LOS ANGELES (Back Stage) - One of the biggest success stories of the TV season is “Modern Family,” ABC’s rejuvenation of the family sitcom, albeit a slightly twisted take.
Most actors in the show’s ensemble are veterans of other series, which run the gamut from iconic to swiftly canceled. For example, “Modern Family” patriarch Ed O’Neill will forever be beloved as “Married ... With Children” dad Al Bundy, while his onscreen son Jesse Tyler Ferguson previously starred on the short-lived sitcom “The Class,” and TV daughter Julie Bowen has a trio of solid series (“Lost,” “Boston Legal,” and “Ed”) under her belt. Ty Burrell, playing Bowen’s clueless husband, was a regular on two previous series, as was Sofia Vergara, who plays O’Neill’s trophy wife.
Rounding out this picture-perfect family is Eric Stonestreet as Cameron, the gregarious longtime partner of Ferguson’s uptight lawyer Mitchell. Though Stonestreet has been working regularly since his TV debut on a 1999 episode of “Dharma & Greg,” he had never been a series regular before “Modern Family.” Now he finds himself stealing scenes from some of the best comic talents in the business. His flamboyant Cameron is a man who chooses to introduce adopted daughter Lily to the family by entering the room in an African robe while playing “Circle of Life” and holding her above his head a la “The Lion King.” (When Mitchell orders him to “Turn it off,” he replies, “I can’t turn it off; it’s who I am!”)
Recently, Back Stage visited Stonestreet on set, where he was filming an episode, and spoke with him about landing the job of a lifetime.
Stonestreet’s call time was 10:45 a.m., a vast improvement over his usual 6 or 7 a.m. He says the show typically shoots two to seven scenes in a day; today they’ll shoot five. He’s also relieved to be taping on the Fox lot in Century City in Los Angeles, the show’s home base. “Locations are the worst,” he says. “Last week we shot at LAX for three days.”
Though the morning began with a scene involving several cast members, all have been dismissed except for Stonestreet and Ferguson, when the show breaks for lunch. Stonestreet shows off his trailer — a typical setup, with “Cameron” written on the door. After showing off pictures of his dog, who sometimes joins him on set, Stonestreet reveals that he originally read the pilot for “Modern Family” when a friend asked for help running lines.
“He had an audition for Cameron, and as I read with him, I was really bummed I wasn’t getting to go in for it,” Stonestreet recalls. “It just hadn’t come my direction as far as the physical type yet.” Although he hadn’t seen a description of the character’s appearance, he knew that Ferguson was already cast as Mitchell and the network was looking for someone who matched him. “You just never know,” Stonestreet says. “I’ve been a character actor and a big guy my whole career, and my goal has always been to change people’s mind and do justice to the part so that they look past what I look like and see just an actor, rather than a ‘big’ or a ‘heavyset’ actor.”
Stonestreet’s representation persisted, and the show still couldn’t find a Cameron. The search began to widen, and eventually Stonestreet was allowed to audition. “I don’t remember the exact breakdown, but it was something like ‘Passionate, the more dramatic of the two, flamboyant but grounded,’” the actor says. “It was a tricky character to audition for, because you read the script and there’s that ‘Lion King’ moment. So you have to build a character who’s not too flamboyant — yet, on Page 27, he’s capable of this.”
Stonestreet knew it would be easy to go over the top with the interpretation, which he hoped to avoid. “There were three audition scenes, and the word on the street was a lot of actors went in and were dismissed after the first scene,” he reveals. “So my goal was to be able to get through all three.” Not only did he get to do all three; he got to do them several times, as he was called back for a screen test and a network test.
Over the course of 10 minutes, four people have popped in to speak to Stonestreet, show him costume changes, or ask questions. A fifth person now appears, telling him he’s needed in hair and makeup. As he prepares to depart, he notes, “My getting this part is a great lesson in that you can’t guess what people want in a room while you’re auditioning. You have to be who you are and true to yourself and what naturally fits you. If they’re buying what you’re selling, you get the job. I think of auditions as there’s a problem that I’m going to solve, and if I get the part, I feel like the problem’s been solved. If I don’t get the part, then they still have the problem.”
In the makeup trailer, a stylist blow-dries his hair to achieve Cameron’s fluffy mane, as the actor reveals how acting thwarted his planned career as a prison warden. “I’ve always been fascinated by crime and punishment,” Stonestreet explains. “Someday I hope to get to be in an organized crime movie.”
Born and raised in Kansas City, Kan., Stonestreet earned a track and field scholarship to a junior college. While there, he took a fall, tearing his rotator cuff, breaking his foot, and putting an end to his sports career. He then transferred to Kansas State University.
Though he had studied clowning as a kid (a talent he would later put to use when Cameron reveals his secret past as Fizbo the Clown), Stonestreet had never considered acting as a career, intending instead to become a prison warden. After breaking up with a girlfriend and moping around school, he was challenged by a friend to “change things up” by auditioning for a play. Stonestreet landed the role of Uncle Fred (“the smallest role in the play”) in “Prelude to a Kiss” and was instantly hooked. “I just caught the bug,” he says. “It was exhilarating.”
