Modern Family's Jesse Tyler Ferguson on the Upcoming Story Line That Moved Him to Tears


Jesse Tyler Ferguson almost missed out on Modern Family, ABC's breakout mockumentary that is already being heralded by the Hollywood Reporter as one of the best series of the decade. Recovering from his experience on the critically savaged and quickly canceled Do Not Disturb, Ferguson told his managers that he was finished with television and moved to New York last year to headline the Broadway musical based on Elf. Fortunately for Ferguson, his managers soft-sold him Modern Family, which the actor read five times over and fell in love with. Now, Ferguson can be seen on Wednesday nights as Mitchell Pritchett, the hilariously straight-laced former figure skater who has since settled down with his flamboyant partner -- the hilarious Eric Stonestreet -- and their adopted Vietnamese daughter.

Last week, Movieline caught up with Ferguson to discuss his brush with Adam Lambert, the truth behind that Julie Bowen-Sofia Vergara rivalry and the upcoming storyline about Mitchell and his old-fashioned father, played by Ed O'Neill, that brought him to tears.

Modern Family has almost single-handedly launched ABC back into the running for quality comedy programming. Has the network kicked back any kind of gift to the cast yet, like the Porsches that NBC famously gave its Will & Grace stars?

I think those are being delivered today. [Laughs] Nothing so far.

I read that you weren't looking to get back into television when you read the Modern Family pilot.

Right, when I read the Modern Family pilot, that's when I started thinking about it again but yeah, I had a bad experience last season doing a show that just really was not well-received and I kind of -- probably because of the writers' strike -- it just never came together and it was a really painful process to be involved in. It was just unanimously loathed. And I'm a theater guy, so I had an opportunity to do theater in New York, and then this happened, so that changed everything. There was no way that I could not go in on this role.


It's amazing that 30 pages could change the entire trajectory of your career.

Yeah, and really the whole cast felt the same way. We all had a different journey with it. Mine was fortunately very simple -- I didn't have to go in too many times to audition. But Julie [Bowen], for example, was dying to do the show but she was nine months pregnant with twins and the show was not sure how they could work around it. Eric was a really unknown actor and he had to really fight for it. Ty [Burrell] had to test, I think, three times for it. [Modern Family creators] Chris Lloyd and Steven Levitan actually shot a screen test of him in their backyard to show how brilliant he would be for the show because it just was not translating in the room. Even Ed O'Neill -- I think he lost the part at one point to another actor [ed. note: it was Craig T. Nelson] and it came back around to him.

I heard that you also initially auditioned for the role of Cameron. How far were you in the audition process before realizing you were a better fit for Mitchell?

It was literally the first audition, and I had been desperate to play Mitchell. I feel like I had probably played Cameron before and it didn't seem terribly challenging for me. I just felt it was more of a challenge to find the humor in his seriousness and his uptightness. And then the first audition with Chris and Steve, they said, "Oh you'd make a great Mitchell too. Why don't you come back in and audition for that part?" And I said, "Well that's what I've been telling people for weeks and no one has been listening!"

I imagine that you have a lot of room to improvise on set. Is there one scene that comes to mind as your favorite improvised work -- even if it didn't make it in the final cut?

Well there is that scene where we lock Lily in the car. The scene was supposed to end with us saying, "Did you lock the baby in the car?" and then it cuts out. Everything that happened afterward, with me singing the ABCs and Eric trying to break the window -- all of that was improvised. So they definitely let us continue on the scenes usually and a lot of the stuff that we improv after the scene usually ends up in the show. We do lots of takes with just the script though, just in case, because their material is so clear and so funny that you don't want to muddy it too much, and obviously the interviews are very free. They want it to look real. So little snips we have to one and other, that's usually improvised. Also, me and Eric are getting to know each other more and more each week so I think we're becoming more and more comfortable with one another. I think those moments are becoming very real.

The scene:

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