Eric McCormack knows all about the expression "perception is reality."
The Toronto-born Emmy winner understands that, for many viewers, the perception is he'll always be Will Truman from Will & Grace.
The reality is that series ended six years ago and McCormack has gone on to movies, a whole other series (the short-lived Trust Me), as well as a run on Broadway (opposite James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury in The Best Man).
McCormack's new reality is Perception, a U.S. cable drama making its Canadian debut Sept. 5 at 6 p.m. on Bravo. The series, about a neuroscience professor recruited by a former student and FBI agent (Rachel Leigh Cook) to help solve complex cases, has already been picked up for a second season in the U.S.
The twist is that McCormack's Dr. Pierce suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, a condition which leads to hallucinations that somehow give Pierce insights into how to solve certain crimes.
McCormack was in Toronto Thursday to promote the series. He wanted to clear up one perception problem: that Pierce is just another TV crime stopper - like Monk or The Mentalist - with a quirk or magic sense that helps him crack cases. What Pierce has is a mental illness, says McCormack, who doesn't want viewers to think he's making light of the condition, or that this is some kind of "nutty professor" with special powers.
"He is a neuroscience professor, so he knows the brain better than anybody," says McCormack, also a producer on the series.
"Yet, for a guy who has all this knowledge, his brain is the very thing that is his detriment, his folly, his Achilles heel."
Pierce somehow finds a way to fight through his disorder, analyze his hallucinations and tap into that unique perspective.
The 49-year-old actor has heard this kind of cop drama described as the "defective detective." In the old days, Columbo was about as quirky as it gets, he says.
"Then we did 20 years of 'Who cares about this detective,' the 'Dick Wolf approach."'
Wolf is the prolific executive producer behind the Law & Order franchise, where crime stories were always more important than characters.
McCormack's perspective is that things have swung full circle.
"Now, with Dexter and Monk and The Mentalist, people want the people solving the crimes to be just as interesting, quirky and unpredictable as the criminals."
McCormack, his wife of 15 years, Janet Holden, and their 10-year-old son live in Los Angeles but spend their summers in Vancouver.
"We've built a life there that's independent from L.A.," he says. She's originally from Edmonton, he's from Toronto. They met in Calgary, on the set of Lonesome Dove: The Series.
While he wouldn't have turned down the chance to be in something like Modern Family, McCormack says he was looking to do an hour-long drama, something as far away as possible from Will & Grace. Again, it's that old perception thing.
"I've got to shake people up," he says. "I can't blame them for the person I was in their living room for eight years."
People go to see film actors like Daniel Day Lewis "never be the same," he says. TV stars, however, are expected to never change. McCormack gets that "there's always going to be an element of me in who I play," but he'll always look for ways to stretch, too, including the charming but "loathsome" character he just played on Broadway in The Best Man.
Finally, the perception is that Perception is shot in Chicago, where the story is set. The reality is that the pilot was shot in Toronto (mostly on the University of Toronto campus) and the rest of the series is produced in Los Angeles.
The reality of TV today is that it's just too expensive to fly to Chicago to film in front of Wrigley Field or another Chicago landmark when they can save the trip and shoot the actors in front of a blue screen, adding the location background later.
Los Angeles, with its sunshine and palm trees, rarely doubles for Chicago and McCormack admits it has been hard finding traditional Ivy League campus architecture on the West Coast. Many of the school scenes, he says, are shot in an old church in Pasadena.
"We shot an episode where Rachel had to go to Mexico to bust a young guy," says McCormack, "and we literally shot those scenes across the street from where we usually shoot, in front of a Spanish looking storefront. So we shot L.A. for Chicago on one side of the street and L.A. for Mexico on the other."