Starring on Modern Family the past five years, you’ve become almost synonymous with your character, Phil Dunphy, the lovably inept, well-meaning, frantic-to-be-cool real estate agent dad. The show’s creators and writers have spoken about the inspiration they take from their own family lives and, sometimes, those of the actors. When have you most recently caught yourself doing a Phil Dunphy?
Two days ago I finished a course with Harley-Davidson on how to ride a motorcycle. It’s very much a midlife-crisis sort of thing to do. You have a day of class and two days of riding on a Burbank airport tarmac. It was super fun and there were moments of delusion when I felt pretty cool riding. I did it with three friends, and luckily there wasn’t one of us for whom it was like, “Hey, you’re really good!” It was more like the battle of who looked least cool riding a motorcycle. Worse, after all that, I’m back to the not-cool part where my bride won’t allow me to buy a motorcycle. My friends are all either married or engaged, and their women swatted them down too.
Your TV character has highly entertaining quirks and neuroses, including coulrophobia, or fear of clowns. What are your personal phobias?
I have an irrational fear of heights that shows up pretty regularly when my wife and I go hiking in southern Utah. There are a lot of overlooks at high elevations that set me off. I also have a fear of public speaking, which I have to overcome regularly. I battle real anxiety about it. I’m kind of neurotic.
Have fame and increased visibility made you more neurotic or less?
More. The show has been a boon for my family and me in so many ways, but the one downside—and it’s a small sliver of that pie—is that I’m jumpier in public. I’m already a little self-conscious, and now people sit next to you and record you on their phones. They’re not very subtle about it. So now I feel more concerned about spilling something or picking my nose. I love going out to dinner with my wife and taking our little girls out, so it hasn’t turned me into Howard Hughes. But it has made me more neurotic in public. Honestly, it’s made me more of a homebody. It’s a small price to pay, though.
When a small price feels like too much, what’s your perfect escape from Los Angeles?
We have a restored Prairie-style house built in 1915 near Salt Lake City. I love Utah, especially Salt Lake City. It’s beautiful and a great place to have a family. My wife was raised Mormon, and my brother and I bought a bar in Salt Lake City. You know, nothing will bring family to town like a bar. My mom moved there to be closer to our kids and my brother’s kids. I have nephews and some cousins who have moved there too. So we have an extended family that lives all around Salt Lake.
Another of Modern Family’s best running jokes is how glassy-eyed and sexually stupid your happily married character becomes around Gloria—played by Sofía Vergara—the voluptuous Colombian-born younger wife of your father-in-law. Are the writers ever tempted to push that extramarital plot element beyond fantasy?
We’ve tried stuff with Phil and Gloria that never makes it on the air. It just felt too cheap. Anyway, Phil would fold like a house of cards. His attraction is completely a reflex. He’s almost like a fish attracted to a shiny lure. Nothing would happen. He’s kind of asexual. Sex for him is just sort of daydreamy.
And Ty Burrell himself? Are you tempted when female fans and admirers throw themselves at you?
It’s either my personal lack of sexual charisma or the fact that Phil Dunphy is just sort of a sweet, asexual character, but I don’t get that kind of attention. Women approach me just looking for a hug. Besides, it really matters whom you’re with. My wife and I have been married 13 years, and we have two great kids now. I know I’ve stumbled into the right relationship.
Your TV character so wants his kids to think of him as the super-cool dad that he pretty much caves anytime he has to discipline them. Was it like that with your father?
My dad was a family therapist who worked mainly with abused kids for children’s services of Oregon. I grew up in the country, in Applegate, Oregon, a town of 200 where everybody knows one another. We owned the country store. If my father was really mad at me, occasionally he’d be like, “Knock it off.” But mostly everything was a sort of Socratic series of sarcastic questions, like “Do you think it was a good idea to cheat on that test?” and “Have you enjoyed the repercussions of doing these things?” If I was in love with a girl or something, he’d say, “What do you feel like?” and “Why is it you feel like you’re afraid?” He was a great dad. I hope I’m a great dad too. I’m definitely trying.
What was your usual role in your family?
I think I may have been the entertainment for the evening, the clown of our house. My role was mainly to crack everybody up. I have an older brother and sister and a younger brother. My dad and his brother were funny guys, and they would do jokes. At family parties my younger brother and I began doing our own routines and became a very unaccomplished, undisciplined, rambling comedy team with maybe 10 percent decent material. I was the big dumb guy and my brother was the small boss.
When did you most test your mother’s patience and your father’s therapeutic skills?
I was a terrible student but a very big, very accomplished daydreamer. In junior high in Oregon I was a delinquent for a stretch. I was a bit lost during that period. I got into vandalism, stealing. I was running with the wrong crowd. These guys had taken me in, and I was pretty excited about that. I didn’t know how to think for myself, and my self-esteem wasn’t particularly high. We were out of control to the point that the sheriff came to our front door like it was old-timey Mayberry and told my father, “Ty may have destroyed some property.” My parents were confused and didn’t know what to do because they’d never been in that boat before. But by the time I got to high school I was playing football, basketball and baseball. Sports saved me.
Did being the son of a therapist in a rural town of 200 put extra pressure on you when it came to dating, let alone losing your virginity?
