PLAYBOY: On About a Boy you play a bachelor who becomes a surrogate father to an 11-year-old boy. Have you learned to be a better dad by playing a half-assed parent?
WALTON: In a way I’ve learned what not to do. For instance, Will, my character, takes Marcus to a party that basically has prostitutes at it. I’m definitely not going to do that as a parent. But in a weird way Will can be a good dad. A lot of people talk to kids like they’re idiots. Despite the fact that Marcus is half his size and prepubescent, Will talks to him as an equal. I try to do that with my kids. When I’m telling my two-year-old that you don’t throw a dish on the floor, I explain it as if she’s a 25-year-old who hasn’t quite figured it out yet. This method isn’t working at the moment, but I’m going to stick with it.
PLAYBOY: Your co-star Benjamin Stockham is 14 years old. Do you treat him as a peer?
WALTON: I do, yeah. And it’s easy, because he acts like a 70-year-old man. He’s very smart. When we’re on set, he’s either studying or arguing with adults, using deductive reasoning and powerful logic. He outwits me constantly. I’ve been studying Socrates just so I can keep up with him. Next time I see him, I’m going to bust out some old-school argumentative rhetoric on his ass.
PLAYBOY: About a Boy was originally a novel and then a 2002 movie starring Hugh Grant. Convince us your show is better with some trash-talking.
WALTON: Hugh has such a charming way about him. But he has that quintessential butt-cut floppy hair. It’s not good. It really does look like buttocks, don’t you think? I need to talk to the hairstylists on our show to see if we can do an ode to Hugh. I’d like to have one episode where I inexplicably have his butt-cut hairstyle. Let’s see if Hugh and I can go toe-to-toe.
PLAYBOY: TV is unpredictable. Your show—any show—could be canceled at any time, so let’s cover our bases. First, let’s assume About a Boy is doing well. To what do you attribute its amazing success?
WALTON: It really comes down to the stories and the writing. The characters are relatable, and it’s hard not to fall in love with them. That’s the main reason the show is such a massive hit. It’s because it balances laugh-out-loud humor with gut-wrenching, heartwarming stories. It just feels like you’ve gotten a big sweet hug at the end of your 30 minutes. And we all want hugs, right?
PLAYBOY: Okay, now the less sunny option: About a Boy is canceled. What happened?
WALTON: Well, it’s one of those things where the writing was so good and so sophisticated that people just didn’t understand it. We were ahead of our time. I mean, it’s a shame, but I guess people in America just want to turn on their TVs and not think.
PLAYBOY: Over the past decade you’ve starred in six TV shows that were quickly canceled. Are you cursed?
WALTON: It really did feel like that for a while. But if you look at the numbers, only one in 10 series goes on to a second season. And we’ve made it to two seasons with About a Boy. It’s my seventh show, so in a way I beat the odds. Mathematically, I’m a lucky guy.
PLAYBOY: Did you have a plan B? If the TV career went down in flames, how would you make a living?
WALTON: I had two plan Bs. For a while I was convinced I was going to become an investment banker, because I went to Brown and a lot of my friends work on Wall Street. There was another time, after a long drought, when I seriously considered going into the cold-calling business—basically a telemarketer. I went in and started learning how to cold-call, which is just about the most depressing thing you can learn to do. All day you’re being hung up on by people who hate your guts.
PLAYBOY: You grew up in a large family, with four sisters and two brothers. Did your parents not know about birth control?
WALTON: I’d rather not think about it, if that’s okay. [laughs] Actually, the story that gets told is that after the fifth child they were all done. But then, when I was about nine months old, a little surprise came, and my mom took my dad out to his favorite restaurant in Boston, at the Ritz-Carlton. He was like, My wife is wining and dining me; this is so sweet. But it was because she was planning to break the news to him that not only was she pregnant again, but she was carrying twins. I’m pretty sure the evening ended with him storming out of the restaurant.
PLAYBOY: What kind of psychological abuse did your sisters inflict on you?
