***Warning*** This article contains mild spoilers about the first episode of Modern Family.
Network television has given us gay parents before. In the third season of Will & Grace, Jack MacFarland learned he was the father of a teenager while the 2003 sitcom It’s All Relative had Christopher Sieber and John Benjamin Hickey playing the adoptive parents of a grown daughter, just to name two examples.
But when ABC debuts Modern Family on Wednesday night, it will mark the first time a network show has featured two gay men raising an infant.
While the culture wars aren’t what they used to be, the issue of gay parents is still a fairly controversial one in America. Some states currently ban adoptions by gay people while groups such as Focus on the Family and numerous Republican politicians decry the idea of any children being gay raised by gays and lesbians. And don’t even bring up the idea of discussing gay families in U.S. schools unless you’re prepared for all out war in some quarters.
While Modern Family is unlikely to address any of these issues too directly or too pointedly, simply including a gay family as series regulars is groundbreaking. AfterElton.com recently chatted with the show’s two gay dads, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet, about their roles, whether straight actors should play gay parts and much more.
AfterElton.com: Jesse, as a gay man yourself, does playing this part have any special significance for you or is it just another role?
Jesse Tyler Ferguson: It’s definitely not just another role. I was obviously drawn to it for very personal reasons. It’s interesting because when I read the script, the first thing I was drawn to was how brilliant the pilot was. The characters were really well developed and the whole story was so well told and so well executed. It was after shooting the pilot and then hearing the media respond in such a positive way that I stepped back and said this actually is very groundbreaking.
I’m sort of seeing that now and it’s incredibly exciting. I think anytime you can portray any gay couple on television, especially in such a positive light, I think it’s a wonderful thing. Especially given the social climate were in.
AE: Instead of asking the obvious question where Jesse tells me about his character and Eric tells me about his, I want each of you to tell me about the other’s characters.
JTF: Oh. Okay. You go first.
Eric Stonestreet: Don’t boss me around!
JTF: Okay. I’ll go first.
Both: There it is! [laughs]
JTF: Cameron is very effusive. He kind of wears his heart on his sleeve. He is very exuberant. And he’s very enthusiastic. He’s excited that we’ve brought this new life into the world, and he’s excited about being a dad. He wants to go big or not go at all.
ES: I would say Mitchell is the more reserved of the two of us. He’s more what some people would say is the responsible one, the disciplinarian, potentially, in the house. He’s the breadwinner, though I think Cameron has an interesting job before we pick up with these two.
Mitchell isn’t embarrassed that we’re a gay couple, but he doesn’t want to give people immediate ammunition of what a gay couple would be. Whereas Cameron would think, we are who we are, let’s take away the argument or whatever someone might say by being 100% who we are and dealing with society that way. Where Mitchell would say, "Let’s not draw attention to ourselves and do our own thing privately."
AE: What kind of parents are you each going to be? I know it’s early on…
JTF: I think what’s so interesting right now is just playing new parents, two nervous dads, and in a society where there are not a lot of gay couples raising kids. We’re definitely in a minority. My character is certainly nervous about his ability to be a dad, he’s questioning. Cameron’s more supportive and encouraging. We’re learning this together, and bringing different elements of being a dad together, and creating a great environment for this kid.
ES: I think what we bring to it is what any mother and father would bring to it: pure terror at first, like "Oh my God, what do we do when this happens?" Then on top of it, we bring in some of the characters’ stuff, which is "What do we do when this happens and how do we deal with the fact that we’re two dads." It’s a complex parenting skill because we don’t know if this has ever been done for this duration on television where two guys have had a baby.
AE: That’s what I cover and it hasn’t. At least not on network TV like this. Now Eric, the scene where you present the baby ala The Lion King all dressed up was very, very funny. That being said, some may find your character a little flamboyant. What’s your response to someone who was like, "We’ve seen this kind of gay guy on television so many times."
ES: I would say Cameron is, if somebody said flamboyant, I would counter that with Cameron is a celebration of, again, people. Like myself, Eric, as a person, loves to put music on to set the tone of some place. I can give you the most recent example. My father and I just drove from California to Kansas City and we took about thirty miles of Route 66.
Well, I had to pull over and put on the song "Route 66" by Asleep at the Wheel. My dad’s sitting there looking at me, and I’m like, "What? We have to play ’Route 66’ when we’re on Route 66!" I don’t think that’s flamboyant at all. It’s just setting the tone and setting the atmosphere. I think that’s how Cameron sees everything. This is a moment that he’s thought of and thought about. He didn’t tell Mitchell because Mitchell would immediately poo poo it, and by God, we’re going to make a moment out of this.
That’s how Cameron would make a moment out of it. If someone wants to call that flamboyant, then…
JTF: Well, it’s a representation.
JTF: That’s a cross section of gay culture. It’s certainly representative of a group, and I think my character is representative of a whole other group. You’re getting a two-for-one with that, because you have this great gay couple on television, and not only that, they’re representing two very different facets of gay culture. I think it’s exciting. I think it’s a really great match.
AE: How would you describe your relationship?
