On set with Eric McCormack of TNT’s “Perception”

By Kate O’Hare

In the feature film A Beautiful Mind, schizophrenic mathematician John Nash (Russell Crowe) goes against a doctor’s advice and decides to forgo his medication and use his intellect to deal with his symptoms, including vivid hallucinations.

In the TNT drama Perception, Eric McCormack plays neuroscience professor Dr. Daniel Pierce, who is also off his medication, instead using his hallucinations and paranoid delusions to help a former student, FBI agent Kate Moretti (Rachael Leigh Cook), solve crimes.

But Pierce’s symptoms and the behavior they cause also put him at risk — and the disruption caused by his crime-solving efforts just makes his symptoms worse.

“He’s not like anyone I’ve ever played,” says McCormack, talking in his trailer between scenes on the show’s set in a smaller city north of Los Angeles. “I’ve been referring to it as A Beautiful Mind meets Columbo.”

Pierce fears that the side effects of his medications erode his mental faculties.

“That’s actually one of the things that comes up in the pilot and in several episodes,” McCormack says. “Maybe my disorder makes me who I am. Maybe this is part of me. So, that’ll be a very big part of the season, when people start to ask, ‘How can someone who knows so much … why can’t a physician heal himself? How can he not be on meds when he, as much as anyone, knows the value?’

“I don’t want to become who I become [on meds]. I don’t want my senses dulled, even though I know it’s helping.”

But, McCormack emphasizes, the show doesn’t advocate people not taking their prescribed medications.

“A, he’s very high-functioning,” he says of Pierce, “and B, he’s the first one to tell … there’s an episode with a young schizophrenic whom he tells, ‘You should be on meds.’ It’s ‘Do what I say, don’t do as I do.’ We don’t paint it as a brilliant choice on his part but rather as a personal choice that may or may not be the right one.

“It’s a fine line that you walk. There’s no question that most schizophrenics should be on their meds, because it helps them. There’s no question that meds do take away something. In his case, he is high-functioning. He has found a way — not on his own, but with help from others — to stay on the straight and narrow. But when he’s too straight and narrow, he loses that thing that makes him special.”

Among the “others” is Max Lewicki (Arjay Smith), Pierce’s teaching assistant, who also functions as a kind of minder and valet, trying to keep Pierce on a routine that aids his stability. Max also has to cope with the disruption the cases cause, which McCormack says ultimately do more good than harm.

“His main job is to keep me on an even keel,” says McCormack. “He gets really upset when I go on these cases with [agent Moretti], but he realizes in a few episodes that these Rubik’s Cubes of mystery, of crimes, help.”

Pierce uses his hallucinations as a tool in his crime-solving efforts. On this day, he’s watching an interrogation while having an illuminating chat with France’s St. Joan of Arc.

“In this particular episode,” says McCormack, “it’s a kid who is 16 who hears the voice of God. A cult has built around him. My character, he couldn’t be more atheist if he tried.

“So, the scientist comes face-to-face with this kid who truly believes God speaks to him. He’s such a sweet and Messiah-like kid that it rocks my character’s bedrock belief in nothing, or in science alone. They have this really interesting relationship.

“And then I diagnose that he basically has what Joan of Arc had, which is temporal lobe epilepsy, which does cause you to feel that you’re hearing voices. But if you fix the temporal lobe epilepsy by removing the tumor, are you then taking God away? Not unlike, ‘If I take my meds, am I taking my hallucinations away?’ That’s the theme of the show: How much reality is too much?”

Perception airs Mondays at 10pm ET on TNT starting July 9.


Credit: TNT/Jeremy Freeman