Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Hamish Linklater in The Merchant of Venice, which runs until August 1 at Shakespeare in the Park.
If there’s one thing theatrical producers love, it’s a well-known television or film actor who also happens to have serious stage-acting chops and likes to face the footlights whenever possible. Enter Jesse Tyler Ferguson — critically acclaimed, loved by audiences, and Emmy-nominated this year for his role as Mitchell — the more uptight of two dads raising an adopted daughter amid an eccentric L.A. clan — on Modern Family.
But before he became known to the masses via that hit ABC series, he had already amassed an impressive list of theater credits, ranging from summer Central Park stagings of On the Town and A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the New York Shakespeare Festival to his hilarious turn as Leaf Coneybear in Broadway’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Now he’s back in the park, appearing in both The Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale, in the company of such actors as Al Pacino, Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, and another terrific Jesse (L. Martin). Ferguson and I recently chatted between shows.
What's it like to be back in the park?
You know, its honestly my favorite place to work — second only to the Fox lot in Century City in Los Angeles, California. When you walk into the Delacorte, the staff always says "welcome home" to everyone who’s worked there before. I got my Equity card there. It feels like a very safe place to work.
Do you have some park anecdotes you'd like to share?
Well, it's always a challenge with helicopters, birds, raccoons, and anything else that happens to be in the ether. The other night, there was a group of hippies being rowdy behind the castle at the beginning of The Winter’s Tale. Someone had to go ask them to break up the party. I remember that when we did On The Town, there was a Garth Brooks concert in the park one night. We couldn’t hear the music in the theater, but around the 10 p.m. news hour, the news helicopters came to film the concert and the crowd. So right in the middle of a quiet, beautiful ballad, there were all these choppers hovering overhead. That was challenging.
Al Pacino plays Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, and this is his Delacorte debut. Is he enjoying himself?
He seems to be, unless he's the greatest actor of all time. Well, actually, he is the greatest actor of all time. But if he was miserable, I think we'd be able to tell. He seems to be having a ball. Al is completely enamored of the whole process, and he loves working in the park. He keeps saying the only reason he'd like the show to move to Broadway is so he could have a bigger dressing room. The dressing rooms at the Delacorte are really small.
So, Jesse, is there a continuum between Shakespeare and Modern Family?
If there is, I need to be made aware of it. I cannot find one. I don't think Mitchell is Shakespearean in any way at all. That’s why I like to do Shakespeare, because it's so different.
Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson in The Winters Tale at Shakespeare in the Park.
Off the top of your head, can you think of any Shakespearean characters that might credibly be played as gay?
I think any Shakespeare character can be played as gay. It's very easy to take that route with the clowns. Certainly, the part of Aguecheek in Twelfth Night lends itself to that approach. People are going to argue that my clown shepherd in The Winter's Tale is a little fey; I say he's just excitable and quirky. Then, of course, there’s that old queen Prospero from The Tempest. And, if you ask me, I think Portia in The Merchant of Venice is a lesbian.
Have you discussed this interpretation with Lily Rabe?
I’m going to have a talk with her about it tonight. She seems to want to pump some fresh blood into the character, so I’ll offer that suggestion.
Chris Colfer of Glee, who is also Emmy-nominated in your category, was quoted as saying that if you want an Emmy nomination, you should play a gay role. Do you agree with that thesis?
Well, it certainly worked for Chris and Eric Stonestreet [who plays Jesse's partner on Modern Family] and me. There might be something in the water, who knows? But I think we're all being recognized because the characters are well developed. I played another gay character on a very short-lived show, and I never came anywhere near an Emmy nomination. The show was called Do Not Disturb. It was on Fox last season. You never saw it, because it was only on for three episodes. I call it a "three-part miniseries."
I remember you were also in a sitcom called The Class, but I never saw that show, either. Did you play a gay character in that?
No, no, no! I was madly in love with a woman. But, again, I was quirky. There’s a big gray area between "quirky" and "gay." We tend to blur that line.
How do you feel about the fact that there are so many gay characters on TV?
I think there's a certain responsibility that comes with playing a gay role. With both Modern Family and Glee, I think the writers are taking that cue and doing some really interesting stuff with the characters. I know Eric and I have talked about how we want to make these characters really grounded, and how we don't want their sexual orientation to be the first thing on the roster of who they are. Before anything else, they're partners and they’re new parents. We don't like to call them "gay dads," they’re just dads.
By the way, if you had to switch roles with any other Emmy nominee this year, who would you choose?
[Thinks for a moment:] Probably Jane Lynch on Glee. That would be fun!
Much has been made of the recent turn back toward scripted TV and away from "reality." I assume you think that's a positive thing?
Yes, there's a lot of really great new material on TV this year. Hey, listen, I love Wipeout as much as anyone, but it's nice to see so many good, new scripts.
It strikes me that because of your physical appearance, especially your coloring, a lot of people must recognize you when you're out in public.
That's correct. Even if I wear sunglasses and a hat, I get stopped. If I wore Israeli garb, I'd still be recognized. I don’t think Eric looks like Cameron at all; but when we're out together somewhere, people recognize me, then they recognize him, and then all hell breaks loose.
What, if anything, do you miss about your anonymity?
I love being able to go to dinner by myself and read a book, but it's difficult to do that now. This may sound weird, but I don't like a lot of attention. I'm a very private person. I wish my answer were more exciting, like "I can’t go into porn stores any more," but I never did that in the first place.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson and his mother.
So, do you know who's going to be your date for the Emmys?
That's up for debate. I thought I would bring my mother, but I'm afraid the excitement of the evening might be too much for her and her head might fly off. Also, my mom came and did the People magazine photo shoot with me, and my sister came to Hawaii when we were shooting there. So I think I'll bring my brother, who has always told me he wants to go to an awards ceremony. Next time, maybe I'll bring my dad. I'll just rotate through the whole family until I have a proper date.
Can I ask if there's anyone special in your life?
Not right now, no. I mean, yes, you can ask – but please don't ask right now, because there isn’t anyone!