I was 15 when I lost my virginity. It was terrible. She was a really nice person, but I was so clumsy, really ineffectual. Luckily or unluckily, I don’t have a ton of exes. Before my wife I was in only two relationships, one for five years and another for three and a half years. I’m a serial monogamist.
What were your jobs before acting came into the picture?
I was pretty directionless in high school and my 20s. I did telemarketing. I was a tour guide, and I was terrible at it. I worked for the state of Oregon fighting forest fires—I was terrible at that too. I worked for my uncle on construction, and I was so terrible they’d just have me sweep up and take stuff to the dump, while my younger cousin was already framing houses. I literally couldn’t swing a hammer.
How did you get into acting?
At the University of Oregon I was allowed into a graduate-level Shakespeare class a day after arriving back on campus after I’d dropped out of school for a few years. I was completely out of my depth, but we were all asked to improvise a Shakespearean character. After I did mine and got laughs, I was hooked. The laughs were always what I was after, but I was too scared to pursue comedy full-on. I continued to take whatever work I could get until I fell into the laps of [Modern Family creators] Chris Lloyd and Steve Levitan. That sounds wrong.
When you were in grad school you apparently saved money by living out of your van. That couldn’t have been good for your social life.
Basically, when I was 28 to 29 or so I would stay with my mentors, husband-and-wife professors, and then sleep on their porch for a while, and then I’d live in the van. I may have had one date during that whole period, which was about a year on and off. Basically, when my date figured out I was living in my van, I didn’t hear from her again. The funniest thing was I was confused about why. I was like, “What’s the problem?” I didn’t realize I was the creepy guy in a van. What could possibly be holding up this relationship? The van pretty much eliminated my dating life completely.
In retrospect, maybe you’d have been better off living someplace indoors, even if you had to split the rent.
But honestly, some of my best memories are of that period. It was so uncomplicated. I was busy with grad school, so I had real purpose. If you have that, there isn’t much need for anything else. I had focus and a routine. I would get up, go shower in the gym, read scripts and memorize them in the van. You know the way people talk about prison as a meditative, transforming place? The van was like a little prison cell—only without all the other terrible prison stuff going on.
You know that old song lyric “Nobody walks in L.A.”? So many people have seen you walking to the studio where you film Modern Family that maybe the song lyric should be amended to “Nobody walks in L.A.—except Ty Burrell.” Have you stopped driving?
You walk much more in New York, and I got used to that. Now I don’t drive on weekends unless we’re going somewhere. I just kind of shut it down on Friday night. We lived closer to the studio before we moved, but even now, on Monday morning all I have to do is get in my really old Volkswagen Beetle and have my super-easy three-mile commute.
You’ve scored biggest in comedy, but after moving to New York you made your Broadway debut with Kelsey Grammer in Macbeth, and in succeeding years you co-starred in New York theater productions of Burn This with Edward Norton and Catherine Keener, and in Richard III. You also got movie roles, often playing dweebs and unsympathetic, obnoxious guys in movies such as National Treasure: Book of Secrets, The Incredible Hulk, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus and Dawn of the Dead. Why so serious?
Because I look like Eddie Munster or a vampire, I think people tended to think of me as the bad guy. For a long time I played a lot of assholes. At first I had a hard time getting into the comedy stuff, but in the back of my mind that was what I really wanted to do. There are some really great asshole parts, and I’ve been offered a few, but I did that for so long that it’s fun now to play closer to myself—a well-intentioned idiot.
You’re staying comedic and family-friendly in your new movies, including Muppets Most Wanted and two animated films for which you provide vocal talent, the Finding Nemo sequel Finding Dory and Mr. Peabody & Sherman.
I also filmed The Skeleton Twins, which definitely isn’t family-friendly. It’s very dark and has great writing. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play fraternal twins who try to commit suicide on the same day. I play a young teacher at Bill’s high school who had a relationship with Bill that caused a big scandal. It’s complicated because my character has been in love with him the whole time since. I have a lot of hope for that film.
Since the makers of the Pixar films tend to have an uncanny knack for matching an actor’s essence with his animated avatar, what traits do you share with the beluga whale you play in Finding Dory?
A beluga is super social. I am super social. They have oversize, flabby heads. So do I. If you catch me in the middle of winter when there is a lack of sun, I, like the beluga, take on a sort of translucence. Other than that, Muppets Most Wanted is as funny as the last Muppet movie, and it was so much fun to play a character that broad—a French Interpol inspector who is like Inspector Clouseau overlaid with Hercule Poirot overlaid with Monsieur Hulot. If you remember Mr. Peabody and Sherman from the classic TV cartoons on Rocky and His Friends, the movie is really stylish, smart, witty and silly.
How do you feel about this season’s story line on Modern Family, ramping up to the wedding of the gay characters played by Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson?
I honestly think we’ve done some of our best episodes because of the wedding. All of us got fired up and felt a sense of purpose and excitement. I hear stories about people who are conservative coming up to the guys and saying, “I think differently now because of you.” And it’s so cool that it’s done without waving a huge banner or planting a flag at the top of a hill.
If life were like a high school yearbook, with mottoes under our portraits, how would yours read?
“Most likely to stumble into great situations.”