If there’s an inarguable, bona fide hit of the fall TV season, it’s ABC’s ‘Modern Family‘. The mockumentary sitcom dissects various members of the Pritchett clan, headed by ‘Married With Children‘’s Ed O’Neill. The show is smart, edgy, and consistently funny, thanks in no small part to a cast that includes Ty Burrell, Julie Bowen, Sofia Vergara, Eric Stonestreet, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Ferguson gave us a few minutes of his time to go behind the scenes, dishing on plots and guests, his character’s gay relationship, and the controversy over apparent tension between his co-stars.
I’m a huge fan of the show. Please tell me you guys have heard something from the network about a second-season pickup.
I think it’s inevitable. I think ABC’s thrilled with the show. They’re so behind it. I would be shocked—literally fox studios would have to burn down for us not to get a second season pickup at this point. I know they love it.
How are people reacting to you and Eric Stonestreet playing gay dads?
It’s interesting, because when we did the pilot, we knew it was good, but we didn’t really step back and look at the gravity of it. I think it is very groundbreaking . People are really excited to see this relationship on television. But we were in the bubble of the show, so now that the show’s out there and getting press and people are watching the show, it is nice to hear the reaction from the fans and know that we’re doing great work. It is resonating in a pertinent way.
So you’re not hearing from detractors?
There are certain camps that I think aren’t thrilled with a gay couple being portrayed in such a positive light on television. But those aren’t really the people I personally come across. I’ve seen some web sites and some blogs, Christian groups aren’t thrilled with it, but I think any time someone’s discussing it is a good thing, because anytime we’re on the radar is kind of awesome. I think we are changing minds, so that’s great.
I love that you’re the most well adjusted couple on the show.
Isn’t that completely hilarious? I love that part of it. I love that they are almost boring to the point of being mundane. Literally our whole story arc can revolve around us bumping our daughter’s head into a doorjamb. And yet the writers can handle it with such humor and care that it can be hilarious. I love that they’re just normal guys.
Really, the whole cast has such great material.
Everyone’s so unique and different. it really is fantastic how the writers can juggle these three completely separate families in a half hour. They make it feel very full. I don’t think anyone’s getting short-shrift in any week. I think by the end of the 22 minutes—it’s 22 minutes with commercials, which is crazy, but at the end of those 22 minutes you feel like you’ve really watched a full, rich story. We have the most amazing writers. Every script we get is better than the last. They keep topping themselves. I couldn’t be more thrilled, because if the writing’s not good, you’re screwed. You could have the best actors, but if it’s crappy writing…fortunately that’s not the case.
Your pilot was so huge, so beloved, there was a danger that subsequent episodes wouldn’t live up. Were you nervous that the quality would dip?
I think we all had—even the writers were nervous because after the pilot [was produced] there was so much buzz for the show, and they hadn’t written any scripts yet, so I think everyone was nervous. but I think after working with the writers and seeing the scripts that have come in, those fears have completely been alleviated. I just have the utmost faith in them. The stories they’re talking about breaking, there’s just this unending well of imagination. So I let that fear kind of go away. I think that there’s so many places to go with these families, and they’re just scratching the surface right now.
This isn’t your first sitcom. How is being on Modern Family different from The Class or Do Not Disturb?
Well, just tonally, you’re not working for jokes. In a multi-camera setting you’re literally trying to get a laugh from an audience immediately. With this, it’s nice to kind of just let the humor sit. Every once in awhile there’s something pretty outlandish happening, but we’re not reaching for the jokes. As an actor, that’s something refreshing to do. I loved working on The Class. I was a huge fan of the show. I loved working with James Burrows and the whole multi-camera element. But this is a different set of muscles, and I’m really enjoying it. It’s more cinematic, it’s more actor friendly. It’s a challenge for me because I come from the theater world, so I’m used to playing for the joke, so I’m enjoying having to restrain myself.
It also must be nice to not worry about whether you’ll have a job tomorrow.
Exactly. Honestly I think this group of actors have been burned enough times by other shows that we’re still, even at this point, waiting for the other shoe to drop. I don’t think any of us are willing to admit that it’s a hit, even though people are telling us that it is. But it is nice to have the support of the network and to have the critical acclaim, and have people watching it. To have all three elements in the same show is kind of lightning in a bottle.
