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 V.22 No.38 | September 19 - 25, 2013 

Feature

Wedding Bells for Jesse Tyler Ferguson

“Modern Family” star returns to New Mexico to support marriage equality

Jesse Tyler Ferguson
Michael Rosenthal
Jesse Tyler Ferguson
In late August, the Bernalillo County Clerk’s office started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Albuquerque’s Civic Plaza—ordinarily a drab, listless place—suddenly became the center of celebration. The community took the opportunity to transform Albuquerque’s central square into a vibrant testament to the gay and lesbian couples who had waited for years, and in some cases, even decades, to sanctify their loving and committed relationships before their families, friends and faiths.

Yet, despite all the recent progress toward marriage equality in New Mexico, we still don't have a statewide legal result that makes marriage for same-sex couples a reality throughout the state. Two weeks ago, the New Mexico Supreme Court agreed to review litigation that could finally give us that statewide solution. A hearing has been set for Oct. 23.

In the midst of this historic moment in our state's history, one of Albuquerque’s most famous native sons will return to New Mexico to lend his support to the cause. Next week, “Modern Family” star Jesse Tyler Ferguson will be back in his native city for a special event designed to spur this movement toward the finish line.

“Modern Family” is an award-winning, mockumentary-style comedy that airs on ABC. Its fifth season is set to debut on Wednesday, Sept. 25. On the show, Ferguson plays Mitchell Pritchett, a snarky lawyer who, along with his partner, Cameron, has adopted a Vietnamese child named Lily. Like most families, Mitch, Cam and Lily are far from perfect, but they stand up for each other, and they’re committed to serving each other’s best interests.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson
Michael Rosenthal
Jesse Tyler Ferguson

There couldn’t be a more ideal time for Ferguson to return to New Mexico to promote the freedom to marry. Although his “Modern Family” character is unmarried, Ferguson recently married Justin Mikita in real life. Together the two have channeled a lot of energy into this movement around the country. The Alibi recently interviewed Ferguson by phone about why this issue is so close to his heart.

I know you grew up here in Albuquerque and got your acting start here. What was it like for you to first be on stage?

I started off with the Albuquerque Children’s Theatre. My mom took me to a few productions. I remember sitting in the audience and watching these kids perform and thinking, “I want to be on the other side of the floodlights.” It looked like fun up there. It came as a shock to my mom because I was such a shy kid. I didn’t have that many friends in school. The group of people I met, first through the Albuquerque Children’s Theatre and later through the Albuquerque Civic Light Opera, really became my good friends in Albuquerque. It was a great outlet for me to be social.

Is it true that you also had a job as a song and dance man at Cliff’s Amusement Park?

Yeah, I worked at Cliff’s for a few summers. The first summer I was one of the swing dancers in the Broadway show and country review that they did outside, under the roller coaster. I also had side duties, one of which was circling around the amusement park in a golf cart making sure the bathrooms were clean. In an amusement park bathroom, 9 times out of 10 you’re going to see some vomit on the floor. It wasn't the most glamorous job, but it was something I loved doing because I had the opportunity to be a swing dancer in the show.

From left, Justin Mikita and Jesse Tyler Ferguson
Michael Rosenthal
From left, Justin Mikita and Jesse Tyler Ferguson

So you’re coming to New Mexico to lend support for the freedom to marry in our state. We’ve made a lot of progress here in recent weeks. Could you talk a little about why this issue is important to you?

Well, I obviously have a connection with Albuquerque and New Mexico because it’s where I grew up. I look forward to the day when marriage equality will be allowed in all states. We had a really interesting battle here in California in a state where we assumed it would not ever be an issue. We had an uphill battle overturning Prop 8. There’s a real passion in helping other states achieve that. New Mexico is an obvious next step. We did this same kind of thing in Illinois to bring attention to their marriage equality bill. It was eye-opening because I’m not a politician. I’m just very passionate about civil rights. When I actually sat down with some of these senators, I thought I wasn't going to be able to match them with their knowledge on this issue. But when it comes down to it, it’s a human issue and all they want to do is have a conversation with someone who has another opinion about it. So it was actually very easy and lovely to talk with a lot of these senators who were both opposed to it and for it.

