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Clowning Around: Eric Stonestreet Reveals Cameron's Backstory on "Modern Family"

One word: Fizbo.

Modern Family viewers are going to get more than a little glimpse into Cameron's hilarious backstory on the ABC comedy series later this season.

I caught up earlier today with Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet, one of the season's biggest breakout stars, to find out more about Cameron's past, which will be revealed in the series' ninth produced episode and it involves clowns.

"It’s revealed [in the episode we're shooting] this week that Cameron has a clowning background and is a classically-trained auguste clown named Fizbo," Stonestreet told me. "The episode is entitled 'Fizbo' and that’s where it comes full circle for me."

Stonestreet, who described Cameron as a "celebrator of life and a celebrator of the moment," was himself a clown and performed at children's birthday parties when he was himself a kid. He even nearly attended Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Clown College.

"Thankfully now, looking back, I didn’t get in or I probably wouldn’t be sitting here now. For me to be able to bring what very early on started out as my performance to bring it to this level of performance on primetime is literally a dream come true," said Stonestreet. "And a great opportunity for me to give a big F you to people who made fun of me for wanting to play football and be a clown."

(Funnily enough, interviewing Stonestreet came full circle for me as well. He continues to harp on the fact that I didn't accept his MySpace friend request years ago.)

"Mitchell, of course, is just not into it," Stonestreet said of Cameron's clown past. "When I ask Phil if there’s going to be a clown [at Luke’s birthday party], I just can’t for the life of me understand who would throw a party and not have a clown and Mitchell is just like, 'Cam, let it go. Let it go.'"

The "Fizbo" episode also features a confrontation at a gas station in which a stranger picks on Mitchell, forcing Cameron to come to his rescue, according to Stonestreet. "You see a side of Cameron in this episode that is more closer to me as Eric than Cameron," teased Stonestreet.

The full transcript of my exclusive interview with Stonestreet, in which he talks about working with Ed O'Neill, the casting of Benjamin Bratt as Manny's father Javier, and what's coming up on this season of Modern Family (including a few hints about several plotlines in the works), can be found below.

Televisionary: Modern Family is one of the few breakout hits of this season. What is it like being on a new series that’s as much beloved by audiences as it is by critics?

Eric Stonestreet: As a cast, we all talk about it. When we got the pickup order, Chris Lloyd called me and said, 'Congratulations, buddy, this is incredible.' And my response was that I am just going to keep acting like I’ve done all this before. Which is sort of how I feel in a nutshell. I can’t believe you go through pilot seasons year and after year after year and you hit one on a random Tuesday and it turns out to be this critics’ darling and a public darling as well, I guess. People just really love it. It’s pretty humbling but by the same token. It adds a little pressure because there is an element that we are all feeling that everyone loves it so we need to keep delivering at a high level. But that’s when you really sit back and say thank god Steve Levitan and Chris Lloyd and the staff of writers that they hired are in place because those guys are incredible.

Televisionary: Well, it’s extremely rare to see a series that has it’s footing so quickly out of the gate.

Stonestreet: That’s what everyone said when they saw the pilot. The best compliment that we as a cast got individually was people would say that it seems like a show that’s been on the air for years and [they] know these characters. From an actor’s perspective at the beginning of creating a character, that’s the best compliment that you can get, to create familiarity right from the beginning. That just goes to the writing and to the cast that they assembled. Everyone is just really good and knows their characters well.

Televisionary: Modern Family’s pilot was just such a fully realized pilot. The only comedy that also set up the universe that these characters inhabit so effectively and efficiently is really that of Arrested Development, which is also essentially about a family.

Stonestreet: I know there was a tremendous amount of discussion between Chris and Steve when they started pitching and coming up with the show and they had very specific ideas. Because the thing that those two shows have in common is that they’re about a family but what they have in common with people who create television is that everyone comes from a family and has a family dynamic that at least they have for reference. The crazier the family dynamic, as personal for people as it is, the better. They are asking us all stories from our past and all the writers are obviously bringing stories to the characters. Some of the kids are based on Steve Levitan’s kids and friends and I know Steve has said that Mitchell and Cameron are based on a potpourri of some of their friends. You have the reference space with a family show because we can all relate to it.

Televisionary: Last week we actually saw a little bit of Mitchell and Cameron’s backstory and specifically how they met. (One word: Casablanca.) When you first came onto the pilot, how much information about Cameron’s past did Steve and Chris give you?

