'Modern Family': Jesse Tyler Ferguson on sibling rivalry and playing it straight

jessetylerferguson_modernfamily_290.jpg Jesse Tyler Ferguson can play a quirky or over-the-top character with the best of them, having done so on stage ("The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee") and on TV ("The Class").

But in "Modern Family," the excellent new comedy that premieres Wednesday night (Sept. 23) on ABC, Ferguson takes on a different kind of acting challenge: taking it down a notch. In the show, Ferguson plays Mitchell, one half of a gay couple (Eric Stonestreet is his partner) that's just adopted a baby in Vietnam. The fake-documentary series also follows two other families, who we eventually learn are different branches of one large clan.

Ferguson talked with Zap2it last week about the family dynamics in "Modern Family" and what he's learning about his character as the show moves forward.

Zap2it: Forgive the pun, but you're basically playing the straight man here, right?
Ferguson:
Yes [laughs], I am. Julie Bowen [who plays Mitchell's sister, Claire] and I were talking yesterday -- we both play the straight men to our respective partners. We had a scene together a few days ago where it was us talking on a bench, and it was a very heartfelt scene, but we were like, "We're the two straight men sitting on a bench talking to each other -- is this boring or funny?" ...

I was initially asked to audition for Eric's role, which I felt like I'd done before and knew how to do. I was more interested in the challenge of playing the straight man, the more buttoned-up type. I think people who take themselves so seriously are so funny.

How far into the season are you?
We're starting work on episodes six and seven now -- we're kind of shooting both of them at the same time. So we're pretty far into it.

What have you picked up about Mitchell so far?
One of the colors we recently discovered -- we had Shelley Long on an episode playing my estranged mother, and he's a mama's boy and wants nothing more than to please his mother. He's trying to do a little damage control with her. The episode is called "The Incident," and you understand why it's called "The Incident" after you see the reason Shelley Long is estranged from the family. It's hilarious -- I don't want to give anything away, but it's very funny. So I'm loving that, and the competition I have with my sister, Julie's character.

What do you mean by competition?
She's definitely the daddy's girl, and I'm the mama's boy .I think there's kind of -- her being a mother of three already and me just starting off, not wanting to ask her for too much help because I don't want her to judge me and think I don't know how to be a father. But at the same time I need to call her and ask if I should take my daughter to the doctor's office because I bumped her head against the door jamb while she was wearing a Donna Summer wig. Little things like that. [Laughs] You have to tune in to see why my daughter is wearing a Donna Summer wig, but it makes complete sense when you see it in context.

Can you talk a little more about the family dynamic within the show?
One of the reasons I was drawn to playing Mitchell was because I also wanted to be able to play the dynamic of the father-son and brother-sister relationship. With Ed O'Neill [who plays Mitchell and Claire's dad] and Julie Bowen, it's been such a joy to work with them. ... [O'Neill] is obviously known for playing this very broad character of Al Bundy, but he's such a master of subtlety. And Julie Bowen is just an endless, bottomless pit of humor. She can find humor in anything.

I didn't get the sense that the family is all that close. How does that play out?
I think we're learning to grow together. We've definitely grown apart over the past few years. ... It's an interesting, very complicated relationship. We're not just two siblings that love one another; there's a lot of history there. I'm still learning what that history is, but with each script I'm learning more. It's been really fun to play.

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