STAGE TO SCREENS: Sitcom Stars Ferguson/Linklater Tumble Into Central Park's Tale and Merchant

Stage veterans Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson escape their sitcom work schedules — "The New Adventures of Old Christine" and "Modern Family," respectively — to gambol in a summer of Shakespeare in the Park.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Hamish Linklater
Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Hamish Linklater (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

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For New York theatre audiences, the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park series is one of the annual highlights of the season. There's nothing quite like sitting under a starry summer sky in the middle of a verdant city oasis watching some of the country's great actors perform the classics of the Shakespeare canon.

But one of this year's stars, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who plays uptight Mitchell Pritchett on the breakout hit ABC sitcom "Modern Family," sees things a bit differently. He's calling this his "summer of fear."

"It's not only one Shakespeare play, but two," he says. "I'm not a classically trained actor, and I'm working with a ridiculously talented cast who handles the language extremely well. And in The Merchant of Venice, I play the servant to Shylock, who is played by Al Pacino, which is not intimidating at all."

This season's Shakespeare in the Park series includes both Merchant (starting June 12) and The Winter's Tale (starting June 9), with the plays being performed in repertory (a rare occurrence in the park in recent years). While Ferguson, 34, may have some understandable jitters, he admits to a bit of hyperbole in describing the ostensibly daunting task before him. This is, after all, his second stint doing Shakespeare in the Park. "In my first week of doing A Midsummer Night's Dream a few summers ago, I finally just relaxed and had fun. Because it really is like the greatest theatre camp you could imagine with the most famous actors on the planet."

Indeed, both Ferguson and fellow sitcom-savvy co-star, Hamish Linklater, who plays Julia Louis-Dreyfus' wisecracking, therapist brother Matthew on the recently cancelled "The New Adventures of Old Christine," attest to the rush they're getting from being back on stage again. Both started out as theatre performers and transitioned to Hollywood, but regularly try to return to the stage. Ferguson's breakthrough role was as hippie kid Leaf Coneybear in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. While Linklater has done everything from the premiere of Richard Greenberg's The Violet Hour to Hamlet to playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night as part of last year's edition of Shakespeare in the Park (for which he scored a Drama Desk Award nomination). While not classically trained, Linklater, 33, grew up in Western Massachusetts around Shakespeare & Company, for which his mom was a co-founder.

"I really like doing theatre. If there is a non-paying workshop of a 17,000-times-produced Pete Gurney play in a suburb of Tulsa, I'm wondering why they haven't called me to make the offer," Linklater quips. "And I'm incredibly jealous of whoever has it."

Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson in The Winter's Tale.
photo by Joan Marcus

Still, both actors also attest that their transition to Hollywood has only sharpened their comedic chops, especially in getting to work opposite comic maestros like Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Wanda Sykes and Ed O'Neill. "They have such a comic rhythm in their blood, so you start getting a hint of that rhythm in yourself," Linklater avows. "It's just the thing of punching your jokes, hitting your jokes, and knowing when you've achieved comic flow, which is something that, being around funny people, can sometimes rub off on you. So the TV show is a very good workout for doing Shakespeare in the Park...Of course, I don't know if my knees can take it. I feel like my meniscus is about to burst."

Ferguson plays pratfall-prone "clowns" in both plays (the Young Shepherd in Winter's Tale and Shylock's bumbling servant Launcelot Gobbo in Merchant. Linklater plays the pickpocketing scoundrel-clown Autolycus in Winter's Tale (while he holds down the romantic lead, Bassanio, in Merchant). In Winter's Tale, the actors enjoy a slew of milk-spitting scenes together, and their experience on sitcoms no doubt came in handy.

"I had to pack my bag of tricks to rehearsal, that's for sure," says Ferguson. "It's all about trying to keep up with Hamish and not recycling jokes. It's almost like we put up a sign-up sheet on the call-board. You know, I get spit takes and you can do fake tripping. It's like who's going to take what as far as like the bag of tricks goes."

