Jesse Tyler Ferguson had already endeared himself to countless fans through his 11-season run on the hit ABC sitcom Modern Family, but he no doubt added to the tally with both his Tony-nominated turn in Broadway’s Take Me Out and his forceful denunciation of the video-taking scofflaws who posted surreptitiously filmed footage of the play’s nude scenes featuring Ferguson’s co-stars Jesse Williams and Michael Oberholtzer.
The leak on social media arrived on a day that should have been about celebration: Ferguson, Williams and Oberholtzer had just been nominated for Tony Awards for their performances, and Take Me Out, a Second Stage Theater production of Richard Greenberg’s 2003 Broadway hit, was nominated for Best Revival of a Play.
“I’m appalled by the disrespect shown to the actors of our company whose vulnerability on stage ever night is crucial to ‘Take Me Out,’” Ferguson wrote on Twitter May 10. “Anyone who applauds or trivializes this behavior has no place in the theater which has always been a safe space for artists & audience members.”
Now, several weeks later, Ferguson has had time to reflect on the incident, his Tony nomination, and this very special Broadway season. Ferguson portrays Mason Marzac, an accountant to the star baseball pitcher (played by Williams) who has just come out as gay. Ferguson’s character, also gay, develops both a friendship with the star player and, throughout the course of the play, a profound appreciation for the game and its history. Deadline spoke to Ferguson about all that and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Take Me Out, starring starring Patrick J. Adams, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Jesse Williams, runs through Saturday, June 11, at the Hayes Theatre.
DEADLINE: What was your reaction when you heard about the nomination?
JESSE TYLER FERGUSON: Well, I mean, I was actually, that night I was recovering from a stomach bug, or I was kind of in the midst of a stomach bug. So, I had put myself to sleep with NyQuil the night before, and I slept a solid 15 hours after my Sunday night show, and [husband] Justin [Mikita] woke me up kind of like shaking me to let me know that I had been nominated, and I fell back asleep, and then when I woke up again, I thought for sure that I had dreamed it. So, I had to go online to confirm it, but it was kind of a haze of a day, and so, it wasn’t until we did the first sort of press junket for the Tonys that I felt like I was actually able to celebrate, and you know, sort of get excited about it because that first day was just sort of a fever dream.
DEADLINE: Is a nomination like this something that you can be prepared for? Did you expect it or allow yourself to think along those lines?
FERGUSON: I mean, sure, I’ve always dreamed about it. Theater has been something I’ve been doing for 25 years, and of course I’ve dreamed about it. But no, I don’t think it’s something that you can ever fully prepare for. In my mind, I thought, you know, they’d honored this role before 20 years ago with Denis O’Hare in the original production, and so, I really didn’t feel like it was any sort of sure-fire thing. Then I was like, is this the new Anita in West Side Story where anyone who plays it gets a nomination? I don’t know, but I’m used to being surprised by these things. My first Emmy nomination for Modern Family I did not see coming at all. So, I think that is the healthiest way to go about these things, to not build up any sort of expectation and just allow yourself to be surprised if it happens. And that also protects you from being really disappointed if it doesn’t. I certainly don’t do this because of the awards, but there’s a line that Mason has at the end of the play, when he says, “don’t diminish it. It would be too ungrateful,” and I remind myself that all the time because it is a really big deal.
DEADLINE: Had you seen the original production?
FERGUSON: Oh, yes. Oh God, yes. Too many times actually. I saw it several times, and you know, one of the reasons I kept going back to it was to see that performance by Denis O’Hare. I just thought it was really breathtaking, and I hadn’t seen anyone do anything like that on stage before, and I just was taken by him, and you know, I didn’t realize how much of an impact he made on me until I came back to this play when it was offered to me, and I was reading these monologues that he so brilliantly delivered, and line readings that he gave 20 years ago came flooding back to me. I thought, well, this isn’t good, I’m going to have to recreate this character and it’s got to have new skin, a new point of view, and here I am attached to these ideas that Denis had created.
So, I went into the process with a lot of self-doubt, and I was very intimidated by the task at hand because I think if it was that clear in my memory, it’s got to be that clear in so many other people’s memory, and these are the people that are going to be sitting in those seats. But you know, that’s why we do this, especially if you’re revisiting a classic, you go to it to give it a fresh perspective and a different point of view, and I’m just so happy that people saw validity in my interpretation of this man.
DEADLINE: But how do you go about distancing yourself from that?
FERGUSON: A lot of it’s just literally doing the opposite of what you remember. You know, [director] Scott Ellis was incredibly helpful with helping me make this man a different person, and he understood completely because Joe Mantello’s original direction was also so greatly lauded. So, he was like ‘I’m in the same boat as you, and we’re going to figure this out together.” One of the things that I chose to do – and it was hard for me because I like to get laughs – but I took a lot of comedy out of the first act of Mason’s journey, and I saved it for moments in the second act when he sort of blossoms and falls in love with the game of baseball. I chose to be very pragmatic and sort of super-serious in the first part of the play so that I had somewhere to go with him. So, that was a solution that I found worked really well for me. For me the solution was to take away a lot of the comedy early on and just stay very pragmatic and analytical in the first act of the play.
DEADLINE: How did this role come to you?
FERGUSON: It actually came in the same phone call that I was offered to be the host of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. This happened three years ago, and my agents called and said, we have an offer for you to host Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and I said, well, you know, I’m wrapping up Modern Family and I love that show, I love that it gives back to families, and it has such good will, and it changes people’s lives, but I don’t want to be a TV host. I want to act, and my agent was like, well, maybe this will sweeten the deal, and he said you’ve also got an offer to play Mason Marzac in Take Me Out. So, I felt that was the universe telling me to chill out, and I can take different types of jobs. So that’s how it came to me.
