Why Matthew Perry Can't Quit
After 10 years on Friends, Perry could have chosen to do whatever he wanted — but what he's always wanted is to work. With his reboot of The Odd Couple, the actor seems finally to have found the right role.
Eight years ago, Matthew Perry was ready to quit acting.
And he easily could have — 10 seasons of Friends had yielded him all the money he would ever need. He had created a character for the ages — a cultural touchstone — in Chandler Bing. Chandler was smart, wounded, sarcastic, professionally lost, parentally abandoned, and romantically fucked up. For members of Generation X, in their twenties and thirties as Friends aired, Chandler represented an alternative image of neurosis to Woody Allen's misogynist whiners. He even came with an infectious speech pattern of Perry's own creation.
But after Friends ended its decade-long run in spring 2004, Perry wanted to try something different. "I didn't want to play Chandler anymore," he remembered during an interview last week over lunch at a restaurant in Hollywood. "I wanted to do some things that changed it up a little bit." His persona hadn't necessarily translated as well on film — "I did about three movies that failed in a row," Perry said, "and then they stopped offering me movies." And offscreen, he had suffered through well-publicized struggles with alcohol and drugs.
That change he was seeking came in the form of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Aaron Sorkin's 2006 return to network television. Perry signed on to play the lead character, Matt Albie, a comedy writer who took over Studio 60, a topical late-night sketch comedy show, with his old friend Danny (Bradley Whitford). As with all Sorkin fiction, the talk was fast, and the stakes were high: In its single season, Studio 60 delved into the state of TV, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the war in Afghanistan, the tenuousness of sobriety, a bomb threat over a Muhammed sketch, and — believe it or not — more.
Though he said that Studio 60 — all 22 episodes of which he recently rewatched after having dental surgery — was "definitely the best work I've ever done," it hadn't been an easy experience for Perry, an actor who was (and is currently with the CBS reboot of The Odd Couple, in which he plays Oscar Madison) used to contributing to the writing process. "Aaron Sorkin's dialogue was the best writing I'll ever have," he said. "But there were times when I had ideas, and they were sort of shut down."
And so after pouring himself into Studio 60, a drama that came with high expectations, and seeing it get canceled in 2007, he said he contemplated a life in which he would just "play video games."
"At the time, I thought, I'll just retire! I've won the lottery. I'll just hang out and do whatever I want," Perry said.
"But I have to work," he continued. "I have to be a person that's working." Listing his post-Friends efforts, he said, "Doing Go On was fun; doing Mr. Sunshine was fun; doing Studio 60 was a very interesting challenge, but fun. And doing The Odd Couple is fun.”
"When all of those shows were canceled, I was absolutely fine,” he continued. “I didn't shed a tear at all. I was ready for them to be done, even if some of them were good. When you get the network call saying you're canceled, I was, like, cool, no problem. The same thing would be true for The Odd Couple. I think I'm just lucky that I don't need it."
Despite the seeming contradiction between feeling compelled to work yet being detached from the work itself, Perry is obviously proud of The Odd Couple's success so far (it's the No. 1 new comedy of the season) and is fond of his colleagues from the show. ("This is how close we are: All of my texts are from the cast of The Odd Couple. Tom Lennon, Yvette Nicole Brown, they've all texted me during this interview.")
But having achieved the explosive fame he had always dreamed of beginning at age 24 with Friends, and then getting both the benefits of that celebrity as well as its nightmarish downsides, Perry appears to have a careful approach at age 45.
"Fame just didn't do exactly what I thought it would do," he said, in his even-toned voice, so different from Chandler's edge-of-hysteria cadence. "So it was sort of having all my dreams come true, but realizing they were the dreams of a 16-year-old. Not an adult's dreams. Does that make sense?"
Perry was born in Massachusetts, where his father's side of the family is from, but after his parents split when he was a baby, he moved to Ottawa, Canada, where his mother worked as the press secretary for the long-serving prime minister Pierre Trudeau. His school life was "typical," he said. "I was never really a good student — joked around a lot, tried to be the funniest kid in school."
His father, John Bennett Perry, was a working actor in Los Angeles who had a steady career in television. He had a rugged handsomeness that led to consistent work as cops throughout the '70s and '80s (and he also appeared in an Old Spice commercial in heavy rotation). "I was pretty certain I wanted to be an actor, because that was the way I saw my dad," Perry said. "It generated a respect for the business for me: Oh my god, my dad's on television, that's so cool."
At age 15, he moved in with his father. "I felt like I hadn't spent any time with my father, and wanted to." He enrolled in the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, California, and "continued to be a terrible student." But Perry got involved in theater, where he excelled. "I did a production of Our Town at my school, and I think my dad was kind of hoping I wasn't going to be good in it," he said. "But I guess I was good. He bought me an acting book called Acting With Style, and the inscription read, 'Another generation shot to hell.'"