JTF: There’s definitely bickering, but just from a place where when you’ve been with someone that long you just naturally…
ES: And I think we found when we were shooting the pilot that we genuinely enjoy hearing each other talk, just as Jesse and Eric, and we find ourselves just watching each other. So I think there’s that in Cameron and Mitchell as well, where it’s just like these two people are together because they saw something in each other very early on in a surprising way, because we’ve kind of discussed where we met, how we met, if it was love at first sight or something like that.
We both have different takes on that, but you know bringing who we are personally to the characters, I think we just genuinely enjoy each other. Cameron would say he tries to celebrate all people, and the number one on his list would be Mitchell.
AE: So are Cameron and Mitchell legally married?
JTF: I don’t think we are legally married.
ES: I think they’re saving that. I think if the show’s as big of a success…
JTF: Yeah, that would be a great plot point to bring in, and certainly a wonderful message and wonderful platform to have it on. We have been together a long time.
ES: Five years is what’s established.
JTF: Five years in the pilot.
AE: Who’s the stay-at-home parent?
AE: Steven Levitan [the show’s co-creator] said there’s going to be a lot of firsts for you guys as parents. What have you seen that you can talk about?
ES: We go to a ‘Mommy and Me’ class, which is very fun. Obviously, things go wrong…I don’t want to give too much away.
JTF: I know. Me either. But as you can imagine, Mitchell is a more reserved and little less excited about putting who we are out there as big as Cameron might, wants to pull things back a little bit, and maybe Cameron placates him in this situation and says, "Okay, you win. We’ll do it your way." And maybe something happens that proves Cameron right.
AE: Steven Levitan also said that the show is going to focus on what makes you like any other family as opposed to what makes you guys different. Do you feel any extra burden or expectations because you’re groundbreaking?
JTF: It’s incredibly exciting, I think. I try and take the positive spin on that and not get too worried about it, just focus on presenting the best scripts we possibly can. I don’t want to put too much pressure on the show to be a platform right now. I just want to let it be what it is. I think it needs to have that space to breathe, but it is very exciting. There’s isn’t a way to really ignore that. It is groundbreaking.
ES: From the moment I saw the script, before they’d seen me for an audition, I wanted to be a part of this show. I just think it’s a great opportunity to bring attention from every walk of life to show people are pretty much the same.
AE: Are either of you parents?
ES: I have a dog.
AE: Do you want to be parents?
ES: I would love to have a child. I want kids for sure.
AE: I recently did an interview with Jonathan Slavin, who is on Better Off Ted, and he said something that got a lot of attention on our site. Basically, he thinks because gay actors still face a fair bit of discrimination in playing straight parts, that only gay actors should play gay roles.
ES: Who said that?
AE: Jonathan Slavin. He’s on Better Off Ted, and he’s an out actor. So you guys are playing very prominent gay roles this season. What’s your take on that issue?
JTF: I like the opportunity to play straight roles as well, so I have a hard time answering that only gay actors should play gay roles.
ES: I would ask Jonathan if he also thinks they should put real criminals in roles to play criminals on TV. Actors are actors who play characters on TV, and there’s a tried and true process that casts actors in shows. It’s gone on for years and years and years. The fact that I’m a straight guy playing a gay character on TV, I just don’t think matters that much.
I have the ability because of who I am and where I’m from to bring attention to a cause and a movement from a completely different angle. A gay actor can use that as a platform, and a straight actor can say "I’m so straight and I’m playing a gay character on TV, and you shouldn’t care." Tone it down.
JTF: Also, and ultimately it’s just about the best actors for the parts.
ES: Yeah, it’s an audition. Funny story. Jeff Greenburg, the casting director for the show. I read for him a couple of years ago for Ugly Betty, and it was for a gay character. I was having a hard time with the character because I didn’t know exactly how I wanted to play it, and in the middle of the two scenes he said, "You seem like you have a question. What’s going on?" And I said, "Well, I don’t know." And he said, "How gay should you play the character?" And I said, "Yes! Thank you!" And he goes, "Eric, you’re gay enough."
And I’ve used that. I just bring who I am to the part and let that speak for itself, because Cameron is a person first, a human being, and gay like third or fourth. That’s what we should shoot for, that the fact that he’s gay is just incidental.
JTF: Good, Eric!
ES: You think so?
JTF: Yeah, absolutely.
AE: Jesse, Hollywood obviously really, really likes you.
JTF: And I love Hollywood.
AE: Well, three years in a row, you’ve been cast in new shows including The Class, which I don’t think got a fair shake, and then there was Do Not Disturb, which we won’t go into, and now this. And Eric, you’re getting cast a lot. I’m wondering how much pressure do you feel for Modern Family to take off? You’ve got a real shot at the brass ring as the show is getting great buzz. Are you nervous?
JTF: You know, the buzz is great, it’s very exciting, and it’s certainly nice being on that side of the buzz, instead of the buzz of Do Not Disturb, which did have a lot of buzz, but um… [laughs]
We went into The Class as one of the favorite shows of the season, that and Studio 60, and both of those shows are long gone. So you acknowledge the buzz, you can kind of be excited by it, but you have to sort of let it go. You have to just go into work and do the best possible work that you can and hope that people tune in and hope that you’re connecting with people.
Modern Family debuts Wednesday at 9 PM on ABC.