Matt LeBlanc is slumped awkwardly in an armchair that is just that bit too small for him, illegally smoking in a west London hotel suite.
This is not the only tight fit. His torso is packed into a quilted leather jacket that looks uncomfortably zipped around his paunch. His early-era Brando looks have succumbed to middle-age spread; at 46, he is now less of the puppy dog Joey from Friends and more an affable pitbull. The bristly, silver Tintin quiff is cropped a little too short for his expanded proportions. No matter. The overall effect is clumsy but adorable.
He is talking about the dark humour in Episodes, the satirical television comedy now in its third series in which he plays a fictionalised, megalomanic version of himself. ‘There’s a scene in which I call my ex-wife a c*** after I lose a custody battle. I didn’t want the word to sound aggressive. That’s not in the neighbourhood of funny. So I decided to play it as if it were our in-joke, my pet name for her.’ He offers me two renditions, tripping more lightly off the second. ‘Now it’s funny. Do you see?’ I do see (kind of).
‘I had to call up my real ex-wife to warn her about that scene,’ he mutters in his gruff baritone. ‘She said, “Don’t worry. I don’t ever watch your show.”’ His eyebrows tilt skywards, and he flashes me a broad Buzz Lightyear grin.
It takes a while to adjust to LeBlanc’s default deadpan humour. Interviewing him is already a complicated, ‘meta’ affair: he exists, at least in our minds, in three separate, overlapping incarnations. Most indelibly etched is the Tiggerish Joey Tribbiani, whom he played from 1994 for a decade in Friends.
Dimmer and bouncier, but imbued with LeBlanc’s Italian-American charisma, Joey won the accolade of being everybody's favourite Friend, and went on, in 2004, to appear in his own less successfully received eponymous spin-off series.
When LeBlanc recently became the latest victim in a spate of Hollywood death hoaxes, a million effusive tributes were posted to beloved ‘Joey’ on Facebook. ‘Really?’ he grunts when I break the consolatory news to him. ‘Only a million, huh?’
Secondly, there is the Matt LeBlanc of Episodes, the egocentric has-been Friends actor who hopes to resuscitate his faded career in Pucks, the Hollywood rehash of a British show about a school headmaster, to the perpetual horror of its original creators, Sean and Beverly (played by Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig), who are flown out to oversee the production.
Then there is the real, lesser-known Matt LeBlanc, prone to dissecting the inner workings of comedy – a man who won his first Golden Globe, in 2012, for playing himself in a comeback show about a comeback show.
All this confusion tickles LeBlanc’s sense of humour. So much so that when, in 2011, David Crane (a co-creator of Friends) and Jeffrey Klarik came up with the Episodes concept to lampoon the Hollywood studio system, LeBlanc was lured back to work after five fallow years of post-Joey reclusiveness.
He now enjoys being the sacrificial lamb of the show: teasing audience preconceptions of him, merging real life and fiction in order to deconstruct the monster of celebrity. After all, he has lived for 20 years with not only its spoils (he is worth a reputed $60 million) but its collateral damage. ‘I don’t mind being the brunt of a joke as long as it’s a good one,’ is his favourite line on the matter.
The jokes in Episodes are mainly good. Most of LeBlanc’s storylines are evolved from a truth that is then grossly distorted. The actor has been involved in numerous kiss and tells over the years, including an incident in 2005 with a Canadian stripper.
So Crane endowed his character with a ginormous, overactive penis, ‘like something out of Jules Verne’. It invites the question… ‘My real one is average-sized. But it’s always worked for me.’ He pauses. ‘Every time.’
It’s not Friends, all coffee and harmless wisecracks; Episodes is quite close to the bone. LeBlanc divorced Melissa McKnight, a former model, in 2006 after a three-year marriage, with an amicable joint custody agreement over their daughter, Marina, now 10.
At the end of season two LeBlanc is in danger of losing all access to his children when he shags his stalker for an ego boost after reading the cruel headline ‘Matt LeBlob’ about his weight gain. I note a similar story about his portly silhouette in a British tabloid a few weeks earlier. ‘It upsets me, like it does Matt,’ he winces a little. ‘I’m not entirely thick-skinned. I have an ego, but I try to leave it at the door for the show.’
