Jesse Tyler Ferguson: A Gentleman in Full
By Bill Keith
What do you most want to do with your characters?
I would like to see them get married. I think the writers are saving that for a well-timed episode to make a very loud statement. Eric and I always push them to show more intimacy between us, because they're new dads all wrapped up in work, but we don't want to lose the fact that they are very much in love.
You've said you guys are kind of the Bert and Ernie of the show.
I got in trouble for saying that, actually. A lot of the gay community was angry because they thought I was saying Cameron and Mitchell are roommates, that we're just friends and we're raising a kid together. It was my response to a question about why kids really respond to Cameron and Mitchell in such a positive way. I said, 'maybe because they're kind of like Bert and Ernie.' I'm the stern taskmaster, and he's the jovial, orange, rounder one.
Do you feel a certain level of pressure or responsibility having a gay character?
Totally! I've always been out in my personal life, but I was hesitant to really talk about it publicly when I was on The Class. I just didn't feel like it was doing the [straight] character any service, and I wanted that character to have a shot, so I lived my life the way I had been living. I just wasn't doing it in the pages of Out or The New York Times. But with this show, it was never a question about quote unquote staying in the closet -- which I've never been in.
Did that require having a conversation with the people you were working with?
I had never had a publicist before Modern Family, and I was very up -- front when I started meeting with them. I was like, 'I'm gay, and I'm very open about it, and I need you to know that and know that you're OK with it.' There was a conversation when I was on The Class that was, 'How do you want to deal with this?' and I was like, 'Let's just not deal with it right now. Let's not blow any horns about it.' With Modern Family, I was very eager to talk about my sexuality because I think there is a responsibility that comes with playing a married gay couple on network television.
That's a little heavy compared to most sitcom work, no?
We try not to take it too seriously because it is a comedy, but you can't ignore the social ramifications of presenting Mitchell and Cameron. [Castmate] Ty Burrell said it very well the other day. He said we're kind of bringing a gay Trojan horse to Middle America. We're introducing this gay couple in a very safe way, and maybe that's why right off the bat we're not showing full-on make-out scenes, and we're not showing them in bed together [initially]. But a lot of the people who are a little leery of 'that gay couple,' especially a gay couple raising a baby, are seeing this very normal, grounded, loving pair. So we're sneaking into so many Middle American living rooms, maybe more than any gay couple ever has before.
And your onscreen dad, played by Married With Children's Ed O'Neill, is a representative of that part of the population.
My father and I have a relationship similar to the one Ed and I have on the show. My dad is very supportive of me, but it's not the easiest thing for him to have a gay son. Now that I'm out very publicly, as proud as he is for me, maybe it's a little hard for him. He's never really spoken publicly about my personal life, and now anyone who wants to know can know. I think Ed's character is another very true voice and a very genuine response for a parent with a gay kid.
So what kind of kid were you growing up?
I was actually very shy and quiet. I didn't have -- cue the violins -- a lot of friends, but I was always involved in theater. That sort of brought me out of my shell. But at school I didn't really talk to people.
And you have a mime past?
I dabbled in mime work. We met, like, once a week, and I don't even know who would hire us -- we certainly didn't get paid -- but we'd perform at state fairs and such. I think we were in a store window at one point doing robotic mannequin work. Full white face and black and white costumes with a splash of red. It wasn't good for my skin -- I will say that -- but as a shy kid, being a mime was great because I didn't have to talk.
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