In Episodes, BBC2's smart new sitcom, Matt LeBlanc plays a character called, er, Matt LeBlanc. Not a massive stretch, you might think. All the same, the actor says he was relieved to land this latest part. Watching someone else take on the role, he deadpans, would have been "devastating".
LeBlanc, who for 12 years played the character of Joey Tribbiani in Friends and its spin-off series Joey, is one of the most famous faces on Earth. At any given moment of the day or night, someone, somewhere in the world is watching an old episode of Friends. Greying slightly at the temples now but still laughably handsome, the actor is reclining on a sofa at a film studio in the middle of a drab industrial estate in Harlesden, north- west London. But LeBlanc is not in the least bit bothered by his unglamorous surroundings. The 43-year-old even manages to take in his stride the legions of British Friends fans who have been coming up to him every day during filming, gleefully parroting Joey's catchphrase, "How you doin'?" as though they are the first people ever to have thought of doing such a thing.
"I don't go out much at home in the US – I'm a hermit," he laughs. "But walking the streets of London has been great. There is still a lot of goodwill towards Friends here – it's still in the air and still successful. Everyone has been so friendly here."
LeBlanc remains appealingly un-fussed about his profile – to the extent that he has spent the last four years apparently burying it.
By choice, he has not made a series since Joey was axed in 2006. Born the son of a mechanic and an office manager in Newton, Massachusetts, the actor now leads his "hermitic" existence in LA. After three years of marriage, he divorced former model Melissa McKnight in 2006. He now spends his time looking after their six-year-old daughter, Marina.
"After Joey, I didn't feel like working," LeBlanc agrees. "I have a six-year-old daughter. I'd take her to school and be her dad and see friends and just goof around. Also, I was burnt out after 12 years playing the same guy. I was tired. My agent was bummed. Most actors call their agent and say, 'What's going on?' I'd call mine and say, 'Please lose my number for a few years.'"
The actor was enticed back to work by an old Friend. David Crane, the co-creator of Friends, and his partner, Jeffrey Klarik, made LeBlanc an offer he couldn't refuse. They invited him to play a high-maintenance version of himself in Episodes.
Although utterly unsuitable for the role, the fictional LeBlanc is parachuted by a venal US exec, Merc Lapidus (John Pankow), into a trashy American remake of a classy British sitcom entitled Lyman's Boys. The acclaimed RSC actor (played by Richard Griffiths) who originated the role of a refined headmaster in the UK is peremptorily jettisoned in favour of LeBlanc. At the same time, the headmaster metamorphoses into a beefcake hockey coach in the US series, which Merc has renamed Pucks!.
Watching on in stunned horror are the show's original, married British producers, Beverly (Tamsin Greig, Love Soup) and Sean (Stephen Mangan, Green Wing), who have moved to LA to oversee the American remake. Beverly and Sean's relationship begins to crumble as LeBlanc becomes the third person in their marriage.
Like the celebrities who appear as themselves in Extras, Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm and Steve Coogan in The Trip, the character of Matt LeBlanc in Episodes is like a super-charged alter ego. He manipulates his global fame for his own ends. At one point in the sitcom, Sean declares that catchphrases are cheesy to which LeBlanc responds: "Tell that to my house in Malibu!"
Episodes calls to mind a number of real-life British sitcoms that have crashed and burnt across the Atlantic. Take Coupling, Steven Moffat's hit comedy, the American remake of which was canned after just four episodes on NBC in 2003.
LeBlanc confesses that initially he had some qualms about portraying a souped-up version of himself. "I did have some reservations about playing myself. But David and Jeffrey soon explained away any concerns I had about, 'Is this really me?' It's not me – it's a character named Matt LeBlanc. This version of Matt is the public perception of me rather than the real me."
The actor proves a great sport in Episodes, happily playing up to Crane's description of him as "the punchline". It's a canny move by LeBlanc. Rather than trying to get away from his hugely popular persona by portraying, say, an idealistic teacher in a sink school (as his Friends co-star Matthew Perry did in The Ron Clark Story), the actor is toying with public perception. Perhaps realising that audiences will never allow him entirely to shed that lovable reputation, he is instead embracing and distorting it.
LeBlanc clearly has no problem playing with his image. "When we were making Friends, our salaries were published in the press. I said, 'OK, let's inflate the figure. I'll tell people I've got my own jet.' I wish I did."
How similar is this fictionalised LeBlanc to the real thing? "Some things are close to the real me, some are not at all – I'll leave it at that," smiles the actor. "I didn't want it to be too much like me because, quite frankly, that would not be very interesting. So I said to David and Jeffrey, 'You'd better spice it up.' Above all, it's – what's that phrase you guys use? – taking the mick out of the entertainment industry. After the success we enjoyed on Friends, we thought we could make fun of some of the things that happened on that show."
It certainly succeeds in showing up the hideousness of Hollywood. "It can be a horrible industry," confirms LeBlanc. "It's based around people's dreams and aspirations. You put so much into it, and so often you are let down. I've experienced both sides of the business. I've been in some real crap, but luckily no one got to see it."
He claims not to be concerned about the industry reaction to Episodes in LA. "I'm not worried – I didn't write it." Nor will LeBlanc admit to having ever witnessed the sort of prima donna-ish behaviour exhibited by his character. "I've heard stories of stars wielding power," he grins, "but I've never seen it ..."
Does he still think about the show that jet-propelled him to small-screen stardom? "Friends was this magical, cool thing, like lightning in a bottle, and I feel super-fortunate to have been a part of it." That said, the six stars of the show do not feel the need still to pop round to each others' homes every 10 minutes for a coffee and a chat. "It was a very good time," LeBlanc recollects. "But when the show ended, everyone scattered. When you put six people together in a room with no windows for 10 years, the moment you open the door, they're going to run away from each other. Everyone went back to their own lives and their own friends, but we're all still in touch."
For all that, if the network backed up the money truck, could the Famous Six be tempted to reunite for one last hurrah, a sort of "Friends: the Mid-Life Crisis Years"? "No," LeBlanc replies. "What would the story be? We all get together and what? Have coffee? It would be almost sad. It's better to imagine what those characters are doing now."
So what's next for LeBlanc? If asked, he would be delighted to return to these shores for a second series of Episodes – but only after he has had a good rest. "My favourite thing is to do nothing," the actor laughs. "I'm the laziest guy in the world. It'll be nice to go back home now and crawl under a rock."
And take a well-earned break from the gaggles of groupies perpetually asking: "How you doin'?"
'Episodes' starts on Monday at 10pm on BBC2Reuse content