After years of appearing in television series and films, often as less savory characters you prefer to root against, Ty Burrell is flying high as well-meaning but clueless patriarch Phil Dunphy on the Emmy-winning, hit ABC mockumentary Modern Family, which follows the exploits of three families all bonded by blood (the Pritchett connection). In the case of Phil’s immediate family unit, he is the guy who wants to be cool with his kids and thinks he’s down with what’s going on today, but his wife, daughter and son know he’s delusional. Yet he is still lovable in spite of his ridiculousness.
I recently interviewed Burrell for American Way magazine about his role on the show and his career, and the rest of our half-hour chat landed here.
The second season of Modern Family starts tonight at 9 PM on ABC.
Before you did Modern Family, you were in another sitcom that was shown recently on Universal HD.
I heard that Out Of Practice is showing on Universal HD.
They have this series called “Rediscovered TV,” and they usually show blocks of three shows that didn’t last very long. It’s a neat idea because there are so many cool TV shows that didn’t last very long but deserve to be shown again. Plus when you consider that we’re living in a 24/7 culture now, networks are always going to need programming, and these shows won’t cost nearly as much as other series.
You could actually do an entire channel based on that, couldn’t you? That’s a good idea, I think. There are so many shows — not even canceled shows that we all know about and love, like Arrested Development — but that maybe only made it for 10 episodes that really deserve viewing. I’m sure there is an infinite supply of those going back…
What was your character like on that Out Of Practice?
He was a womanizing plastic surgeon who was hopefully a charming character, but he was usually manipulating situations for himself. It was really fun to play actually. It’s fun sometimes to play [someone like that]. He had a level of obliviousness is always fun to play but was also a very mischievous guy. He was also co-written by Chris Lloyd, who is one of the creators of Modern Family.
During the first season of Modern Family, we learn that Phil’s dad was the cool dad, but Phil didn’t inherit those genes. But he thinks he did.
Exactly, that’s why think that casting is so brilliant. Any oblivious character, to me, is going to be influenced by Fred Willard. He is a comedy icon, at least for my generation, and for that specifically, he’s made an art form out of it. I feel that it’s been such an homage to his career achievements that he’s playing the father of this truly oblivious guy. We’re basically tipping our cap to Fred Willard.
“I am most pleasantly surprised by the lack of resistance from people who wouldn’t necessarily approve of these families. I think just the fact that they’re watching them and enjoying them is very slow, steady progress.”
Phil ends up in awkward situations like trying to help his father-in-law out of the hammock, not knowing that has pulled out his back and can’t get up.
That stuff is just so much fun. It was one of the funnier scenes. We had such a hard time getting through that scene. Ed and I were laughing so hard. In the final cut of that scene, I think we barely got through it. Ed is biting his lip in the scene that made it to air.
It’s interesting the way that the show is set up. Your family is more the “normal” family, and yet Claire always looks like she’s thinking, “Why did I marry this guy? What have I done to myself and my kids?”
I think one of the good things about having the length of the season is that we get to find out more about why they are married. My character wasn’t quite as fleshed out in Back To You. To have the time to actually explore why Phil and Claire love each other has been really cool. As the season has gone with episodes devoted to what it is that Phil does well, like his gift giving, and even with the Valentine’s episode where we get into the way they are when they’re alone. If we’re lucky enough to have the show be around for a while, we’ll get to explore all those facets to their characters.
How much of this stuff is scripted and how much ad-libbing are you getting to do on the show?
Much more is written than I think people think. The improv is a very small percentage. It’s a higher percentage in the interviews. In the interviews we improvise more than in the actual scene work, and in the scene work we will improvise lines here and there. We don’t actually improvise whole scenes like Curb Your Enthusiasm. When you see the final episode, a couple of lines in each scene sometimes are improvised, and sometimes the beginning and the ending of the scene will be improvised as kind of a segueway in and out. And sometimes the interviews can be a higher percentage of improv, sometimes half-and-half.
Phil is like a child in some ways. That reminds me of a book review [The Ask] I read in the New York Times this summer about a gen X-er who is having a midlife crisis, and critic A.O. Scott was contemplating if it was possible for someone from a generation that refuses to grow up to have a midlife crisis. You and I are from that same generation, so do you think that Phil is representative of us in a lot of ways?
