Colin Firth may feel bad about taking gay roles away from gay actors, but Modern Family star Eric Stonestreet doesn’t share that guilt. On ABC’s hit comedy series, which has been picked up for a second season, Stonestreet proudly plays Cameron, the more flamboyant half of a gay couple raising an adopted baby, opposite out actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Mitchell. Also known as Dr. Benson in the 2003 indie Girls Will Be Girls, the 38-year-old Kansas native explains how he’s personally pushing the gay movement forward — with or without prime-time PDA.
Advocate.com: First of all, thanks for introducing the term “moon landing” to popular culture. What was it like to touch bare butt cheeks with Ed O’Neill?
Eric Stonestreet: [Laughs] I tweeted the day that episode aired that if you set goals, work hard, and always believe in yourself, you too can touch butts with a TV icon someday. It was blurred out on TV, but we really did touch butts. He was like, “You fine with this?” I was like, “I’m fine with it. Are you fine with it?” And he was like, “Yeah, let’s do this!” So we touched butts, and it was great.
Twitter obviously makes you easily accessible to fans. What kind of feedback have you gotten from gay viewers about Modern Family?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. I had prepared myself that people might think Cameron was too flamboyant, too broad, or too stereotypical, but we’ve always felt we take it to that line but then twist it a bit. Gay couples have approached me at the Grove in Los Angeles just to say “thank you.” At Starbucks I was approached by two women pushing a stroller who said, “We’d like to introduce you to our baby.” I’ve been blown away, because I was expecting a little bit more blowback, if you will, than what we’ve received from the gay community and even from people who are opposed to gay rights.
Have you gotten negative feedback from right-wingers or religious zealots who don’t believe gays should adopt?
There is that out there, but I don’t pay attention to it and neither do the writers. This is the best way I can put it: If there are any crazy conservatives who have a problem with watching two men raise a baby with love and care, they can just turn the channel to CSI, watch people get raped and murdered, and they’ll be fine.
Do you feel like you personally have the power to influence or change conservative Middle American opinions on gay issues?
Absolutely. Our main goal is to make people laugh, and we don’t want to shove anything in anyone’s face, but for sure we acknowledge and appreciate the opportunity to also educate people. The writers, Jesse, and I have all talked about it and agree that the faster we can shuffle down the fact that these guys are gay, the better. We’ve been successful at just highlighting that these guys love each other, they’re in a committed relationship, they’re neurotic, they’re excitable, and they’re nervous about raising a baby and doing the right thing. The fact that they’re gay really goes in the background, which I think is a positive step. The sooner people stop thinking of people as gay and start thinking of people as people, the better off we are.
Do you feel a responsibility to represent same-sex parents respectfully?
Of course, but I would feel that with whatever character I was playing because I always want to bring honesty to whatever I do. Jesse and I were both really excited about getting these parts, and when we heard the writers and creators talk about how they wanted the characters to be serviced, we learned that they have the utmost respect for them. We realize that there are people tuning in who are seeing themselves for the first time on TV, and that’s exciting.
When you were auditioning for Cameron, did anyone discourage you from taking the part or advise you to think twice before playing a flamboyant gay guy?
No, but I heard that there were other actors who didn’t want to do the part because of that. Good parts on a good show are so hard to find, so someone would be stupid and crazy to care if the character was gay. It’s a dream role. I wanted this part so bad, but they weren’t seeing my type of actor — a big guy — so I really had to fight just to get in the room.
Colin Firth recently spoke about how he feels that his playing gay in A Single Man hasn’t helped the gay actors in Hollywood who have difficulty landing both straight and gay roles, adding, “I think it needs to be addressed and I feel complicit in the problem.” Do you feel complicit in that problem?
I read that, and that’s interesting, but there’s a tried-and-true process of how actors get cast in Hollywood that’s been going on for years and years. When a project becomes available, casting directors — and a lot of casting directors are gay — bring in all kinds of actors and pick the person they think is best for the part. Sexual orientation shouldn’t have anything to do with it. I have the opportunity to help the gay movement in another way because I’m a straight guy who’s willing to put himself out there and be this gay character without any apologies. I can lead by example and say that this character deserves to be played honestly on TV, and it doesn’t matter if it’s by a gay actor or a straight actor. Saying that only gay actors should play gay parts doesn’t move the gay movement forward. There’s certainly no shortage of gay actors in Los Angeles. Maybe there aren’t that many gay parts for gay actors to play, but Neil Patrick Harris is playing a straight guy on How I Met Your Mother, Jonathan Slavin is playing a straight part on Better Off Ted … This town has a process of how actors get parts, and that’s just the way it goes.
