By Matt Sudain for Canvas magazine
I had a mantra, which I repeated the whole way to the interview: "Don't accidentally call him Joey. Don't accidentally call him Joey. Don't accidentally call him Joey."
But if, like me, you grew up in The Age of Television, you'll understand how, in the process of watching literally thousands of hours of a certain show, an actor can become permanently encoded as their character. That's why Alan Alda will always be Hawkeye; Jason Alexander will always be George; and Matt LeBlanc will always be Joey Tribiani. It's hard to shake. The more I repeated my mantra, "Please don't accidentally call him Joey," the more I became convinced that when I did finally meet him, I'd shake his hand and say, "Hey Joey, great to meet you."
... Or worse, "Hey Matt, great to meet Joey." Believe me, I went through all the possibilities.
LeBlanc looks a teensy bit grumpy when we meet on the revamped set of Top Gear. It's clear something has been going down. The hosts have been working with media all morning, and their scheduled lunch has been pushed back. Clarkson would have thrown someone through a window by now, but we're definitely in the post-rage era. So LeBlanc shakes my hand and says "Hey, how's it going?" and I reply, "Great to meet you, Matt, I'm also called Matt."
We go through the usual opening set-piece.
How's the new season feeling? Are you excited? Nervous?
"I don't know that I'm excited, or nervous. It's work. Know what I mean?"
"For a long time now I've been associated with things that fortunately get a lot of attention. I was on Friends."
"And that was such a big deal that anything I do after that, people are like, 'What's this gonna be like?' So this is more of that."
No matter what you may think, you are not prepared to see Joey's face IRL. I mean Matt LeBlanc's face, of course. I know he's Matt Le Blanc. Technically. He technically grew up in Newton, Massachusetts - birthplace of the Fig Newton. I can go online and look at his 1982 junior high yearbook picture, which shows a goofy kid sporting a baseball shirt and matching bowl cut. His yearbook quote is: "Remembers hockey; hates English." Classic Joey. Remember that episode where Joey pretended to be able to speak French? Well, I know for a fact that Matt LeBlanc can speak fluent French. His father is French Canadian. I can watch LeBlanc in his first TV commercial, trying to impress a woman at a hotdog stand with his mastery of the fluid dynamics of sauce (YouTube it) or getting a tattoo in a Tom Petty video, or in his recurring role in Married ... With Children, or either of that show's two short-lived spinoffs (one million points if you can name either without googling.)
The face is older. A little grey at the temples. He could play Joey's dad. The face has what the Japanese call wabi-sabi: the concept that things can take on a higher aesthetic form with age, as they're "broken in". There's those eyebrows that tip endearingly upwards in the middle - like he's just been surprised by an obsessed fan while stepping out of the shower. There's that smile, which emerges more often as he relaxes.
It must have been impossible for you when you wrapped Friends to imagine that this is where you'd end up: on a British car show.
"Yeah, I did not see this coming. But it's fun, I've been passionate about cars my whole life."
What are your early memories of cars?
"I just remember seeing that guy in the neighbourhood who had the Corvette, or the Camero, and thinking, I wanna be THAT guy. But I mostly remember riding in the car when I was younger and just looking out the window."
Some of his earliest memories around cars are going camping with his grandparents. It seems, from reading around on LeBlanc, that his dad worked hard, and was absent a lot of the time, but his grandparents were definitely big in his life.
"I remember lo-o-o-o-ng car rides. Having sing-a-longs. The car was a small room where families got together. Like the sofa, or sitting around the kitchen table or the TV. Do you know what I mean?"
He asks it like he actually wants me to answer, so I tell him how we used to have an old station wagon with bench seats we'd fold down so me and my brothers could stretch out in our sleeping bags for long trips.
"Right? I have all these memories of falling asleep in the back seat with my head on my grandmother's lap. I remember there was a cooler. If you were hungry you could crawl to the back of the station wagon and get a sandwich or a soda. And I'd crawl back there 'cos I'm the littlest one, so I can reach it. That was back when no one wore seat-belts."
When the driver would put their arm across you when they had to break, like that's going to help?
Now he's laughing, and the rest of our chat is a breeze. The producers gathered around have started to relax. Which puts me in a tough position. I don't want to ruin this nostalgia road-trip by asking all the questions I'm probably supposed to ask. How have you been coping with the inevitable fan backlash against the revamped Top Gear? Did you demand Chris Evans leave the show? Was it a "him or me" situation? How did you cope with the controversy over the stunt in which you pulled doughnuts around London's cenotaph? What would it do to you personally, emotionally, if Top Gear's ratings continue to crash? Does the pressure of trying to bring a show this big back from the brink sometimes get too much? I've got him smiling, finally, and I don't want to spoil it. He's talking about falling asleep with his head in his grandmother's lap, for god's sake. He's talking about his love for cars. Any cars.
"I just love cars. It doesn't matter what kind it is."