I think so. Not quite as much as the [Judd] Apatow archetype. I think that particular person, there is something very specific about that. I know a lot of guys in that role — smoking a lot of weed and playing tons of video games — who are also my favorite people on earth. Maybe in holding back on some element of maturity, they’ve also attained a quality that I really love. That to me is more the Apatow thing. To a degree, I think Phil is motivated. He’s a very motivated guy, so there’s a difference there in that he is extremely well intended. He’s knocking a lot of stuff over while he does it, but he is all over the place trying to do things that he thinks are great or cool or whatever. In that sense he is a child at heart, but I wouldn’t say that he was running from anything necessarily. He may not be aware of it, but I don’t see him shirking elements of fatherhood.
So what have been your three favorite Phil moments so far on the show?
There are multiple physical comedy moments that I would put in that category. I guess getting hit in the face with the plane is one of them. I just really enjoy that stuff and have had so much fun doing it. And I wear those bruises with pride. For a while I was delusional and thought maybe I would be an athlete when I grow up, so there is a part of that I really savor. I love the physical part of a lot of the comedy, and the plane thing is indicative of that. I think the role-playing thing in the Valentine episode was one of my favorites. And I loved goofing around with Ed Norton. We’ve known each other for a long time, and we did a play together in 2002. In fact, all of us who did that play together have stayed in touch. he became a really good friend of mine, and it was really fun to get extremely silly for a couple of days there.
This was the “Great Expectations” episode?
Exactly. That was the one where Phil was better at gift giving, so Claire, for their anniversary, gets the backup vocalist and bassist from Spandau Ballet, which is amazing.
When I got the pilot for the show last fall, I knew that ABC had something special. It is a different take on families. I feel that right now that America is in the midst of an ideological civil war that includes debate over what constitutes a normal family. Here we have these different types of families here ranging from traditional to nontraditional, and it seems that people are really responding to that in the show.
I think so, and I am most pleasantly surprised by the lack of resistance from people who wouldn’t necessarily approve of these families. I think just the fact that they’re watching them and enjoying them is very slow, steady progress. I think that there’s something really cool about that, the fact that people are enjoying the show first and foremost — enjoying the couples, enjoying Mitch and Cam as a couple and relating to the storylines, even just the banality of the storylines. They’re doing these really mundane things about trying to have a baby, and if maybe for a brief time they are forgetting that they’re gay. I just think it’s so cool and hopefully over time it might even have some mild impact.
“Any oblivious character, to me, is going to be influenced by Fred Willard. He is a comedy icon, at least for my generation, and for that specifically, he’s made an art form out of it.”
What I think is interesting about Ed O’Neill’s character on Modern Family that he is the more conservative one of the show, but he tries to keep an open mind. In the pilot, when Mitch and Cam present their baby, he decides not to be judgmental and gives his approval. And he was the one they feared the most.
Exactly. I think Ed is one of the brilliant vehicles for the writers in that that’s who most of those people are going to relate to in our cast. Most of those conservative viewers are going to view the show through the prism of Jay. So when they do that, they have Jay putting up a healthy amount of resistance, but he is also humane person, and that’s enough, I think. There’s plenty that he’s not going to necessarily approve of, but he’s a human. I think it’s brilliant because they also don’t ruin it by making Jay all of a sudden somebody that he is not.
What can you tell us about your upcoming film projects, including Morning Glory, Goats and Butter?
Morning Glory is a really charming script and a really good group of people. I’m playing that part that I was talking about, an incredibly smarmy reporter who gets shown the door and makes some advances to Rachel McAdams. It was a lot of fun. That was shot before Modern Family. I just finished shooting the film Butter, and we are waiting for some scheduling stuff on Goats. It’s a beautiful script.
Butter is a comedy, correct?
Butter is a very odd, dark comedy that takes place in the world of butter carving in the Midwest, which actually something we take very seriously there. I’m playing the champion 15 times over, but I step down, and my wife can’t stand the lack of attention. She’s played by Jennifer Garner, and she decides she’s going to reclaim the crown. It’s an incredible cast and a really smart script. It was really fun, and I’m really hopeful about that movie.
How was Hugh Jackman like to work with on Butter?
Amazing. He’s everything you’d think he is. My wife and I were thought he was so charming and seemed so nice and so talented. Then you meet him and are like, “Yup, there you go.”