DEADLINE: What was it about the character that appealed to you so much?
FERGUSON: I’m not a big baseball fan, but I’ve fallen in love with the game of baseball through this play, more so being in it than seeing it, but what I love about the play is that it’s about relationships, and it’s about trusting new relationships, and friendships, and looking for alliances in unlikely people. It’s told through the lens of baseball but it’s really about relationships, and I just love the messages of the play. It deals with so many issues, and it’s so cross-cultural, it touches so many different people. The gay community comes to see this play because they love the character of Mason and they love his relationship with Darren, and you know, jocks come and see this play because they love baseball, and women come and see this play because they want to see handsome men on stage. It brings all these different types of people into the theater, and they share this experience, and it’s just a beautifully constructed piece of art. On top of that, it grapples with toxic masculinity, and it grapples with homophobia, and the ripple effect of becoming your true self and how that’s going to maybe not always work out, and it grapples with overconfidence and being vulnerable and allowing yourself to be vulnerable, like Darren must do eventually. I just think it’s a remarkable piece of writing, and I remember when I saw it 20 years ago, I left the theater with so many thoughts in my head, and that’s what great art does.
DEADLINE: Speaking of audience reaction, has it changed since the nude photo leaks – the leaks that happened on the same day as the Tony nominations announcement.
FERGUSON: Yeah. A lot happened on that Monday, and the thing that did make me sad about it is, you know, we had this great moment of celebration for our company and our show and the Tony nominations for myself and Michael and Jesse, and we were celebrating the great work we had done, and then all of a sudden, it pivoted to, you know, that, and just bodies and nudity, and it was disappointing. It really took the wind out of the sails for all of us, especially Jesse Williams. I missed those first two shows back after the Tony nominations were announced because I was sick with the stomach flu, but I asked the guys what was it like after, on those few days right after coming back, and you know, they said it was surprisingly like everything was business as usual at the Hayes, which I think was interesting.
I think the audiences have been…you know, a non-reaction is a reaction as well, and I think when you’re in a theater and you’re experiencing an actor being incredibly vulnerable, I think even if you go in with the idea of what that’s going to be, when you watch it in the context of this play, it’s different. It’s different than what you expect, and you know, I kept thinking like anyone who’s coming for the nudity is going to be so wildly bored because they’re going to have to sit through a two and a half hour play with lots of big ideas and lots of big language, and it’s just, it’s bigger than the nudity, and I was happy to hear that those first few performances back was, it seemed like it was…I think it was more us that was nervous about it than anything.
DEADLINE: You spoke out very quickly about the leak, and I’m wondering what the reaction among your cast mates was?
FERGUSON: I think everyone felt bad for Michael and Jesse, and Second Stage certainly felt terrible that it had happened. Second Stage wanted to create an incredibly safe space for us, and it was something that everyone was always concerned about from the beginning, and the fact that it happened was disappointing. I think a lot, for all the actors on stage who participate in the nude scenes, I think they thought it was sort of inevitable, but you know, it was disappointing that it actually did happen, but at the same time, we have the job to get back up on stage and tell this story, and the nudity is necessary for this play. It can’t be done without it. I mean, if you’re really listening to the language that’s happening in those scenes, it’s commenting on the nudity while being nude, and it’s incredibly important. The play doesn’t work without it. You have to have it. So, I think it was sort of an unspoken rule that we just weren’t going to give it any more power than it already had, and we were going to continue on and do the work that we needed to do, which was to present this play. I mean, I had a quick text exchange with Jesse, and he thanked me for speaking up about it, but then, you know, we moved on.
DEADLINE: Has anyone figured out what happened or who or why…?
FERGUSON: I don’t know. All I know is that it was a leak that happened and apparently someone made some money off of it, that it was something that was sold. I mean, that’s what I’ve heard. I don’t know if that’s true, but you know, I think that it was a disappointing day for it to happen. None of us were happy about it, and it certainly wasn’t something that Second Stage wanted. They wanted to celebrate the Tony wins, and maybe there were a few extra seats that have been sold but I truly believe that the play is what’s bringing people in, and these great performances that have been celebrated are bringing people in.
DEADLINE: You’ve been on Broadway before, and I’m wondering with all that’s gone on this time around, with the photo leak, the Tony nominations, how has this trip to Broadway been different for you?
FERGUSON: It’s different because of where I think our industry is at. We had to shut down for two years, and in that time span, a lot of change happened and a lot of…the world’s a much different place. And you know, I’m a dad now. I became a dad in that break that we had.[EDITOR’S NOTE: Following this interview, Ferguson and Mikita announced that they are expecting another baby.] For me, theater has always been just so incredibly important, and it’s always been something that I’ve made a priority to work into my career. If I had four months off from Modern Family, I would desperately look for a play that would fit into those months. And when that went away and to have the heartbeat of New York City sort of flatline was heartbreaking, and so, this season, I think for so many actors it’s a throughline that we all feel very privileged to be a part of the season welcoming Broadway back. There are lots of speed bumps and potholes in this road, and we have had to pause. We’ve had to readjust. We’ve had to pivot, but it just proves how resilient this community is. And that’s innately what made this time different for me.
I mean, there’ll never be a season like this season again. We started rehearsal in 2020, and to be with a play and have it sit with you for two years and marinate with you for two years before getting it back up on its feet is…it created depth in ways that I’ll never be able to achieve again with a character. I think that’s true for all of us. Even if we weren’t looking at the page every day, it was something that was living inside our heads and taking up space and waiting to get out and onto the stage. That was incredibly different as well.
DEADLINE: And being a dad. Talk about resilience. How are you holding up?
FERGUSON: There’s fewer outings to Bar Centrale after the show, that’s for sure.