Tell me what you do to get into character for Mitchell. Are you at all like him?
I think we’re all a very light shade of our characters. We all carry a bit of our characters in ourselves, some to a greater degree than others. I’m a lot like Mitchell actually. I think if I was a father I would take that very seriously. I do find people who are that serious about themselves to be incredibly funny. So I try to find the humor in his uptightness. I’m also a lot better with kids than Eric is, because I’ve been babysitting for my friends’ kids. When we get the babies who play Lily on the set, if they’re crying I’m usually the one who calms them down and then hands them off to Eric, and then I take on the role of being the worried, uptight dad. But in reality Eric is a little more uptight than I am when it when it comes to that. And don’t think I don’t love that they love me. I’m obsessed with the babies playing our daughters on the show.
They’re twins, right?
They’re twins, yes. It’s like Showgirls, one of them’s always trying to drop marbles on the stairs so the other one will fall, and she can play Lily by herself. [Laughs]
You have such amazing chemistry with Eric Stonestreet—the entire cast, really. Is that a happy accident, or is there something you all do to work on it?
Well, I constantly remind Eric that I was cast before him. So I had the pleasure of testing with about 10 different actors for the role, to do chemistry reads. With Eric it just sort of felt very natural. He’s a really easy guy in life, so I picked up on his sort of calmness, and he has a really good energy. That was there from the very moment he walked in the room. When he got the role we decided to have a cup of coffee to celebrate and chat. Halfway through the coffee date we realized it was Valentine’s Day. So that was a good sign. I think we both just really enjoy one another off-set. It’s easy to click into that relationship. We find ourselves squabbling like we do on the show. We were at an event together last night, and I said something, and Eric kind of reprimanded me for saying it. I was like, “We are completely behaving like a couple right now. It’s embarrassing.”
I hate to be cliche, but do you hang out off-set?
We do. I see Eric probably the most. I see him both at events for the show, and socially for fun, because I really do enjoy hanging out with him. I’ve seen Julie and Ty and Sofia off the set a lot. We’re all very close. Playing a family on television, you can’t help but take those dynamics out with you. I had a very interesting conversation with Ed O’Neill the other day, just walking from a table read to the soundstage. It just felt very easy. It felt like our relationship onscreen was bleeding into our relationship in real life.
Of course, on the show, he’s nuts with Mitchell.
I think both him and Claire, they’re definitely a product of their parents. Me and Julie Bowen both play the straight men to our more colorful counterparts. People are harder on our characters, because they are more serious and uptight. But I play that with a badge of honor. I really love playing the straight man. I was originally asked to audition for Eric’s character, which is a very colorful, very flamboyant character. I’ve played that before. I was really interested in the challenge of playing someone a little more uptight, and not just hit jokes out of the park.
Being the straight man also lets you do some surprising comic takes. It was hilarious when Mitchell discovered Costco.
What was so funny about that is that we kind of switched personalities. All of sudden Mitchell was the crazy person, and Cameron was like, “You have got to calm down!” That was a really fun scene to play, just because I got to be a little more crazy.
How much of that is improv?
Like I said, the writers are so top-notch, we try not to swerve too far from the script. That being said, we are given the privilege of improvising a lot, like the whole scene when we locked Lily in the car. Basically that scene ended with her being locked in the car. Everything that happened after that was all improv, with Eric saying the On-Star comes from space, and me singing the ABecauses, and running around to all four doors to make sure they were all locked. That was all improv. And in the interviews we do a lot of improv. They want it to feel real, so I think they’re looking for opportunities for us to infuse as much of a real situation in as possible.
Take me backstage. What’s the working environment like?
When you’re on a show that people love, it’s just makes it so much easier to go into work. I call Do Not Disturb a three-part miniseries. It died very, very quickly, and it was not fun to go into work, because we knew our numbers were horrible, and we knew people didn’t like the show. It made it very difficult to go in and hold your head up high and continue working. With something like this you see all the love, you hear all the press, and you are, as well, proud of the show, it’s just so much easier. So it’s sort of a love fest at work. we’ve been on a hiatus now for about a month, and we had a table read last week for the new episode, and no one wanted to go home. We all hung out in the parking lot for about an hour. It’s a very positive set.
