The last time Jesse Tyler Ferguson appeared on Broadway, he was a respected but little-known musical theater actor playing a sixth grader in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. What a difference a decade makes: Now internationally famous for his grounded yet hilarious portrayal of lawyer Mitchell Pritchett on ABC’s Modern Family, Ferguson is getting set to juggle 40 roles in the Broadway premiere of Becky Mode’s acclaimed comedy Fully Committed.
Ferguson’s talents are a perfect fit for what he calls “the ultimate actor’s challenge,” a 90-minute solo show that centers on Sam, a reservations agent at one of Manhattan’s most exclusive restaurants. As in Modern Family, his Fully Committed character sits in the eye of a comedic storm, but here Ferguson also creates the colorful people swirling around Sam. While perfecting a TV role that has earned him five Emmy Award nominations, the 40-year-old actor has spent summer hiatuses honing his comic craft in Shakespeare in the Park in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Comedy of Errors, The Tempest, and more. Ferguson recently chatted with Broadway Direct about his joy at returning to the New York stage on April 1 in this irresistibly delicious play.
How does it feel to be headed back to Broadway for the first time in 10 years in Fully Committed?
I’ve longed to come back before now, but it never worked out with my [TV] schedule. Obviously I am a huge theater dork. I get superjealous anytime I see friends in a show, so I’m thrilled to be part of the Broadway community again. When I read the play, I fell in love with the challenge of it. It’s rare to find a piece of theater that allows you to explore so many different colors of your ability, from accents and emotions to playing women and men, old and young — it’s a real cross section. The play is hilarious and has a lot of heart.
Fully Committed was a big hit Off-Broadway in 1999. Has anything changed?
That’s one of the things I’m most excited about. Becky Mode, our writer, is updating the play in smart ways, not just to acknowledge changes in technology, but also to acknowledge that a 40-year-old is playing the part. Sam is an out-of-work actor, so we’re exploring what that means at his age. There’s a back story that makes the character more of a winner from the beginning. Becky has done a great job tailoring this to who I am and what I bring to the play.
Give us a preview of some of the characters who interact with Sam.
Some come in just for a line or two, and others are more of the backbone of the play. Jean-Claude, the egomaniac French maître d’, is a lot of fun to play. He has a theatrical French accent, and mood swings — he kisses up to you one minute and bad-mouths you the next. Sam is very close to me, so it’s also fun to play more “real” characters such as his Midwestern dad, who just wants his son to come home for Christmas.
How about the chef, who’s both amusing and appalling?
Since the play debuted, we’ve lived through Top Chef and Food Network and cooking shows that run the gamut of personalities. My version of the chef is a young, bombastic guy from California whose cuisine is “molecular gastronomy.” He’s a nerd in the kitchen but also a ladies’ man — he assumes everyone wants to sleep with him, even though he is a jerk. He’s a bit of a psychopath, actually, but in a really fun way.
You’ve got a bit of “inside” knowledge of the food world, since you’re part owner of a restaurant in Los Angeles. How did that happen?
My husband [lawyer Justin Mikita] and I are huge foodies, and we became friendly with a restaurateur we admired. We told him, “If you open something near our home, we would love to be part of it.” Terrine, the restaurant we invested in, has been open for a little over a year and is doing really well. I’ve been testing my French accent with our restaurateur and sommelier — they’re great French guys, and they help me with line readings. It’s been wonderful to see how a restaurant is developed from the ground up, and we enjoy popping in for lunch or dinner. It’s like Cheers: Everybody knows our names!
What has it been like to experience the huge success of Modern Family?
I don’t think anything can prepare you for winning as many Emmy Awards as Frasier, the top-winning show of all time. We work in a bubble and don’t always get the opportunity to see what Modern Family means to people. When I’m traveling, I meet fans of the show who don’t even speak English, which always takes me aback. I think, Oh, my gosh, this is a really big thing.
You’ve been an important voice for marriage equality. How satisfying is it to be part of a TV couple [with Eric Stonestreet as Cam] that just happen to be gay?
Actors always say that it’s great to work on a show you like; even better to work on a show other people love; but if your show also has social ramifications, that’s the icing on the cake. I get e-mails and tweets and Facebook messages from so many people who are touched by our characters in a profound way, and that means the world to me. As far as my [real-life] relationship, Justin and I try to keep our marriage private, but we’re very proud of our [LGBTQ civil rights] foundation, Tie the Knot. It’s nice to be able to reach people on behalf of causes that are important to us.
How did you develop your gift for comedy?
I honestly don’t know. I think it came from observing and mimicking the greats, like Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, and Steve Martin. I was a huge sitcom fan growing up, everything from The Cosby Show and Friends to The Brady Bunch. I do think comedy is something that can’t be taught. I was lucky enough to have that gene, and I’ve spent the last 20 years honing it, hopefully getting better and more specific.
The Lyceum Theatre has played host to solo shows by Whoopi Goldberg and John Leguizamo. What excites you most about joining that list with Fully Committed?
To quote Sondheim, it’s actually “excited and scared”! I love that I can mold and develop every character in this play. My scene partner is the audience, and there’s nothing like that energy. I’m most excited about bringing Fully Committed back to New York with Becky Mode and Jason Moore, our director, who has fantastic ideas for making this feel like a true Broadway show. It’s going to be a really, really exciting night of theater.