He started auditioning, and began getting cast right away. His first TV job was in 1985 on Charles in Charge (in which Scott Baio played a college student/nanny). "I realized today it's been 30 years I've been doing this," Perry said, sounding slightly mystified. "Thirty years of acting." Other TV guest spots followed, as did a part in a teen comedy with River Phoenix called A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon — "which was one of the greatest experiences I've ever had, because I was 16 years old and in Chicago all by myself, no parents around," Perry said — all while he was still in high school. By the time he graduated (barely, according to Perry), "I knew that I wanted to act."
That he got his first series regular television job the summer after high school was, to him, "proof that I was doing the right thing." It was called Second Chance, and it bombed. "Out of 93 shows at the time — television was much different then — it was ranked 93rd," Perry said. "And I had an attitude! I had a cool attitude, like I was the shit because I was on TV."
He then went from television job to television job — a very special episode of Growing Pains here (his character, after a short arc, died from driving drunk), a very special episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 there (in Season 1, he played Roger, a suicidal star tennis player at West Beverly High) — building his career.
And then: Friends. The show's creators enlisted the cast to help shape their characters, and when it was Perry's turn, he said he told them: "I'm not a bad-looking guy, and I have very bad luck with women. And I have to fill silences with jokes. So what better character for a sitcom is that? Someone who's emotionally sort of stunted, and has to break every moment with a joke!" Chandler started out as a side character, Perry said, "who just sort of commented on other people's lives." But obviously, that changed: "The part got bigger," he said.
And so did Perry's life. At first, he loved being famous. "When I was 15 years old, Michael J. Fox had the No. 1 movie and the No. 1 television show at the same time," he said. "And I was in Canada in ninth grade, and steam was coming out of my ears, I was so jealous of that. Not knowing anything about fame or what it would do, I just wanted it. Really badly. So when I got it, I was very excited. And would literally go to the Beverly Center to get recognized."
Like in Soapdish?
"Like in Soapdish exactly. And then I realized it didn't quite do what I thought it would do; it didn't fix everything. And it just became sort of this weird thing."
Perry did not shy away from talking about his history of addiction; in fact, it hovered over and threaded throughout a large portion of our interview, from how celebrity curdled his well-being, to his desire to smoke during lunch. ("It's the only thing I've got left.") It also extended to questions about his post-Friends job choices. "Life has been a bit of a struggle for me," Perry said while discussing Mr. Sunshine, his short-lived 2011 ABC comedy, in which he played a dark, angry guy. "So sharing that with an audience on a TV show is not a bad thing."
There's the flip side of that too. In an email, Courteney Cox, his Friends co-star, cited Perry's "ability to show very raw emotion and make close connections with his audience" as the reason "everyone loves him so much." She said that 2012's Go On — in which he played a character mourning the death of his wife — was her favorite of Perry’s recent work, and the most him. "I loved that Matthew found a way to make his character relatable by showing vulnerability in the personal struggles he was facing," Cox wrote.
Perry assumes everyone knows the subtext of his own struggles. His substance abuse problems have been thoroughly chronicled by the gossip press — he went to rehab in 1997, 2001, and for a maintenance stay in 2011 — by his own visibly changing appearance during Friends, and by his own openness about his battles. It's been difficult, of course, but, Perry said, "I'm feeling great now. So that's the wonderful news."
Being a public sober person has also led to an activist path for Perry. He opened a sober living facility in 2013 in Malibu — but unfortunately it wasn't meant to be. "We were losing so much money that I had to sell that house," he said. More lastingly, he has fought for Drug Court, a treatment option that serves as an alternative to prison for people who have been charged with nonviolent crimes. "You see the before and after of some of these people who would have gone to jail if it weren't for Drug Court, and instead they went into a rehab," he said. "And you see that their lives have changed. There's sort of a popular saying that people don't change. But I see evidence of people changing every day."
If you want to see the measure of Perry's passion about these issues, watch his fight with Peter Hitchens (brother of Christopher) on the BBC's Newsnight program in December 2013. As Hitchens argues against Drug Court, saying that the only way to stop drug crimes is for people never to start taking drugs, and using the phrase "the fantasy of addiction," Perry looks increasingly incredulous. "We're supposed to be grown men here," is one of his retorts. "You're just a person who's talking who's wrong," is another. And, "You are making a point that is as ludicrous as saying Peter Pan was real," is a third. When Hitchens asks how people ever stop being addicts if addiction is indeed a disease, Perry's response oozes his patented sarcasm: "Well Santa…" he begins.
