Freinds Forever: Matt LeBlanc returns for a third series of Episodes But he tells Jeananne Craig, he doesn’t mind (still) being thought of as Joey from Friends...
Wolfing down some bacon and eggs and looking very much alive, Matt LeBlanc is recalling the moment he learnt of his own death.
It was the mid-Nineties and the actor had achieved heart-throb status as dim-but-loveable Joey Tribbiani in Friends, when he took an early morning call from his publicist.
“I answered the phone and she said, ‘Thank God you’re alive! There was a rumour that you died of an overdose in a nightclub last night’.”
Immediately, the star thought of his mother. “I called her and said, ‘Are you watching the news?’ ...Can you imagine?” he exclaims.
It’s been 10 years since cultural phenomenon Friends wrapped, but LeBlanc is still capable of generating headlines - most recently when he was papped at an unflattering angle on a night out in London.
“They said I’m going bald. It was like, ‘Awesome, you gotta write something bad’,” says the actor, who retains the good looks that made him a pin-up, even if his now-silver hair is less thick than two decades ago.
“It’s like, ‘Come on, you can’t say something nice?’ But I guess it’s dirty laundry, right? That’s what people want to read about.”
The dad-of-one adds: “I’m 46. You can’t fight Mother Nature.”
LeBlanc isn’t precious enough to complain for long about the intrusion into his private life (“It’ll never change, so you just deal with it”). Nor does he mind fans greeting him with Joey’s catchphrase, ‘How you doin’?’ (“I made a lot of money on that show and laughed my ass off all day long...”).
In fact, he decided to play on the public’s perception and poke fun at his image by signing up for TV comedy Episodes, in which he plays an egotistical, manipulative version of himself.
He did have some initial misgivings - “I wasn’t sure about exposing my life” - but the bold move paid off. The BBC Two sitcom - which is written by Friends co-creator David Crane and his partner Jeffrey Klarik - is now entering its third series, and has earned LeBlanc a Golden Globe for his deliciously self-centred performance.
The show also stars British actors Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig as Sean and Beverly, a husband and wife who have decamped to Los Angeles to write the scripts for a LeBlanc sitcom.
Not much is off-limits. In series one, Matt slept with Beverly. In series two, he had a one-night stand with a stalker and an affair with his network executive’s wife. And in the first episode of series three, we see him arrested for drink-driving with his (fictional) kids in the back seat.
LeBlanc won’t reveal how many of his real traits are reflected in his Episodes character, preferring to “leave it as a mystery”. But the pair seem fairly different (thankfully!).
While the LeBlanc of Episodes probably wouldn’t think twice about tucking into his breakfast during an interview - or washing it down with a bottle of champagne - the real life version has to be persuaded to start eating, asking, “Wouldn’t that be rude?”
LeBlanc is serious and quietly spoken at first, but he soon warms up. As he displays his deadpan humour and drops the occasional swear word, you quickly forget you’re speaking to one of the most recognisable people on the planet.
“I don’t hang out with too many actors. I come from a very blue collar family - everyone goes to work with some kind of tool in their hand.
“And people are people, I’m no different. I have bad breath in the morning when I get up and when I take a s***, it stinks,” he reasons, laughing. “I put my pants on one leg at a time. I’m not better than anyone else.”
Massachusetts-born LeBlanc started out as a carpenter before falling into modelling and acting, and reckons he would probably be working in construction if fame hadn’t beckoned.
He still does some carpentry on his cattle ranch near Santa Barbara, California.
“We have a bunch of cows, horses and quad bikes, we go hiking with wild pigs and deer and bobcats and the occasional mountain lion - we don’t like seeing those, but they’re out there,” he says, smiling.
“Marina [LeBlanc’s 10-year-old daughter with ex-wife Melissa McKnight] is riding a horse now. She loves to be outside, and it’s really great watching her flourish and grow up.”
The actor - who is in a long-term relationship with actress Andrea Anders, his co-star on the short-lived Friends spin-off Joey - doesn’t believe his life would be any less complete if he hadn’t found fame.
“I’m a pretty happy, easy-going guy. I’d be happy doing whatever I’m doing. As long as you have your health...” he says, knocking on the wooden table.
Catching himself on Friends re-runs from 20 years ago is “a little tough”, he confesses. “Like, ‘Yeah, I remember my back didn’t hurt when we shot that!’”
LeBlanc could comfortably live off his Friends earnings for the rest of his days; by the end of the show’s run, he and his co-stars were raking in a million dollars per episode. So why does he bother working?
“It’s not like I’m lugging lumber for a living. I enjoy acting. What it does mean, is that it’s almost like the word work is now spelt H-O-B-B-Y for me, you know?”
He’s clearly enjoying the new chapter in his career - and he’s relieved that his Episodes gamble paid off.
“Three years later it’s come full circle, where I’m pitching ideas to them, ‘What if it’s this?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh God, no’,” he reveals.
“I’m like, ‘But that really happened to me!’ And they’re like, ‘Well, don’t tell anyone, and Jesus, go to church!’”
Can he give us a clue as to what shocked them so much?
“I’m not telling you!” he says sensibly, with the tact and good judgement that the Matt LeBlanc of Episodes would never display.
EXTRA TIME - MATT LEBLANC
:: Matt LeBlanc was born in Newton, Massachusetts, on July 25, 1967, to Paul, a mechanic and Patricia, an office manager.
:: He starred in a series of commercials, including one for Heinz tomato ketchup, and took acting classes in New York before making his TV drama debut in the short-lived TV 101.
:: In 1994, he landed the Friends gig with Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer.
:: LeBlanc’s spin-off show Joey, which saw the character move from New York to Los Angeles, lasted just two series before it was cancelled in 2006.
:: His latest film role is in Lovesick, an independent film in which he plays a man who goes insane every time he gets close to falling in love.
:: Episodes returns to BBC Two on Wednesday, May 14