Stonestreet: They didn’t give us much. It was sort of purposeful. They hired Jesse and me because we had good chemistry in our reads and they sort of stepped back and sort of saw what we had concocted ourselves. And that’s the cool thing that I’m finding out about being on a series how you can just give little nuggets of information, bit by bit, and there’s no rush to do anything too fast because you have episode 76 to let some more information out. We didn’t know too much; we knew we had been together committed for about five years but we knew we had probably been together for longer than that. That’s where they started bringing in elements of both of our pasts. I am from Kansas and grew up sort of on a farm and they loved the idea of Cameron flipping the stereotype on its head and is from the rural Midwest and has a different perspective than Mitchell.

Televisionary: He’s a country mouse, as he says. This week you’re filming an episode that directly deals with Cameron’s history, correct?

Stonestreet: Yes. It’s revealed this week that Cameron has a clowning background and is a classically-trained auguste clown named Fizbo. The episode is entitled “Fizbo” and that’s where it comes full circle for me.

As a kid, I never wanted to be an actor, I wanted to be a clown from very early on. My parents have pictures. I was fascinated with clowns and the story goes that once I found out that clowns were just people with makeup, I was just like, well that’s what I want to do, there’s no doubt about it. I would perform for children’s birthday parties. I had news articles written about me in Kansas City, you know, eleven-year-old performing for a six-year-old’s birthday. Then when I was in college, I started to do a little theatre but still my performance background was clowning so I decided I wanted to apply to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Clown College and I almost got it.

Thankfully now, looking back, I didn’t get in or I probably wouldn’t be sitting here now. But just for me to be able to bring what very early on started out as my performance to bring it to this level of performance on primetime is literally a dream come true. And a great opportunity for me to give a big F you to people who made fun of me for wanting to play football and be a clown. (Laughs)

Televisionary: Over the last few days, you had uploaded some rather odd images on Twitpic and one of them looked to be like a pair of clown shoes.

Stonestreet: I haven’t sent the Twitpic out of me in full garb yet. They build me this ridiculous clown suit. Those were actually my shoes from when I was a kid in high school and college but there are little pieces of me in this version of Fizbo the Clown. Mitchell, of course, is just not into it. When I ask Phil if there’s going to be a clown [at Luke’s birthday party], I just can’t for the life of me understand who would throw a party and not have a clown and Mitchell is just like, “Cam, let it go. Let it go.” I don't want to give too much of it away but Fizbo would be at the party.

Televisionary: Where are you right now in terms of filming?

Stonestreet: This is Episode 109, numbered. We had a table read today for the Benjamin Bratt episode called “Javier.”

Televisionary: Speaking of that, I’m so excited that Benjamin Bratt is going to be Manny’s dad.

Stonestreet: Isn’t that great? It totally works, too. I love it. Ed [O’Neill] has said that he’s worked with Benjamin Bratt and said he’s just a great guy, a real talented actor. I know you’ve seen the Shelley Long episode, but just wait until you see the Liz Banks/Ed Norton episode. It’s crazy. We screened two episodes yesterday. We saw “The Incident,” which is on tonight and then we saw an episode called “En Garde.” I won’t tell you what that is but it’s just so sweet. Ed O’Neill is just such a pleasure to watch. Ed built this character Jay and each episode we’re seeing more and more and more. And I told him today, it’s just such a pleasure to watch. When we’re doing scenes, it’s just looking at Ed O’Neill and I’m liking what he’s doing with his character but when I see it on TV, it’s just like, wow! It’s so, so good.

Televisionary: What is it like being on a show, for example in “The Incident,” with Ed O’Neill and Shelley Long?

Stonestreet: Oh, we not only find it weird. I felt the need at the table that day to say, it’s the giant elephant in the room, I am just going to say, this is incredible for me. I am sitting with two television icons. Jesse and I were both very, very excited about it. I had this moment where I was shooting this episode where I have a great moment with Jay in his kitchen and I had to admit to him after we were done with the scene where I said, Ed, I’m in the moment with you but I’m looking at your blue eyes thinking, holy shit, I am in a scene with Ed O’Neill, with Al Bundy right now. And I he says, I know, Eric, I know, it’s happened to me a hundred times too. I know what you mean, it’s weird, isn’t it? Married with Children was on when I was in high school too.

Televisionary; The friction between Cameron and Jay is just so hysterical and real at the same time.

Stonestreet: I can’t wait to see where the relationship between Cam and Jay goes and there’s going to be a lot of exploration of that. There’s an episode called “Coal Digger” [which was the third episode shot] where you see Jay and Cam relating on a level that will surprise the viewers. [Episode] 101 is called “Run for Your Wife” and is on next week and is hysterical too. Cameron and Mitchell take Lily to the pediatrician for the first time.

