Ty Burrell had considered giving up acting before landing a career-changing role in the TV comedy series Modern Family, he tells Siobhan Synnot
Ty Burrell is considering whether the time has come to claim his birthright. “I know about Sir John Burrell and The Burrell Collection in Glasgow,” he says cautiously. “And I know you call it Burrrel, and not Burr-EL, like we pronounce it. But I must be good for a painting or a statue or something.”
Well why not? These last few years Burrell has been scooping up all manner of goodies, including a starring role in America’s favourite sitcom, Modern Family, acting awards, and leads in two big family films this year.
Perched at the edge of his hotel seat, testing out a teabag with the authority of a man who has been inducted into Typhoo by months of filming the new Muppet movie in London, Burrell is tall, skinny and rather handsome in a dark, saturnine way.
“The Frankenbrow got me typecast as a lot of villains and jerks,” he says, pointing at his strong forehead, but as soon as he grins, that brooding overhang recedes into a goofy approachability that immediately and irresistibly reminds you of Phil Dunphy.
In America, Burrell is the most famous dad after Homer Simpson. A cheerfully useless patriarch, Phil, his wife, Claire, and their three children are the closest Modern Family has to a traditional family arrangement amongst an intertwined family tree that includes a gay couple and their adopted baby, and Phil’s father-in-law, who is on his second marriage to a much younger Colombian woman.
A hit since the show launched in 2009, Burrell’s fans include Steven Spielberg, Barack Obama and the Emmy awards, although “my low self esteem will keep me from ever acknowledging I won an Emmy”. Last month he also won the Screen Actors’ Guild award for an outstanding male actor in a comedy series, which he collected after imparting lessons from his fictional book, Acting: How to Do It Good. Lesson No. 4 was “Have no skill set other than being a needy extrovert.”
One skill set Burrell has acquired since Modern Family started is parenting. He and his wife, Holly, have now adopted two daughters and he’s surprised to find that it’s made him appreciate Phil’s style of fatherhood. “Fundamentally he’s a good guy, and his strength is that he’s very positive and tries his best.”
It was the adoption theme that drew Burrell to his new film, Mr Peabody & Sherman. DreamWorks Animation has revived the series about a genius dog known as Mr Peabody and his adopted human son, Sherman, whose way-back machine allowed them to go back in time and ensure history comes out the way it’s been recorded.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, the five-minute episodes were as much an animated staple as Tom and Jerry in America, although Burrell admits he only vaguely remembers watching his older brother laughing at the show. When Robert Downey Jr pulled out of the planned feature film, Burrell was asked to replace him, “so I watched the series again, and realised I’d missed the adoptive relationship between this erudite dog and his boy. And it really made me want to do the film. Although the film is first this funny, 3D time-travel adventure, the ambitious part is trying to flesh out Peabody and Sherman. I liked that the film works quite hard to show how they grow from mentor and pupil into something like father and son.”
Growing up in Oregon, Burrell says his own father had definite funny bones, encouraging Ty and his brother to improvise comedy riffs around the dinner table. However, with no showbiz connections in the family, it took the younger Burrell a long time to embrace the idea of acting as a career and Burrell’s father died of cancer when he was still trying to decide what to do with his life, and never saw him perform.
Did his father’s death give him the push he needed? “Yes, very much so. I wasn’t a very mature young man and I was pretty lost in my early 20s. A month after my dad passed away, I finally worked up the nerve to go into a theatre class.”
It took him almost two decades to make a living from acting alone. Other jobs include city street guide, a construction worker, waiter, barman, and firefighter. “I think I was the worst firefighter they ever had. The first time I went out to a huge fire, I was holding the hose, and it had to be pointed out to me that I should be slowly advancing towards the fire, whereas unconsciously, I was trying to back away from the flames.”
Burrell moved to New York, landed jobs on Broadway as well as London’s Royal Court Theatre, but found it harder to break into TV and film. At one stage he was living out of a van, but gradually landed the odd TV series that got canned after a season, and small roles in Black Hawk Down, National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets and The Incredible Hulk.
Modern Family arrived just in time, he admits. He was 40, and had discussed getting out of the business with his wife. “The only reason I was still hanging in there was because I couldn’t think of anything else I could do.”
The team behind Frasier had more faith, and cast Burrell as Dunphy, and four years on Burrell now has the freedom to choose roles, although contractual confidentiality means he can only admit that in the new Muppet movie he plays French Interpol inspector Jean Pierre Napoleon, who is an amalgam of French investigators over the centuries.
None of this extra-curricular activity threatens his attachment to Modern Family, however.“What I’ve learnt is that there isn’t room for growth in comedy series, or you could lose the tension and attraction of your character. I love that we learn more and more about Phil, but I don’t want him to change. The worst thing that could happen is that he goes to counselling and learns to be a better listener.”
• Mr Peabody & Sherman is on general release. Modern Family series 5 is on Sky from 17 February