Jesse Tyler Ferguson Is a Modern Classic
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.”
Ferguson knows whereof he speaks. “Mitchell is basically me, so when people tell me I’m stereotypical and cliché in that role, then Jesse Tyler Ferguson is stereotypical and cliché because I’m basically doing no acting at all. We’re all clichés of ourselves.”
While being a self-described gay cliché has served Ferguson well in his career — earning him three consecutive Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series — it had a very different effect on the years he spent growing up in Albuquerque.
“I went to private schools and was surrounded by religion all the time,” he says. “I loved growing up Catholic, but there are a lot of rules around that, and I think the fact that I was obviously gay made me a threat to people. I was bullied a lot.”
Tormented by his fellow students, the naturally shy redhead became even more withdrawn until the day his mother took him, at age 8, to see a local stage production of Alice in Wonderland. “I saw these kids my age doing this play, and I didn’t want to be in the audience,” he recalls. “I wanted to get up there and be on the other side of the footlights.”
Recognizing his interest, Ferguson’s parents encouraged him to join the Albuquerque Children’s Theater, where he remained a member for six years. It was there that he cultivated his passion for performing and discovered a safe haven where he could be himself, free from the prosecution of his peers.
“My theater was honestly my only outlet and the only place I felt comfortable,” Ferguson says. “My parents were excited to support that because they thought it might [help me overcome my shyness] and it did. When I was doing plays I would emerge from my shell.”
But while Ferguson had found a place he could be comfortable as an actor, no such place existed offstage in his hometown for a young gay man. Even positive depictions of gays in pop culture seemed as fictional as the many characters he embodied onstage, and by the time Ferguson entered high school he turned to the only representation of his sexuality he could find.
“I was caught stealing gay porn when I was 14,” he says with laughter in his voice. “I walked through the metal detector, the buzzers went off, and when they asked me if I had anything, I lifted up my shirt and there was [an issue of] Black Inches.” He takes a deep breath and then strikes a more serious tone. “It was handled in a completely inappropriate way, with no tact from the store. They called up my parents and then showed them the nature of the material I’d stolen. I was horrified! I look back and think, How did I survive that humiliation?
Today, the memory serves as a reminder that his work on Modern Family is about far more than entertainment. “[Mitchell] is a character that I play with dignity and one that I think has helped change the landscape of what it means to be gay in America right now. Certainly, it’s provided a dialogue and a pop culture touchstone for a lot of people.”
One of those people is Ferguson’s father, whose views on homosexuality have evolved, thanks to both positive depictions of LGBT people in media and the real-life efforts of his son. “I always knew it was something he was capable of, and that’s why I didn’t let him off the hook,” Ferguson says. “I knew he was raised a certain way and he had certain ideas about what was right and wrong, but I also knew that he was a human being and capable of growth and of change. I wasn’t willing to accept the answer ‘That’s just how I was raised.’ That’s an incredible disservice [to yourself] to say that you’re not capable of change or growth.”
However, while Ferguson’s high-profile role on Modern Family is aiding LGBT progress in mainstream America, it has also afforded him the opportunity to meet the love of his life, lawyer Justin Mikita, who approached the actor after recognizing him at the gym. “We used to say we met through a mutual friend because meeting at the gym is so cliché,” he says. “But we’re owning it now. Justin said hello to me because he wanted to tell me he enjoyed Modern Family and he felt like it was doing really important things for the community and the cause. But I don’t think I heard any of that. I just realized he was incredibly cute, and so I started asking him questions about himself. Then slowly we continued conversing over the following months, became close, and started dating.”
Though many people in his profession are understandably cautious while navigating the world of dating in Hollywood, Ferguson says the advice of out actress Sara Gilbert helped him come to a realization. “She said, ‘It’s just as shallow to date someone because they’re really good-looking as it is to date someone because they’re famous.’ After a while that just wears off. Good looks only last for so long, and someone being famous for being on TV only lasts for so long. Eventually you’re going to get to the core of the person and realize if they’re who you want to be with. So if Justin saying hi to me the first time was only because I happened to be on a TV show, so be it. That was our in.”
Last September the couple announced their engagement while simultaneously launching Tie the Knot, which sells custom bow ties and donates all proceeds to various organizations fighting for marriage equality and LGBT civil rights in general.
Why bow ties? “They’re small, quirky, and a little off-center,” Ferguson explains. “And I feel like people who are advocates for marriage equality like the idea of being a little off-center, quirky, and bold.”
However, Ferguson fully credits his fiancé for the charity’s concept. “Justin came up with the idea,” he says. “I’ve definitely become more of an advocate, philanthropist, and do-gooder because of him. He has really ignited the civil rights passion within me.”
The couple began planning their wedding shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing arguments on the constitutionality of both Proposition 8, California’s voter-approved same-sex marriage ban, and the federal government’s Defense of Marriage Act. When asked if a decision to uphold either would affect their upcoming nuptials, Ferguson replies, “No. We’re getting married in New York, where it’s legal. I respect a lot of people who are waiting for those decisions to be made, but I also respect people who aren’t letting the government dictate when they get married. That’s where we’re coming from. We would’ve loved to have gotten married in California, which is where we reside, but unfortunately it’s not legal right now. We’re spending a lot of money on the wedding, and that’s money California is not getting. But congratulations to New York!”
Though Ferguson isn’t waiting for his home state’s ban on same-sex marriage to be lifted before he and Mikita officially tie the knot, he’s hopeful it’s a topic Modern Family will address in the future. “Modern Family takes place in California, and should Prop. 8 get overturned, I would love to see Mitchell and Cameron get married and celebrate that newfound freedom they have. Also, I’m excited to see what kind of wedding Cameron would plan, because I feel like he’d be the bridezilla of the two.”