STUDIO CITY, Calif. — Eric Stonestreet, who plays the melodramatic half of the gay couple on ABC’s “Modern Family,” isn’t worried about being typecast.
While he was shooting the first episode of “Modern Family” he was also playing a convicted rapist and murderer on “Nip/ Tuck.”
“I played Oliver Platt’s legal intern on ‘The West Wing,’ on ‘CSI,’ I was the handwriting documents technician. I’ve killed a bunch of people on TV. People ask if my parents have a problem with me playing a gay man on TV, I say they were more upset with me killing people. They say, ‘Why do they see you as a killer?’”
In a way, he is a killer — a killer actor who has wanted to play colorful characters ever since his best friend, Paul Busenitz, dared him to audition for two plays when he was a junior in college. He botched the “Hamlet” tryout but earned a tiny part in “Prelude to a Kiss.”
“I wanted to be a disc jockey, a marine, wanted to be a prison administrator, wanted to be a clown, just like all kids when they’re growing up,” says the 6-foot-1 Stonestreet, who’s wearing a black-checked cowboy shirt and Levi’s.
“My parents gave me the sage advice when I went away to college to find something interesting and not worry about what I was going to be in this world — that it would sort of come to me how it was supposed to.
“I went and studied sociology with an emphasis on criminal justice with the idea that I wanted to be a prison administrator and work in a federal facility with convicts,” he says over a paper mug of coffee at a coffee bar here.
But it wasn’t the bit part in “Prelude” that made him want to act. It was the breakup with his high school sweetheart. “I was depressed and so bummed,” he shakes his curly head. “I thought she was the girl I was going to marry. We talk and we’re friends and see each other when I go home, and I thank her for breaking up with me. That’s the event that put me on track to be an actor. That’s when my best friend, Paul, said, ‘Change it up, do something different. Get out of this funk you’re in,’ because I was really depressed.”
The “corn-fed” Kansas boy, who raised pigs with the 4H, saved his money and headed for Chicago when he finished college. His dad, who owned a Big Lots-type retail store and his mom, who was a teacher’s assistant until she retired to care for her ailing mother, supplemented his “pig” money in Chicago.
“They helped me move into my little one-bedroom apartment. It was hard for them because they left me behind, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know anyone in Chicago, and it was tough for them. I always remember that. I wrote them a letter and told them exactly what my goals were. And I didn’t know how long it was going to take, but my goal on paper was to be on a TV show some day,” he says.
“I didn’t put it any further than that. I didn’t say a ‘hit’ TV show with a fantastic character. I just said a TV show. I told them I was going to work every day to achieve that goal.”
Part of that objective goaded him to L.A. “I always set goals for myself and my goal when I came out here was to deliver a pizza on TV within the first two years. I knew how hard the business was — to get an agent, to get a part, to get a LINE. The idea of me delivering a pizza basically encompassed me getting a one-line part, a part on a show. I thought two years was a reasonable amount of time for that role.”
Armed with one name, that of a casting assistant on the “Dharma & Greg” show, Stonestreet started with her. “She said, ‘Send me your head shot and we’ll call you when you’re right for something.’”
Four times he was called to try out for a small role on “Dharma & Greg” and four times he didn’t score. Finally he snagged a one-liner as a prospective voter in Dharma’s campaign for office.
He was more successful with commercials. He made a series for the NCAA and played the character of Phil on 12 commercials for IBM.
But those sporadic successes weren’t enough to sustain him. Just before “Modern Family,” Stonestreet was having second thoughts.
“I was at the point: Did it make more sense to try to get out of the business now and try to start a business? I’ve always wanted to have a sandwich shop or a hot dog stand or a restaurant-bar. Have I been in the business long enough to make enough traction?”
He decided to stick it out.
Stonestreet, 38, is not only thrilled with his character, Cameron, on “Modern Family,” but with his new love, Katherine Tokarz, a dancer on Broadway. They bonded, he grins, over their shared passion for Brussels sprouts. “She made them for me in her apartment in Queens and brought them to me. And I thought, ‘Wow, you are something else!’”