For years, Modern Family star and two-time Emmy winner Eric Stonestreet’s most reliable work was in commercials. He starred in over 100 of them in the days when he was still grinding out a living as a working actor in Los Angeles, he tells me on the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting.
Yet Stonestreet says that despite all his commercial work, he did very few “bite and smiles” — those ads where an actor takes a bite of some supposedly delicious product and then smiles at how much they’re enjoying it. As a heavyset man, Stonestreet wasn’t what fast food joints and soda companies wanted to show in their ads.
Indeed, he remembers vividly a Diet Pepsi ad where famed commercial director Joe Pytka (who gave Stonestreet many of his earliest roles and also directed Space Jam) fought hard to cast Stonestreet in the central role, despite the company’s reticence.
“I’ll never forget him screaming on the set, ‘Who do you think drinks your goddamn stuff?! Fat people!’” he recalls with a laugh.
When Stonestreet moved to Los Angeles from Chicago, he developed two rules for himself. The first was that he would have realistic expectations — as he put it to me, he might not be a lifeguard on Baywatch, but he could be an ambulance driver. The second came more slowly, as he came to realize that he was fine using his body type for laughs in a commercial but wanted his work in actual TV shows to have more meaning to it.
Here’s how he put it to me:
So many of us as actors, we tether ourselves to ideas that aren’t possible. This is a business that discriminates. A tried and true process of who gets jobs is based on personal taste. “I want that person to have that job because I like the color of his hair. I like that person because he’s short, and that’s funny.” It’s just the way our business works for everyone across the board. So I knew that going in, and I knew that that was what I was choosing for myself.
And I was painted every color in the spectrum in commercials. That’s back in the day when big guys painted were all the rage. I was blue and red. I was silver for Coors Light. I was green for something. Every color you can imagine, I painted myself on TV and whored some product. In commercials, it was different. I was willing to do that. In TV, I never wanted my size to be the butt of the joke, or my bigness. And for a long time, I could look at my resume and my reel and say, “I didn’t get any of those jobs because of me being a heavyset guy.” My first role on TV was on a show called Dharma & Greg, and it was just a couple of lines. But it’s not like it said, “Fat Guy answers the door.” It was just “Guy answers the door.”
In an episode of Modern Family that we just shot, I was, like, “If this story is because Cam’s a big guy, and that’s why we think this is funny, I’m opposed to it. We’re better than that. It’s not okay just to make this joke because it would be funny to make Cam do this. I wanna know the story behind it. I wanna know where it came from.” I’ve always said that.
We did an episode in season four, I think, where me, Eric Stonestreet, lost a few pounds, and we did a couple episodes where I was throwing out my fat jeans, and I said, “We’re not saying the word ‘fat’ that many times. We can say it a couple times, but I don’t want to talk about that. We can come up with better, creative ways.”
I’ve always been sensitive to whenever I read something [like that], because I still think making fun of fat people is the last bastion of what’s acceptable in our world. I still, being me on TV, will have people in parking lots ... [where] it’s, like, “Dude, you’re parked so close to my car, I can’t even get to my car.” “Well, shut your fat fucking face!” They go to it just like that. [snaps fingers]
But Stonestreet also thinks that in many cases, the audience is predisposed to sympathize with larger characters. It’s a theory he developed in his career in improv comedy.
I did improv for most of my career coming up, and every once in a while, I would run into an improviser that would bring my size up on stage in an improv, and it never went over well. I would have to explain to them, “Here’s the deal. When we walk on the stage, people are predetermined to like me more than you, because of John Belushi, because of John Candy, because of Chris Farley, because of Jonathan Winters — all the people they associate with making them laugh over the years. Second City, there’s always a big guy on the stage for a reason, because we’re more likable than you are. And you can choose to go out there and embrace that, or you can go out there and make fun of me and turn the audience against you. Your choice.”
I always tried to make how I looked secondary, and my assistant that used to work for me, he’s an actor and he worked for me five years. He was auditioning over that time, and I told him, “At some point, you’re going to have to figure out what your line is. What your personal line is in an audition, when they say, ‘Pop off your shirt.’ And if the commercial is about that you’re fat, if you’re OK with that.
“If you’re not, draw the line now, and never go back beyond it. Let somebody else cash those checks, and you keep your pride and your self-worth.”
For more with Stonestreet, including talk about how Modern Family has and hasn’t changed over the years, a quick nostalgic jaunt through his time as a man scared of a pig demon on American Horror Story, and his thoughts on working as a reality host on his new show The Toy Box, listen to the full episode below.
To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — visit the I Think You’re Interesting archives.