Ty Burrell Talks Charity, Love And Life After Modern Family

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Ty Burrell on putting kids in the spotlight and life after “Modern Family”

BY: LAURA SCHREFFLER

PHOTOGRAPHY: RANDALL SLAVIN

STYLING: CASSANDRA DITTMER & DESIREE MORALES 

GROOMING: AMY FREEMAN

On ABC’s mockumentary sitcom “Modern Family” Ty Burrell’s Phil Dunphy is unequivocally one of the funniest TV dads to ever grace the small screen. He’s the big, beating heart of a three-branch clan, a doofus who refers to himself as the “cool dad” that constantly spouts his own “Phil’s-osophies” such as “Act like a parent, talk like a peer; I call it ‘peerenting’.” Art imitates life for Burrell, who, like the character he plays, is laugh-out-loud funny, heartfelt, family-oriented, compassionate, empathetic to a fault and—most definitively for the actor—philanthropic.

Burrell learned the importance of giving back at an early age from his father. Gary Burrell worked tirelessly with the foster care system and child services and, when he died, Ty (then a college student) decided to carry on the legacy. For nearly ten years, he has been doing so in a  hands-on way with the non-profit Kids in the Spotlight.

The mission of the organization (better known as ‘K.I.T.S.’) is to work with kids in the foster care system and other underserved youth between the ages of 11 and 17 to create, write, cast and star in their own 10-minute short films. ‘Movies by kids, for kids’ are then presented at an annual film festival competition on par with Hollywood’s real red carpet awards ceremonies.         

TB 1Photo Credit: KITS

K.I.T.S. helps encourage self-expression through filmmaking, as well as an interest in movie industry careers. While creating, the kids learn the skills (such as teamwork, creativity and discipline) required to develop a better self-image and sense of accomplishment—plus the necessary tools to rise out of their socio-economic conditions. And it’s not only experience they gain: the screenplays are registered with the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW) and each student receives an official certificate for his or her contribution. Not bad on a résumé either.

Burrell briefly worked with a similar organization, the 52nd Street Project (which matches kids with theater artists), during his Broadway days in New York, but searched for a new outlet when he moved to L.A. to pursue television and film. After discovering K.I.T.S. through one of its board members, Tamesha Scott, nine years ago, he has become the non-profit’s greatest champion—offering support, finances and, most importantly, his time. Working with founder Tige Charity, Burrell acts as a mouthpiece, mentor and all-around salesman (another likeness with the lovable real estate agent he plays on TV). He teaches acting classes and attends events such as the recent Cocktails for a Cause in Los Angeles. “I do what I can to be involved and to help out, but there are many people involved with K.I.T.S, putting in real time and making sacrifices for these kids every day,” he iterates. “My biggest job, I think, is to get the word out and I hope I can do that.”

Another way he’s helping out is hosting the organization’s yearly grand finale—the film festival, which will take place this year on November 4. Burrell is particularly enthusiastic about this event, as well he should be. It would be a dazzling display for any kid, regardless of age or social situation. “[These] kids are basically attending their version of the Oscars. They arrive in limos wearing tuxedos and gowns, which are donated, with their hair and makeup done. They have their own special award ceremony before all the films are screened. It’s a really special afternoon,” he says effusively.

But there’s a reason to get involved that goes way beyond a good time: from a social conscious perspective, K.I.T.S. is almost crucial to creating a safer environment for the kids. “The foster care system is widely, disproportionately represented in the homeless population and the prison population—like staggering, staggering numbers,” Burrell tells us. “I want to say that almost 70 to 75 percent of the prison system [is comprised] of foster care kids, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating.”

TB 2Photo Credit: KITS

He believes that the harder the kids are asked to work, the greater their reward. “It’s a huge project. It would be for any kid, including those who felt supported by a family, a local government or society. But for kids that don’t feel supported, it’s just a massive undertaking.”

That said, being part of their journey to self-improvement—helping to give them a fighting chance—means the world to him. “It can be pretty emotional,” he admits. “I truly can’t think of a charity that would make more of a difference in the world. It’s rewarding and really inspiring because [the organization helps impact] their lives, and I really believe that these kids are going to have a different path because of it.”

He muses, “It’s really beneficial on multiple levels [because] kids feel so marginalized… and we’re telling them that we want to hear their stories. When they finish, they feel—as you can imagine—like they can do anything or, at the very least, feel ‘I am more capable than I thought.’ It works in a very effective way to just give them self-esteem.”