Jokes Linklater, "I brushed up on my 'Oliver Twist'...But yeah, it's kind of hard to do really good sleight-of-hand in a 2,000-seat theatre, you know? But since I'm mostly robbing from Jesse, and he's such a clown anyway, I don't really have to be that subtle."

Still, Ferguson cautions, "The thing about the clowns in Shakespeare, I've found that they're not always the funny characters. I think 'clown' had a different meaning back then." Yet, there's no doubt both actors are working hard to bring out the side-splitting humor in their oddball characters.

Of course, Linklater, who's used to playing the funnyman, also gets to hold down the serious role of Bassanio in Merchant. "There are fewer jokes. Although I try to squeeze them in wherever I can," he says, then self-deprecatingly adds, "Yeah, and then I try to work on my handsomeness and charmingness, and I have about as much of a disadvantage as you can get with that. So basically, I'm totally miscast and having a great time."

Hamish Linklater
photo by Warwick Saint/©CBS

The New Adventures of Hamish Linklater While Linklater clearly has charm and good looks to spare, that hasn't stopped the seemingly yearly cancellation/renewal limbo that has plagued the actor's five-year-old series, "New Adventures of Old Christine."

"Every year [the network] pulls up the guillotine and our necks go under the blade and we're wondering what's going to happen," Linklater says." "It's like, you're crossing your fingers and not stepping on any cracks in the sidewalk, but there isn't enough wood in the world to knock. They usually do come to their senses. I mean, it's Julia Louis-Dreyfus, she's one of the classiest ladies in the universe. She's got a misspelled star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame!"

Unfortunately for Linklater, Louis-Dreyfus and Co., "Old Christine" was axed from the CBS schedule just a few weeks after this interview, and hopes look dim for ABC or another network picking it up. Despite the unfortunate turn of events, Linklater says he's always taken the fickle world of Hollywood — and the often mind-boggling decisions from the powers-that-be — in stride.

"Being in Hollywood is like being a professional alcoholic," he cracks. "You're just doing serenity prayers all the time, trying to remind yourself that there's so much you can't control, like buzz and demographics and pick-ups and network executives. So you just gotta try to let it go."

Of course, if Hollywood won't have him, Linklater always has the theatre to fall back on. Indeed, his theatre resume is impressive, including a stint several seasons ago in the Sir Peter Hall-directed repertory productions of Measure for Measure and A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. He's also acted in several plays written by his wife, writer Jessica Goldberg, including Good Thing, which was performed in New York and L.A. (They have a three-year-old daughter.)

Linklater first caught the theatre bug as a kid growing up in Lenox, MA. His mom, Kristin Linklater is a renowned instructor of vocal technique and a co-founder of Shakespeare & Company, which for years was based at Edith Wharton's sprawling estate, The Mount, in the bucolic rolling hills of the Berkshires. (She's now the chair the acting program in theatre arts at Columbia University.) So like the loyal patrons who come to see Shakespeare performed every year in Central Park, Linklater grew up "basically sitting outside watching Shakespeare under often threatening skies." At that young age, though, he wasn't even sure exactly who the Bard was.

"We lived at Edith Wharton's old house on the property. And it took me a long time to figure out that Wharton hadn't written the plays and that Shakespeare and Wharton were a separate person," recalls Linklater, with a wry laugh. "I thought it was all sort of tied together. I would see the pictures of Wharton — and she does look sort of mannish in some of the pictures they had up there. So I was very confused as to who was who and what was going on."

"There were some funny people around there. It was like a big freaky actor theatre commune," says Linklater, recalling that his babysitters were often the actors in the play. "I'm constantly running into people who know me from when I was a kid. They come up and say, 'You don't remember me? But I changed your diapers!'"