He moved to Chicago, feeling it was “a safer place to fail than Los Angeles.” He studied at Second City and began booking commercials fairly quickly. “You can carve out a good career in Chicago with voiceover and theaters like the Goodman and Steppenwolf,” he notes. “Originally I had no intention of moving to Los Angeles. About a year in, I realized I needed to give the big sandbox a try.”
Guest parts began coming fairly regularly, from “Malcolm in the Middle” to “ER” and a recurring role on “CSI.” Stonestreet learned early on to do his job and stay out of the way. “I remember Gene Hackman saying, ‘Your job in that position is to know your lines, hit your mark, be on time, and not screw anything up,’” he recalls. “I think some actors, we feel like we have to impress the producer and make a moment for our character. But the best thing you can do is just be a pro. That is way more appreciated and respected than trying to become the star of a moment.”
At this point, Ferguson enters the trailer and notices that his co-star has a guest. “Are you doing an interview?” he asks. “I’m sorry, it’s not going to be very good.” He then begins mimicking Stonestreet: “It was sooo liberating to go to class and really study.” Stonestreet is unfazed, saying, “This is what Jesse does: He makes fun of me.”
A few minutes later, the pair is on set, preparing to tape a scene in which Cameron and Mitchell hear a suspicious noise on Lily’s baby monitor. Cameron races into the room wielding a baseball bat, followed shortly by Mitchell. They’re relieved to realize the monitor was just picking up noise from a neighbor. “But if that had been a spider,” Cameron quips, “he would have been in trouble.”
The first two takes go smoothly. On the third, Stonestreet draws out the word “trouble,” teasing Mitchell. This elicits a laugh from director Kevin Rodney Sullivan, who pops into the room to ask him to do it again on the next take. On the fourth take, Stonestreet draws the word into three syllables: “Tru-huh-ble!” Co-creator Steven Levitan then suggests that Stonestreet raise the bat toward Ferguson when his partner enters the room, as if thinking he’s the intruder. The bit goes over well, and Levitan says to keep it. At least three times the director calls for “one more” take before finally stopping at nine.
A little more than an hour has been spent taping a scene that will probably last 20 seconds on screen. “That’s pretty standard,” Stonestreet says. “And what’s so cool about our show — which was just demonstrated — is how even when we’re shooting it, we’re constantly finding new things and evolving it as we go.”
Stonestreet returns to the makeup trailer to have his hair done yet again, for a scene he’ll be shooting with one of the babies who double as Lily. While there, he recounts how he and Ferguson decided to meet for coffee after learning that Stonestreet had won the role: “I was talking to my dad on the phone, and he said, ‘What are you going to do today?’ I said, ‘Oh, I’m going to meet my husband for coffee.’” It was only midway through the meeting that the two realized they were surrounded by couples — and had scheduled their meet on Valentine’s Day.
Though Stonestreet is straight, he had no qualms about accepting the role, and he takes it as a compliment that many viewers find him so convincing that they assume he’s gay in real life. “I love it!” he says. “I love the fans that I have. They’re so cool. I’m a guy who’s been working as an actor for a long time, and my main goal was always to get a job. Not to get a job on a great show, not to get a job on a great show with a great character, but just to get a job. So for me to be on this show with this cast and this audience support is more than I could have ever imagined. I will take my fans in any shape, size, gender, sexual orientation they come in. I’m just happy to have fans!”
As for his family’s reaction, Stonestreet points to the year before he landed “Modern Family,” when he played murderers on “The Mentalist,” “Pushing Daisies,” and “NCIS,” as well as an inmate on death row for raping and murdering a girl on a recent episode of “Nip/Tuck.” “People will ask me, ‘Are your parents okay with you playing a gay character on TV?’ And I’m like, ‘My mom was more upset that I killed three people on TV last year!’”
Stonestreet shoots his final scene with Lily and wraps his day just before 6 p.m., about an hour later than expected but unusually early for an actor on a weekly series. Though he admits he got restless waiting for his big break when he first moved to L.A., he now feels grateful for the time it took to build experience in front of the camera.
“Eleven years ago, I thought I was ready to be on a sitcom,” he says. “Looking back on it, I may have been ready, but there are so many aspects that go into it that I didn’t know. Just the technical end of it: ‘Yeah, you’re going to be funny, but we need you to be funny on this mark, leaning with your weight on the right, and don’t get lost behind the doorway. Also, right off-camera, there’s a huge light in your face.’ There are so many things to work around, you’re not even aware.”
He also laughs to think just how different his career turned out than he intended. He recalls once reading a pamphlet about what a person can expect in a career in criminal justice. “If your career went the way it was supposed to, by 35 you should have your first junior wardenship,” he says. “I always think about the Eric who’s living that life out there, who’s a junior warden in Terre Haute, Ind. And I’m really glad I got detoured.”