Jesse Tyler Ferguson Is a Modern Classic

The Modern Family actor talks about growing up gay in New Mexico, setting a new standard for LGBT visibility on TV, and returning to Shakespeare in the Park.



Photography by M. Sharkey, Styling by William Archer Nolan, Grooming by Rheanne

Jesse Tyler Ferguson was confident he’d land the role of a marine in HBO’s 2001 miniseries Band of Brothers. But it wasn’t until he had to deliver lines about female genitalia in front of a casting director that he realized he might not be the best fit for the part.

“All I could hear was this wild lisping sound as I said, ‘I just bent over and fucked her pussy,’ ” Ferguson says in a high-pitched voice. “I’m sure it didn’t sound that gay, but in my head I was not pulling it off at all. I left realizing it would be like me going in for The Color Purple. It wasn’t a match on so many levels.” He may not have gotten the part that day, but since then Ferguson has found many other roles for which he feels he is a match.

Beginning May 28, the gay thespian will be playing Dromio opposite Hamish Linklater’s Antipholus for a five-week run of William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors in Central Park. The classic tale of two sets of identical twins separated at birth who endure a series of wild mishaps before discovering their long-lost siblings is scheduled to kick off the Public Theater’s 2013 season of Shakespeare in the Park and will be a homecoming for Ferguson as well.

The actor, now 37, made his professional New York debut on the very same stage, playing Chip in On the Town in 1997, and returned to star in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2007 as well as The Winter’s Tale in 2010. “It’s always a full-circle moment every time I come back,” says Ferguson. “It feels like coming home because there are a lot of the same people working the gates at the Delacorte Theater that were working there when I was 21 years old.”

But while Ferguson has experience playing Shakespearean roles, he admits he still finds performing the master playwright’s work extremely challenging. “I’m not classically trained. I like to lie and say that I am, but I went to school for musical theater. I didn’t study Shakespeare and I didn’t practice in iambic pentameter, so this is all very new to me.”

Nevertheless, Ferguson confesses he’s discovered a personal connection with one half of the dual role he’ll be playing this summer that makes him feel as if the part was tailor-made for him. “As I’m reading Comedy of Errors, I kind of feel like one of the Dromio twins is gay. I mean, full-on gay! He talks about never having luck with women and not really being into that.” He giggles, adding, “Plus he seems really impressed with this officer who’s in a suit of buff. I know in Shakespearean times buff means leather, but I think it might be code for something else.”

Finding queer subtext in classic works is fun, certainly, but it’s Ferguson’s role as Mitchell Pritchett, Modern Family’s uptight gay lawyer raising an adopted Asian-American baby with his excitable, dramatic partner, Cameron, that has given him the opportunity to reshape public perception of same-sex relationships — and their families — on an unprecedented scale.

“I feel like there are a lot of people who still aren’t comfortable with gay characters on television,” Ferguson says. “But what I admire about our show is that it has a plethora of characters for people to attach to, and slowly those people are becoming attached to Mitchell and Cameron as well.” He pauses, “It’s kind of like a Trojan horse. We sneak into a lot of people’s living rooms when they aren’t expecting it and maybe change some minds through the back door.”

However, he admits one of the biggest challenges he routinely faces on Modern Family isn’t the attitudes of some viewers reluctant to embrace Mitchell and Cameron, but the complaints he’s received that assert the show’s gay couple isn’t a positive representation of LGBT people.

“We’re always coming up against the criticism that our characters are stereotypical and don’t represent what it is to be gay,” Ferguson says. “But my argument has always been, I know so many people who are just like Mitchell and Cam, and so many people who are nothing like them. We’re representing a very specific couple in gay America and do not represent the entire gay community with those characters.”