One child sitter he remembers in particular is a certain apparently unhappy apprentice, Bronson Pinchot, who went on to fame as the English language-mangling, malapropism-prone goofball Balki Bartokomous (hailing from the mythical island of Mypos) on the 1980s sitcom, "Perfect Strangers." Pinchot also had memorable roles in films like "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Risky Business."

"It was his job to babysit me, and he told me this story that all the elves were under the ground in the driveway. So one day, my mom was coming home and nearly drove over me because my ear was pressed to the pavement," recalls Linklater, with a burst of laughter. "And Bronson was nowhere to be seen. He wasn't a great babysitter, I guess. I don't remember it terribly well. But since then, I've always wanted to work with him."

Occasionally, Linklater would appear in productions as "a juvenile extra." "My first part was playing Benedick's Boy [from Much Ado About Nothing] when I was like nine years old, and I would come in and say, 'Signior, I am here already, sir.' And it was really bad. Like I got more notes than anybody else in the entire show," Linklater says, dryly.

Hamish Linklater in Hamlet at South Coast Repertory
photo by Henry DiRocco

Since becoming a professional, Linklater has never returned to Shakespeare & Company to act, but he says that would be a enticing proposition, considering his history there. After high school in Boston, Linklater enrolled at UMass-Amherst, but dropped out after a year. "I kept doing plays at school instead of staying and taking classes, because it was a lot more fun to do that. And it's a terrible thing to give your life over to fun instead of to rigor and discipline and all those things that are required when you do something that maybe you're not quite as naturally acclimated towards," says Linklater. "I thought school was too hard, and acting too much fun, so I dropped out [of school] and moved to the city when I was 19 — with my girlfriend who was a senior at the time!"

Surprisingly, his mother didn't really object to her son's rash decision. "She didn't have a college degree either. She had dropped out of school, too. So she was like: OK, thanks, save me $25,000 a year," he says.

After a number of years toiling in New York, Linklater moved to L.A. to pursue film and TV projects. Was it a conscious decision, or did he have offers on the table already? "I made a conscious decision that it was important for me to be able to pay my rent," he responds. "So I think my landlord and capitalism in America made that decision for me."

Before long, he was cast on the well-reviewed but short-lived 2000 hospital drama "Gideon's Crossing," starring Andre Braugher. Later, he landed in the blockbuster film "Fantastic Four" and a handful of other movies and TV series. In 2006, he was plucked to play Matthew, the gently mocking, live-in loser brother of Julia Louis-Dreyfus's Christine in "The New Adventures of Old Christine." There, he learned at the feet of a television comedy master.

"I was very green in the first couple years," he says. "And Julia managed to teach me things like, 'This is the exact moment or the line where you put down the coffee cup, so they know that's the joke,'" he says. "And she manages to do it in a way that makes you feel like you're really funny, too."

As for Linklater's own sense of humor, is it similar to Matthew's wry, self-deprecating shtick?

"We definitely both have a dry, detached, ironic sense of humor," he responds. "But I would say that in real life, I may be a little sillier. Personally, I also like being funny by walking into walls and falling on my face a lot."

Playing the clowning scoundrel, Autolycus, in The Winter's Tale, Linklater should feel right at home.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson
photo by Bob D'Amico/©ABC

Modern Family Man Jesse Tyler Ferguson may be a rising star on ABC's critically lauded, breakout hit of the season, "Modern Family," but just a few short years ago, after the back-to-back failures of two sitcoms in which he appeared, "The Class" in 2006 and "Do Not Disturb" in 2008, the red-headed funnyman from Albuquerque, NM, thought his chance at TV and film stardom might have passed him by.

"It felt like that was my shot to make it, and it just didn't work out, and I was fine with that," says Ferguson. "I had just finished a show ["Do Not Disturb"] that was only on air for a handful of episodes and had been falling apart from the very beginning. So I was just totally at peace and fully prepared to leave L.A., come back to New York and pursue theatre again."

