Interview: ‘The Real O’Neals’ Matt Shively Talks Playing 17, Auditions and His first Acting Job
“I like to be totally memorized because if you’re not fully memorized, you can’t really make choices.” – Matt Shively on Auditioning
Matt Shively stars alongside Martha Plimpton, Jay R. Ferguson, Bebe Wood and Noah Galvin on ABC’s new family comedy, The Real O’Neals. Shively plays the oldest sibling in the seemingly perfect family and, as he told me, they “don’t realize that being perfect is not the normal thing to be.” After a night a high-stress, where the youngest son tells everyone that he’s gay, the family has to “start learning how to actually communicate with each other.”
Shively, who’s also starred in True Jackson and Paranormal Activity 4, recently talked to me about auditioning for the show, working with the great Martha Plimpton and how he prepares for auditions.
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‘The Real O’Neals’ airs on Tuesdays at 8:30 on ABC
Can you tell me about the show and who you play?
Matt Shively: I play Jimmy O’Neill who is the eldest son/oldest sibling. The show is about a family whose trying so hard to be perfect and don’t realize that being perfect is not the normal thing to be and after a night of high stress, finally, let all of their problems and struggles out on the table and have to start learning how to actually communicate with each other.
How did you first get involved with the show?
Matt Shively: I auditioned for it a couple times. I was very fortunate difficult because physically I’m not the jock type. So, I went into it thinking like, “You know, this is just gonna be a throw away because I’m not gonna get this.” I think it was my hair, my slicked back hair. I think that got it for me.
It’s always the hair.
Matt Shively: That was my fault. I made a big mistake by doing the slicked back hair. I thought it was actually cool and when I went in they told me afterwards, “By the way, your hair is one of the main things we love most about you.” I don’t know what that says about my acting.
The best part was that I didn’t think that I was gonna get it, so I went in and I just played around and I did things that I wouldn’t usually do because I was like, “This is a lost cause. So I might as well just go in and have fun.” So, I did a little bit of improv and I just kind of messed around a lot with it and that fortunately was something that actually worked out in my favor.
Isn’t that always the way? When you think that you’re not gonna get something, you do so much better, I think.
Matt Shively: Oh yeah. The main thing about acting is confidence, having confidence. When you kind of just throw it away and think that this isn’t going to go anywhere and you’re not too worried about it. That confidence shines through and that usually ends up getting it for you. And that literally was my thing.
You guys have a great cast, especially Martha Plimpton. I love her.
Matt Shively: I could not have asked for anybody else, she is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my life. She’s very straightforward, she’s very honest and she has an opinion about everything but it’s usually the correct way to think.
And we got really lucky because we didn’t do a chemistry read, which is something that’s very rare, especially when you’re dealing with having a family. To not chemistry is crazy. I think Bebe Wood was actually the first person cast and then it was me and then it was Noah [Galvin] and then they brought in the parents. And somehow the first table read, we just all clicked. And from that point on it it was smooth sailing. And that never happens that way. It was amazing.
I think you’re in your mid-20s and you play 17-year-old, right?
Matt Shively: Yeah, yeah.
You come from a long line of actors in their 20s playing teenagers.
Matt Shively: If you look back in the 90s, I think there were actors in their mid-30s playing 17 or 18 years old. And then Andrew Garfield’s 29 playing an 18-year-old Spider-Man. I think producers finally realized that really can’t work.
I guess it helps because you’ve kind of lived those 17-year-old aches and pains.
Matt Shively: Oh, absolutely. It actually helps knowing more about life and everything. It helps to deal with the character who’s very supportive instead of having an opinion that’s very negative. And something that I learned many years ago, the older I get the more I learn about life and I think it makes it really easy to just kind of dive into whatever I need to dive into.
This is kind of a bold show up for ABC to put on the air and I love it. Have you received any sort of hate mail or tweets from people?
Matt Shively: You know, it’s funny. Noah is usually the person who gets any sort of hate tweets but the neatest thing was that prior to it premiering, a lot of people had negative things to say about it because they thought it was abusing religion and it was all about homosexuality. But the second that it premiered, all of those negative things went away. Those people decided either to watch and like it or just not watch and get over it from that point on. It’s so crazy how much positive feedback we’ve been getting for the show.
Yeah, it’s like this sweet, family show.
