The former star of ‘Friends’ Matt LeBlanc is proving a perfect choice to present the revamped ‘Top Gear’ writes Will Lawrence.
Matt LeBlanc’s interest in cars runs deep.
One of the first items filmed for the new series of Top Gear, which the American actor presents alongside Chris Evans, features the pair leaving BBC headquarters in central London in two roofless Reliant Rialto three-wheels, one painted with the Union Jack, the other with the Stars and Stripes.
This is Britain versus the US in a country-long race with silly cars.
Unfortunately for LeBlanc, his Rialto broke down in Staffordshire, and the former-Friends actor, who was wearing a bear-suit (you’ll see why when the item airs), spent the next 12 hours on the back of a truck with flashing amber lights.
“It was torture,” he recalls when we meet at a Top Gear press day a few doors down from the BBC in London.
“It was a bit like waterboarding.”
And yet, while most people would probably doze off during the 12-hour haul, LeBlanc kept working, indulging his passion for cars.
“In my car I could hear Matt talk and I could hear the producer talk but I couldn’t hear them when they spoke with each other,” says Evans.
“I heard the producer ask Matt to review the Rialto while he was sitting in it on the back of the lorry. Matt said, ‘okay,’ and then there was 35 minutes of silence.
"Then I heard Matt say, ‘Is that enough?’ He’d done a 35-minute review of the Rialto. That’s someone who knows about cars.”
LeBlanc smiles. He’s not sure how much of the review will make the cut for Top Gear, which is a family show. After all, the car had broken down on him.
“I was like, ‘This piece of shit! Actually, the Rialto felt a little bit like a kit car,” he adds.
“I wish it hadn’t broken down, although I think it became the star of the show.”
With his deadpan humour and devilish good looks — LeBlanc still looks terrific at 48 years old — there’s no doubt that the American is the star of the new show.
The old show, fronted by Jeremy Clarkson since 2002, was cancelled last year following allegations that he had verbally and physically abused producer Oisin Tymon in a hotel after filming.
However, with Top Gear proving one of the BBC’s most successful shows, airing in dozens of countries around the world, from the US to Singapore, its suspension was not going to last long.
Radio and TV presenter and producer Chris Evans was named as the show’s new host in June last year, and LeBlanc was named as his co-host in February.
Casting LeBlanc was Evans’s decision, he says.
“It was my decision to choose Matt,” says the Brit, who made his name presenting the UK television shows The Big Breakfast, Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush and TFI Friday in the 1990s.
“I knew Matt may be available and I had seen him doing other things with cars in America.
“I’d always been a huge fan of Friends and I saw him on Top Gear the first time around.”
LeBlanc appeared on the show in 2012 and 2013.
“Let’s face it, Matt’s an international star and this is an international show. It’s a big brand.
"Matt is known around the world, and I am not. That’s a fact. Matt adds heat.”
Indeed, Evans was cut from the US trailer for the new show, which focuses entirely on LeBlanc, and the American actor’s A-list contacts are already paying off.
“I just flew back to LA and Cate Blanchett was on the flight,” he tells us.
“She said, ‘Is it true you’re the new host of Top Gear. Can I be on the show?’ I hope she does it.
“Cate said, ‘I love driving fast. Can I go around the course?’ It’s going to be a new course and little different,” adds LeBlanc.
“I said they’d put in a jump but she said she was up for it!”
With people like Blanchett expressing interest, LeBlanc suggests that the show has a unisex appeal. It’s not a programme about boys with toys.
The producers have already added racing driver Sabine Schmitz to the roster of supporting presenters (along with YouTube star Chris Harris, F1 pundit Eddie Jordan, motoring journalist Rory Reid and the Stig).
And LeBlanc boasts a strong female fan base, of course.
“It’s not a film about car statistics,” he says.
“Hopefully it’s a show for a certain type of everyone. The cars are the stars of the show, and we travel around a lot so it’s a bit of a travel show.
"We get to experience a bit of culture from here and there. We go to far-flung places and it’s like being able to travel from the comfort of your couch. That’s got a unisex appeal.”
The show’s travelogues have already taken in Ireland, with LeBlanc and Evans shooting an item with a Rolls Royce in Kerry last month.
LeBlanc proved a huge hit with locals, posing for countless selfies, bigging up Guinness — “delicious, delicious” — and even crashing a hen party.
He praised Kerry’s “beautiful roads” and “lovely” people, saying, “I had a really nice time.”
Travel sections have long been part of the Top Gear remit, and the presenters have just returned from South Africa before their press day.
“The cars are the easy bit,” says LeBlanc.
“The hard bit for me is getting all the shots. It’s like, ‘You need typhoid and hepatitis,’ and I’m like, ‘Where are we going?’ I’m always being jabbed with needles. I thought this was going to be fun.
“I’m the first guy to tell a joke at a funeral,” he adds.
“I don’t like it when things get too serious. I think they brought me in for the comic element. It’s got to be funny or I don’t want to be involved. I’m always pitching jokes, and I love cars. I have a fleet of Corollas!”
He is joking, of course.
“I’m a big Porsche guy,” he concedes.
“I’ve had a couple of Ferraris in the past. But while Chris loves the vintage, really cool old history of cars, I’m a technology nut.
"I like the science of making things go faster. That’s why I love F1. I’m really excited about the show.”
Born in Newton, Massachusetts, LeBlanc became a household name on the back of his starring role as Joey Tribbiani on US sitcom Friends, which first aired in 1994, a character he would play for 12 years in 10 seasons of Friends and two seasons of the doomed spin-off Joey.
His performance in Friends as the dim but charming womaniser earned him three Primetime Emmy Award nominations, three Golden Globe award nominations, and one Screen Actors Guild Award.
He had a modest movie career during that period — with Lookin’ Italian (1994), Ed (1996), Lost in Space (1998), Charlie’s Angels (2000), and its sequel, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003) — before taking a five-year break from acting when Joey hit the buffers.
He returned to form in 2011, however, starring opposite Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig while playing a fictionalised version of himself on the British-American sitcom Episodes from Friends’ co-creator David Crane.
Though it’s set in LA, Episodes has a British feel and sensibility — it’s produced by Hat Trick, the company behind hit shows Have I Got News for You, Room 101 and Whose Line Is It Anyway? — and it has earned LeBlanc four Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe win.
The show has, says LeBlanc, made him something of an Anglophile “I’ve been shooting Episodes for four and half years now and I love it here in the UK,” he says.
And he does not want to bring an American flavour to Top Gear.
“I’m not here to make it less of a British show,” he says.
“I don’t want to inject it with apple pie and hotdogs. I understand it’s a British show.”
Does he feel any pressure to perform, given the show’s international currency?
“No,” he says.
“The biggest nervous moment for me was having to do a burnout in a Mustang with all these people watching. I didn’t want to lose control and run anyone over or kill them!
“At the end of the day it’s a TV show, it’s not the cure for cancer,” he says.
“We’re making a TV show about cars, having a few laughs. That’s all it is. That’s how it was with Friends.”
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