But Ferguson didn't even make it out the door. Before he knew it, he received a call to audition for a new single-camera sitcom about a diverse family, including a patriarch who's recently remarried to a younger Latina woman with a ten-year-old son and a pair of gay dads who have adopted a Vietnamese baby. Filmed documentary-style with a cast headlined by "Married…With Children"'s Ed O'Neill, the series sought to turn the the old archetypes and tropes of the half-hour family sitcom on its head. "Modern Family" premiered last fall to major ratings success (it averaged about 10 million viewers per week) and rave reviews from critics, who hailed its deft mix of gentle satire and more biting humor. The show, sweet without being sappy, was applauded for helping to rejuvenate a genre that had been going stale for years.

For Ferguson, landing in the spotlight, being beamed into living rooms all across America, has been a surreal experience so far.

"We've all live in the bubble of the show for most of the year, so it's hard to sort of step back and see the reality of it," Ferguson says. "But just being here in New York, which I consider my hometown, it's kind of crazy, because I have people staring at me on the street, and at first I'm thinking, 'Do I have toilet paper hanging off my shoe?' I still don't realize that I'm recognizable now and my anonymity is kind of gone. So that's the part that jolts me out of that bubble. But it's been a wild experience, and it happened very quickly, so I don't think any of us were prepared for it." Ferguson, who plays the cautiously reserved gay dad Mitchell on the series, had initially been brought in by the producers to read for Cameron, Mitchell's more free-spirited and flamboyant partner (a role that eventually went to Eric Stonestreet). But Ferguson was most interested in playing Mitchell, a vision that the producers eventually agreed with.

"Cameron was really funny on page, but I felt like I had already played that part before. It was the more obvious choice for me," says Ferguson. "So I was more thrilled by the idea of playing the straight-man comedic type and finding the humor in someone who is just way too serious. I find people who take themselves that seriously to be really hilarious, but it is a challenge to find humor and lightness within such a tightly wound character. I had never done a role like that, so I was really looking forward to the challenge."

Which begs the questions: What aspects of the actor's own personality bleed over into Mitchell? And is Ferguson more like the neurotic Mitchell or the easygoing Cameron in real life?

"I'm thankfully a happy mix of both. I'm certainly not as serious as Mitchell. But my dad was also very cautious and uptight at times, and I think that's a gene that has been passed down to me. I think I would be a similar father as Mitchell. I think we have a lot of the same values," says Ferguson. "I certainly have more of a sense of humor than he does. But I think he's learning. Cameron's kind of bringing him out of his shell."

As an openly gay actor, Ferguson admits he feels a particular responsibility to honor his and Stonestreet's characters by presenting them in a respectful, honest, and nonjudgmental way, especially since they're one of the few prominent gay male couples depicted on network television at the moment.

"We certainly noticed the social ramifications that these characters hold," acknowledges Ferguson. "I will say very bluntly that it is a lot of pressure, because I think the gay community is very excited that we're on TV. In fact, I know that they are, because people come up to me personally and tell me that. So you feel like you hold a certain responsibility — you're almost like a spokesman for a movement. It can be a little daunting at times. But nothing makes me happier than when I meet gay parents who approach me and say, 'Thank you so much for being on TV. You know, we really relate to your character and your family.'"

Still, even Ferguson admits the writers try not to fetishize the characters or the landmark status of having a gay male couple as adoptive parents on a network TV series.

"We do try and deal with them first as just a couple, and then the gay part is hopefully just part of the facts and details of who they are. I think the writers done a really good job of staying away from sort of broad, obvious comedy with them. They just live within the world of the show, and I think it really is a testament to the writing."

Surprisingly, there has been little outrage, uproar or drumbeating from conservative activists regarding Mitchell and Cameron, something that Ferguson admits he assumed that he'd be facing.

"I was actually kind of bracing myself for more of a backlash with some conservative groups. don't know why that hasn't happened. And I haven't been feeling that. Middle America is watching the show, so I try not to question it. I'm just happy that we're not getting many complaints or angry letters. And we are in a lot of living rooms every week, so it's pretty great, actually."

