Jesse Tyler Ferguson: A Gentleman in Full
By Bill Keith
When he landed a role on the 2006 sitcom The Class, Broadway actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson, then starring in the Tony Award'winning production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, thought What could go wrong? After all, the show was directed by a creator of Cheers and written by a creator of Friends. Its cancellation after one season, however, seemed to confirm what Hollywood insiders had been saying for years: The sitcom was dead. 'Fast-forward three years, and I'm on what I think is one of the strongest shows of the season,' Ferguson says modestly before adding, 'OK, of the decade.'
Modern Family, ABC's multigenerational sitcom, reaches an average audience of 9.5 million viewers, besting the ratings of
30 Rock, Glee, and The Office, and has critics drawing comparisons to the Citizen Kane of sitcoms, All in the Family. Ferguson, who has been likened to Neil Patrick Harris, has quickly become a talk show circuit regular and awards show darling. ('My crowning moment of the Golden Globes was Tom Ford coming over and fixing my tie and telling me I looked good!' he says.)
But Mitchell Pritchett, an uptight gay lawyer raising an adopted Vietnamese baby with his retired clown of a partner, was the role that almost wasn't for Ferguson, who had all but given up on the small screen. 'I thought I'd had my one shot, and it didn't happen,' he remembers. 'I had some theater opportunities in New York, and I was going to see those through when I got the script for Modern Family, which my then-manager really underplayed. I was in the middle of a snowstorm in New York in a caf', and I read the entire thing on my iPhone, and I called him right away.'
But an unimpressed manager and a souring on the TV business weren't the only things standing between the 34-year-old and the part that would afford him his greatest professional success and allow him to be comfortable as an out celebrity. Here, he opens up about going public with his sexuality, finding his inner tranny, his Jonas Brothers fantasies, and why it's OK for gays to look to Bert and Ernie as role models.
Out: Modern Family's producers were determined not to give you the role of Mitchell.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson: I was immediately drawn to Mitchell, but they really only wanted to see me for Cameron [Mitchell's partner]. So I went in and read for Cameron, and halfway through they stopped me and said, 'You'd be a really good Mitchell, actually.'
Eric Stonestreet, who plays Cameron, is straight in real life.
Yeah, and I love that he gets to be the one that's a little more flamboyant. I think he does it really well. Although in his test, he did do one of those over the top z finger snaps.
No he didn't.
He did. I'd already been cast, and at that point -- everyone else in the room -- we all wanted him to get the job so badly, but you've got network executives there judging, and then Eric pulls out this really flamboyant finger snap, and in our heads we were all like No! Do over! Do over! Take it back. But he got the role.
Do you find yourself advising the producers and writers much?
Well, in one episode I end up in Sofia Vergara's dress because I've been sprayed by a skunk, and they were really nervous about putting a gay character in a dress. The writer of the episode had this whole speech written up, like, 'Thank you for being a trouper -- I know that we're asking a lot of you'' but he put it in his pocket when he came to set and saw me twirling around [between takes].
When do we get more of the Mitchell-meets-Cameron story?
Well, it's been established that they met at a charades party, but Eric and I have a feeling that I was very resistant to him, and he was very persistent, and in his head it was love at first sight, and for me it was not love at first sight at all, but I ended up falling for him.