I was sick of playing Joey for years - now I'm playing myself
Friends star Matt LeBlanc is back after a long break with a comedy role that should come naturally, says Susan Griffin
Matt LeBlanc is one of the most recognisable people on the planet having played the loveably dim actor Joey Tribbiani for over a decade, first in Friends and then its spin-off Joey. So it's little wonder we all have a preconceived idea of what he's like.
Now a new comedy called Episodes, in which the 43-year-old stars as himself, plays on the public's perception.
Written by the co-creator of Friends, David Crane, and his partner Jeffrey Klarik, Episodes marks the first project LeBlanc has signed up to in four years (after Joey was cancelled).
Bruised by the experience, he decided to take a sabbatical, avoid the Hollywood scene and spend time with his daughter Marina (6) with model Melissa McKnight, who he married in 2003 and divorced in 2006.
He was still sent scripts though: "I'd read them but I just didn't feel like working," he says. "My agent was kind of bummed."
Then Crane and Klarik called him up to ask what he was doing. "I told them, 'Nothing really, enjoying my time off'. And they said, 'We've got an idea, let's get together'."
The three men met for lunch and pitched the idea for Episodes.
"I had been burnt out playing the same guy for 12 years, but when they told me the idea behind the show I thought, 'That's probably going to be good. Yeah, I'll get off the couch'."
The seven-part series follows a British couple, Sean and Beverly (played by Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig, reunited for the first time since Green Wing) who are the writers of hit TV show Lymon's Boys.
At an awards ceremony they're wooed by a US network executive who persuades them to move out to LA and remake their show for an American audience, but things begin to unravel the moment they arrive.
It soon becomes clear that the exec has never watched their show and insists on replacing their lead actor, an erudite thespian played by Richard Griffiths, with... Matt LeBlanc.
"Episodes takes the whole Joey persona that I have and meets it head on, it's really liberating," says LeBlanc.
"People still come up to me and speak slowly, or they'll ask if I'm okay because I'm a lot more low-key and subdued than Joey Tribbiani was. He was very high energy, high-key. I'm not really like that. I had a lot of coffee when we were shooting Friends."
LeBlanc admits he initially had reservations about playing himself: "I didn't want it to be too much like me because frankly, I'm not very interesting, so we spiced it up a little bit," he says.
"The character is more Matt LeBlanc than Matt LeBlanc, just as the Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm is some evil twin approximation of the real one.
"In this show he uses the fact that people assume I'm dumb because I played the dumb guy in Friends to manipulate situations to his advantage. And he's a little more emotionally damaged than I am."
That's not to say the writers haven't used any basis of actual truth, given the fact they've known LeBlanc for so long -- and that's proven an education for him.
"There's a scene where I talk about my need to sabotage my own happiness, and another where I admit that I have the inability to appreciate the consequences of my actions. Sometimes I think, 'Hmm, that must be another made-up thing!' but in truth, I'm learning a lot about myself."
The New York Times has already hailed Episodes a "hall of mirrors comedy series about Hollywood" and LeBlanc knows all about the pitfalls of fame, including the time the Friends' salaries were published.
"That was weird," says LeBlanc. "I said, 'Okay, let's inflate that, like I have my own jet', you know what I mean? I wish I had my own jet."
And Episodes is a pretty accurate account of his experiences.
"The industry is based around people's dreams and aspirations, and network television can be a fair-weather friend. If the ratings dip slightly, the phone stops ringing pretty instantly. Obviously a lot of those experiences are exaggerated in the script for the sake of comedy."
Born in Massachusetts, LeBlanc started out training to be a carpenter but fell into modelling, where his boy-next-door good looks secured him a number of shoots and TV adverts. He took acting classes in New York, making his TV drama debut in the short-lived TV 101.
In the ensuing years he appeared in music videos for Alanis Morissette and Jon Bon Jovi and made further fleeting appearances in other TV shows but nothing stuck.
Then in 1994 he landed the Friends gig with Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer. It proved a cultural phenomenon that made the six stars household names -- and multi-millionaires in the process.
"It's weird, when Friends ended, everyone kind of scattered," says LeBlanc, who says they've all stayed in touch. "But then if you put six people in a building for 10 years with no windows and no one else to talk to and you open the door, they're going to run away from each other."
Episodes begins on BBC Two on Monday.