Still, the show has engendered some complaints from a perhaps unlikely faction of viewers — those angry that the writers haven't gone far enough in depicting any kind of intimacy between Mitchell and Cameron. There's been lots of tweets and blog entries questioning why viewers haven't seen Mitchell and Cam kiss even once on screen, let alone lie in bed together. The most we've seen them do is hug, which is strange considering that Mitchell's sister and brother-in-law have been shown lip-locking all season.

"I get that a lot, actually. And I certainly appreciate the criticism, and I think the writers do as well," Ferguson replies. "I think the audience is really looking and pushing for more intimacy between Cameron and Mitchell, and I just hope people know that I'm fully in support of that. I think viewers' reaction really comes from a place of love. They want to make sure that these characters are handled with respect, and I completely agree with them."

As a self-professed musical-loving gay boy (his favorite show was Falsettos) growing up in suburban Albuquerque, Ferguson couldn't wait to make his way to the big city and the bright lights of Broadway. He toiled for several years trying to gain a toehold in the New York theatre scene. In 1998, he landed his Broadway debut in the revival of On the Town with Lea DeLaria, Chandra Wilson, and Mary Testa. But it was his role as hippy kid Leaf Coneybear in the underdog Broadway musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee that launched his career in 2005. ( Spelling Bee's composer, William Finn, also wrote Falsettos.)

Jesse Tyler Ferguson in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
photo by Joan Marcus

"As much as I had been working in New York before, Spelling Bee definitely put me on a different level and gave me a lot more opportunities than any other job I had done before," he says. "Plus, it really was the most collaborative and fulfilling artistic endeavor I've probably ever been a part of." And to think, it almost didn't happen thanks to "the embarrassment of riches" that Ferguson found himself choosing between.

"I had the opportunity to be a part of Spamalot or Spelling Bee that season," he recalls. "I actually had to make a phone call that no actor thinks they're ever going to have to make and say 'no' to [ Spamalot director and Hollywood legend] Mike Nichols."

Still, it ended up being a smart choice, considering that the producers of the TV series "The Class" (including 'Friends' alum David Crane) came to see Spelling Bee, spotted Ferguson in the cast, and thought that he'd be perfect for the sitcom they were developing.

"That show completely fell into my lap. I always had a desire [to pursue TV work], but it never went anywhere. I auditioned for lots of TV shows and never even got a call-back for anything," says Ferguson. "So this was the first thing I got, and it happened very quickly. I barely had time to breath."

When he came up for air, he found himself living amidst the toned and tanned throngs of L.A. At least the palm trees and sunshine were a welcome respite from the concrete jungle of Manhattan.

"It was a very jolting experience," he says. "The transition of moving there was actually kind of tough. I felt like I was kind of ripped from New York. It took me about a year to really adjust, and now I actually love it. I think it's a dirty little secret that a lot of New Yorkers have — they have to hate L.A., even though they love it."

Although he's a West Coast convert now (not to mention a bonafide TV star), theatre will always be the actor's first love (as will New York). That means Ferguson fans can expect to see him returning to the stage whenever he can carve out the time in his busy TV schedule.

"With TV, it all happens so fast. So just being able to rehearse a play for a month and really get behind the characters and have that interaction with the audience," says the actor. "There's just something so special about sharing that experience with an audience, especially at the Delacorte, with 2,000 people there every night. There's such a rush to it. I love the immediate response you get. And I love the danger of it, that anything can happen — like actors can go off of their lines or improvise. I think being back on stage reminds me why I wanted to be an actor in the first place. It's so exciting, and I'm just really grateful to have a chance to do it."

Christopher Wallenberg is a freelance journalist specializing in arts and entertainment. He writes regularly for the Boston Globe, Playbill, American Theatre magazine and the Christian Science Monitor.

Max Wright, Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson
Max Wright, Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson