Meet the Tony Nominees: Jesse Tyler Ferguson Hits a Home Run in Take Me Out
Ferguson stars opposite Jesse Williams and Patrick J. Adams in Richard Greenberg's acclaimed drama.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson has come a long way – literally and figuratively – from being a young actor in Albuquerque. He conquered the New York stage in such shows as Spelling Bee and Fully Committed to becoming a television icon for his performance as lawyer Mitchell Pritchett on ABC's long-running comedy Modern Family, which earned him five Emmy Award nominations.
Currently, he's thrilling audiences as the gay, perennially single, baseball-loving accountant Mason Marzac in Second Stage Theater's revival of Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out, for which he has received a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Play (along with an Outer Critics Circle Award in the same category and a Drama Desk nomination.)
TheaterMania recently spoke to Ferguson about the Tony nomination, his take on this iconic role, how his television fame has impacted how audiences see him on stage, and what the future holds for him.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you feel about being nominated in the same category as your co-stars Jesse Williams and Michael Oberholtzer?
Something like this happening is both the perk and disadvantage of working with very talented actors. When I was on Modern Family, I was once nominated against all three of my male co-stars. People always assume there is a rivalry between actors; but, here, we've built such a foundation that it would be hard for me to root against Jesse or Michael. The other thing is that I am always drawn to ensemble pieces; when I get a script and I am on every page, it freaks me out. I really like being able to pass the baton to another actor.
Were you concerned about following in the footsteps of Denis O'Hare, who won a Tony for playing Mason?
I saw the original production several times and Denis left a huge mark on me. When I got this script, his line readings immediately came back to me. To take this role on was wildly intimidating, and my challenge was to bring a new interpretation to Mason. I honestly never expected a Tony nomination because of what Denis had done, so it feels very validating to have received one.
There's a big difference between you and Mason. He is friendless and has no romantic life, and you are happily married and have a son. Did that make it hard to relate to him?
No. I still know what it's like to not be understood. When I was a younger, closeted gay man in New Mexico, I had a lot of sadness and loneliness in me, so Mason's journey can still move me to tears, especially his longing for love. Fortunately, I am grateful to be in a very different place now.
Do you think your fame from Modern Family was a help or a hindrance in doing this show?
Any time you've been on a successful TV show, it's a double-edged sword. I think people like to put you in the box they know and then you need to deprogram them. We were aware that, for many people, that first scene in the office with me and Jesse might have just looked like a random conversation between that guy from Modern Family and that guy from Grey's Anatomy. And one of things I worked on with our director, Scott Ellis, was taking away some of the humor in the first act; I felt like I was always trying to kill laughs in previews. I was trying so hard to build an arc for me and my relationship with Jesse. It was our job to make sure people eventually got lost in our characters in this show, and I think we succeeded.
How different in this experience from your previous Broadway shows?
It's grueling to do eight shows a week, especially when you are 46-year-old husband and father! When I did The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, back in 2005, I slept until 3pm and stayed awake until 4am – and that's just not the way it works for me anymore. I talked to my friend Celia Keenan-Bolger about this; in fact, I looked to anyone I could for advice. But the reality is it's exhausting, you spend all day thinking about your performance, and now, of course, you have to worry about Covid! As much as I love the show, I am so glad it's a limited run since I'm not sure I have the stamina to do more. I promise that I will always look for ways to come back to Broadway; I may need just a few years.
Does this mean you're going back to TV?
I really don't know what the future holds. However, Justin and I have produced this amazing documentary Broadway Rising, which premieres at the TriBeCa Film Festival on June 13, which is the day after the Tony Awards. It chronicles how the theater community had to pivot during Covid — not just actors and directors, but stage door people, restaurateurs and the dry cleaners in the Bronx. It's great proof of the resilience of people, and we really want as many people as possible to see it!