It sounds harmonious, but there’s been some controversy about Sofia Vergara and Julie Bowen’s appearances on Chelsea Lately. Sofia couldn’t remember Julie’s name, and Julie called Sofia a “Cholo Barbie.” It seems like their tension isn’t just on-screen.
It’s hilarious because it’s completely fabricated. That’s just a product, I think, of people being bored at home in front of their internet. And the funny thing is, that dynamic, with Julie making fun of Sofia, is what they do to one another in person. Sofia has a very irreverent sense of humor, and she’s really funny and has a healthy sense of humor about herself. English is her second language, and she’s gorgeous, so it’s fun to make fun of her on-set. And Sofia loves to play along with that. I think Julie was sort of carrying that dynamic onto Chelsea Lately. And Chelsea obviously being as irreverent as she is—I’ve done her show as well, and you’ve got to keep up with her. It’s like running over hot coals. She’s hilarious and fun, but she definitely was playing into that with Julie. I think with Sofia not there to play along, it looked like julie was bullying on her. But, there’s no tension between the two of them at all. We were all laughing at people obsessing about that. It’s really just indicative of the internet, of people putting information out there, whether it’s true or not.
To be fair, the term “Cholo Barbie” does have a certain internet resonance.
Right. I get it as a soundbite, but in the context of Julie and Sofia’s relationship, Sofia would’ve thrown her head back and laughed so hard at that. Believe me, Julie meant nothing by it. They get along very, very well, but I think they’re kind of enjoying playing it up. They were at the AMAs together. They presented an award and they kind of brought that tension onstage for the pleasure of the fans. But they’re fine.
There was also a story out today that Sofia’s reps asked her to lose weight. She’s the sexy spitfire of the show so that seems insane that they would even suggest that.
That is equally crazy to me. I haven’t read it, but I can’t imagine that’s something that she’s…obviously she has an amazing body. But she’s also playing a mom on the show, let’s not forget. Sofia looks like a very real woman. She’s got an amazing figure. I can’t imagine where that weight would come from.
And perhaps it’s a double standard, what with Cameron (Stonestreet) talking about his own weight gain?
They were nervous about Eric being a little too heavy for me. They wanted to make sure that the dynamic looked realistic. I think they were concerned about that at first too. But once they saw our chemistry, that always played above anything else. I think they quickly forgot about it. There was also talk about me losing my beard at first. When you have so many hands in the pot, everyone wants to state an opinion. Once a show becomes a hi,t people chill out and let the characters be what they are.
What’s coming up for plots?
We have a great episode that Eric and I shot—it’s funny, because when we talk about the episodes we always talk about our own personal storylines. I sometimes forget what happens in the other families. basically the show is Cameron and Mitchell and Friends in my head. we have a great episode where we Ferberize Lily, which is the controversial method of letting your child cry herself to sleep. Eric’s character, of course, being much more sensitive than mine does not like to hear her cry. There might be a moment where I run down the hall, tackling him, to keep him from going into Lily’s room to rescue her from crying. Just maybe. Someone might have twisted an ankle in that episode.
What about guest stars? Who’s coming up?
Minnie Driver is shooting this week. That’s a cool one. We’re having Fred Willard come back. He plays Ty Burrell’s father, which is the most brilliant casting of all time, I think. and I really hope that Elizabeth Banks could come back. We’ve been close for many years, and I was really glad we could give her a job, it’s been so tough for her.
Yeah, sure, blonde, beautiful, successful…
Total package. Poor thing.
Will theater buffs see you back onstage anytime soon?
It actually was just announced today that I’m going to be doing Shakespeare in the Park next summer. They’re forming a repertory company, so one cast is doing two plays, “A Winter’s Tale” and “The Merchant of Venice.” I love New York, I love the stage, it’s my first love. I’m playing the clown shepherd in “The Winter’s Tale” and Solario in “The Merchant of Venice.” It’s sort of funny with repertory theatre, because you usually get a really juicy role in one part, but then in the second play you have to play, like, the sword carrier. I’m not technically a sword character, but I do get a scene with Al Pacino.
It doesn’t exactly suck to be you right now. Thanks so much, Jesse.