Entertainment

Eric Stonestreet talks Emmys, clowns, gay marriage and Tonganoxie

Thanks to the ABC hit “Modern Family,” the rest of the country thinks Tonganoxie is in Missouri, if they think it’s anywhere at all.

But there’s a very good reason why the character of Cameron — the larger-than-life, funnier half of “Family’s” same-sex couple, played to the hilt by Eric Stonestreet — is said to hail from that side of the state line.

“When we started talking about where Cam was from, we wanted him to be from somewhere sort of rural,” Stonestreet says. “And I knew enough about the business to know that we would start to then make fun of where Cam was from.

“So I said, well, I would rather him be from Missouri, so we’d be making fun of Missouri and not my home state of Kansas.”

Sorry, Show-Me Staters.

You may already know Stonestreet’s bio. He grew up in Kansas City, Kan., and as a kid rode his bike where Village West is now. He went on to Kansas State University and ultimately, of course, Los Angeles.

But Stonestreet, who turned 41 this month, comes back on a regular basis. He played in the All-Star celebrity softball game this summer. He has helped flip the switches on both the Plaza Lights and the Mayor’s Christmas Tree. He’s proud to be from here, he says.

The fourth season of his show premieres next week, but before then — Sunday night — Stonestreet will find out if he has won a second best supporting actor Emmy for playing Cam, “Family’s” former clown and former farm kid. Both of which, incidentally, also describe Stonestreet.

Stonestreet spent his summer break from “Family” shooting the big-screen crime comedy “Identity Thief” with Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy. It’s due out in February.

But “Modern Family” is his main gig, and this season, Cam will take a job at his daughter’s school, a situation that will lead, we’re pretty sure, to inspired hilarity.

We chatted with Stonestreet from L.A. last week. Just days later, he’d make news for reportedly getting into a shouting match with a St. Louis Cardinals fan at a Cardinals-L.A. Dodgers game. Then a magazine would report that Stonestreet has split with his girlfriend of about three years, Broadway star Katherine Tokarz.

We, however, got the scoop on the pigs, cows and clowns in Stonestreet’s KCK past.

Q. Why is Cam from “Tonganoxie”?

A.

That came purely from the fact that Tonganoxie was one of our rivals in high school. I went to Piper High School. It was the first season (of “Modern Family”), and I just wanted there to be a shout-out to the people I went to high school with and knew me. It was just my little way of saying hello to everybody. The writers let us contribute things like that every once in a while. In one episode, a Valentine’s Day episode, I used the name Don Jolly. He’s the guy that lives across the street from my parents.

So you have conversations with the writers about growing up here, or do they just write rural jokes and you sneak in a name once in a while?

It just depends on what it is. They always ask me for points of clarification on different things when it comes to tractors and pigs and farming. They’re always vetting their jokes and factual information with me to see if it’s true.

You were not a farm kid, were you?

Yeah, I grew up out by where the racetrack is now. I grew up on five acres and we rented the 40 (acres) next to us. I had pigs and cows to feed every morning and every night from about the third grade on. We didn’t farm land. It was all with 4-H. I had a full-on pig operation from the time I was in third grade until I graduated high school. But none of my best friends in high school had pigs and cows.

Is it true you get your Cameron mannerisms from your mom and grandma?

Not my grandma, but definitely my mom. When I went in for the audition I had to figure out a way to do the character. (I thought) if I did kind of a slight impersonation of my mom, with my physicality and the way I look, it could work out really well. Of course, the character grows and is always changing and being informed by other things.

What’s the history of Fizbo the clown?

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a clown in the circus. I was in The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Kansan more than a few times. If you look at that Fizbo episode from the first season, when they show the article that they flash back to, that’s the actual article that was written about me (in the Kansas City Kansan) and that’s really me in those pictures. It was my way then as a young man to express my desire to entertain and perform. I didn’t know what I was saying then was that I wanted to be an actor.

I had parents, fortunately, who didn’t think I was weird. They thought it was funny and cute and encouraged me to do it. And I had a grandma who would make my costumes. By the time I was 11, I was performing at 6- and 7-year-olds’ birthday parties.

Did you make any money doing that?

Oh, yeah! Between my pig operation and my clown business, I was rollin’ in it, man. I had business cards, the whole deal. You know, I don’t know where the name Fizbo came from. I do know one day that’s what my dad was calling me and that’s the name that I printed on my business cards. And then all of a sudden (“Fizbo”) is the name of an episode of a hit TV show and I win an Emmy for it. So it’s pretty unbelievable.

What do you do when you’re back in this area?

You know, what I like to do when I come home is do nothing. I like to sit on the couch and watch TV and go out to eat with my mom and dad and family and try to see as many people as I can, friends from high school. But I don’t come home and go out to Westport or party it up. Home to me is very relaxing and it allows me to just really be me.

I’m lucky enough that when I come home, my mom is still willing and able and happy to do my laundry, and that feels good. My dad cooks, and we just do what every family does.

What’s ahead for Cam and Mitchell on “Modern Family”? Is there a new baby coming?

There’s a new baby coming for Gloria. Sofia Vergara’s character is pregnant on the show. So Mitch and Cam have given up the desire to adopt (another) baby for now.

