PASADENA — The cast and crew of TNT's "Perception" have taken over most of a block in the quiet neighborhood just south of where the annual Rose Parade rolls. The production's on location to shoot an episode of the third season that opens Tuesday night, dealing with an unseasonably warm March day that's supposed to be a winter day in Chicago.
Eric McCormack takes a break to talk about getting to play Dr. Daniel Pierce, a neuroscientist and professor who uses his knowledge of human behavior and understanding of the mind to solve crimes.
The only hitch, Pierce's own neurological problems cause him to hallucinate. But, those hallucinations often offer keys to breaking the case. Juggling a world where reality and fantasy flow together so unchecked has created one of the most complicated roles McCormack has ever played.
"I knew early on I couldn't warm up into this part and I couldn't find it in season three. I had to come out of the gate not only with the character's inner life but the symptoms of how his illness affects him physically," McCormack says after finding some shade on a porch of the house next to where the crew's working. "I had to present a fully fledged man who is not only a brilliant professor but who is living with a very specific mental illness.
"Otherwise, we would just be dismissed by the mental health community."
"Perception" has similarities to other cop dramas where authorities turn to someone with a distinct skill to help them solve crimes. What pushes "Perception" beyond the cop drama norm is Pierce's mental battles. In some episodes, he's fighting his cerebral demons with such voracity, he's got little time or energy to help anyone else. There are also episodes — such as the season two finale — where he believes he has his problems under such control that he can pursue a normal life.
The fact that the episode being filmed is supposed to be unfolding in Chicago is a bit of a spoiler for the season three opener. At the end of season two, Pierce had left everything behind to move to Paris, convinced he had put his mental problems behind him.
McCormack calls the battle by Pierce a "huge roller coaster of going on and off meds trying to get them right." The biggest example of Pierce's struggle came in season one when he loses so much grasp of reality that he commits himself to a mental institution.
One of the biggest aids for McCormack once he had landed the role was "The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness," written by Elyn Saks. The author writes about how she would commit herself when she would begin to lose touch with reality.
"That concept of someone who is so brilliant and has enough self-awareness to know she needs help is interesting," McCormack says.
Costar's role: Like Jodie Foster in 'Silence'
A production assistant tells McCormack he's needed for the next scene. As he leaves, Rachael Leigh Cook, who plays Pierce's law enforcement connection, Kate Moretti, moves to the small porch. McCormack describes Cook's character as being a lot like Jodie Foster's work in "Silence of the Lambs" — an extremely competent person who must continually prove herself.
Cook felt immediately comfortable with the role because the show's designed to show her character and McCormack's character as being two halves of the same mind. His character provides the outlandish thinking while she's more grounded.
"It's certainly true we have different skill sets as these characters," Cook says. "They come together incredibly well."
Cook has played a variety of roles over the past 16 years in movies like "Get Carter," "Josie and the Pussycats," "Descent" and "Nancy Drew." She says that playing Moretti has been one of the most challenging for her because there are so many levels to the character.
"Kate is somebody who is a woman in a man's world," Cook says. "She has to be bigger and badder than the average bear and yet her relationship with Daniel — albeit a professional relationship — means that she has personal feelings for him, and that skews her ability to remain completely hardened in every case.
"Her relationship with Daniel has given her a newfound understanding of the problems the people she's investigating could have."
"Perception," 10 p.m. Tuesdays on TNT.