Matt. Matt. HIS NAME IS MATT!” I repeat a thousand times on a sunny lunchtime in Los Angeles, as I drive 45 minutes from Hollywood to Encino – an unassuming part of LA on the “other side” of the Hollywood Hills in the San Fernando Valley. In an empty sushi restaurant in a bleak concrete mini-mall, I soon find myself sitting opposite Matt LeBlanc, still incredibly nervous about calling him Joey…
Let me get something straight: I am a massive Friends fan. I don’t think there is a single episode I haven’t seen and I still, ten years after they stopped recording it, watch it most weekend mornings. I watch and love Episodes – which is the reason we’re here – but still, to me, Matt LeBlanc is Joey. He will always be Joey. Would he mind if I did slip up? I just go ahead and ask.
“No,” he grins reassuringly, “it’s flattering. I deal with that stuff by understanding my job is to make people believe who I am, so if you buy it, then I’ve done my job.” So before we get on to Episodes – his sitcom about two British writers, played by Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig, who come to Hollywood to produce the American version of their hit TV show, in which LeBlanc plays a parody of himself – does he mind me asking a ton of questions about Friends that he’s probably been asked a billion times?
“No! I had a blast for ten years. I remember going home at night and my sides hurting because I’d been laughing so hard. I can’t get p***ed talking about that.”
Raised by his mum in an apartment in a suburb of Boston, he had a happy childhood, but there wasn’t much money. His dad left for the Vietnam War and never came back. “He’s alive,” he’s quick to add, but they have no real relationship. The family house had a small back yard, but the landlord didn’t like kids playing on his lawn. “So I vowed one day to have a big back yard.” He smiles as he tells me about his home, a 1,200-acre ranch (with cattle) just north of Santa Barbara. I mean, he really committed to that dream.
He started out as a carpenter, but got offered the chance to have some modelling shots done in NYC: “I’m one of those people who, if I get an opportunity, I take it.” This turned out to be a scam, but it was 1986 “or thereabouts” and in some weird “Joey-esque” twist of fate, when turning back to check out a pretty girl’s ass after she walked past him on Park Avenue, his luck came in.
“She turned to look at me at exactly the same time!” They laugh and stop to talk. She’s on her way to an audition and says he should tag along. She introduces him to her manager who says he has a great look for commercials and tries him out there and then. “I’d just hoped to get laid before I got back on the train, so I was pretty happy with how that turned out.” The agent signed him up.
Eventually he landed a commercial that got him his union card. After that, a few more. He moved over to LA to shoot a series, but when it came to an end the reality of an actor’s life set in. “I’d been supporting myself as an actor for years, but it was getting to the point where I was going to go out and get another job. You know, you work a little bit, next thing you know your bills are higher, you have a car payment now, you’ve got a nicer place and your rent is higher…”
But just before he got round to looking for that other job, an audition came up. A new sitcom, named simply Friends. He got the gig, but after filming the pilot he realised his part was the most disposable thing in it.
“My part wasn’t very big. Just the guy across the hall. I remember thinking all the characters are like brothers and sisters except me – I’m this guy that’s trying to screw the girls. So I pitched to the writers. What if this guy is trying to screw every girl in NYC but these girls, what if he’s like a brother to them?” They went with it, and Joey as we know him was born. A dim-witted but tough protector type. “That was self-survival instincts!” he tells me.