ABOVE: JESSE TYLER FERGUSON IN MODERN FAMILY.
There is something about Jesse Tyler Ferguson's exasperation—the actor has perfected grimaces, halted gesticulations, and balked speech. Ferguson is best known for playing Mitchell Pritchett in Modern Family, a role that has earned him three consecutive Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series (2010, 2011, and 2012). The series, which is currently airing its fourth season and filming its fifth, depicts the goofs and triumphs of a large extended family. Ferguson plays the partner of Eric Stonestreet's Cam, father to a sprightly little girl named Lily, brother to Julie Bowen's Claire, and son of Ed O'Neill's Jay. Mitch is one of the steadier characters in the show—which doesn't say too much, as he has to put up with a neverending madcap procession of neuroses and stunts coming at him from all sides. When his cool-headed pleading gives way to vexation, it's a sure sign that the foolhardy shenanigans in the show are about to get going.
Recently, Ferguson demonstrated his knack for family comedy extends beyond Modern Family. He plays Lily Tomlin's son in the short film The Procession, released as part of the "Stars in Shorts" showcase of films. The pair brilliantly exudes mother-son chemistry in the 12-minute film about accidentally misleading a procession of mourners en route from funeral to burial. In March 2012, Ferguson also performed in Dustin Lance Black's play 8—a theatrical reenactment of the federal trial that overturned California's Prop 8 (a ban on same-sex marriage). His advocacy for marriage equality rights continues, with a slightly more fashionable vibe: he and his fiancé Justin Mikita just co-founded an accessories company called "Tie the Knot," which aims to dedicate its proceeds to marriage equality advocacy.
Though his turn into advocacy is certainly more serious, Ferguson's skills as a comedian and a brilliant asset to an ensemble cast are perfectly honed. In our talk with him below, Ferguson chats about the third year of Modern Family, designing bowties with his fiancé, and feeding the meter while rehearsing with Lily Tomlin.
MAGGIE LANGE: You were just in this short film, The Procession, playing Lily Tomlin's son. I was amazed at the connection you two made. In just a short span of time, you really came across as mother and son.
JESSE TYLER FERGUSON: I was super excited, first of all, to work with her. I was thrilled beyond belief that she agreed to be my mother. My chemistry going into it was extreme awe—so it looked like a loving relationship. In reality, I was trying to take in the moment.
LANGE: What did you do to rehearse?
FERGUSON: We rehearsed it like a play. We parked a car outside of a rehearsal studio. We fed a meter for about two hours in Santa Monica and rehearsed in the car, to feel what it would be like sitting next to one another, dealing with the actual mechanics of the car. We tried to get it memorized, so we could just be out and about in the city.
LANGE: How much of this script—which is a lot of exasperation both verbalized and vocalized—did you improvise?
FERGUSON: You can't stop Lily from ad libbing. That's like stopping a moving train. It's my job to keep up with what she was throwing at me. Her muttering would be something new each time, trying to keep it fresh. It was about 30% improv, and that was Lily throwing the ball in my court to see if I could volley.
LANGE: Well, you two were well matched—as I feel the cast in Modern Family is well matched. Tell me about the level of changeability on this series, especially how it changes when you work with people for years.
FERGUSON: We try to keep script loose where it needs to be loose, and tight where it needs to be tight. We have great writers that handle this part. But especially in the interview sections, they want it to be spontaneous and spur of the moment. The writers are great about letting us play with material. At lot of the time it makes the show, a lot of time it ends up on the cutting room floor. They are very supportive of our contributions.
LANGE: Do you enjoy this aspect of acting?
FERGUSON: I don't like improv at all. It terrifies me. I like to know exactly what I'm going to say. Being surprised does make me a better actor. Anytime I'm afraid of something that makes me rise to the occasion, it scares me, but it's what makes great actors—being in the moment.
LANGE: You have a great connection with so many of the actors in Modern Family. Which actor do you feel you have the most chemistry with on that show?
FERGUSON: Chemistry is one of these crazy things you can't teach or learn or you can't fake. You go in hoping it will work, hope that you will connect with the other actors. I was fortunate on Modern Family and The Procession. They are great people, very easy to like. Obviously, I've spent that most time with Eric Stonestreet. We finish each other's sentences and know the other person will be there to rally and play ball with us. The comfort level is high with Eric, but I did a scene today with Ed O'Neill. It's so easy to play with, so easy to create this relationship with. We've gotten to the fourth season, so [we] now know the roles in the relationships.
LANGE: So much about the conversation of Modern Family is praising Mitch's relationship with Cam... Tell me about why you think this relationship appeals to people.
FERGUSON: Like any couple, they bicker when they're frustrated and support one another when they need to support. I feel like they're real to a lot of people, people recognize those characters whether they are straight are gay. It's always fun to watch new parents figure it out they fill those roles—and now Jay and Gloria are in those roles. Our show has a great span of the different phases of parenthood. I've never raised a child—so this is all new to me, but I feel that's what people are really responding to.
LANGE: What do you think of it becoming part of the political conversation about gay marriage? The Obamas, Joe Biden, and Anne Romney have said how much they like the show. What was your reaction to this?
FERGUSON: It think it's incredibly exciting that so many different types of people—of different political beliefs, different religions, people in different parts of the country—all respond to the show. I love that this show can reach all these different people. We try to not to put too much importance on this, not pat ourselves on the back that this is "important" work—it's a comedy, it's a sitcom. There is a slight grain of salt, but there is a responsibility that responses indeed tend to bend with the situation. If it does social work, that's great. I love that the Romneys and the Obamas love it—it's the only thing they can agree on!
LANGE: So speaking of making a little difference in politics, tell me a little about Tie the Knot.
FERGUSON: I started it with my fiancé. I thought it would be fun to dip our toe into the fashion world. An easy way to do this is a small and easy piece of clothing—and a tie seems like a small and easy piece of clothing to design. All the proceeds are going towards marriage equality. They are available in November and there are twenty different styles in the first cycle, and a limited quantity, so I'm hoping that they will fly off the shelves. The mascot is an owl wearing a bowtie, and the signature bowtie is a Louis Vuitton-style repeating design of the owl. It's a very collegiate-looking tie. I wore a green one recently to some event, and one in red and yellow is my favorite one right now.
LANGE: Were you always a bowtie fan?
FERGUSON: I started taking my fiancé, Justin, to some red carpet events I would go to, and a bowtie is often something that was required. We came across a lot of stylish bowties. We liked playing dress up for these events and we thought it would be fun to start a line, but it was never a reality until recently.
MODERN FAMILY AIRS WEDNESDAYS AT 9PM EST ON ABC.