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.
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.
You grew up in Albuquerque in a pretty conservative household.
Yeah, as far as I know, my parents still vote Republican, and we went to Catholic school. I went to New York right after high school at 18, and it was definitely exciting for me to move to a more progressive area. And I started my butterfly unfurling there.
Hmm. And what phases did that involve?
I thought I was a very beautiful butterfly right off the bat, but I look back, and I was a moth, actually. I was very awkward. I was obsessed with musical theater. I wouldn't listen to any radio. I could sing the whole score to The Phantom of the Opera, but I couldn't like tell you any current popular artist. So yeah, I wasn't the coolest kid.
And maybe coming out wasn't a gigantic surprise to the family?
God, no. Although I did have to come out to my dad three times.
Yeah. At one point, he asked me if I had a girlfriend after I'd already come out to him, and I had to reiterate, 'No, Dad, I'm gay.'
How old were you at this point?
Too old for that question to come up -- like 22, 23. And then my sister is also gay, and she came out of the closet after me, like five years ago, and my dad was very accepting of her. But she said to him, 'I was just so worried. With Jesse being gay, I didn't know how you were going to respond.' And my dad goes, 'Oh, so Jesse is gay?' Like he just would not -- it wouldn't sink in.
Which became your character's story on Modern Family.
Yes. The writers just thought it was all sooo hilarious. Looking back on it, I think my parents always knew. Like, they took me to a child psychologist. They needed a professional to make the decision, and they didn't want to assume anything. They were very supportive parents, but we certainly never talked about it. Actually, my mom approached me and said, 'You know, I know you're gay,' so I never really had to come out to her, she sort of outted me to herself. Though she did it in a letter. With tearstains on it. But we're good now.
You go up against American Idol on Wednesday nights, but I've looked through some of your recent Tweets and clearly Idol is a big part of your life.
Well, not a big part of my life, but I tune in.
You seem to tune in very regularly.
I need to fast-forward through a lot of the chatter, but yeah, it's awesome. I love that like 10 years ago Ellen DeGeneres had this canceled series, and that's all that Hollywood thought of her -- the woman with the canceled series who came out of the closet -- and now she's running the business with Idol and her talk show, which I'm obsessed with. I'm dying to be on her show. She's had almost every cast member of Modern Family on but me. At this point, I'm waiting for our craft service team to be on her show before me.
Idol and Ellen don't seem to be your only obsessions. During the Olympics a celebrity crush seemed to emerge, no?
Evan Lysacek, yes. I'm not hiding it. I hear he lives in L.A. too, so it's just a matter of time before we meet. Although I don't know if he's gay. At first I was taken by his outfits, and then I learned that Vera Wang designed them, which left me very conflicted. He's a brilliant skater, and he's also really handsome, and he seems like a really sweet guy, so I swoon when I see him. He's probably too young for me. I need to get out of the 20-year-old age bracket. Like, I have crushes on all of the Jonas Brothers. I assume that's OK?
In addition to Modern Family, Ferguson can be seen opposite Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice and The Winter's Tale in Central Park's Shakespeare in the Park this summer.
To see a slide show of images from the Jesse Tyler Ferguson May cover story, shot by Art Streiber, click here.