By Zoe Stagg
Photography: Patrick Hoelck
Matt LeBlanc is getting old, and he doesn’t care who knows it.
“Silver Fox!” gush the tabloid headlines, squawking over the salt-and-pepper hair that has replaced his floppy, 90s shag. “Time marches on, you know?” he shrugs. “It’s inevitable.”
It can march all it wants, but Hollywood won’t let even superstars fudge their mileage report. “I used to be the heartthrob-y guy, and now it’s like, the guy that owns the deli.” Matt gives that a good laugh, not bothered in the least by the fact that Friends is now old enough to appeal to a whole new generation of fans. “Like 13-, 14-, 15-year-old kids and younger even. And they see me, ‘Hey, you were Joey on Friends!’ and I say, ‘Yeah!,’ and they say, ‘You’re so old!’” He gives a beat and utters a sly,
“That feels good.”
Friends was a hairstyle, a theme song, a catch phrase, and it was iconic, one of those television shows that define a decade. It became a totem of not only TV history, but pop culture itself. Friends debuted 20 years ago this fall, and yet fans remember “Ms. Chanandler Bong” like it was yesterday. Meanwhile, Matt is back on January 11th 2015 with the critically acclaimed Episodes on Showtime,(10:30 ET), and a decidedly centered take on celebrity, real life, and the savvy it takes to balance the two.
If Joey’s energy sat at, “Could I be WEARING any more clothes?!”, Matt’s is decidedly more mellow. His voice lies low and his jokes slide under the radar. “I don’t get excited easily,” he allows. “I’m calculated. I’m reserved. I think about what I want to say before I say it.” Talking to him, it’s almost like the two decades of atomic fame never happened. He could be the same guy who started out working construction in the Boston area. Though if that had been the case, some things would be different. “I wouldn’t have missed as many weddings and funerals and christenings and birthday parties in my family. I’m still close with my family, but I’d be a lot closer, I guess. I would have had a lot more pairs of snow boots.” The dry joke lands, and he gives it a soft laugh. “I’d probably have a plow on the front of my truck, which I don’t have now—which is nice, ‘cause they’re ugly and hard on the front end.” And then, as he reflects a little more on what the Matt-without-Friends would really be like, he says, “I’d like to think I would have evolved and I’d have my own construction company by now. Shoot, I’m 47.”
Instead, he built a career and a sitcom world with five other actors, skyrocketing to a level of fame and clamor you’d have to be in to understand. “Like, I would imagine only the members of The Beatles knew what it was like to be in The Beatles or The Who or The Rolling Stones. You can say, ‘Oh, I can imagine.’ But you really can’t until you’re a part of that. I’m not comparing us to The Beatles, but it was like being a part of a big, huge band.”
The cast helped ground each other, and so did Matt’s upbringing. “My grandfather, when I was little, he said, ‘You put your pants on one leg at a time just like everybody else, so don’t ever lose sight of that, no matter what you do.’ And I really have tried not to.” That philosophy has been tested, and though he is surrounded by celebrities, he considers them all with a pretty egalitarian perspective. All but one. “One time I got the opportunity to go to the White House during the Clinton administration, and I sat in the Oval Office with my wife and my mother and her boyfriend for an hour with Bill Clinton. I was very taken aback by him. That was a huge honor.” So what do you talk about in the Oval Office with the President of the United States? “Whatever the hell he wanted to talk about.”
His career is studded with statues, most recently scoring a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy for his work on Episodes. But after two decades, it’s clear that opinions are easier to come by than awards. “You can’t please everybody, and unfortunately, some of the people you don’t please have a column they write and you just have to take the good with the bad, you know?” It sounds like a line that’s been well rehearsed. “It doesn’t feel great, but I don’t harbor it and look to exact revenge. Maybe the guy was in a bad mood or maybe the next one will be better. If anything, you read it and see if there’s anything you agree with or not.”
Matt’s sitcom super-stardom comes with a side of silver-screen notoriety, though he’s careful not to mention the monkey in the room. “I’ve been a part of projects in the past that have been… less than spectacular? I think everyone’s got those sort of skeletons in their closet and you read the review and go, ‘Well. He clearly saw it! Yep, that’s what I saw too. At least he’s not lyin’.’”
