NEW YORK — It may not take long before you start hating Eric McCormack.
The genial star of "Will & Grace" has turned himself into a power-hungry, egotistical senator only too willing to throw political mud in a Broadway revival of "Gore Vidal's The Best Man." McCormack has even heard hisses from the audience.
"People come in going, 'Oh, there's that nice guy from "Will & Grace,'" and within about 20 minutes, they're like, 'Oh. I. Hate. That. Guy,'" says the actor over lunch before a rehearsal. "It's a bit like a betrayal."
McCormack, 48, is tapping into his villainous side again after years of playing the sweet guy. In some ways, it's a return to his roots — he was, after all, the bad guy Clay Mosby on the TV series "Lonesome Dove" mid-1990s and a pretty nasty Ray Summers in "Dead Like Me" a decade later.
"There are a lot of people out there that are afraid that America won't see me in other ways," he says. "I take a role like this and remind them I used to play a lot of bad guys. That was my bread-and-butter before I was a nice, gay good guy."
McCormack will be back on the small screen this summer playing a complex character — a neuroscientist who suffers from schizophrenia in TNT's "Perception" — but in the meantime, he's again sinking his teeth in theater.
Set in Philadelphia during a fictional 1960 national convention, "Gore Vidal's The Best Man" pits two candidates vying for their party's presidential nomination — the East Coast intellectual Bill Russell, a former U.S. secretary of state, and the venal Tennessee Sen. Joe Cantwell, played by McCormack.
"I would say the character is Don Draper-meets-Rick-Santorum. He's a monster, but he's an attractive monster. No sweater vests, though. That is out," says McCormack with a smile. "My character is the kind of guy who shoots first and asks questions later."
Michael Wilson, the play's director, calls McCormack a "hardworking, imaginative actor" with a wit that "enlivens the room" and who has channeled a little of John Edwards for the part, but manages to make the role all his own.
"This I think will be a revelation for a lot of folks. He comes off from the get-go full of charm, good looks — as handsome just as he was as Will Truman in 'Will & Grace' — but it's a very different character," says Wilson. "What I've been most impressed with is that he plays the truth of the character and the truth of the situation."
McCormack joins a cast that is an embarrassment of riches — James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, Candice Bergen, Kerry Butler, Jefferson Mays, Michael McKean and Angela Lansbury. McCormack couldn't resist when the offer came up: "My manager was reading the list of names and I said, 'Stop. You had me at Earl,'" he laughs.
Even with such a star-studded cast, he says the ego backstage is minimal. "Theater is the great equalizer. It doesn't help you if you're great and the other person onstage sucks. There are no close-ups, it's always an ensemble," he says. "Everybody's in the same boat, which is great."
The production is benefiting not just from being mounted during an election year but also from the protracted Republican nomination process. McCormack, a Democrat, is watching the GOP infighting with special interest.
He and his fellow actors have been struck by how Vidal managed — in 1960 — to predict many issues from recent electoral races: a fight over the disclosure of medical records, negative campaigning, a sexual affair in the White House, strained political marriages, arguments over mental fitness for office, the role of the Roman Catholic Church and even a political scuffle over birth control.
"What happens is you find a 50-year-old play having crazy resonance right now," says McCormack. "I lot of things about politics never change, but this particular election couldn't have been more of a gift to the play."
Onstage, the hard-nosed Cantwell, for whom the end always justifies the means, tries to force Russell (played by Larroquette) out of the race by threatening to release embarrassing medical records.
The morally fastidious Russell has to decide whether to retaliate with even more shocking evidence on his rival. An ailing, Harry Truman-like plainspoken former president, played by Jones, tries to referee.
Butler, a Broadway veteran of "Xanadu" and "Catch Me If You Can," plays McCormack's wife and says her co-star's stage skills are so sharp that he often offers multiple ways to handle every scene. "I'm just amazed watching him how he can be like, 'You can do it this way, you can do it that way, or this way' — just off the top of his head," she says. "He's such a smart actor."
Born in Toronto, McCormack embraced musical theater in high school, appearing in "Pippin" and "Godspell." That led to five seasons at the prestigious Stratford Festival in Ontario, starring in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," ''Henry V" and "Murder in the Cathedral." (He made his Broadway debut in "The Music Man" in 2001.)
"Not many people know that he was at Stratford for five seasons. He's so comfortable on a stage," says Wilson. "He knows even when he's having a really private moment how to share that with an audience."
Eventually, McCormack made his way onto TV, appearing in Canadian-based productions of "Street Justice" and "Lonesome Dove" — where he met his future wife, Janet Holden, the mother of his 9-year-old son — as well as a cable version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World."
Moving south to Los Angeles, McCormack made guest appearances on "Ally McBeal," ''Diagnosis Murder" and "Veronica's Closet." He also landed a recurring role in the short-lived "Townies" and appeared in a few movies before getting "Will & Grace," which ran from 1998-2006.
The years after that sitcom were sometimes hard as McCormack had to deal with typecasting. "I can't complain, but there definitely was a period there of trying to find myself," he says.
He had parts on "The Andromeda Strain," ''Monk" and "The New Adventures of Old Christine." He tried producing, but realized it just wasn't his thing. "Putting on that suit was not a great fit. I'm just happy as an actor."
In 2009, he landed the TNT series "Trust Me" opposite Tom Cavanagh about two advertising executives. It was canceled after a season but McCormack came out ahead: He made a friend in Cavanagh — during lunch his cellphone yelps with a friendly text from the actor — and he impressed TNT executives enough that they felt comfortable gambling on the new show.
He's got 10 episodes shot of "Perception," in which he stars opposite Rachael Leigh Cook as a neuroscientist and professor who helps the federal government solve difficult cases. The return to a steady TV gig is something he's enjoyed.
"I miss it. I like playing a character every day. I like having something to go back to. I always enjoyed that with 'Will & Grace.' I like the camaraderie. I like having a crew that I know and I can work with every day."
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