WALTON: I can’t even get into it, because they have lives and I don’t want to tarnish their good reputations. But on the very light side, they’d do things like pin me down, let their spit dribble inches from my face and then slurp it back up. They’d be having trouble with the boys at school, so they’d take out their frustrations on their cute little brother who had glasses. We’re not talking anything illegal, but we’re definitely talking things that were weird. They’d cross-dress me and take pictures, and I always looked super happy, which is really confusing.
PLAYBOY: You played Jesus in a church pageant when you were four years old. Did it give you a messiah complex?
WALTON: Not really, but it was a great lesson in comedy. I took it very seriously. It was a retelling of some Gospel story, and I was supposed to be Jesus pulling on a big net of fish. It weighed like 3,000 pounds and was really hard to pull up, but I put everything I had into it. I was intensely focused. I guess the congregation was expecting something different. A four-year-old goes up there, he should be shy and giggling and not really that into it. But I was fully committed to the task. They started laughing. I had no idea why they were laughing. I wasn’t trying to be funny; I was just trying to lift this goddamn net of fish. And that’s really when comedy works best, you know? You can’t be trying to be funny. As an adult actor, sometimes I muddle it up by overthinking things. I try to remember, What would four-year-old Jesus do?
PLAYBOY: You were also in a ninth-grade production of The Taming of the Shrew, in which you played Petruchio, a character who has also been famously portrayed by Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, John Cleese and Morgan Freeman. How did your performance compare?
WALTON: I’m not going to get cocky and claim I was just as good. But it was close. I was 14, and I’m pretty sure my voice hadn’t changed yet. I don’t think those guys knew how to do a prepubescent Petruchio, but I sure did. The plot is quite sexual, so that made it even more confusing that my voice was high-pitched and girlie. I’m glad there’s zero video footage. I made sure of that.
PLAYBOY: You’re six-foot-four, which is ridiculously tall. Have you ever had problems kissing shorter actresses or shorter women in general?
WALTON: I never think of it as an issue, because I can just lean down and do it. But when you’re kissing on camera, it becomes an issue visually. It looks like a skinny dinosaur creature is trying to kiss someone. It does not look like a classic romantic kiss. If an actress is five-foot-three and I don’t bend down, she’ll probably be kissing my lower sternum. If she stands on an apple box while wearing a nice four-inch stiletto, we’re in business.
PLAYBOY: When did you become a giant? Were you a tall kid?
WALTON: It happened when I was 13. In one year I shot up eight inches. I went from five-foot-four to six feet. The doctor examined me and said I was going to keep growing like that. He predicted I’d grow to a minimum of six-foot-nine. Which, as a teenager, was devastating. I felt like a freak. I walked out of his office and just sat in my mom’s car and cried. But then I started lifting weights and smoking a lot of pot, and my growth spurt slowed down. It all worked out.
PLAYBOY: Many celebrities have taken out insurance policies on their famous assets. Fred Astaire insured his legs for $75,000 each. Dolly Parton insured her breasts for $600,000. What defining part of you needs to be insured?
WALTON: I have a Cro-Magnon forehead, so I don’t think I’d insure that. According to my wife I need to insure my eyebrows, my lips and my hair, in that order. Wouldn’t that be easy insurance fraud? I could just shave off my eyebrows, right? Cash in on the policy? I guess the lips wouldn’t be easy. It would be hard to be a lead actor if I didn’t have lips. Those are tough to graft back on.
PLAYBOY: One of your first jobs was selling knives. You were the number one knife salesman for Cutco for one month in 2003. Do you remember your sales pitch?
WALTON: Oh yeah. Are you currently enjoying your knives? Well, let me tell you something: The most dangerous thing in the kitchen is a dull knife. A lot of the extra effort you use to cut things is actually what makes the knife go askew, and you cut yourself. What you really need is 440-gauge, stainless-steel, triple-rivet technology in a thermo-resin handle. Because without those things, you’re going to be doing a lot of slipping around. And honestly, if it isn’t a Cutco knife, you’re just playing with fire. We could start you out with a Studio set, which is a nice beginner. It won’t cost you more than a couple hundred bucks, and I’ll even throw in the Super Shears, which can cut a penny and are dishwasher safe.
