Matt LeBlanc wants to make it clear that any resemblance between him and "Matt LeBlanc," his character on the new Showtime series "Episodes," is purely coincidental.
"Episodes," a sharp comedy that skewers the behind-the-scenes machinations of Hollywood, marks LeBlanc's return to the spotlight following the 2006 crash-and-burn of "Joey," the short-lived spinoff of the phenomenally successful "Friends." In his new show, the 43-year-old actor plays a devilish version of himself — a cocky but charming former sitcom star who simultaneously seduces and undermines the British husband-and-wife producing team trying to launch an American version of their smash U.K. comedy. (Ironically, the series was shot in London.)
There are clear differences between the LeBlancs. While "LeBlanc" is a troublesome handful on the set, LeBlanc adores his "Episodes" producers. "LeBlanc" owns a jet. LeBlanc does not. And while "LeBlanc" brags about being physically "gifted," LeBlanc is a little more low-key about that particular aspect of his body.
"My anatomy is very proportional," LeBlanc said with a sly smile, leaning forward on a couch in his publicist's Beverly Hills office. "This is not a documentary."
With the exception of just a few extra pounds and a sprinkling of gray in the spiky front of his hair, LeBlanc looked much the same as he did during his years of "Friends." The new cable show, premiering Sunday, represents a fresh start for the actor who was once a part of one of the most popular comedies in TV history, said LeBlanc, who was alternately soft-spoken, courteous and thoughtful when addressing his past and present.
When "Friends" ended in 2004, his costars focused on film work, but LeBlanc reprised his lovable dim bulb bachelor persona in "Joey." NBC put its marketing and financial might in promoting the comedy, which featured Joey moving from Manhattan to Hollywood to seek acting work.
But following a highly rated premiere, "Joey" lost ground and became a high-profile casualty after two seasons of declining viewership, creative revamps and high-caliber guest stars. LeBlanc had off-screen troubles as well — he got divorced after less than three years of marriage.
While "Friends" was "an awesome, fabulous experience I feel very fortunate to have been part of," he said he was less enthusiastic about "Joey." Although he insists he has no regrets about the show, LeBlanc made retreating from the limelight after its cancellation a priority.
"I really needed a break," he said. "I went through a tough time, a divorce. I just wanted to be with my daughter. I just wanted to spend time being a dad. I had my nose to the grindstone for 12 years, and I think I lost myself a little bit. I wanted to discover again what life was all about."
He added, "You know what my favorite thing to do in the world is? Nothing. I have the luxury of deciding what to do. It's the greatest feeling. I didn't have to work."
The wattage surrounding his reentry to TV is decidedly softer than in the frenzied "Friends" days. He's on cable TV, he's not the main focus of the series, and his character initially is a punch line.
He couldn't be more pleased.
"I'm very happy with this show," LeBlanc said. "It's very funny, has a lot of heart and is really smart. It builds to a place where it is really satisfying, like one long episode. I just really like the pace and the heart of it."
"Episodes" centers on Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig), who are persuaded by a fast-talking network head ( John Pankow) to come to the U.S. and adapt their boarding school comedy "Lyman's Boys" for American audiences. Though they are assured that they don't have to "change a thing," the couple soon discover otherwise as executives revamp the series so much that it's virtually unrecognizable from the original. The ultimate jaw-dropper comes when the Lincolns are forced to replace their Royal Shakespeare veteran lead of "Lyman's Boys" ( Richard Griffiths of " History Boys") with …Matt LeBlanc, a.k.a. "Joey."
When the producers first meet "LeBlanc," he is the portrait of an actor as graying diva. He is constantly distracted during conversation by his cellphone. He wears shades inside restaurants. And he makes no secret about his skepticism about the show's premise.
Playing "LeBlanc" allowed the former "Friends" star "to poke a bit of fun at myself." There are comic jabs at "Joey" and even "Ed," the 1996 baseball movie in which LeBlanc's costar was a chimpanzee. (Neither project is mentioned on LeBlanc's Showtime bio.)
LeBlanc is also operating within a comfort zone — "Episodes" was co-created by "Friends" co-creator David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik. And the show's flawed multidimensional characters inspired him enough to end his self-imposed exile from series television.
Crane and Klarik said "Episodes" is not so much an insiders' look at Hollywood than an exploration of how a couple who love each other survive in an unexpectedly turbulent situation.
As for involving LeBlanc, Crane said, "Matt was always a part of this. We both worked with him and thought he was very underappreciated. There's a lot more to Matt than 'Joey,' and we knew this would be a good way to show what he could do."
Added Klarik, "When we were developing this, we thought, 'Who would be funnier to replace Richard Griffiths with than Matt?' It was a wonderful punch line that we knew we could go deeper with."
"Episodes" at this point is only scheduled for seven episodes, but LeBlanc is eager to continue if Showtime picks up the series: "Doing this is fine. It's fun again."