lawford’s house in Malibu. We all knew!” 

You seem pretty comfortable onstage, which not all actors we know from TV do.
Yeah, I always get a little uppity when I hear the phrase “TV actor.” It’s like saying you’re a magazine reporter. I was in the theater for ten years before I ever had a TV audition. It’s what I come from and what I do, and the thing with the sitcom is it was essentially theater: We did it in front of a live audience for eight years. There wasn’t an episode of Will & Grace that didn’t begin with my voice saying, “Will & Grace is taped before a live studio audience.”

In the play, Senator Cantwell reminds me a bit of John Edwards. Were you drawing on anyone in particular for his character, or more a mélange of people?
It was definitely a mélange, but I’m glad you picked out John Edwards, because in terms of his sound and look, that’s what we were going for. It’s tough because [my character] is such a hard-core Republican kind of character, but he’s running for the Democratic nomination. He wears his religion on his sleeve and he is socially conservative, which for a Democratic candidate is bizarre. To me, he’s kind of John Edwards on the outside, and a bit Mitt Romney, a bit Rick Santorum, and a little Don Draper.

I have to ask about how you pulled off the Southern accent. It’s weird to hear, when we’re so used to seeing you as this kind of New York intellectual guy.
To be honest, doing accents for most actors is not a problem — it’s the audience’s problem. If you’d never seen me before, you wouldn’t know what I sound like, but the problem is I was on television for a long time, so I think we’ll end up being judged. Kerry [Butler, who plays Cantwell’s wife] and I aren’t supposed to be from the same place; she’s from Texas, I’m from Tennessee, and that never comes up in the play. I said to the director, “If people hear us together, will they think we’re doing the same accent and one of us is doing it badly?” I’m sure someone will rake us over the coals for it.

I swear I’m not trying to butter you up, but it’s tough to believe you’re almost 50. Is that only a good thing for getting roles?
I don’t know why — I think it’s because when I was starting out there wasn’t Gossip Girl or Melrose Place — there wasn’t much use in being 18 or 20.  The good roles were all being played by guys who were 30, and that’s what I wanted to be. Very early on in theater school when I was auditioning for things, that’s the kind of energy I was taking out there. So I kinda was 30 before I was 30, and was 30 through my thirties and forties — and I’m still sorta playing late thirties? Which is great! It’ll change one day, but in the meantime, skin products are our friends.

Tell us about when we will see you looking 30-ish on TV.
I’m doing a single-camera series called Perception on TNT. It’ll premiere, weirdly, the night after we close The Best Man, July 9. I’m a neuroscience professor who also suffers from symptoms of schizophrenia, and my ex-student Rachael Leigh Cook is now with the FBI and comes in looking for my expert help in solving cases. Which takes me into my discomfort zone. The first ten episodes are done.

Since you’re now on Broadway and Debra’s doing Smash, do you trade stories?
Not yet, she’s been too busy with the show. But I’ll see her opening night. I’m hoping to sit down with her and find out all the scoop then.

I like the idea of you doing Sweeney Todd at some point. Let’s make that a goal.
I do too! I actually pitched it to Megan Mullally, that when we both got into our fifties we could do Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett together. Come to think of it, I actually had another crazy thing happen last night: I was sitting onstage deep in character opposite John and all of a sudden thought, We should do Frost/Nixon together! Wouldn’t Larroquette be a great Nixon? We have so much fun in that scene, just sitting on couches talking to each other. I mentioned it to him backstage and he said, “Jesus, that’s a great idea!” I love that kind of thing. The blocking is so easy!

Photo: Rodin Banica/patrickmcmullan.com