It’s clear that Matt has a level head when it comes to taking the bad with the good. But after the Friends spinoff, Joey, fizzled, he took a Hollywood sabbatical. This time, instead of hiding from rabid paparazzi, he was high-tailing it away from the industry altogether. He spent five years on his ranch in Santa Barbara, being anything but famous. “Just… normal life. I was going to the grocery store, shopping, doing my laundry. I was cutting the grass. I was dealing with the cattle. I was spending a lot of time with my daughter and I developed this great bond with my step kids. I had just become kind of burned out. I was getting over a failed marriage and sort of piecing my life back together.” He paints a picture of well-worn work jeans, sunsets over pastures, and answering to no one but the dinner bell. Though, it wasn’t always as golden as all that. “At times it was hard, and it was depressing at times.” After a decade as a Hollywood superstar, he was done, for at least awhile.
“I had made enough money to retire, and if something had come along that was exciting to me, I’d do it. But I wasn’t really pursuing anything.” While he was healing from a dozen years of being Joey, Matt started feeling like himself again. “It wasn’t an awful period at all, by any means. It was actually really nice. It went by really fast, so that tells me I was having a good time.”
Eventually, part of his Friends past came knocking—not for a spin-off this time, but for a parody with a twist. He’d be playing a character with his own name, his own career history, but beefed up for laughs. “I don’t mind being the brunt of the joke, as long as it’s funny.” The Matt LeBlanc on Episodes isn’t him, but, “It’s a fine line,” he chuckles, his laid-back commentary full of wry self-deprecation. “It gets a little confusing at times.” The faux-Matt isn’t the “every guy.” He’s the “every celeb.”
Ironically, it’s fame and celebrity that changed most while he was away. Coming back to Hollywood, “there were a lot of people that were famous, and I couldn’t figure out why. That whole reality show fame, the whole Kardashian thing…. People are celebrities and on the cover of People or all those kind of magazines, and I’ve never heard of them before—and I was watching television! It seems like this new wave of fame is out there.” One that doesn’t come with the level of protection the machine of 20 years ago afforded. “At least we were fortunate enough to be making good money so we could go and hide.” The red-carpet treatment isn’t always code for something pleasant. “Fame is kind of a double-edged sword sometimes. Sometimes it’s great. If you want to get a last-minute table at a good restaurant, sure, it’s great. But if you want to like go to…I don’t know, like a U2 concert and buy just a ticket and sit in the arena, it becomes difficult.”
Matt was lucky that Friends became big before technology blew up. With no one live-tweeting his every move, he’s been able to keep his private life to himself. “It seems like an awful lot of work. To tweet about what I’m doing and where I am, I’m just not really into that. It’s not really my bag.” He gives it a half guffaw. “‘Not my bag.’ What a hip saying that is, huh?” Pretty hip indeed for the guy who owns the deli. “I had a Facebook account for like a couple of months, and it was just a huge hassle. I’m a little old school, I guess. I text, and they can call me on the phone. I mean I understand it all, it’s just not something I’m into.” Some celebrities are on social media for professional reasons but Matt isn’t one of them. “I think the more that’s out there about your life, the harder it is for an actor to make people believe that you’re this other thing, this other character.” And then there’s the fact that, as he says, “My life is not that fucking exciting, to be quite honest.”
But even after reviewing the ups and downs of Friends life, the question begging to be asked is: Will there be a big Friends reunion? “The world is becoming a scary place,” Matt muses. “Maybe people are clinging to comfort, like comfort food. I remember after 9/11, there was a big article in the LA Times I think it was, that Friends was America’s comfort food in the face of a changing world. Maybe it’s more that now? There’s a lot of strange, bad, scary things going on around the world. People sort of want to remember when it wasn’t like that.” Though there are mini-reunions—joining Lisa Kudrow on Web Therapy, David Schwimmer appearing in the new season of Episodes—a full-blown reboot isn’t in the cards. The laughs however, won’t stop, and that’s something Matt knows is just as important.
“Comedy is a great Band-Aid for humanity.”