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by nichole bernier | March 1, 2014 | People
The Emmy-nominated actor reflects on his decade with the iconic series Friends, where his Joey spinoff went wrong, and his TV reincarnation as… himself.
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When Matt LeBlanc enters a restaurant for an early lunch on a quiet Wednesday, he takes his seat a bit like a Secret Service agent taking in points of exposure. Location: Blue Ginger, Wellesley. Empty table to the right, wall of windows at rear, possible disturbance in front. Goal: To dodge the circus aspect of being recognized, even though that recognition is a measure of his success. Such is the cognitive dissonance of being a low-profile construction worker from Newton with a high-profile face.
Though it’s been 20 years since Friends became a sitcom sensation and 10 since it went off the air, the television star launched as the face of Joey Tribbiani is in the spotlight again since last year’s Emmy nomination as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for his Showtime sitcom Episodes, taping its fourth season this summer. It’s not a role that helps with cognitive dissonance: Matt LeBlanc plays a fictionalized version of Matt LeBlanc. Or rather, a through-the-looking-glass version of Matt LeBlanc—if the former Friend were down on his luck and offered a role on a fictional British prep-school series, then rubbed up against the husband-and-wife producing team in all sorts of virile Matt LeBlanc-esque ways.
“It must be like living in a funhouse mirror,” I remark, “playing a sitcom version of yourself.” There’s a moment of silence as we’re both rendered speechless by the arrival of Ming Tsai’s sculptural garlic and black pepper lobster entrée.
“It’s a fictitious character, and you just have to approach it that way,” LeBlanc says. “He just happens to have the same name I do. When we were coming up with who the character was going to be, I thought it would be fun—since our salaries were all published during Friends—to make this Matt LeBlanc way, way wealthier than me.”LeBlanc has a bite of lobster and makes a deeply satisfied sound. “You’ve got this guy completely oblivious to the consequences of his actions; that’s fun to play. And he’s really damaged, this lost soul, the Matt LeBlanc on TV. I like to think I have my shit a little more together than that.”
Does he? It can’t be easy, juggling a sitcom taped in London, shared custody of his 10-year-old daughter, and a long-term relationship with his former Joey costar Andrea Anders. He laughs and leans back, casual in faded jeans and a blue shawl-collar cotton sweater, and crosses his arms. “Sometimes yes, sometimes no.”
If part of having it together is identifying what you want and pursuing it, then he does. Growing up in Nonantum, LeBlanc, now 46, had the kind of no-nonsense, outdoorsy New England childhood that seems impossibly remote from his current stardom. “We played a lot of hockey at Fessenden and Totten Pond in Waltham, and used to go sledding at Albemarle in Newton. Funny how you see something like the hill you used to sled down as a kid, which seemed like such a huge mountain, and now you go, Is that the hill? It’s not really a hill.”
While attending Newton North high school he did the “voc-tech track”—he focused on carpentry—and then did a semester at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. But after working with actual building crews on homes, studying building felt like playing instead of doing (“It was like going to LEGO college,” he recalls), so he left for a job constructing custom homes in Natick.
The crossover moment came when he decided to model on the side. He went to New York to meet a photographer for a portfolio package deal. Walking back to the subway with a bunch of pictures, feeling like he’d just been scammed out of $500, he passed a hot woman walking the other direction. “I looked back to check out her ass at the same time she checked out mine, and we started laughing.” She was an actress headed to see her manager, and invited him along. The manager asked him if he wanted to do a trial read for a hypothetical commercial. “I remember having this epiphany in this skanky building on Park Avenue, thinking, I’m never going to see this lady ever again, so I’ll try my hardest, and just see.” One Aquafresh and Stridex test-read later, he was signed.
It was not an express line to Friends. There were commercials and burger-flipping jobs on the side—not only for the rent money, but hey, for free meals, too. But once he started taking acting classes, he was hooked. By 1986 he was doing well enough with guest stints and parts on other series to stop flipping burgers. And then came Friends.