The main dramatic thrust of Episodes is derived from the fictional LeBlanc’s considerably larger ego spinning out of control. ‘It’s the total degradation of LeBlanc in series three, he’s unravelling,’ he declares with alarming glee. ‘I get arrested for drink-driving on the way to Disneyland with my kids in the car.’ (Even LeBlanc seems confused about his true identity, flitting between the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘I’.)
He confesses that he has himself been caught driving under the influence. ‘Twice, I think,’ he offers without any duress. ‘When I was young and stupid. I wasn’t driving fast, just crooked. The press never got hold of the mugshots. I was lucky.’
But the script must surely make him paranoid. ‘It makes me think, “Am I really like that?” But so far, touch wood, I don’t think I am. If anything, the show is keeping me on the straight and narrow.
'It’s like pre-emptive therapy. A crystal ball. I see the results of my indiscretions before they happen.’ He chuckles. ‘These days the writers have to protect me from myself. I pitch stories to them and they say, “Oh God, Matt, you don’t do that? Don’t tell anyone. For God’s sake, go to church!” ’
LeBlanc seems refreshingly free of neuroses, as unruffled about his career as his public image. ‘We’re not working on a cure for cancer. I’m telling jokes on TV. I get a pay cheque. It’s not big, but it’s better than nothing. I don’t stress.’
But this belies a certain astuteness, an acceptance both of his limitations and that he can never really cease to be Joey in the public imagination. Unlike the other Friends stars – Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry and Lisa Kudrow – who initially sought to distance themselves from the sitcom in film projects, LeBlanc has chosen to surf with the tide, not against it.
This means that he is working within ever-decreasing circles. Does he worry that there will be nowhere to go after this? ‘Nope. I’ll just go home!’ he booms. ‘I never wanted to run from Joey. I’m proud of him, not ashamed. He changed my life. I’m not the kind of guy to do Hamlet at the Globe theatre. It just doesn’t sound like fun to me. If nothing else comes along for me, so be it. I’ve had my fair share of success. Anything else is just gravy.’
LeBlanc’s easy come, easy go attitude to acting stems from entrenched working-class values. He was born in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1967, the only child of Patricia, a first-generation Italian office worker, and Paul, a French-Canadian mechanic who left when his son was still young. It never even crossed his mind to become an actor.
‘I wanted to be a carpenter. Everyone did carpentry, plumbing, roofing in my family. The mentality was, if it was broke, you fixed it,’ he says. LeBlanc studied carpentry and went on to apprentice before working full-time. ‘After a while, I realised that I didn’t want to be pounding nails in the snow in New England all my life,’ he says. ‘I wanted an inside job, where you got to work in the warm. That was the ambition.’
At 19 LeBlanc decided to move to New York to try out modelling. It is apposite that the future Joey fell into acting as a direct result of eyeing up a girl. ‘I was walking to the subway and I turned around to check out her arse. She turned around and checked out mine. We both burst out laughing and got talking.’
She was a young actress on the way to an audition and she invited LeBlanc along, and then to a meeting with her manager. ‘I said, “Oh, OK. But when are we going back to your place?” ’ The manager asked LeBlanc to read for a commercial and signed him on the spot.
Ad jobs followed including one for Heinz Tomato Ketchup (he ended up moving in with his co-star). I ask when he discovered his talent for the ladies. ‘I don’t know that I am good at picking up girls…’ There are more eyebrow acrobatics. ‘I like women. It’s not like I took a class and aced it. It’s about chemistry, not a checklist of moves.’
He does, however, admit to saying, ‘How you doin’?’ – Joey’s favourite pick-up line – a few times to girls in bars around that time.
David Schwimmer once said that he found the hysteria surrounding the Friends cast traumatic. ‘Schwimmer! What a pussy!’ LeBlanc snorts. ‘But, yeah, traumatic is a good way to describe it. We were suddenly part of this cultural phenomenon: must-see TV. I couldn’t get into a house with a gate fast enough. I only had five other people who knew what I was going through. It was like being in a band.’
The tightness of the group onscreen was mirrored by their intense off-screen relationship. ‘It’s corny but we really were all there for each other emotionally. We had 10 years to sit around in a big studio without windows and talk about our personal lives. I was the Bear, the big brother figure. I’d always be saying, “Who said what to you? Do I need to go and beat someone up?” ’
He says that the last time all six of them were in a room together was 10 years ago during the filming of the final Friends episode. This was beamed into Times Square and watched by 52 million Americans. By this time they were each earning $1 million per episode.
