There's this clunky-but-cute scene in a TNT movie airing this month that stars Matthew Perry as the most optimistic classroom teacher on planet earth. In it, he's rapping and moving and looking as though he's walking across a bed of rather sharp nails. His face is scrunched up like a crumpled piece of paper, his shoulders hunched way over, and his body so stiff he looks like a piece of plywood with arms.
This is the scene Perry most feared, because a man knows whether he has rhythm and whether he doesn't, and Perry, bless his heart, is well aware of his limitations. Take this as neither compliment nor complaint. But what has always made Perry difficult to digest when not portraying the lovable Chandler Bing, the character he embodied for 10 seasons on the NBC situation comedy Friends, is the distance he's put between himself and his indelible TV persona. Not much.
Part of the problem, of course, is fear. Typecasting is a deadly sin in Hollywood, used by writers, producers, and network executives whether unintentionally or with business savvy. Once you're boxed, you're boxed. Heard from Jaleel White lately? (You know, Urkel?) The other problem is that Perry is Chandler, a straight man with a comic's arsenal of observational wit, someone who would rather tell a joke than the truth - or a lie, for that matter.
Because of this, Perry's first heart-to-heart with Randa Haines, the director of The Ron Clark Story, the inspiring tale of how the real-life super teacher whipped low-achieving Harlem misfits into academic shape, was to make sure that at no time should the ghost of Chandler Bing emerge.
It's not paranoia. Actors playing the same characters for years, like Alan Alda on MASH or Kelsey Grammer on Frasier (and Cheers before that), talk of how those characters have a way of manifesting themselves without being summoned. How their own tics became the character's tics over time and would often bleed through any character they were trying to play. While some actors ride the gravy train of well-known characters, never venturing outside their comfort zone, most want to leave their old roles behind, whether out of sheer boredom, a need for artistic expression, or to save a drowning career.
For Perry, it runs even deeper.
His concern is that if he didn't do Chandler, would anyone tune in?
"Would I be, you know, interesting if I weren't doing that kind of shtick," says Perry, who even over a phone interview sounds like the cynical, insecure, neurotic, witty Chandler Bing, to which he yells "See?" when I tell him so.
"I didn't want to make fun of every situation in the movie, as Chandler would do," Perry says. "I wanted to approach it as teachers would, as Ron Clark did: with complete earnestness. That's why I got lucky with Randa Haines directing. She had my back. I said, 'If you see any Chandler coming out, stop it.' And she did."
Erasing Chandler from memory ought to be Perry's goal, and it could get easier when Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip arrives next month on NBC. Amanda Peet (Perry's costar in those Whole Nine Yards movies) stars along with Perry and The West Wing's Bradley Whitford in a drama about backroom life, love, and politics at a late-night sketch comedy show. (Oddly enough, NBC also has a series about a sketch comedy show starring Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey. Usually in these situations, one of the shows doesn't make it.) NBC, looking for anything resembling a hit series, is understandably high on Sunset Strip, partly because of its pedigree; West Wing creators Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme are steering the ship.
Perry more or less auditioned for the role while guest-starring on West Wing a couple seasons back. It was one of those role-reversal performances that award-voters like (it nabbed an Emmy nomination, by the way) and actors must do to shed image problems. Either that or take the Jessica Biel route: posing scantily clad in a magazine to get out of her 7th Heaven good-girl persona.
In Sunset Strip, Perry's character, Matthew Albie, "is slightly a wiseacre," he says, "but a tortured genius guy who is kind of a mess. We'll get to deal with some real issues, though. He's an interesting character to me. A real grown-up. Unlike, you know, that other guy."
You wonder if that other guy has gotten in the way of Perry's big-screen career, which has gone nowhere. Playing bigger on the bigger screen has always proven difficult for TV actors who must choose between what they want (something totally different) and what their agents and other handlers say will sell (playing off your built-in audience).
Must be some balancing act. Perry says "it really is all about the work," and this coming-out party is all about reestablishing his persona. "It can be difficult," he admits. "You know what people like, and there's a tendency, even unconsciously, to play to that sort of thing. I'll have to deal with all that."
First up: a heart-to-heart with Sorkin.