Mr Porter, Aug 2014
How he advanced from serial asshole to the nation’s favorite dad.
Photo by Blair Getz Mezibov
Also at MrPorter.com
Before he became America’s favorite dad, Phil Dunphy on Modern Family, Ty Burrell was an asshole. Or rather he played assholes. It was all he was offered.
“The first was in this movie Evolution where I played this smartass colonel,” he says. “And the next was Dawn of the Dead where I played an incredibly nihilistic asshole. And that was before he became a zombie. After that, it was all I was getting offered.”
Now, of course, at 47, Burrell plays one of the most beloved characters on television – an earnest dad who wants to be his kids’ best friends, a “peerent” rather than a “parent”. He has won an Emmy, met the President, and wherever he goes, fans call out to him, “Phil!” And it’s easy to see why. He’s one of those instantly likeable people. As we chat at a photo studio on Sunset Boulevard, he’s cheerful and warm, always ready to laugh, with a twinkle in his eye. He’s the kind of guy about whom everyone at the photoshoot says, “have you met Ty? He’s lovely.” And yet there was a time when Hollywood typecast him as quite the opposite.
“I think it’s because I have this kind of vampiric, Frankenstein brow thing going on,” he says. “But my whole auditioning life would be like, ‘You’ve got an asshole in the military at two, there’s an asshole in the navy at 3pm, and then an asshole chef at six-thirty!”
It bothered his mom – why did they see her boy as such a bad guy? And it got to Burrell too. After all, this wasn’t the career he planned for as a young man in Oregon, out West. He’d set out for New York – to Astoria, Queens – to make it as an actor. And they were glorious years, looking back – years of simple striving, the artist as a young man.
“I really miss Queens,” he says. “We were living in a tiny apartment, but the energy there is incredible. Every night, I used to sit on my roof and look at the Manhattan skyline – and in my mind it was the castle I was storming every day.”
Only the storming wasn’t going as well as he’d hoped, even after over a decade. So he returned to Utah, where his wife Holly’s from, and for a moment, they considered other options. He was 40, and while not broke exactly, he’d never had that break that actors need to kickstart their careers. Maybe acting wasn’t for him?
“My wife and I would sit down and rack our brains about anything I might have the skill to do,” he laughs. “She was like, ‘well you couldn’t do that… and you wouldn’t be good at that… And you know what else you wouldn’t be good at? Construction.’ So we decided that there wasn’t a plan B for me after all.”
Of course plan A came through in the end – and since it came late, Burrell savored it all the more. As a sports fan, a Mets fan no less, he has always loved an underdog story, and his fit the bill perfectly.
“I got lucky, basically,” he says. “The unaccounted for thing in every career is when somebody goes out on a limb for you – for me, that happened twice in a row.”
Steve Shainberg was the first – he directed Fur, a movie about Diane Arbus, starring Nicole Kidman, and he went to bat to cast the unknown Burrell as Arbus’ husband. The breakthrough was that Burrell was playing a nice guy for once. Then the producer Christopher Lloyd, hired Burrell for his first comedy, Out of Practice. Lloyd had been a long time producer on Frasier, and would go onto create Modern Family with another Frasier producer, Steven Levitan. And again, he’d have to back Burrell against the odds.
“Auditioning for Modern Family was surreal,” says Burrell. “I had to perform in boardrooms, at the end of the table full of executives. And they make you perform like a small play in a little theater. It’s a vestige of the old days when the studio execs wanted to see the actor in person.”
But it wasn’t working. The head of ABC at the time wasn’t a fan. So Burrell did the little theater performance again, his hopes sinking all the while. “I had been in that situation before, when the person in charge wasn’t into me. That’s usually the deciding factor.”
But the show creators were determined. Levitan and Lloyd decided to shoot a scene with Burrell in Levitan’s backyard. And that clinched it. When Burrell got the call, he was driving to another audition for another role.
“I was staying at a friend’s house in Malibu at the time – which by the way, there’s no more tortuous place to stay when you’re trying to get your next month’s rent. But I was literally driving along the coast, when my agent called. It was so LA!”
Was it a flip-phone?
“Haha! Yes, and I threw it in the ocean – I’ll get another one of those! And then I flagged down a passing Bentley and said, ‘how much for your car good sir?’”
The moment he realized that his life had changed forever came a month into the show, while he was in New York doing some press. He was walking through Central Park past a homeless guy in a tunnel scratching out noise on a fiddle that appeared to have two strings missing. “It wasn’t music really. He looked pretty desperate. But as I got closer he said, ‘Modern Family is one of the best shows to ever come onto the air – it knows its tone completely.’ It was so weird, like a dream sequence.”
The homeless TV critic was spot on. Six years later, Burrell and Dunphy are so inextricable that their lives have even converged somewhat. Burrell’s a family man now too – after the first season, he and Holly adopted two girls. And they live in the same neighborhood – Burrell lives in Culver City, west Los Angeles, close to the studios where Modern Family is shot.
“People ask, is my family like the show,” he says. “And it isn’t really. It’s much quieter. Less trapeze! And I’m not like Phil, really. One thing about having kids later is that I’m under no illusion that I’m cool!”
While Phil is famous for his priceless Philsosophies, which now command their own tumblr – like, “marry someone who looks sexy while disappointed” – Burrell isn’t what he calls “a maxim-based person.” “I just try to remind myself that you never know and you don’t need to know! So if my girl asks me a question, I usually just say, ‘I don’t know how the sky got there.’”
One question that lingers for Burrell is what he might do when Modern Family comes to an end. All sitcoms have a lifespan, but especially those with kids, since kids grow up. It might not be easy to find work, since he’s so strongly recognized as Dunphy.
But Burrell is unphased. “After being unemployed for so long, I’d be happy to be thought of as Phil Dunphy for the rest of my life,” he smiles. And anyway, he’s thinking of writing more than performing, in the aftermath, whenever that day comes. He and his brother co-wrote a sitcom last year which didn’t get picked up, but was a “great learning experience”.
So that’s the plan – keep writing. “I’d love to be good one day – I think it’s overstating things to say that I’m average!”
Chances are he’ll return to Utah. He spends six months of the year there as it is anyway. And in recent years, he and his brother opened a couple of bars in Salt Lake City – Bar X for cocktails and The Beer Bar next door.
“Maybe I could write above the bar in a little office. With a glass of whisky on my desk!” He grins. “And you know if that doesn’t work out, and there’s rent to be paid well, you’ll see me out dancing in the street with a sandwich board.” He sings. “Come on in to Blimpies sandwiches!”