He shows them first-hand what life could be like, and treats them with the respect he would show his own cast members. When they visit the Modern Family set, they don’t geek out or get star struck. Their questions are not ‘Is Sofia Vergara really that beautiful in real life?’ or ‘Are you really as clumsy as your character?’ The budding filmmakers have genuine queries on how to improve—“a lot about memorizing, because a lot of [them] are performing for the first time. I’m really taken by how insightful their questions about the process are. They’re engaged in it. They are in the middle of trying to make their own films, and so most of their questions are craft-related.”

When we suggest that going to the set would be such a treat, he replies deadpan, “I think my job with the kids is just showing them that a really dull-witted guy can succeed [so] it should be easy for them since they’re all smarter and more capable than me.”

Burrell’s self-deprecation is one of his best traits. Although he is super successful—he’s won two Emmys and a Screen Actors Guild Award—he does not need to flaunt it. But then, he didn’t always feel so successful. And that, in part, is what makes him an even more suitable mentor for the foster kids of K.I.T.S.: his ability to identify on a very personal level.

If you looked at a snapshot of his life, however, this ability might seem unlikely. Burrell had an idyllic childhood in southern Oregon with two loving parents—his father, a family counselor and his mother, Sheri, a teacher. In high school, he was a popular, hunky football player (a lineman for the Hidden Valley Mustangs), transitioning into an equally cool undergrad at Southern Oregon University. But after seeing Death of a Salesman at the age of 20 while working a summer gig as a bartender at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, he transferred to the University of Oregon and decided to major in theater studies. He later earned his MFA, also for theater, at Penn State.

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Still, Burrell feels that his story resonates with the K.I.T.S. kids. He did not have a clear plan for a while, coasting along on a sea of uncertainty for much of his teenage years. “I am very lucky that I came from a stable home, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life until acting sorted of landed in my lap when I was in my 20s,” he shares, adding, “Acting, to me, was a bit like the ladder I used to climb out of feeling lost.”

He wants to impress upon his mentees that, despite their differences, they are far more anchored by their similarities. “Among other things, obviously, I think I have a very germane story to tell the kids in that, if you find something that you love, it can contribute to also finding your identity as a person.” He continues, “If they don’t find the thing that they love in this process, [I want them to know that] they don’t need to feel in any way that they are behind in life,  that lots of people don’t find their calling, or even their deepest sense of self-esteem, until they’re older.”

And, sometimes, they don’t develop it at all. “I didn’t feel deeply confident—and I’m not sure that ‘confident’ is even the right word, because I’m not sure that I feel confident yet—but I didn’t feel good about myself until I was in my 20s,” Burrell, who turned 50 this past August, states. “For somebody young who has felt lost, it can feel pretty bleak thinking that [feeling good about themselves] may not happen for them, so I do get to offer that bit of insight.”

When we ask him to expand on how he came to this epic, hard-won realization, he responds in a way that is so Phil Dunphy in his sweetest, most poignant moments: “I [started] to feel deeply proud of myself when I started to follow through on the things that I was scared of, and when I accomplished those things. By ‘accomplished,’ I just mean in the sense that I finished something, not with any great success even, but just by finishing something that was really scary and hard did I start to build up a little bit of trust within myself. It came from knowing that I was scared, and then doing it anyway.”

He continues, “[Working in film] took me a long, long, long time to even attempt, and that these kids are doing that in their early teens and I know that they’re scared and that it’s hard, well, my admiration for them is just boundless.”

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Burrell might just be the ultimate mentor because he is the quintessential family man—and he would need to be because, at this stage in his life, he has three distinct families. In addition to his wife of 17 years, Holly, and adopted daughters Frances, 7, and Greta, 5—plus the close-knit relationships he has with the K.I.T.S. kids—his co-stars (understandably, after almost a decade working together) have become family, too. “I absolutely feel like everyone is family at this point,” he enthuses. “It’s such a bizarre thing that we’ve had nine years together, but we do feel like a very odd family.”

For those unfamiliar, Modern Family follows three separate sections of the same family tree, revolving around the life of Jay Pritchett (Ed O’Neill) and his children, all of whom live in suburban Los Angeles; that includes Jay’s second wife (Sofia Vergara) and her son (Rico Rodriguez). Burrell’s character is married to Claire Dunphy, Jay’s daughter (Julie Bowen), and is the father of Haley, Alex and Luke (played by Sarah Hyland, Ariel Winter and Nolan Gould, respectively).

But as much as he plays the Dunphy patriarch on the small screen, in real life, he feels more like a sibling to all of his cast members—from 71-year-old O’Neill to 10-year-old Aubrey Anderson-Emmons and everyone in between. “I can’t say that I feel like I’m anyone’s dad necessarily, or Ed’s son, because [we] are peers… It’s as if [our] parents had kids for like, 60 years,” he says with a laugh.