(On Wednesday’s premiere, they’ll contemplate adopting a cat.)

Is there anything you want to see happen for your character?

Well, I just love when they put Cam in excruciatingly painful situations. This year Lily goes to kindergarten, so I have more time on my hands. There’s an opening at the school for a music teacher, so I take the job and get myself into some pretty awkward situations. As an actor I just like being challenged to create funny moments.

“Modern Family” has visited Hawaii and Disneyland. Do you think there’s any chance we’ll see Cam and Mitchell and even the extended family make a trip to Missouri?

I always say that. I think that before the show ends, we have to come to Silver Dollar City and Branson, because that’s basically where Cam’s character is from, southern Missouri. I’m always pitching a trip to Kansas City or that part of the country. Who knows? I’ve told them that if we did that, Kansas City would roll out the welcome mat. I think there are some other vacations we have to take before I’ll convince Hollywood to come to southern Missouri.

You’d be following on the heels of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Do you remember that they filmed some episodes at Silver Dollar City?

I don’t remember that, but that’s an amazing little piece of trivia that I will now use …

If you think it’d hurt the cause, don’t mention it.

No, I think it would help the cause!

“Modern Family” is perceived as a cultural force that’s helping advance acceptance of same-sex marriage. Do the people on the show think about that, or is it all about making a funny show?

There’s absolutely no agenda. Chris (Lloyd) and Steve (Levitan) wanted to create a show with characters that they knew, and when you live in Hollywood, California, you definitely know someone like Mitch and Cam.

I think it’s taken on a life of its own. Jesse (Tyler Ferguson, who plays Mitchell) and I certainly don’t feel like we’re the flag bearers for that, but we gladly accept the opportunity to educate people and open people’s minds and hearts. This isn’t a political thing, from our perspective, it’s a human thing.

I personally believe that gay people should have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else in the marriage department. But our only agenda and our only goal is to make people laugh.

Let’s talk Emmys. You’ve been nominated three times. Care to offer any predictions on who will win in your category Sunday night? (His show has four of the six nominees.)

I just hope it’s someone from “Modern Family.” I’ve been fortunate enough to win and Ty (Burrell) has been fortunate enough to win. I think we both agree that it would be great to get Ed (O’Neill) and Jesse in there. The cool thing about being nominated and winning the first year is that it really takes the pressure and expectations off of any other year.

Jesse and I joked around that we should write each other’s acceptance speeches in case one of us wins, and not look at what the speech says until you’re up on the stage.

That night in 2010 when you won, you said onstage that the trophy would be going home with your mom. So where is it these days?

It’s in Kansas City. It’s at my parents’ house, on the mantel, exactly where I thought they’d put it. You know, me winning was the award and the honor. I didn’t necessarily need a trophy to be reminded that I’d won an Emmy, and I knew that them having it would mean a lot to them. … They’re the ones that made that possible. It was just important for me to give them that award, for all they’ve done for my brother and sister and me over the years.

CAMERON TUCKER, PROUD TONGANOXIAN …

Eric Stonestreet’s character often name-checks his home (somewhere in southern Missouri):

• “Missouri is more cosmopolitan than you give it credit for. It’s got a very vibrant cowboy poetry scene.”

• “My senior year, I had a pretty crazy night … involving a bottle of corn mash and an overturned plow. You don’t know terror until you’ve had to stare down the eyes of a Missouri state trooper and talk your way out of a PUI.”

• “I am just a kook for racquetball. Club champ, two years in a row, Tonganoxie, Missouri, rec center.”

• Cameron: “When we first met, he wouldn’t even look at me because I was a hick from the farm in Missouri and he’s a big city mouse.”

Mitchell: “Who says city mouse?”

Cameron: “Country mice.”

• “If I was home right now, I’d be mixing up a bathtub full of eggnog and trying to squeeze a greased hog into a Santa hat. You don’t think I don’t miss that?”

IT HAD TO BE CAM

More quotable quotes from “Modern Family’s” Cameron Tucker (played by Eric Stonestreet):

• “I’m sort of like Costco. I’m big, I’m not fancy and I dare you to not like me.”

• “It’s hard to have a relationship and a clown career. That’s the reason there are so many single clowns.”

• “I’m the ass-kicking clown that will twist you like a balloon animal!”

• “If this were the ’60s, we would be ‘confirmed bachelors,’ and Lily would be a Yorkie.”

• “When I get home I’m gonna scrub this place like it’s a crime scene, which it is because you murdered joy.”

• “It’s better to carry a tune than a grudge.”

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN

“Modern Family” producers originally saw Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the Cameron character, Ferguson recently told The New York Times. That role ultimately, of course, went to Eric Stonestreet. Ferguson preferred the more subdued character of Mitchell.

“I’ve played the flashy role before and I was interested in the challenge of playing the straight man,” Ferguson said. “I also wanted the challenge of playing not only a boyfriend, but a father and a brother and a son as well.”

And, he added, “I kept thinking in the back of my head, ‘If I’m in the family and they don’t like me, they can’t fire me.’ If you’re one of the in-laws you’re easily dispensable.”

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