Televisionary: Can you tease us then about what else is coming up on Modern Family for Cameron?

Stonestreet: You will also find out that I have a sports background, which is where again they are borrowing from our lives because I played football and was a track and field athlete. But I also liked being a clown on the weekend and doing kids' parties. It’s just an interesting dynamic and one that they loved and thought was perfect for Cameron. So you definitely find out I have a sports background, I have a clowning background. You start to find out what my occupation may have been before Lily came long. It’s a visual occupation, something that takes a keen eye and an understanding of situations and moments that I really feel is the cornerstone of Cameron’s character.

I say to people that Cameron is a celebrator of life and a celebrator of the moment. He doesn’t let a moment pass. Where we want to just skate through life, my idea of Cameron is someone who celebrates every moment and is very excited and excitable about every moment.

Televisionary: You’ve now shot nine episodes of Modern Family. Where would you like to see the writers take him?

Stonestreet: Oh, wow. I think Cameron on a vacation would be a crazy, crazy, crazy experience and we’ve all joked around that since we’re on ABC, Modern Family definitely needs to take a Disney cruise. (Laughs) I think Cameron on a cruise with the buffets and the sunning and all the opportunities that a cruise offers, that would be great.

But I think honestly, where Cameron is going to go is oddly though Cameron’s past. And that’s what’s really great about the show; they are really developing the past of each character and I think that’s going to inform where each of them goes. I think he and Mitchell are going to raise Lily and that’s what’s so great about that relationship specifically. I know I’ve heard Steve and Chris talking about how they think Cam and Mitchell are the most traditional family of the show in a sense. That it’s just two people raising a child without a lot of complications of the world involved in raising of an infant but the complications of a relationship between two people raising an infant and just playing those honestly and realistically.

Televisionary: They just happen to be men.

Stonestreet: Exactly right. My goal for the viewing public is for them to think of Cameron as being gay like fifth down the list of what he is. If at some point, someone was to think,” Oh, and he’s gay,” that would be awesome for me. We’re making a comedy here; Jesse and I both said that we aren’t trying to make it a gay platform or anything like that. But it is cool to spin the stereotype and hopefully to shuffle the fact that Cameron is gay just down the list a little bit and he’s a guy, he’s a parent, he’s a boyfriend, he’s a partner, and... oh, he’s gay. That would be great. I’m proud of that and I’m proud to be playing such an amazing character.

It’s cool for me just to come to work and don the shirt that wardrobe has bought for me and my slip-on loafers and have my hair [done]. Me, in the morning, I put goo in my hair and I’m out the door. But I come to work and I have a 25-minute hair process. And that’s so helpful because Cameron would most certainly have his hair in the right place and his shirt and cuffs would be exactly the way he would want them. And that’s all part of it, it’s just helpful and fun.

And in this episode ["Fizbo"], I’m not just Cameron, I’m Fizbo. You’re going to die when you see the scene we shot yesterday… One of my best friends plays a part in this episode and he plays a guy at a gas station that picks on Mitchell and Cameron comes to the rescue. You see a side of Cameron in this episode that is more closer to me as Eric than Cameron.

Modern Family airs Wednesdays at 9 pm ET/PT on ABC.


Bella Spruce said…
Thanks for the great interview! Modern Family is my favorite new show this season and Eric Stonestreet is hilarious. (I still laugh when I think about the Lion King bit in the first episode.) I cannot wait to see him as Fizbo!!!
Annie said…
So jealous. I love Cameron. Thanks for another great interview, Jace. Time for Modern Family!!!!!
MyTBoosh said…
I can totally picture him as a little kid dressed up like a clown and entertaining at birthday parties. So funny!
Cher said…
Eric Stonestreet is a genius!
Bobbi D said…
Modern Family is one of our favorite new shows this season-our son said we had to watch it and he was right as usual. The Fizbo episode was amazing but even more so when they showed the newspaper article showing a picture of him as a youngster. I had my husband rewind the DVR cause I said that was really him...we started reading the newspaper article and it was like "He's from here!" We both grew up in Kansas City and now live in P.V.Ks. We noticed Indian Springs shopping center, Wyandotte County and Piper Elementary in the article but the best part was how he participated in the Whizzo clinic. My husband and I both grew up with Whizzo who was a local clown who was on T.V. The show is great and hope it has a long run-very fresh! And congrats Eric...just wish you were a JAYHAWK!

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