“In TV, I never wanted my size to be the butt of the joke, or my bigness.” – Eric Stonestreet
Actors who fit a type like “overweight” or “stereotypical minority” often face a tough decision — do they embrace the stereotype in order to find work in one-dimensional roles, or do they attempt to find success in spite of those often-hurtful portrayals? Eric Stonestreet — who has become a star on the incredibly successful Modern Family — explored the issue in a discussion with Vox.
Now a star of one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, Stonestreet went from “overweight man in commercials” to roles that weren’t defined by a character’s size. He explains:
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.”
On the other hand, Stonestreet recognizes the humorous traditional appeal of the “heavyset funny guy” that has followed larger funnymen in comedy. He continues:
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.”