Our experience with the marriage equality campaign has shown that those one-on-one conversations are the best way to persuade people on this issue, and I’m sure that applies to politicians as much as anyone else.

Absolutely, any time you can connect a human experience to something like that, you look at it in a different way. It’s all about human dialogue.

Let’s talk about the show a little bit. I think you’re going to be here in Albuquerque the same week the new season premieres?

That’s right.

“Modern Family” has received widespread praise, not just for being funny, but also for being really smart. The show has done a great job of exploring the evolving nature of what the modern American family is and can be. Even Mitt Romney has said it’s his favorite show. What do you think accounts for the show being so popular

I love that Mitt Romney and several prominent Republican politicians have cited it as being one of their favorite shows, as did the Obamas, which was maybe the one thing they agreed on in the last election. [Laughs.] It’s really wonderful. There’s something for everyone. We have new parents. We have old parents. We have couples that are very different ages. It’s sort of like a Trojan horse where we sneak into a lot of living rooms without an agenda and sort of make it safe for them to embrace all these different couples and ethnicities. By the end of the day, the true fans of the show don’t look at Cam and Mitch as the gay couple. They just look at them as Cam and Mitch, who are new parents who are having the same sort of struggles that they have. It’s a very safe entry for a lot of people.

Also, I love that the writers have created this very interesting relationship between my father and me, who is having to struggle with and is maybe not totally comfortable with his son being gay. I think that’s a really important story to tell because that’s what a lot of parents go through. It shows their growth and their ability to change and become better people. I think that’s a really beautiful relationship.

Patricia Michaels’ Tie the Knot design
Patricia Michaels
Patricia Michaels’ Tie the Knot design

It’s powerful to have that out there on this high-profile American TV show—the struggle that some parents go through, wrestling with those same feelings.

The writers are so wonderful. They’ll write incredibly inappropriate things that my father will say on the show that he doesn’t know are completely wrong to say. But it’s important to put that out there because someone’s going to think, “Oh, I made that mistake, too.” Then they can hear how ridiculous it sounds. Doing anything with humor can take you a long way. If you can laugh at a situation, you’re more likely to change something than with a bullhorn.

On the show you have this adopted child Lily. You also recently got married in real life to Justin [Mikita]. Have you two put any thought into becoming parents yourselves?

It’s one of those things that when we first started dating, we both made it known to each other that we wanted to have a family and that’s very important to us. I’m at that age where you want to meet someone who has the same life goals as you. We both really want kids someday. Right now we’re very content being married and enjoying that time because I’ve been told once kids come along, they change everything.

That’s what I hear.

But we both definitely would want to have kids someday.

I’m told you’re also friends with Neil Patrick Harris. Is there something special about Albuquerque that produces funny, talented gay men?

I guess there’s something in the water, or lack of water, as is so often the case in New Mexico. Yeah, Neil’s great. I’ve known him for quite some time. We crossed paths in musical theater together when we were kids. It’s really wonderful seeing how well he’s done. He’s wonderful. He and David [Burtka, Harris’ fiancé] are an inspiration. They have two beautiful children—twins. They’ve given us one piece of advice: Twins are really hard, so think twice before you go down that route. [Laughs.]

Tell me about the Tie the Knot Foundation and the new bowtie that’s been designed by Patricia Michaels [the Taos Pueblo designer who was a finalist on “Project Runway”]. Tell me about the program and what it does.

Tie the Knot is the foundation that Justin and I set up. We design bowties and 100 percent of the proceeds go to our foundation that we then use to bring attention to marriage equality bills and movements in various states. So we’ve teamed up with Patricia to create a very special tie for New Mexico, and she has designed an absolutely stunning, beautiful bowtie. It’s completely in line with her aesthetic. Any fan of “Project Runway” will know that it’s quirky and different and off-center and beautiful and classy. She has done something really special and has been such a joy to work with. We’ll launch that bowtie in New Mexico to celebrate and kick off this outing.

Bowties are back in style.

They are back in style.

Why Marriage Matters New Mexico Benefit

Jesse Tyler Ferguson speaks on freedom to marry
and Taos designer Patricia Michaels unveils Tie the Knot design

Thursday, Sept. 26, 7pm
Free

South Broadway Cultural Center
1025 Broadway SE
whymarriagemattersnewmexico.org, tietheknot.org
 
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