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Interview: Matt Le Blanc

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After Friends ended in 2004, Matt starred in the spin-off Joey, which was moved from New York to Hollywood, from 2004 to 2006. The weight of expectation was driven home during the presentations to advertisers before the first season when Joey was billed as the new Friends and Matt had to stand on stage in front of an enormous poster of himself: "I thought, 'those are big shoes to fill – six pairs of shoes.'"

Matt Le BlancIt was a somewhat bruising experience, after which he decided to take a sabbatical, spending time with his young daughter and avoiding the Hollywood celebrity scene. He was regularly sent scripts, but he had not been interested in returning to work – until David and Jeffrey took him out for lunch and explained the premise for Episodes.

He was instantly hooked. Matt explains: "I had been burnt out, 12 years playing the same guy. But when they told me the idea behind the show I thought 'That's probably going to be good – yeah, get off the couch!' In the beginning I was a little afraid of being exposed as the scripts hadn't been written yet – I was pretty nervous about what they might be making fun of."

Matt has proved right from the start, however, that he's not afraid of making himself the punchline of the gag. In the taster trail put out by Showtime before filming began, the real LeBlanc has to audition for the chance to play himself: "How could I not get it?" a bewildered Matt asks his agent. "Well, they're seeing some really good people," the agent replies. After his audition an aide asks the casting director: "What do you think?" The director shrugs: "I think we've got better."

His portrayal of Joey still affects the way people respond to him: "People will come up to me and speak slowly, or they'll ask me if I'm OK because I'm a lot more low-key and subdued than Joey Tribbiani was. He was very high energy, high-key. He talked loudly. But I'm not really like that. I had a lot of coffee when we were shooting Friends."

He continues: "I didn't want the character to be too much like me because frankly it wouldn't be very interesting. He is more Matt LeBlanc than Matt LeBlanc, just as the Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm is some evil twin approximation of the real one.

"In many respects it's not autobiographical at all, although sometimes it seems to get a little close. For example, there's a scene where I talk about my need to sabotage my own happiness, and another where I admit that I have an inability to appreciate the consequences of my actions. Sometimes I think 'Hmmm – that must be another made-up thing!' but in truth I am learning a lot about myself.

"Episodes takes the whole Joey persona that I have and meets it head on. It's really liberating. When you get pigeonholed as one character, people tend to think 'That's all he can do.' In Episodes the network insists that the character stick to type and play a hockey coach. It's a kind of metaphor about the sacrifices you make, the compromises to your art when the idea of fame and success are introduced and how things get watered down."

He found the whole experience very collaborative from the outset: "David and Jeffrey spent every day on set, watching proceedings on monitors side by side with James Griffiths the director and Jimmy the producer. In a happy divergence from the world they are describing, they have had little creative interference from the broadcasters. We had a great time and it shows. To work with such great material really is a blessing. It doesn't come around that often. The scripts are really tight, there's great economy in the writing, each joke is generally an integral part of the story or the character development."

He continues: "The fictional Matt LeBlanc is a little more damaged emotionally than I am. He has two sons, whom he clearly adores, and is going through a nasty divorce."

Matt is also divorced (from model Melissa McKnight whom he married in 2003 and divorced three years later) but he has a daughter, now six years old.

The fictional Matt LeBlanc collects fine art, has a jet ("I wish I had a jet!") and is incredibly pleased about his big house and flash car.

"The Matt LeBlanc in the show uses the fact that people assume I'm dumb because I played the dumb guy in Friends to manipulate situations to his advantage. He manipulates the writers so that the show is more the way he wants it to be. Not that he's right, but it exposes his insecurities about his ability."

Matt has himself experienced the occasional brutality of the network: "The industry is based around people's dreams and aspirations. Network television can be a fair weather friend. If the ratings dip slightly, the phone stops ringing pretty instantly. Obviously a lot of those experiences are exaggerated in the script for the sake of comedy, presented as the worst case scenario, but it's really funny, cleverly executed, a nice balance of heart and funny."

He continues: "Episodes is an ensemble piece, told through the eyes of Sean and Beverly. A wedge is driven between them when they arrive in LA. It puts a strain on their marriage, their creativity within the show and it all quickly spirals out of control. And that wedge just happens to be me! Sean and I get along great, but Beverly and I do not get along. I don't think I've seen a show with that dynamic before; it's a really fresh idea. Sure, there have been shows about a show before, but you don't see much of the 'show' here."

He adds: "There are so many things about Hollywood that I think are taken for granted in America. The way they are seen through fresh eyes gives you the chance to see how weird certain things are – the house, the fakeness, the money that's involved when you get to network level, and the wastefulness."

He continues: "Making Episodes was different in many ways. This is quite different from filming a multi-camera sitcom in front of an audience. Making Friends was like being in a play. The audience is in the scene with you and you have to wait for the laughter to die down before you deliver your next line. But this is much more real and grounded in reality. A sitcom is broad and big, and this isn't like that. With Friends you rehearse all week and shoot on Friday nights in front of an audience."

He laughs: "Not having a live studio audience took some getting used to. I hadn't worked for four years, so to get back in front of the camera, say a punch-line and not have a huge audience react to that took some getting used to!"

But on occasion he could hear David and Jeffrey laughing next to the monitors, forgetting that they could be heard on set: "They had to be reminded not to laugh because absolutely everything gets picked up by the mics – it took them a little time to get used to as well!"

Matt concludes: "Celebrity is a funny thing. People want to know what is the magic behind it, what makes it work. You see this polished, finished product and you want to peek behind the façade, to see people's faults, to see the funny in that. There is a lot of upbeat stuff in Episodes but there are also dark moments."

He admits that he will probably never truly shake off the ghost of Joey Tribianni. Not that he appears to mind. Strangers call him Joey more than they call him Matt and seem excited to see him: "I look on it as a compliment. And at the end of the day, it beats digging holes!"

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