From sitcom lothario to silver fox, Matt LeBlanc is entering a surprise new chapter as a Top Gear co-presenter. So how’s he doin’ now?
Matt LeBlanc was in a grocery store recently when a kid, about 14 years old, came up and asked if he was ‘Joey from Friends’ dad’.
‘I was like, “You little fucker, get out of here!” LeBlanc jokes. ‘Isn’t that weird?’ Thanks to Netflix introducing the iconic 90s American comedy to a new generation of binge-watching teens, it’s not actually that surprising. LeBlanc was 27 when Friends first aired. He’s now 48. The flirty, floppy brown hair may have been replaced by the head of a suave silver fox, but there’s no mistaking the Joey Tribbiani-like twinkle in his eye. The man’s a DILF.
LeBlanc tries to be pragmatic about being ‘forever immortalised as that age,’ but he’d be lying through his pearly white teeth if he said he wasn’t looking forward to laying the ghost of Joey to rest now he’s been appointed a Top Gear host. Think about it. A ten-year stint on Friends paved the way for him to then, erm, continue playing the same character for two seasons of the sitcom Joey. Which in turn led to him playing – drum roll – a caricature of the ‘actor from Friends’ in BBC Two’s Episodes. Now, though, he’s getting paid to drive fast cars in exotic locations for a global TV franchise that is shown in 212 territories. Talk about a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Alongside Radio 2’s Chris Evans, LeBlanc had long been a name on producers’ lips to replace Jeremy Clarkson et al in the newly pimped-up BBC Two production, which was already courting attention at the time of writing with some controversial stunts around The Cenotaph. He impressed as a guest in 2012, when he broke the record for the fastest ‘Star in a Reasonably Priced Car’, and more recently he presented the spin-off show Top Gear: The Races for BBC America. Throw in a childhood spent following his mechanic father around with a tool box (‘I have a curious mechanical mind. I started riding motorcycles when I was eight and I learned to drive at 12’) and it’s a no-brainer. Although not everyone sees it that way.
Criticism has come from various sources. One is Twitter: ‘A guy said, “What’s that fucking Yank doing on our show?” But I looked him up and he only had four followers, so I’m not gonna worry about him!’ And don’t believe the rumours about a LeBlanc/Evans rift. Today, sitting before me in a suite in London’s Langham hotel, LeBlanc seems in the midst of the biggest bromance since, well, Joey and Chandler.
LeBlanc and Evans filming the new series of Top Gear
‘[Evans] is a smart producer, a great interviewer and a lot of fun – and his personal car collection is insane,’ he says, before coming over all Joey. ‘He has the car from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He owns it. That’s cool! I can’t wait to go round to his house with my little girl – she’s going to flip out when I con Chris into taking it out for a drive.’
Being away from Marina – his child from his marriage to model Melissa McKnight, which ended in 2006 – was LeBlanc’s only reservation about the new gig.
When he finishes shooting Top Gear, he goes straight into filming the fifth and final series of Episodes in London, which isn’t ideal, to say the least. ‘It’s a strain,’ he sighs. ‘I don’t like being away from Marina for long, but we have a very communicative relationship. She’s got the big watery eyes when she needs them. I say, “No, you can’t do that,” then I fold like a house of cards every time. She just turned 12. I told her she can start dating when she’s 40.’
Currently single, and still close to his ex-wife’s two older children from a previous relationship, LeBlanc lives on a ranch in Santa Barbara, where ‘you’d have to get a helicopter up there to get a picture of me’. The upside of his ridiculous commute, he jokes, are the frequent-flyer miles he’s clocking up – amongst other things. ‘When I flew home to LA, Cate Blanchett was on the plane and she said, “I think it’s so great that you’re the new host on Top Gear. Can I come on?” I said, “Absolutely! But really, you want to come on Top Gear?” When I got home I called the producers, and they were like, “How did that happen?”’
Making the transition from an actor learning a script to a TV presenter ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ will create challenges for LeBlanc, but he’s admirably unfazed. ‘It has to be entertaining. If we’re having a good time, the audience will have a good time,’ he says. ‘I guess I’ve been in enough situations to know what makes something funny.’ Essentially, I suggest, he’s an entertainer. I say I’ve never thought of him as an actor per se. Is that how he sees himself?
‘Heyyyyy!’ he chuckles, clicking his fingers and waving frantic jazz hands at me. ‘That’s the aim of the game!’ I’m not sure if he’s being ironic, but it’s very entertaining all the same. He doesn’t even mind being reminded of Joey’s ‘How you doin’?’ catchphrase, which shows how comfortable he is in his skin these days. He delights in telling me that when Marina was little she’d say, ‘How are you doing?’ instead. ‘I’d tell her, “No, that’s not how you do it, it’s how you doin’?” and she’d be like, “How are you doing?”’
LeBlanc with his Friends co-stars at the 1999 SAG Awards
I initially met LeBlanc in 2010, when he was filming the first series of Episodes with Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig. Who knew that he’d be so good at poking fun at himself that he’d be awarded a Golden Globe (in 2012) and still be playing ‘Matt LeBlanc’ in 2016? Back then he was quiet and pensive – a far cry from the man bantering with me today. ‘Was I worried that people were going to think that’s what I was really like?’ he wonders. ‘An actor’s job is to make the audience believe that’s who they are. For a long time, people thought I was just like Joey, and they’d speak slowly so I could keep up. So if people do think I’m like the Matt LeBlanc in Episodes, then I’ve done my job, really.’
Isn’t that a risky business, though, when the notoriously very well-endowed character ‘Matt LeBlanc’ is the kind of guy who sleeps with his stalker and seduces his best mate’s wife? (And that’s just in the first series.) ‘In the beginning, people were curious.’ He pauses. About your… I gesture at his crotch, and we both laugh. ‘Yeah that, too. But it’s all smoke and mirrors. Don’t believe everything you read. Wait, are you blushing?’
I wasn’t, but I am now, so I swiftly change the subject to a more pressing matter: the recent, hugely hyped NBC Friends cast reunion in honour of director James Burrows. Critics dubbed it ‘boring’ and ‘a total car crash,’ but, seriously, can you imagine if your university reunion was televised? Could that be any more awks? And what the haters don’t realise is that the six of them had dinner at Jennifer Aniston’s house a few months beforehand, which sounds a lot more comfortable than what we saw on TV. ‘It had been 11 years since we’d all been in the same room,’ he recalls, as a whiff of nostalgia fills the air. ‘But we’re like brothers and sisters. It was as if no time had passed.’ Maybe being ‘forever immortalised’ isn’t so bad after all.
Interview by Martha Hayes
Top Gear will return in May on BBC Two