Have you learned anything about gay people by playing Cameron?
Well, I’ve been surrounded by gay people my whole life — I grew up with a gay cousin, I went to Kansas State University and knew a lot of gay people in the theater department — so it’s not like I’m all of a sudden immersed in the gay community for the first time. But in this particular case, what I’m learning is being learned off-set with the great feedback I’m getting. I’m seeing how prideful and appreciative the gay community has been of the fact that we’re playing these characters honestly and without sensationalizing them. Cameron’s a dramatic, passionate person, but there’s a truth to the character. I look to myself for the character because I’m a dramatic, passionate person too, and that has nothing to do with my sexuality.
Since Jesse Tyler Ferguson is gay and you’re not, have you looked to him for any insight on gay relationships?
Absolutely. We have a great relationship and talk about it all the time. He certainly knows when our lines don’t ring true and weighs in on that. I had a great time at his birthday party in October. Afterward I said, “Where are we going?” And he said, “We’re going to a gay bar, but don’t worry because there’s going to be women there.” Of course, we get there and there’s one woman in the place. All his friends were cracking up because everybody wanted to talk to Jesse and I. Us out together is seriously nuts because everybody thinks we’re a real couple. We just flew together to Las Vegas for an event and people were like, “So, are you guys really dating?” Jesse’s quick to say no, but I’m always like, “What are you so embarrassed of? Yeah, we’re dating! Who cares?” [Laughs] But obviously we’re not.
Was it a conscious decision not to show any physical affection between Cameron and Mitchell so as to make a gay relationship more palatable for more conservative viewers?
People always ask me why there’s not more affection on the show, but these guys are elbow-deep in raising a baby, so affection gets shoved down the list. That happens in straight relationships too. Talk to any guy with a newborn baby, ask him how often he’s getting some action, and he’ll fill you in.
So should we not hold our breath for a same-sex kiss?
Hopefully our show will still be on the air when gay marriage passes, and I would imagine that Cameron and Mitchell will then get married. They were married in the original script, but everybody thought we should hold on to that nugget for the potentially near future. So as far as a kiss goes, I think it will happen in a real way that doesn’t draw attention to itself, because that’s not the kind of show it is. Jesse has nibbled on my ear in an outtake, so maybe that’ll be on the DVD extras.
I don’t know how often you Google yourself, but your picture is up on a number of bear websites. Do you mind being sexually objectified?
It cracks me up. Somebody tweeted me a picture of Cameron in a bathrobe from the last episode and thanked me for showing a little more skin and hair. I feel so insecure about my back hair and chest hair, so I love that somebody out there appreciates it. I’m flattered. As an actor you hope one day to work, so to then have fans who follow and support you, I couldn’t care less who or what they are. I’ve also gotten some nice gifts, cookies, flowers, and some very suggestive letters, and I love it. I meet gay guys out all the time who want to hug me and thank me, so how could I have a problem with that?
Have you played gay before Modern Family?
No, but I was in a pretty well-known gay art movie called Girls Will Be Girls. There was a bit in the script where my character’s fucking Jack Plotnick dressed as Evie Harris from behind on a piano. I had not seen that in the script — I still contend they snuck it in on me at some point — and when I showed up to shoot on my first day, that was the first scene I shot. But I was game, man, and it was hilarious. It was a really great lesson for me because I showed up thinking, What in the hell have I gotten myself into? We were shooting at the director-producer’s house and he was painting one room while we were shooting in another, so it was guerrilla filmmaking at its best. But then I saw it and was just blown away by how good it was. I’m so proud of that movie, and it’s featured very prominently on my reel.
You also appeared as an obese death row inmate in an episode of Nip/Tuck last year.
Most people only know me as a dramatic actor on procedural dramas like that because those are the parts I’ve been getting for 13 years, so that’s why it’s go great to play Cameron. Nip/Tuck actually conflicted with me shooting the pilot of Modern Family, so when they offered me the part I had to say no, but Tate Donovan, who was directing the episode, and Ryan Murphy moved things around for me to make it work. I didn’t actually meet Ryan while I was shooting that, but I’ve met him since then because of Glee and seeing him at the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards, and different places.
Glee stole some of Modern Family’s thunder at those award shows.
Yeah, we were “whatever” with the Golden Globes, but we did want to win the SAG Award. Good for Glee, but hopefully we’ll go at it again next year. But, you know, this year I was disappointed Modern Family didn’t get a SAG Award, and exactly one year ago this week I was pissed because I couldn’t get an audition for Modern Family, so my year has been great.