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But unlike his real family and his mentees, he knows that time with his Modern Family fam-jam has a certain shelf life. Although the series—which has won an outstanding 21 Emmy awards since its September 23, 2009 debut—was renewed for another season in May 2017, nothing can last forever. “We’ll feel very proud of ourselves that we’ve made it through ten seasons but, at the same time, it’s going to be very sad [at the end],” he shares. “It will be a hard thing to say goodbye to the daily rhythm of seeing everyone’s faces, and just how fun and loving it’s been.”

The end of the series could also mean Burrell stepping away from acting. He confides, “Honestly, I’ve been taking my lumps as a producer and really enjoying learning how to do that. I think I’m not really willing to travel very much anymore, or miss too many dinners away from my

kids. [So] there’s a possibility that I may step away from performing altogether when the show is over”—though he notes that if he did continue, it would have to be “something like another television show, where it was close to home and I knew the hours were going to allow me to be around the way that [Modern Family] has.”

Those are some big words for a guy that’s been acting the majority of his life now. His career actually started on stage: he earned incredible reviews in the world premiere of Caryl Churchill’s two-hander play, Drunk Enough to Say I Love You, at the Royal Court Theatre in London. His Broadway and Off-Broadway credits include the highly acclaimed Signature Theater production of Burn This opposite Edward Norton, Catherine Keener and Dallas Roberts; starring as Lord Buckingham in the Public Theater’s production of Richard III opposite Peter Dinklage and directed by Peter DuBois; and starring opposite Debra Monk and Judy Greer in Paul Weitz’s Show People, directed by Peter Askin at Second Stage Theater.

His film credits are also substantial: he worked on Warner Animation Group’s Storks, DreamWorks Animation’s Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Disney’s Muppets Most Wanted, Roger Michel’s Morning Glory opposite Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton, Universal’s The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton and Liv Tyler, National Treasure 2 opposite Nicolas Cage, Steven Shainberg’s Fur about the life of Diane Arbus, Nicole Holofcener’s Friends with Money co-starring Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Jennifer Aniston, the Weitz brothers’ In Good Company, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, and Ivan Reitman’s Evolution. Last year, he lent his voice to the Disney/Pixar Finding Nemo sequel, Finding Dory, which also featured Modern Family co-star O’Neill and had the best opening for an animated film of all time, grossing $486.3 million at the North American box office and over $1 billion worldwide. His most recent film role was Sony Pictures’ Rough Night opposite Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer, Zoe Kravitz and Demi Moore.   

And the budding producing career he referenced? In 2014, he launched his production company, Wedding Punch—and signed a deal with 20th Century Fox TV, the studio behind Modern Family, to co-create and write comedy projects, as well as develop shows from other writers. This included the 2015 pilot for Hosed, a workplace romp about volunteer firefighters, the 2016 digital series Boondoggle he starred in (very loosely based on his life) that launched on ABC’s video-streaming service and, this year, the podcast Mouth Feelings he developed about the things you put into your mouth and the feelings that come out of it.   

Given that he devoted an entire project to the subject of eating, it isn’t difficult to see that food—eating it, talking about it and serving it—is yet another passion for Burrell. Alongside his brother, Duncan, as well as three other partners, he is the co-owner of three spots in his wife’s home state of Utah, where the couple keeps a second residence: the craft cocktail bar Bar X and its sister bar, Beer Bar, in Salt Lake City and The Eating Establishment in Park City.

He sounds like a man that has it all, a fact he’s well aware of. Burrell  knows that Modern Family has afforded him the luxury to do what he loves and indulge his favorite things. And while he’s been the ‘cool dad’ in his TV family, when the series ends, he stands by his disinterest in flitting off to far-flung shooting locations. He simply wants to be present.

“I had kids a little bit later in life and I have actually had time to be around them. I know a lot of people in our business that 100 percent out of necessity—not by choice—just aren’t able to be around the people that they want to be spending time with. No matter what happens, I’ll either not perform at all or find something that’s that exact same scenario [as Modern Family],” he states. “It’s very hard to say at this point if that opportunity would exist or not.”

Although Phil Dunphy once spouted, “The most amazing things that can happen to a human being will happen to you if you just lower your expectations,” Burrell disagrees. He has been able to spend precious time with his family, work a job that he loves and be involved with a rewarding organization like K.I.T.S. due to good luck, perseverance, determination and a refusal to compromise. “I consider [time to be with the people I love and do the things that I love] the greatest gift that the show has given me,” he says. “And I’m not willing to give that up.”

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