PLAYBOY: Wow. That’s pretty impressive. Were you ever tempted to sell knives during an audition?
WALTON: I actually did. I probably owe my whole acting career to knives. I was in this off-off-Broadway play called One Day on Wall Street. A Fox executive came and saw it and got me a meeting with a casting executive. I sat down with her and we started talking. At the time I was pretty broke, so I was trying to sell knives to any person I saw, and she was no different. She liked the pitch so much she bought a set of knives and she gave me a $75,000 holding deal at Fox, which meant they flew me out to auditions in Los Angeles.
PLAYBOY: Amanda Peet has called you “George Clooney mixed with Matt Dillon.” Are those the two actors you’d pick to best describe you?
WALTON: Maybe there’s some similarity in the eyebrows. Both of those actors have bushy eyebrows. The comparison I get most often is C. Thomas Howell mixed with some Ace Ventura, because of the hair. I traveled to Italy once, and the owners of this small restaurant on Ischia—a tiny island off the coast of Italy—were convinced I was Jim Carrey’s brother. Not just convinced, they demanded that I was Jim Carrey’s brother. They made me take pictures with the entire staff in the restaurant. So I guess the answer to your question is, I look exactly like Jim Carrey’s brother.
PLAYBOY: You’ve been shirtless a lot, from the Christina Aguilera film Burlesque to several episodes of About a Boy. Do you do anything special to make sure your torso is screen-ready?
WALTON: In the case of Burlesque, I wasn’t too disciplined about working out prior to that movie. I remember walking into the trailer and seeing Stanley Tucci sitting there without a shirt, just completely jacked. The guy is shredded. We had a morning-after scene together where we’re both shirtless, and I made the call right then and there that my character had to wear a blanket for the entire scene. For About a Boy I have a no-shirtless clause in season two, so now I can eat without having to worry. But there are ways. When I did Think Like a Man Too, all the guys in that movie were doing push-ups the entire time. We’re talking thousands of push-ups a day as a group, just getting nice and disco pumped for every single take. If you ever see an actor in a shirtless scene where his face is bright red and he’s breathing hard even though he’s supposed to be relaxed, you know what happened right before the cameras started rolling.
PLAYBOY: You made out with Zooey Deschanel in a bathroom stall on New Girl.
WALTON: Zooey’s a friend of mine now, but that was literally shot on day one. It was like, “Hey, nice to meet you.” Aaaaaand action. Two and a half minutes after shaking her hand for the first time we’re slamming up against a bathroom stall. That was very weird. I’ve done a few kissing scenes, but I’ve never had to do the—ugh, I cringe just to think about it—the full sex scene. I honestly don’t know how people do it. I know it’s super technical and whatever, but I don’t know how graphic I can.… I guess this is PLAYBOY, but to mimic the act of penetration makes my skin just…. It gives me goose bumps. Ugh.
PLAYBOY: What’s the best piece of wisdom you’ve ever received that you’ve actually used?
WALTON: It’s a cliché, but it boils down to this: Figure out what you love to do the most and do only that. Also, no one cares what you do in your 20s. They really don’t. So take as many risks and stupid chances as you want. But you mean the best wisdom I’ve actually used in my life? I met this former Hells Angel, a recovering crack addict, who explained to me in a very gruff voice [rasps], “Every man needs 10 hugs a day to be happy.” So I’ve tried to do that. Ten hugs a day. And for the most part, I’ve done it. It gets a little awkward when you’re on a TV show and you see the same people every day. They start to get suspicious, but what are you going to do? I gotta get those 10 hugs a day. Sometimes I’ll just hug my stand-in about five times. It really does make you feel better.
Watch David Walton’s 20Q behind-the-scenes video here