Mr Ty Burrell
The star of Modern Family on how he advanced from serial arsehole to America’s favourite father
Before he became America’s favourite dad, Phil Dunphy on Modern Family, Mr Ty Burrell was an ****hole. Or rather he played ****holes - it was all they offered him. “My whole auditioning life would be like, ‘You’ve got an arsehole in the military at 2pm, an arsehole in the navy at 3pm, and then an arsehole chef at 6.30pm!'” he says. “I think it’s because I have this kind of vampiric, Frankenstein brow thing going on.” He frowns intensely and then cracks up laughing.
We’re chatting at a photo studio on Sunset Boulevard and as everyone in the studio will attest, Mr Ty Burrell is about as far from an arsehole as one could imagine. Warm and cheerful, always ready to laugh, he’s instantly likeable – the perfect choice to play one of the most beloved characters on television.
And yet, there was a time – before he gave us Phil Dunphy, national treasure, won an Emmy and counted the president among his fans – when Hollywood saw him as the bad guy. It bothered his mother, and Mr Burrell too eventually. After all, this wasn’t the way he’d planned it.
“I really miss Queens,” he says, nodding earnestly. “My wife Holly and I were living in a tiny flat, 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. It was partly the “arsehole” issue he mentioned – although one of those parts, in Dawn of the Dead, still gets him noticed by zombie nerds. But mostly it was because he’d turned 40, and while not exactly broke, he’d never had that break that actors need to kick-start their careers. So they moved to Utah, where his wife’s from, and thought seriously about a plan B. 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.”
Now 47, Mr Burrell started out in Oregon, where he says, “people just do what the hell they want, that’s the way of the West!” What he wanted was to be an actor, so right after university he 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.
That was in 2008. In 2009, he booked Modern Family, and his life changed forever. And since this all happened late in life for Mr Burrell, he savours it all the more. As a sports fan – a Mets fan no less – he has always been a sucker for an underdog story.
“I got lucky, basically,” he says, with a self-effacing shrug. “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.”
Mr Steve Shainberg was the first – he directed Fur, a movie about the famous photographer Ms Diane Arbus, starring Ms Nicole Kidman, and he "went to bat" to cast the unknown Mr Burrell as Ms Arbus’ husband. “I was playing a nice, sweet guy for once!” Mr Burrell laughs.
Then the producer Mr Christopher Lloyd hired Mr Burrell for his first comedy, Out of Practice. Mr Lloyd had been a long-time producer on Frasier, and would go on to create Modern Family with another Frasier producer, Mr Steven Levitan. And again, he’d have to back Mr Burrell against the odds.
“The first was in this movie Evolution where I played this smartarse colonel,” he says. “And the next was Dawn of the Dead where I played an incredibly nihilistic arsehole. And that was before he became a zombie. After that, it was all I was getting offered.”
“Auditioning for Modern Family was surreal,” says Mr Burrell. “I had to perform in boardrooms, at the end of tables full of executives. And they make you perform like a small play in a little theatre. 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 Mr Burrell did the little theatre 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. Messrs Levitan and Lloyd decided to shoot a scene with Mr Burrell in Mr Levitan’s backyard. And that clinched it. When Mr 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?
“Ha ha! Yes, and I threw it in the ocean. I thought, 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 realised that his life had changed forever actually 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.” He laughs. “I knew he was on the streets, but he was a total TV critic!”
The homeless guy critic was spot on. Six years later, Mr Burrell and Dunphy are so inextricable that their lives have even converged somewhat. Mr Burrell’s a family man now too – after the first season, he and Holly adopted two girls. And they even live in the same neighbourhood – Mr 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 Phil-o-sophies, which now command their own Tumblr – such as , “marry someone who looks sexy while disappointed” – Mr 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 Mr Burrell is what he might do when Modern Family comes to an end. All sitcoms have a lifespan, but especially those with children, since they eventually grow up. It might not be easy to find work, since he’s so strongly recognised as Dunphy.
But Mr Burrell is unfazed. “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 although didn’t get picked up, 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 restaurant 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!”