When asked about the argument more than a year later, Perry leaned forward, and said, "I was taken very much by surprise. But if anyone comes up to me and tells me that alcoholism doesn't exist, I can give him 10 million examples, literally, of the fact that it does. The problems that I've had in my life are not due to my will, they're due to alcoholism. And he, on national television, told me alcoholism didn't exist."
Perry seemed more interested in this topic than in any other. "If you are an alcoholic, or you know or love an alcoholic, you know that it's a real struggle," he continued. "You know that it's not just people wanting to get high. That's not what it is. I've had so many tough times in my life where if I could just stop, I would stop. But I couldn't stop. And that's alcoholism. And he was telling me on national television that doesn't exist."
"And that's why I almost punched him in the face," he said, breaking into a smile.
A topic of conversation about which Perry is less passionate is also the most obvious: Friends.
In a telephone interview about working with Perry, Thomas Lennon, the Felix to his Oscar, said, "He loves when you ask about Friends." Really, is it that bad? "I feel like 99% of the interviews I do with him are about Friends," Lennon said. And does he get actively annoyed? "I've found the first two or three questions are usually OK. First two or three, you're solid."
After I asked about Friends turning 20 last fall, and how that anniversary felt to him, Perry said, "Obviously the most famous question — something you'll probably ask — is about the reunion." (They have all been clear that it will never happen, so, no, I was not going to ask.)
"We try to get together when we can," Perry said. "Courteney is a great host, and she has a nice place in Malibu and we try to go out there as often as possible. But the six of us haven't been in a room together for a number of years." Is it sad when you think about it that way? "We worked together every day for 10 years. It's not bad to have a little break."
For better and for worse, Friends has an enduring legacy — especially now that it's on Netflix. "I'm getting recognized by a whole new generation of people who are all very confused by how old I look," said Perry, whose face is not always shaved, and has also not been intruded upon by injections. As told by the media, each of the Friends actors has a certain public image — Perry is the lovable rogue. And indeed there are signs that his romantic life continues to be a jumble. After his phone rang repeatedly, Perry, worried, finally answered. He spoke to an unidentified caller, and after hanging up, he said unsolicited, "Nothing like paying for an ex-girlfriend's chiropractor bills. That's what that was about." Why would he do that? "Because I'm a pushover," he said.
All the better to play Oscar with, of course. The 1965 Neil Simon play The Odd Couple, which was then a 1968 movie, and then a television show from 1970 to 1975, all served to create a classic dynamic between a slob who hides his feelings under layers of alcohol, gambling, women, and dirt (Oscar) and a neat freak who is all sharp edges, honking allergies, and neediness (Felix). The idea of reviving it was already in the works at CBS, unbeknownst to Perry, who said he was driving in his car one day, and thought, Let's remake The Odd Couple. Let's do it at CBS. I want to play Oscar Madison. The project proceeded apace after that, with Perry co-writing the pilot, first with Danny Jacobson (Mad About You) and then with Joe Keenan (Frasier). Bob Daily, also of Frasier, is its showrunner. Lennon was cast after an exhaustive Felix search, and the two actors have settled into an appropriately bantering dynamic, even when interviewed separately. They had first met on the set of the 2009 movie 17 Again, and when they reunited during The Odd Couple's casting sessions, Lennon said he thinks Perry had forgotten "how much I irritate him — I think he really genuinely likes me about 65%, and the 35% that's left over is me straight up getting on his nerves."
When told of Lennon's stated ratio of fondness to annoyance, Perry said: "No, that's not true. I like him 100%. These people need each other, which is nice. They need each other — the answer is not women for them, the answer is each other."
The Odd Couple premiered on Feb. 19 in CBS's best time slot for a new comedy: after The Big Bang Theory on Thursday nights at 8:30. In its four episodes before its March Madness hiatus — it is back this week — it has held onto a good percentage of Big Bang's audience, which, looking from the number of shows that have also occupied that spot, is not easy. It seems a sure bet to be renewed.
Which makes The Odd Couple different from Perry's other projects since Friends — in addition to Studio 60, Go On, and Mr. Sunshine, that includes a Showtime pilot that never made it to air. And as a multi-camera sitcom shot in front of a live audience, The Odd Couple is a return for him. "I decided to go straight down the middle with this, and do a show that I think will appeal to everyone," he said. "Meaning, I'm just trying to make everybody laugh week to week, as opposed to some quirky, weird idea."
There's that contradiction again: He cares about working, and does want people to watch his efforts. Right?
"Doing a sitcom is the closest an actor can get to any sense of normalcy in their lives," Perry said. "Like, I would drive home at 2:30 in the afternoon and would be done with work. And we did a full day of work; that's all we needed to do. For that reason, too, doing The Odd Couple and continuing to do it would be fun."
"Because as I keep saying, I've had an interesting life," he said. "And now I'm just aiming at fun."