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.

BY Jase Peeples

May 15 2013 4:06 AM ET

At left: Ferguson gets covered by his Spring Tie the Knot collection.

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Tormented by his fellow students, the naturally shy redhead became even more withdrawn until the day his mother took him, at age 8, to see a local stage production of Alice in Wonderland.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.”

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