Matt Shively: My favorite thing is the fact that it follows the same mold that you see in shows like The Middle or The Goldbergs, shows of that nature where it has a really, really good message and I think that there’s something to learn from it.
When you get to set how prepared are you?
Matt Shively: I was for the first couple weeks and then once the writers get in the flow of things and find out more about you and how to write for you, it’s so easy to just get to set and get your pages. So, by the third week, you kind of just getting there looking at your pages and it kind of flows out of your mouth. It’s things that I would say, it’s things that I would do. I’m a little smarter than my character so it makes it a lot easier.
And then also they’re very open to kind of doing your own thing, so I was able to include a lot of my own mannerisms and a lot of my own words at times. It was really nice.
And the more the writers get to know you and who you are, the more they write specifically towards you and what you can do.
Matt Shively: Oh, absolutely. Once they get a hold of what you can do comedicly, the rest is smooth sailing. They just know exactly what to put down and it makes it very easy for me. It might not be easy for them but it is very easy for me.
Kind of along those lines, say as soon as we get off the phone your agent or manager calls and says, “Hey, we’ve got this audition for you tomorrow.” How prepared are you when you get to that audition?
Matt Shively: I always like to make sure that I’m memorized. It looks really good when you’re not looking down at the paper. I know a lot of people who actually go by the method of actually looking at your pages but I like to be totally memorized because if you’re not fully memorized, you can’t really make choices.
And so if I got that call right now, I would be at home and I would be going over it a few times. Luckily, I have like a photographic memory so I’m able to memorize things really quickly, which allows me to figure out what choices I want to make. So it ends up working out a lot in my favor.
Oh man, I would love to have that. Sometimes I feel like I just have to have it blasted it into my brain just so I can remember it.
Matt Shively: I also did a lot of theater in high school. I used to count my lines to see how many there were. I remember I did How To Succeed and I had something like 530 lines and I was like, “I’m never going to be able to do this.” Repetition really kind of helps and it just makes it a lot easier to get it down. I think that’s what has helped me to be able to memorize lines now, the fact that I did a lot of theater where you have to memorize everything at once for something that’s gonna take two or three hours. It makes it a lot easier now to memorize things.
Who did you plan in that show, J. Pierrepont Finch?
Matt Shively: I did, yeah, which was terrible because I was going through puberty and the day before we opened I lost my voice. We had five nights and I had no voice all four days up until the final night when it finally came back. It was a nightmare for me because I was so excited to do this and then all of a sudden was like, “Oh, I can’t sing. This is fantastic.”
Would you want to do any more theater?
Matt Shively: Oh, absolutely. Once I have job security, something that I know that I’ll be doing for a while or I have enough money saved up that I can live without having to do more television or film, I will absolutely be back in the theater. I miss it more than anything. That’s where started and that’s where I’ll probably end.
Did you always know that you wanted to be an actor?
Matt Shively: I didn’t always know. In the fourth grade I did The Polar Express, the play, and from that moment on, I was like ‘I enjoy entertaining people and I enjoy making them laugh or cry and making them feel something.’ I love taking people out of their everyday problems and making them leave themselves into whatever it is that’s going on in front of them and forgetting all about those things. I love that because that’s the way to film and TV is for me. I watch television because of the fact that I can forget everything in the world and it’s almost like a meditation, I can just kind of sink into it.
What was your first professional acting job?
Matt Shively: Disneyland decided that they were gonna turn Tom Sawyer’s Island into like an interactive thing where you’d wear headphones and you walk around the island and you’d find try to find treasures and I played the voice of Tom Sawyer. I went in I recorded like 18 hours of things and I got to go to Disneyland and put the headphones on and do it and they never went through with it. That was the first thing that I ever did.
It was really cool. You’d get to certain places and they’d have sensors that was set up and you could try and find treasures and run from Injun Joe and all that kind of stuff.
What’s the worst audition that you’ve ever been on?
Matt Shively: The worst audition that I’ve ever been on… before Ken Jeong did Dr. Ken, he did an MTV show and I ended up testing for it with him in the room. I just couldn’t concentrate and forgot everything that was going on. I may have been star struck and loving the fact that I was reading with him, but I ended up just improving everything because I forgot everything. Like mid-sentence, I’d just forget things. So there’s a big bummer for me. On the ride home, I just stared at the sun hoping I would go blind.