Jesse Tyler Ferguson has a penchant for comedy. The young actor burst onto the scene as the distracted and lovable Leaf Coneybear (and Carl Grubenierre) in the Tony-nominated The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee before Hollywood scooped him up to play one half of television’s most famous gay couple, Mitch of Mitch and Cam, on Modern Family—now finishing up its seventh season. Ferguson has kept one foot in the theatre world through outings at the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park, but had yet to completely dive back in to Broadway.
Now he’s Fully Committed for a limited engagement of the revival of Becky Mode’s one-man comedy. Directed by Jason Moore (another talent who was scooped up to direct the original Pitch Perfect and Tina Fey’s Sisters after huge success with Broadway’s Tony-winning Avenue Q), the show follows Sam, an out-of-work actor and reservationist at one of New York’s hottest restaurants. Sam fields calls from a crazy cast of hopeful diners—all played by Ferguson. This takes talking to yourself to another level.
Were you nervous at all coming back to Broadway?
JTF: Well, not nervous, but there is something sort of ostentatious about coming back to Broadway and then having it be in a one-man show where you’re playing every character. So there is that. I’m like, “Ok, settle down. Take it down a notch Ferguson.” But you know, I’m very comfortable onstage. I’ve been fortunate enough to perform with Shakespeare in the Park for the summers that I’ve been gone, so I feel like I’ve been a part of the New York theatre community; but, I haven’t been on Broadway since Spelling Bee and even that was an ensemble-driven piece. To do something just by myself is incredibly intimidating for lots of reasons. The last time I was on Broadway I didn’t have the Modern Family fame behind me. A lot of people who come see that show aren’t going to know that this is where I started, in New York, on Broadway. It will be really interesting to see how it goes. I hope people show up.
Speaking of Spelling Bee, you played more than one character (Leaf Coneybear and Logan’s dad) but you would go offstage and come back on. What is it like to transition between characters without ever leaving the stage? What happens in your head?
JTF: You kind of always have to be three or four steps ahead of yourself and know who’s coming in. We have built in moments which are quiet moments, which I love for so many reasons but it’s just fun to act those moments. That’s kind of where the magic of this play is for the audience to watch me toggle between different people. I’ll have four or five characters on hold; it’s not even just two characters that are in dialogue with one another. Sometimes it’s three or four people that are talking to me [as Sam]. That can be really challenging to make that believable.
How do you get into 40 characters?
JTF: A lot of it is vocal warmups. I was talking with Kate Wilson—my dialect coach on this—about this: It is like singing. It’s like doing a musical because I’m using so many different intonations in my voice. I have to truly warmup as if I’m about to play Elphaba in Wicked. It’s such a range of sounds. I thought, “I’m doing a play. I can relax a little bit more.” No, this is harder than it was to do Spelling Bee, honestly, because I had one song in Spelling Bee and this is like singing a 90-minute song.
For a nostalgia moment: What was your favorite moment of the bee?
JTF: Gosh, there are so many. Some of my best friends are from that show because we went through such an amazing and important time of our lives together. I think being onstage at the Tony Awards. It was such a scrappy little show that accelerated so quickly to Broadway. I remember being onstage at the Tony Awards, and they were setting up a crane shot of Dan Fogler doing “Magic Foot,” and I said, “Dan, ten months ago we were in a gymnasium in the Berkshires, and now we’re onstage at the Tonys, and they’re setting up a crane shot for your foot. That’s crazy.”
In Spelling Bee you played more than one character, you played twins in A Comedy of Errors, and now this one-man multiple-role show. Is there something about playing multiple roles that entices you?
JTF: Honestly, no. It’s a funny coincidence. I would love for my next project to be with other people where I just have one role to handle. But I do love—even when I did a year in Shakespeare in the Park: We played Winter’s Tale in rep with The Merchant of Venice, so I played two different roles that year. There is something really fun about stretching those muscles and [determining] how to make people different. Something like Comedy of Errors, where I was playing twins and I was playing people who were blood-related, there has to be a common thread between the two of them, but how do we make them separate for the audience? That’s a fun challenge to play.
You say you feel like you are Sam, but aside from Sam, is there another Fully Committed character with whom you commune—that there’s a kernel that makes you think, “That’s a little piece of me”?
JTF: Well, we all have an evil side. There’s an actor friend of Sam’s who calls in—he’s such a dick. Sometimes he says things that I think, but I would never say out loud. Sam’s family members are part of the play, his brother and his dad, and there are shades of Sam so there are shades of me. I definitely have a kinship to them.
Have you worked in the restaurant business?
JTF: I did a little bit. I was a host at a restaurant in Albuquerque, NM.
What was your worst day on the job and your best day on the job?
JTF: There were times I’d been asked to go to the bathroom and clean up a mess that had been made in there. That’s never pleasant. One of my best days was when Neil Patrick Harris, who has now become a friend of mine, who is also from Albuquerque, NM, came in. When I sat him I was very excited because he was on Doogie Howser.
Coming back to Broadway this time, you mentioned you have the Modern Family fame now. Who from your Modern Family secretly has the chops for Broadway?
JTF: Oh, Eric Stonestreet for sure. He’s so talented. He’s so nervous about doing Broadway. Someone asked [him] about maybe doing something this year and he’s like, “I’m not doing Broadway for the first time the same year that Jesse’s doing a one-man show. I’m just not. Too intimidated.” He’s dying to do theatre. It’s just finding the right thing. He’ll do it, and I’ll be there to support him when he does.