NEW YORK—Some stars spend Sundays lounging by the pool. For Jack McBrayer, who plays naive page Kenneth Parcell on the NBC sitcom “30 Rock,” Sunday means grabbing a bottle of Tide and heading to the laundry room. And maybe later a shopping trip to Best Buy.
McBrayer has clearly not gone Hollywood. After all, it wasn’t long ago that he was subsiding on dinners of Fig Newtons or spinach eaten right out of the can. “Tina Fey called me a hobo,” he jokes about his early struggling-actor days in New York.
The Georgia native became friends with Fey, the star of “30 Rock,” and her husband, Jeff Richmond, while doing improv with Second City in Chicago. It was Richmond, now a producer on “30 Rock,” who convinced McBrayer to move to the Big Apple for a play he was mounting.
McBrayer accepted, but once the play ended, things were pretty lean. It wasn’t until a friend from Second City who was writing for Conan O’Brien suggested McBrayer for a sketch on the show that things began to improve. More appearances on O’Brien’s show followed, as well as other TV and movie roles. Last year he finally attracted attention with a showy role in the film “Talladega Nights” and then with his breakout role on “30 Rock.”
McBrayer, 34, recently met Newsday staff writer Daniel Bubbeo at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Manhattan for breakfast, where there wasn’t a Fig Newton in sight.
Given that the show is still trying to find an audience, were you surprised when it won the Emmy?
Well, yes. Pretty much all of last season was based on fear—fear of being canceled at any minute because the ratings were so tragically low. But when we did get all those Emmy nominations, that was a real boost. We were like, “We’re not crazy. Our comedy instincts aren’t completely off.”
You’ve had a very interesting resume starting with your first job at a pool liner manufacturing company. I guess from there you can only go up.
I would hope so, or else that would be pretty grim. I think that it was good that was my first job, because I didn’t have any frame of reference that, oh, I am putting myself in danger every day. ... And then I started working in the restaurant business at a place called Po’ Folks. The food was greasy and unhealthy, but delicious. And then Applebee’s—employee of the month in July of `94. And then temping. I pretty much kept temping up until “30 Rock.” In fact, when I went back to California after we shot the pilot I went back to temping because you never know how that’s going to pan out. It was pretty cush temping, like wrapping Christmas presents.
Did those jobs help you to play Kenneth and to get a good sense of his work ethic?
I think that is exactly true. I mean at the pool factory, I had to climb under these giant platforms and clean out rat crap. When you’re 18, they don’t say, “You need to wear a mask,” or “You need to wear gloves.” They just hand you a broom. ... So I have learned to expect anything from employers, and I think that has definitely helped in the development of Kenneth Parcell, NBC page.
Is it true that you’ve become very popular with the pages at NBC?
I knew that they were psyched that they were being represented on TV. Then the more episodes that went on and the more ridiculous the stunts became that I did on the show, I thought, oh, this is going to turn quickly. As it turns out, they’ve still been loyal. I was just hanging out with them today and they said, “Oh, we have a page newsletter. We’d love to interview you.” I have arrived!
Have the writers drawn on some of the pages’ actual experiences for scripts, such as the episode last season involving Brian Williams’ dressing room?
I can’t imagine what would have inspired Tina Fey to (write about trashing) Brian Williams’ dressing room. The funny thing is that I had never met Brian Williams, but after that episode aired, I saw him in Rockefeller Center, and he came up to me and said, “If you ever disgrace me like that again I will have your head.” Turns out, he was totally doing a bit. Brian Williams is the funniest man at NBC.
What about a romance for Kenneth?
Well, we just saw a clip today where Jane Krakowski’s character goes a little nuts on me. And I did read in one interview from the summer, where Tina Fey says that she would love it if Kenneth had a torrid romance with Florence Henderson. I hope that happens.
You spend seven months in New York and the rest of the year you live in L.A. Do you prefer the East Coast or West Coast?
I love both, but the weather in Los Angeles cannot be beat. I do love the sunshine. Tina Fey has me on a tanning clause—I can’t get too tan during the summers and I’m not allowed to be in the sun one month before we start shooting.
This is in your contract?
Not written, but it’s an unspoken clause. ... That Tina Fey is an evil, evil woman. (Laughs)