Emmys 2011: Matt LeBlanc on Playing Matt LeBlanc

Toby Merritt/Showtime
Stephen Mangan (left) and Matt LeBlanc in Showtime's "Episodes"

The star of the Showtime boutique comedy "Episodes" reflects on his return to primetime, the perils of playing himself and why he misses a studio audience.

It's OK to admit you were more than a little shocked to hear an old friend's name announced on Emmy noms morning in the lead comedy actor category. Truth be told, Matt LeBlanc was kind of shocked, too. Here, the star of the Showtime boutique comedy Episodes reflects on his return to primetime, the perils of playing himself and why he misses a studio audience.

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The Hollywood Reporter: You've known Episodes co-creator David Crane for many years from your work together on Friends. Did he craft the show specifically with you in mind?

Matt Leblanc: About two years ago, I got a call from David and [co-creator] Jeffrey Klarik, and they asked me, "What are you up to these days?" I said, "Oh, nothing -- enjoying being a dad, taking time off, figuring out the next phase of my life." They said: "We have an idea. Let's get together and have lunch," and I asked: "Really? What is it?" They said, "We want to tell you in person," and I said, "Well, give me a hint." They said, "We'd rather get together," and I said, "C'mon!" I was living in Montecito at the time and met them for lunch. Their pitch was so thorough. They laid out the whole first season, all seven episodes, right there. I was very impressed.

THR: You play a version of yourself in Episodes that isn't terribly flattering. Did you have reservations about doing this?

Leblanc: I was a little skeptical. But they said: "Look, we're not making a documentary. So if there's anything you're not comfortable with, we just won't do it." Actually, it became really fun to poke fun at the public's perception of celebrity. I mean, our [Friends] salaries were printed in the L.A. Times Business section one time, so after that everybody assumed we printed money in our basements. Believe me, I wish I could print money in my basement. So I suggested to David and Jeffrey: "Then let's make me really rich. Let's take advantage of that perception." It became really fun once I got my head around the fact that it was a character and not really me.

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THR: Have there been moments written in the script that you felt were a little too over-the-top?

Leblanc: There was one scene in particular when I call my ex-wife a very derogatory name -- the C-word, actually. My real-life ex-wife and I have a really amicable friendship; we're good partners in raising our daughter together. So that was a little uncomfortable. I just had to make sure to have a conversation with her beforehand.

THR: It probably helps that you've also never really been one of those celebrities whose personal life we think we know intimately.

Leblanc: Well, I've slipped up here and there and done stupid stuff. But when I slipped up, it was usually big. I decided to save them all up and be a real asshole.

THR: Were your friends surprised that you were game to poke fun at yourself on the show?

Leblanc: Most just asked, "Are you OK with them making you such an asshole?" I'm like: "It's just a character. People play murderers. Do you think they're really murderers?" They say: "But yeah, it's your name. People are going to think it's you!" I say: "Oh, I don't think people will think that, and if they do, that's OK. Besides, they already think I'm Joey Tribbiani, so who cares?"

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THR: It's already been seven years since Friends ended. How does it feel to be looking back on the show?

Leblanc: Friends was a weird phenomenon. I remember after 9/11, there was this big thing in the L.A. Times Calendar section about how "America needed its comfort-food television." We got labeled as "comfort food." I don't know how that happened. We all said, "Wow, that's a lot of responsibility, so let's try to be our best." To have been part of that was so fantastic. And now to be working with David again is amazing. I'm excited to go back to London at the end of October to shoot season two of Episodes.

THR: So the second season takes place in England, not L.A.?

Leblanc: No, it will take place in L.A. again. We actually shot the whole first season in England with very little second-unit stuff in L.A., like real-wide shots of my car driving up the coast -- that's about it. That guard booth where the main characters live in the gated community, that was all at a military base outside of London. My house in Malibu in the show was actually this house in the woods next to a power plant. They just wrapped the whole house in greenscreen. There are way more special effects in Episodes than you would imagine.

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THR: Showtime is only in about 15 percent of U.S. homes. It must have been a strange adjustment for you going from Must-See TV on Thursday nights on NBC to a much smaller audience on cable.

Leblanc: Yeah, David and I joke that we are mostly just doing Episodes for friends and family. A good number on Showtime is maybe a million people; with Friends, it was 30 million people. Network television is great, but it has so many standards-and-practices constraints. I get it, but society is evolving, and those rules need to reflect the new face of society -- and they haven't yet. When you get on cable, the gloves are off. Not everything's so perfect. There's a little more dirt; there's a wrinkle in the curtain. The main thing that took getting used to is that Episodes is a single-camera show, so there's no audience. So I say a punch line, and no one laughs. On my first day of shooting, I was completely thrown when the only laughter I heard was from a few crew people chuckling at the monitors. I was like, "What the hell?"