“Joey was a peripheral character in the beginning. He was this guy who lived across the hall and hit on the girls all the time. Fortunately, I had the foresight to think, ‘This is a special thing that’s starting to gel, like a lighting-in-a-bottle thing, and I want to make sure I stick around.’” LeBlanc suggested that the character be tweaked so that while Joey hits on every other girl in New York, these three were like sisters. “It was a survival tactic. Because I thought, How long can it last if I’m just the guy hitting on them?”
The producers were receptive to the idea, and the peripheral characters—Phoebe, Joey, and Chandler—joined Ross, Monica, and Rachel to become a true ensemble. Their symbiosis created not just a hit show, but unusually cooperative salary negotiations: over $1 million per episode for everyone, not just the biggest names. “In the beginning Lisa [Kudrow] and I were paid the least, Courteney [Cox] had the most, so this was the beginning of parity,” he recalls. It was also the beginning of true fame for everyone. By the second season he couldn’t live in an apartment any longer; they all had to “scramble to get behind a gate.” This was new to LeBlanc and unsettling.
“The weirdest thing was walking into a room, a restaurant, a bar, a movie theater, anywhere there’s a lot of people, and everybody sort of stopping what they’re doing and taking notice you’re in the room. And they know you, or they think they do—they know your name, they know what you do for a living, they know how much money you make, they know where you’re from, but they’re all strangers to you.”
But by the time the publicity frenzy was at its zenith, he became accustomed to the funhouse mirror effect. He learned how to venture out wrapped in his public persona, prepared to sign autographs and pose for pictures.
He bought a house for his mother in Nonantum, in cash. And some of the surreal moments became almost utilitarian: One night he was watching television and heard a helicopter overhead. The television screen was divided into six blocks, with a live helicopter shot of each of the cast members’ houses. “I’m looking at it, I can hear the helicopter, and I look close at the TV and think, ‘My roof sure looks like shit.’ So I got out the ladder to get up on the roof, and sure enough I had to get an estimate to redo the roof.”
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Once the show went off the air, several things happened that changed his feelings about being in the public eye. His spinoff series, Joey, was canceled, a result, he thinks, of sending the character in a wrong direction. “Joey had become a guy who is feeling sorry for himself, got to California, didn’t have his ‘Friends’—oh, woe is me,” he mimics. “That was never the character. Who wants to see that?”
Then his daughter had a brush with a serious illness (she is fine now), and his marriage was ending. LeBlanc withdrew to his 1,200-acre ranch near Santa Barbara, with dirt bikes, horses, and 130 head of cattle with big horns “like goalposts.” He didn’t act for five years. In fact, he barely left the house. “I wasn’t ready to go back to work. There were shows I said no to. I was just not wanting to be in the spotlight, and it was really good for me.” He would cut his own hair rather than leave the ranch, and he laughs now recalling how he once gave himself a Mohawk. “I looked like a feral man with his kid. I’m glad child services doesn’t have a picture of that one.”
But when David Crane from Friends came calling with a crazy idea for another show, LeBlanc was willing to hear him out. “The trust level goes back to 1994,” he says. “I learned so much from him.” There are those who suggest he’s pigeonholed himself by playing Joey-in-Friends, then Joey Alone, then Matt-recovering-from-Joey. “I can think of a lot worse problems to have than being stuck with people’s perceptions of Joey. If people think that’s who I am, then I’ve done my job. Now I’m pigeonholed as an asshole version of myself. But that’s fun.”
Asked how he handles the funhouse mirror of fame when he’s back in Nonantum, LeBlanc says, “When I come back I mostly spend the whole time at my mom’s house and don’t leave. The last couple of times I’ve been back, we go to West Street Grill in Nonantum. I call all my friends from high school. There were about 25 of us on Sunday; it was great. It’s kind of nice to go out with a crowd of people you know. It’s kind of a buffer.”
We drink our coffee and pick at a dessert plate of cookies we hadn’t intended to eat, but it’s a rainy coffee-and-cookies sort of afternoon, and we are waiting for his girlfriend to return.
“I’ll always be known for Friends—so will Matthew [Perry], David [Schwimmer], Courteney—it’s OK with me. I only speak for myself, but I’m very proud of it. I wouldn’t do anything differently.”
photography by rainer hosch; Styling by Nicolas Bru at Margaret Maldonado; Grooming by Kelly Willis