Jesse Tyler Ferguson on collaborating with local e-boutique The Tie Bar and creating real chemistry with his ‘Modern Family’ cast mates.
If you’re a fan of “Modern Family” — ABC’s wildly successful series about an anything-but-nuclear clan, now in its sixth season — you probably think you know Jesse Tyler Ferguson. The actor, 39, inhabits the role of comically uptight uncle/father/brother Mitchell Pritchett so convincingly that it’s hard to imagine he isn’t equally Type A and holier-than-thou (if endearingly so) in real life.
But in fact, Ferguson is just the opposite of his on-screen persona — charmingly self-effacing, charitable and humble to a fault.
Case in point: In 2012, the actor and his husband Justin Mikita co-founded nonprofit Tie The Knot, which advocates for marriage equality and raises funds to make it a reality through a line of bow ties, produced in collaboration with Chicago-based e-commerce destination The Tie Bar. Despite the fact that he’s deeply involved in the project (even traveling to Chicago Oct. 23 to celebrate The Tie Bar’s first brick-and-mortar pop-up in Lincoln Park), Ferguson doesn’t take any credit for it. “Justin had the idea of a bow-tie line. … Justin has all the good ideas,” Ferguson says. “He really is the brains behind all the operations.”
The sharp contrast with his character isn’t a coincidence — Ferguson is no stranger to flouting expectations. Even at a young age, he clashed wildly with his small-town upbringing. “Albuquerque, [New Mexico] wasn’t a great place, first of all for a redhead to be raised — in the middle of the desert,” he laughs. “But also there weren’t a lot of creative opportunities for me to flex my artistic [muscles]. I lived and breathed musical theater growing up — every once in a while a show would come through [town] and of course I would run to that, but beyond that I was sort of in a bubble.”
That bubble made coming out to his family — an already complicated event — that much more difficult for the young Ferguson. “I had to come out to my dad three times — he kept seeming to forget,” Ferguson says, laughing. “At my wedding [to Mikita in 2013], I was up there getting married and my dad said, ‘I get it now.’ I’m literally about to marry a man and my dad’s like, ‘I understand.’ ”
When he was 18, Ferguson left the desert for New York to follow his acting dreams. He nabbed a role in a production of “On the Town” almost immediately and, for a number of years, was cast exclusively in plays and musicals — so often that even he believed that was all he’d ever do. “I had never really thought about [doing] film or TV,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’m a theater actor, those opportunities aren’t going to be available for me. I don’t know how to act in front of a camera, it’s a whole other set of muscles.’ ”
Once again, though, Ferguson proved everyone — including himself — wrong. In 2006, producers David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik cast him in a new CBS series called “The Class”; while the show allowed Ferguson to find his footing on screen, it enjoyed only a short run. Just before going back to theater for good, Ferguson was handed the script for “Modern Family” in 2009. ABC producers had him in mind for the part of Mitchell’s whimsical partner, Cameron Tucker — but, as usual, Ferguson had other plans.
“I had played roles like Cam before and I felt like it was more of a challenge for me to play someone a little more straightlaced — I find a lot of humor in people who take themselves too seriously, which I think Mitchell does,” he says. So Ferguson took matters into his own hands. “I went in and read the role of Cam kind of like how I would have read Mitchell. I think they saw that and said, ‘You know, you’d actually be a better Mitchell.’ ”
Once they got to know Ferguson, the producers would go even further, changing the character’s profession from dentist to environmental lawyer. “I didn’t seem like the dentist type,” says Ferguson. “They tailored the roles to the people who were cast, and as they got to know us over the next few years, they’d hear us talking about things and those things would end up making their way into the scripts, like Eric [Stonestreet’s] history with clowning.”
Right off the bat, Ferguson and Stonestreet, who plays Cam, made a crucial decision in the way they would portray their characters — a gay couple who adopt a baby girl from Vietnam. “There was a lot of pressure when we first started [the show] to represent an entire community,” Ferguson says. “We sort of let ourselves off the hook. We said, ‘No, we’re not representing the entire gay community or the entire community of people who are adopting kids or adopting kids [from other countries]. We’re representing these specific people and we just have to represent them as fully as we possibly can. So I think we really freed ourselves when we let that go. I’m super proud of these two characters — I think it’s wonderful that we’re representing two fully fleshed-out characters to the best of our ability, rather than one [stereotype of a character] that is watered down.”
Ferguson and Stonestreet are just two of 11 main characters on “Modern Family” — an unusually large core cast. “There are so many things that could go wrong when you have an ensemble as big as ours,” Ferguson says. “And not to say that we don’t have our disagreements. They truly are an extended family to me. We talk through our problems and we love each other and we get annoyed with one another, but at the base of all that there’s such deep respect and love and I think that comes out on screen — chemistry is really hard to fake.”
That chemistry certainly translates. The show has won five Emmy awards for outstanding comedy series and a slew of individual awards and nominations. But for Ferguson, the accolades pale in comparison to the work. “It’s so nice being nominated for awards and winning them is even nicer but that’s not why we do it,” he says. “The minute we start [making the show] to win another Emmy or Golden Globe, we’ve lost sight of why we’re doing this.”
“Modern Family’s” success has brought the actor something much better than any award: The show averages 14.5 million viewers per week — one of whom was Ferguson’s now-husband Mikita, who approached him in the gym locker room after recognizing him. “We tell people [we met through] mutual friends, but really it was at the gym,” the actor jokes. “He grew up in LA, so he’s used to seeing celebrities around and he never approaches anyone, but he felt like he needed to say something to me. He said, ‘Great job on the show,’ and ‘You do wonderful things for marriage equality and civil rights and I appreciate your work.’ You know, Justin’s a very attractive person, so I was trying to keep the conversation going.”
The conversation did keep going and, eventually, laid the groundwork for Tie The Knot (TTK). The foundation combines Ferguson’s philanthropic side with his — also unexpected — desire to break into the fashion biz: He and Mikita co-design seasonal bow-tie collections, and $20 of every $25 tie (and $25 of every $35 tie) goes back to TTK. “The success of TTK relies on those funds,” Ferguson says. “They ship the funds to the places that really need it; grassroots campaigns and civil rights campaigns are the direct recipients.” (Just don’t ask him for help actually tying the bow tie: In a hilarious how-to video on The Tie Bar’s website, it’s revealed that he doesn’t really know how to do it.)
There’s no telling where we’ll see Ferguson next — the ever-evolving actor will surely keep surprising us. But he gives us a few hints: “I’m always poking my head into the theater world and reminding people that I’m still here and still very excited about working on new pieces,” he says. “And I would love to produce some things. [But] one of the most fulfilling things is using this platform to give back.”