‘I see them individually now. I get together with Lisa, Schwimmer is in town so I’m going to see him this weekend. I bumped into Jen at a party at Ellen DeGeneres’s house the other day. I went to Matthew’s birthday last year.’
Joey, the Friends spin-off in which the unemployed actor tries his luck in LA, was cancelled in 2006 after only two series. ‘It was a dark time. The show had an unfair amount of pressure on it. It was meant to fill the shoes of Friends. But when you have six pairs of feet, and you take away five, it’s harder to walk.’
He rubs his face. ‘I didn’t feel like being funny. I had a lot going on in my personal life.’ Marina, born in 2004, suffered from seizures at eight months, and was diagnosed with a form of dysplasia, a brain disorder that affects neurological functions.
The condition disappeared of its own accord a year later, but not before her nanny had sold the story. ‘I really had to restrain myself and think about my next move.’ He unconsciously flexes his biceps. ‘If someone messes with your infant child, that instinct is very hard to suppress. I chose wisely. Nobody got hurt.’
But LeBlanc’s marriage began to fall apart under the pressure. There was also talk of his involvement with his Joey co-star Andrea Anders (the pair are still together after eight years of an on-off relationship). ‘I don’t know if my marriage was doomed to fail,’ he says gravely.
‘It was a great relationship once. Maybe it was my daughter’s diagnosis. Maybe I got lost, focused on my work too much…’ He trails off. ‘I don’t think I would get married again. Never say never. I don’t have a prime example set by my parents. My mum was married twice. My dad has been married eight, nine, 10 times. He was a ladies’ man. Now he’s old. I don’t talk to him.’
LeBlanc worships his mother like a good Italian boy. One of the first things he did with his Friends pay cheque was to buy her a new home. She still saves up DIY jobs around the house for him when he visits. ‘I’m still a mummy’s boy. I always wanted her to be proud of me. Even now she calls me up before I do a talk show to say, “Now, whatever you do, Matt, just don’t be nervous.” ’
Perhaps to compensate for his own dad’s failings, LeBlanc is an adoring father to Marina; he says it’s the true role of his life. ‘She’s a daddy’s girl.’ He goes a little gooey. ‘She can wrap me around her little finger. I’m powerless.’
In 2006, when Marina was two, LeBlanc withdrew from public life to his 1,200-acre ranch in Santa Barbara, to be a full-time father and recover from the burnout of being Joey for 12 years. He cut his own hair into a mohawk as a deterrent to going out.
‘I knew I wasn’t missing out on anything. I had dabbled with the celebrity world. I’d partied a bit. But there wasn't anything there that could fulfil me. I mean, I have beers in the fridge at home.’ He took motorcycle trips to Canada with his buddies (he is still close to his friends from school and organises reunions when he is in town), went horseriding with Marina and cooked for her every day.
This is still his life, for the most part; with the occasional brief hiatus for Episodes. Otherwise he focuses on the daily workings of the ranch where he rears horned Mexican Corriente cattle for rodeos. He owns a bulldozer and relishes ‘bulldozing shit’, grooming roads and flattening his personal motocross track.
He’s a serious petrolhead, with a collection of supercars and 100 dirt bikes. In his spare time he tinkers with his power tools in his workshop. ‘I find carpentry and mechanics therapeutic. I take my motorcycles apart and put them back together.’
His face lights up suddenly. ‘That’s one of the best things about being a public figure. It gets me into the pits at the racetrack, close to the mechanics and drivers. I watch, pick up tricks.’
I tell him he looks happier talking about woodwork and engines than acting. ‘Yeah, f*** that shit!’ he suddenly booms, slapping his thigh. ‘I used to go to work with a tool in my belt. So, I like to hang up my acting, like a tool, at the end of the day. And get on with life.’
He allows a waft of smoke to curl from his mouth for a moment, then sucks it in. ‘I love to do nothing. But it’s a very busy nothing.’
Episodes is on Wednesdays at 10pm on BBC2
who was your favourite Friend, ontd?