Matt LeBlanc is – quite unexpectedly – protesting his laziness. “Honestly, I’m the laziest person I know,” he insists. “My favourite thing in the world is to do nothing. I don’t like to work too hard.”
It’s an unusual position for a celebrity to adopt, given most of them tend to enjoy extolling their work ethic. Not LeBlanc. He’s cheerily candid about the fact that his preference for an easy life was one of the attractions of Episodes, the comedy returning for a second series this week.
“It’s perfect for me,” he says. “It’s three months a year. And my character, well, I don’t really have to work hard on that.” The joke being, of course, that in Episodes LeBlanc plays himself, albeit a souped-up version.
The punchline, meanwhile, is that it is this role – not Joey Tribbiani, the Friends character that made him famous and wealthy – which earned him his first Golden Globe earlier this year, despite two previous nominations.
“I thought, ‘Did I just hear that right?’ I didn’t see it coming at all.” He pauses and flicks a wry smile. “It’s because I was wearing my lucky tuxedo.”
For a moment it’s almost like the wise-cracking Joey is at the table – at 44, LeBlanc still retains the character’s boyish looks, grey hair notwithstanding. And given that the character has been beamed into our living rooms nonstop since 1994, despite the sitcom’s end ten years later, it’s unsurprising that his role in Friends still affects the way people respond to him.
“People will come up to me and speak slowly,” he says, “or ask if I’m OK, because in reality I’m a lot more low-key and subdued.” I’ll admit I’m guilty: entering the interview room here on the Episodes set, I all but had to gag myself to prevent begging him to ask me, “How you doin’?” – Joey’s signature line. I mean, this is Joey, right?
Luckily, LeBlanc is seasoned enough to understand the way things work, although he admits that playing with the public’s perception of celebrity is another reason he was so drawn to Episodes.
The series follows a husband-and-wife screenwriting team (played by Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) whose hit British television show has been bought by an American network and overhauled with zero regard for the original format.
Thus, one of the linchpin characters, an old-fashioned headmaster played by Richard Griffiths, was replaced by a gloriously inappropriate LeBlanc. Or, more confusingly, a sort of fake LeBlanc – LeBlanc as he’d be if he’d gone to the celebrity dark side, all shouty cellphone conversations and private jet on standby. Little wonder he admits to finding it liberating.
“Once you succeed in one sort of form, people don’t want to see you change. It’s ‘stay that shape’. It’s ‘if I want a bad guy, I’m gonna go with this guy, but you stay like that.’ And sometimes that’s frustrating.”
Still, wasn’t there a danger that people would think that this rather unfetching character is what you’re really like? “Well, again, that’s the leap-off point we’re using – all the things people feel about celebrities,” he says. “There are so many misconceptions and I’ve always found it kind of funny.”
Like what? “Fundamentally, that they’re not real people, I guess – that they function on a different set of emotions. People see celebrity as this suit that someone wears, and in the pockets of that suit are all the trappings of celebrity. But everybody bleeds red.”
True enough, although being part of a show that was nothing short of a TV phenomenon does rather set you apart from the masses. LeBlanc, at least, is gracious enough to admit that by and large he enjoyed every minute of his time on Friends.
“They’d have had to throw me out of there,” he admits. “It was the best job ever. I was not one of the ones who voted to end it. I liked it, it was fun, it was easy. I worked about 20 hours a week, and made a lot of money. What’s wrong with that?”
He certainly inflated his bank account. Towards the end the six-strong cast were earning a cool $1 million an episode – a figure gleefully reported by the international press. “I remember seeing my salary on the cover of the Los Angeles Times Calendar section. ‘Are They Worth It?’ was the headline. I thought, ‘Wow, everybody knows exactly what I make.’ It didn’t really matter, but it was weird.”
It certainly struck him enough for him to mention it to Episodes’ writers. “I thought it might be fun to do something with that, because afterwards everyone assumed that money meant nothing to me. So we’ve exploited that. In Episodes Matt has his own jet – I don’t have a jet – and he has very rare cars. In real life I have a couple of nice cars, but not one of 200 in the world. I’ve enjoyed poking fun at the stereotypes.”
Nonetheless there’s no doubt that Friends made him a wealthy man – wealthy enough to step away from work altogether for nearly six years, until Episodes came along. “Yeah, I was holding out for the show that paid the least and here it is. I fought my way down to the bottom,” he grins.
Joking aside, it was an active decision, in part prompted by burn-out, in part by family crisis. The burn-out was a result of moving almost immediately, post-Friends, onto a spin-off, Joey. Billed as the “new” Friends, it was – inevitably – less well received.
“It actually did two seasons, which is quite respectable, but it was perceived as a failure,” he says. More significantly, at the same time LeBlanc was experiencing the break-up of his three-year marriage to make-up artist Melissa McKnight, mother of his daughter, Marina, then just two years old.
It was she more than anything else, he says, who governed what happened next. “No matter what was offered to me, I wouldn’t have taken it,” he says.
“I wanted to be a father. My marriage had ended, and that’s a big deal. I was thrust into being a single parent, and I didn’t want to be working while I’m figuring out how that works. I wanted to be there for my little girl, be responsible. That was my number-one priority, and I was financially in a position to do that. So I pulled the trigger. And it was liberating.”
Nor does he have any regrets about retreating for so long. “I recognised what I needed to do at the time but what I didn’t realise was what I’d get from it. To tell you the truth, it was a great time, a really great time. My daughter and I have an incredible bond. She’s the love of my life.”
That, however, is as far as he will go when it comes to the L word, beyond admitting that he has a “girlfriend in LA” – understood to be his former Joey co-star, Andrea Anders. While he doesn’t want to go into romantic details, he’s clearly still on good terms with his ex-wife, given the two of them were photographed coming out of a London restaurant earlier this year – an experience he says he dislikes.
“I get papped more in the UK because I’m out of my comfort zone,” he says. “At home I know where they are, and I know exactly how to avoid them. But here I get caught off-guard sometimes.”
He’s accepted that a loss of anonymity is the price of fame, but does what he can to combat it.
“I guess it’s my attempt to build a wall around my life. It may be a failed attempt, but it’s an attempt. Like I don’t want to have to wear a hat and dark glasses in my yard, so therefore I want a big yard, you know? I do what I can.”
He remains on amicable terms with all his Friends co-stars, although they see each other less and less these days. “It’s an every now and then thing. But when we do see each other, it’s like we’re never apart. Like family.”
With LeBlanc as the lazy one, of course? “Sure,” he says, flashing one of those famous Joey-style grins. Although I have to say I’m not sure I buy it.
Series two of Episodes starts tonight on BBC2 at 10:00pm.