For episode one of the new season they filmed a sequence in Kazhakstan where they raced three cars which each had more than 770,000km on the clock. "I drove a '97 E300 Diesel with half a million miles on it. And I fell in love with it by the end of the week. I had a great time in that car. It was so broken in. And comfortable. It wasn't worn out at all."
It's the kind of pared down, car-focused segment that could win viewers back to the show. But it's Top Gear, so they had to cap it off with a visit to a cosmodrome for an actual - SPOILER - space launch.
"That was the closest I've ever been to a rocket launch. It was impressive. The power. The release. It's like, what is the horsepower on that? To fire that thing off the face of the Earth. It's sitting there in the distance like this ... obelisk. And suddenly it's hurtling off towards space."
They create their own weather, those rockets.
"Yeah. The effect that the rocket had on the cloud cover as it passed through, the light changing, the clouds kind of evaporated a little bit, and after it left there was, like, this hole.
If Top Gear's getting to that level ...
"Right, where do you go from there? I don't know. Thankfully that's not my job to figure out."
He laughs. The producer sitting next to him does not.
But with unlimited money ...
" ... Would I get on the rocket? I would, yeah. I would love to go into space."
Would have made a good Friends storyline. "The One Where Joey Becomes a Cosmonaut".
"I would absolutely go in a heartbeat. That's the kind of thing, though, you just want to make sure you give the kids a kiss goodbye, 'Daddy'll be home, don't you worry'."
What's the closest to the edge you've come?
"With me driving? ... We did this film on the King of the Hammers [an off-road race that combines desert racing and rock crawling] out in Palm Springs. There was a vertical section of the rocks, and I got uncomfortable then, because it just felt like it was gonna flip over backwards. We did three sighting laps and I said, 'I'm done.'"
Three times doing something doesn't exactly feel like chickening out.
"Yeah, I wanted to get out on the second one."
Sometimes LeBlanc's war stories sound like actual war stories. He adopts a tone of someone in a movie recounting their experiences in Vietnam.
"That film we did in Morocco last year: the Aerial Nomad? That scene where the bike is chasing me down the road? It's a cliff road, and there's no guardrail there or anything. I got a little wide on one turn and in a full drift. A full lock-slide, and I got just a hair too hot, and the back wheels were right on the edge. You know how if you turn in too early it takes you wide on the exit?"
"That was a little too close. They said on the radio, 'All right, let's reel it in a little.' But I'm here. I made it."
Even excluding the rocket launch, the new season of Top Gear has some extraordinary sequences: from a test drive of the FFX S, Ferrari's 1050 horsepower "hypercar", to a James Bond-style pursuit through the streets of Montenegro. This season seems more chummy, a little more hammy. The banter seems less abrasive, and, naturally, a tad less ethnically provocative.
Has it been hard to settle into a new kind of chemistry with all the heat that's been on the show?
"That pressure cooker environment, I'm sort of used to functioning in that. So it doesn't really bother me any more. I'm just trying to be as creative as I can, I'm trying to pitch jokes everywhere, I'm trying to come up with fun and interesting analogies for what my feeling is about whatever car we're doing."
"One of the great things about working with Matt," says co-star Chris Harris, "is he has the ability to drop a line and find something funny in the moment, or even just give a glance, and it just reminds you that there's a human aspect to this, we don't just have to deal in hyperbole." They've come to a gentlemen's agreement that it's the cars that come first. "Chemistry's important," says Harris. "But even more important is the idea and the execution. I think it's important that we keep ourselves grounded in making films about cars."
"The cars we have on the show this year," says LeBlanc. "We have the FFX, we have the Ford GT," he counts them off on his fingers, "we have the Avtoros Shaman, do you know what that is?"
Is it a spray-on anti-perspirant?
"It's this eight-wheeler I drove in the Isle of Mann. The wheels are, like ... 50 inches tall. Are they 50 inches tall, or 50 inches wide?" he says to a producer.
And that, you'd have to admit, is kind of a Joey thing to say.
I have war stories of my own. I once took a trip through the mountains in Laos, in 40-something centigrade, in a bus with no air-con, and at least half a million on the clock, along broken dirt roads that skirted the cliffs, and through tiny villages without mains power. But every house you looked into had a big TV, and every single set was playing one episode or another of Friends. It was the weirdest thing. In larger towns you'd find strips of cafes, each with a giant screen. Mobs of 20-something backpackers, laid low with hangovers, sunburn, UTI, or a combination of those, would recline on pyramid cushions and stare up at Joey's giant face and feel some sense of comfortable familiarity. "I might have done some things I'm not proud of recently, but Joey's here, so everything's fine."
Nostalgia is definitely a powerful thing. On the way home from my interview I repeat a new mantra: "You won't make this whole profile about Joey. You won't make this whole profile about Joey. You won't make this whole profile about Joey."
Top Gear returns to Prime TV, Sunday, July 9 at 8.40pm.