Emmys 2014

Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s Personal Stories Behind His ‘Modern Family’ Marriage Arc

Emmy nominee Jesse Tyler Ferguson shares his personal parallels to Mitch and Cam’s landmark gay marriage storyline on this season of Modern Family.

Peter "Hopper" Stone/ABC

Season 5, Episode 1 “Suddenly, Last Summer”

Same-sex marriage is legalized in California, meaning that Mitch and Cam (Eric Stonestreet) can get married. After each bungles an attempt at proposing to the other person, they unexpectedly propose to each other while changing a tire on the side of the road.

The whole season for me was about the buildup to the wedding. It’s hard to take something that’s kind of normal, like a wedding proposal, and turn it on its ear and make it entertaining for television. Taking that moment and having Mitch and Cam compete for ways to propose to each other and surprise each other and then realize as we’re on a single knee changing a tire that we both want to marry each other—and then saying “yes” to each other at the exact same time—was really moving. Eric and I, the entire season, were just so honored to play this story arc. We definitely acknowledge that there are social ramifications to this couple getting married on television, so all those moments, like the proposal and the wedding, we could look at each other and be so moved and honored that we get to play those roles.

My husband in real life, Justin Mikita, worked on the initiative to overturn Prop 8, and was very involved in seeing that all the way to the Supreme Court. So the company he worked for, the American Foundation for Equal Rights, shot a lot of footage of celebration day the day that Prop 8 was overturned. We were actually using footage from that day in the episode. I’m watching it in the scene on the computer and I call Cam and say, “We won! We won! It’s amazing! We can finally get married.” My real-life husband is on the computer screen celebrating the win. It was a crazy moment.

It was special also because it was happening parallel to my real life, having just gotten married myself. A lot of the writers actually showed up to my wedding in New York. We had Tony Kushner officiate my wedding. He wrote a beautiful ceremony for us, so I was like, “No pressure, but a Pulitzer Prize-winning author wrote our wedding ceremony. So do what you will with the one on TV. No pressure!” It was pretty amazing. A lot of the writers were so honored to be there and obviously I’m very close to them. So the fact that they were writing this episode at the same time was a crazy thing. They were at my wedding and then a few weeks later I was getting engaged again on television. It was strange to have that parallel universe. It was really cool.

Season 5, Episode 24 “The Wedding (Part 2)”

After everything that can go wrong does go wrong on Mitch and Cam’s wedding day, the couple finally ties the knot in an emotional ceremony.

It obviously didn’t make it into the final cut, but what I really loved is that the writers wrote a full wedding ceremony for Eric and I and let it play out. They taped the whole thing, a full seven-minute ceremony. It really just helped Eric and I with the emotion of the scene, because it was just like a wedding. It was amazing to just look at him and go through all the emotions of what it is to be married. We were always concerned with what is the kiss when you get married? I tried to look back and remember what it was for Justin and I.

The thing is, when you go through the whole ceremony and you actually get married—basically, if Ty Burrell had been a legal officiate we would have been married for real—when we got to the kiss it ended up being what it was because we had just gone through this experience together of basically marrying one another. I have great affection for Eric and even though he’s not gay, the kiss felt very organic and very real, so we didn’t have to think too much about it. There was a lot of pressure we put on ourselves to make it a special moment. But when you look at the person and actually go through the motions of getting married to someone it just happens. You don’t have to act.

Season 5, Episode 22 “Message Received”

Mitch confronts his father, Jay (Ed O’Neill), about Jay’s discomfort with his son’s marriage to another man. The episode ends with Mitch telling Jay that, if that’s how he feels, he shouldn’t attend the wedding.

This is the episode I submitted for Emmy consideration. It’s always wonderful acting opposite Ed O’Neill. He’s one of the greats. I was really moved by that moment because it’s so truthful. My dad had his own evolution with accepting my sexuality, so I think it’s a very truthful story to tell. It’s not the funniest story to tell and it’s not prettiest story to tell, but it’s really brave for the writers to say that this is still an issue for Jay. It’s really smart of them to do that, too, because Ed’s character is an “in” for a lot of people. Because you have to let people accept at their own pace. You can’t speed that along. There’s something really wonderful about that honesty, and I feel like it was a very smart thing to include into that storyline. And of course it pays out so beautifully when he walks me down the aisle. It’s a very earned moment.

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As told to Kevin Fallon.