Jesse Tyler Ferguson's Broadway Comedy Gets Inspiration From Adele, Richard Kind and 'Ratatouille' (Q&A)

Courtesy of Polk and Co.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson

"At the end of the day, I’m a white, red-headed guy, and I don’t want anyone to be offended," the 'Modern Family' star tells THR of juggling accents in 'Fully Committed.'

On Modern Family, Jesse Tyler Ferguson is part of a sitcom ensemble. But this spring, he’ll star in Fully Committed as Sam, a harried staffer manning the reservations phone line for an exclusive New York restaurant. He’ll also play its megalomaniac chef, Adele-inspired hostess, French maitre d', Indian business manager and a slew of socialites, celebrities and suits, all angling to score a coveted table.

Altogether, Ferguson — a steady headliner of the summer season’s Shakespeare in the Park who is returning to Broadway for the first time since The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee 10 years ago — will play nearly 40 characters in the one-man comedy, written by Becky Mode and directed by Jason Moore. Ahead of the limited engagement's official opening April 25 at the Lyceum Theatre, Ferguson tells The Hollywood Reporter of his strategy to master multiple accents, the characters inspired by his co-stars and that time he was scolded at McDonald’s.

Have you ever worked food service?

I worked at a Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but it wasn’t high-end. Delicious, but certainly no Eleven Madison Park.

What’s the worst dining experience you’ve had?

I’ve been yelled at in McDonald’s. I started ordering, and the woman behind the counter said, “I didn’t ask if I could help you.” Then she paused and said, “OK, can I help you?” Basically, it needed to be on her terms.

Are any characters inspired by real-life people?

I wanted a hostess character to be from East London, so I make her sound like Adele because I love Adele. Another pulls from my Comedy of Errors co-star Hamish Linklater because he’s so eccentric. There’s a character I’m basing on Richard Kind whom I adore and worked with in The Producers at the Hollywood Bowl. He’s such a fun, lovable guy. It’s a character who is a bit bombastic and not necessarily doing the best thing, but at the same time, he’s not a jerk.

How are you preparing to play 40 characters?

Kate Wilson is a brilliant dialect coach who teaches at Juilliard, so she has this plethora of talent available to her from all over the world to help me with these accents. She’s found students who know these cultures and put down lines for me so I can hear how the words sound in the mouths of people who actually lived in those places. At the end of the day, I’m a white, red-headed guy, and I don’t want anyone to be offended. I’m celebrating the spirit of who the person is.

Which of them have been particularly challenging?

The Indian character, our business manager Oscar, is harder for me, without making him sound like a Simpsons character. Maybe he’ll be from somewhere else if it’s not going in the direction I like. The French dialect for the maitre d' was the hardest one for me to grasp, but now that I have it, it’s fun to push the boundaries of it. At times, I sound like I’m in Ratatouille, but that’s OK. Nuance and subtlety is not your friend when you’re with a character for a line or two; you want recognizable moments that pop. Sometimes they become like cartoon characters, but that’s the fun of the play.

Would this play be different if it were set in Los Angeles?

Yes — this play is very New York. The foodie culture started here in the late '90s and since then, we’ve had great restaurants in Los Angeles, but New York has a plethora of James Beard-awarded and Michelin-starred places. And the people calling in, people with names like Caroline Rosenstein Fishburne — she just sounds like she lives on the Upper East Side. I wouldn’t believe that she lived in Los Angeles.

The people who go to these restaurants are definitely New Yorkers, people who are ambitious and constantly trying to get ahead. You have to strap on your armor every day to face the city. That’s what I love. You have brave and resilient people here, and that filters all the way down to the people who need a table at a place. They’re the type of people who would tolerate a restaurant like this.

This show was written in the late '90s. How has it been updated?

The culture has changed so much, with the presence of cellphones and food bloggers to Instagram and OpenTable. Who is someone who intimidates the chef? In the original production, it was Mr. Zagat, who is maybe not so relevant anymore. Is the chef someone who wants to be on Top Chef or Netflix’s Chef Table or is he beyond that? We’re incorporating things in a seamless — ha, Seamless! — way that doesn’t feel like there’s a spotlight on it.

Any restaurant recommendations to pair with this play?

I loved Eleven Madison Park, but that’s a marathon dinner. I love the chicken dinner at the NoMad Hotel. For the theater district, I’m such a softie for Joe Allen, especially after a show, when it’s really poppin’ and with Linda Lavin next to you.