After eight years as Cameron Tucker on the hit sitcom Modern Family, Eric Stonestreet has become the latest ABC star to moonlight as a host on the network. He’s emceeing The Toy Box, a new reality competition premiering Friday in which inventors vie for approval from a group of toy experts followed by a panel of kid judges. At season’s end, Mattel will manufacture the winning toy, which will be sold exclusively at Toys R Us stores after the finale.
Stonestreet’s second ABC job comes as the future of his primary one is up in the air—he and his Modern Family co-stars’ contracts expire after this season, and the network and studio haven’t yet hammered out new deals to continue what is still one of TV’s top-rated comedies.
The actor spoke with Adweek about breaking his no-hosting rule for The Toy Box, whether this is the end of the line for Modern Family and why he has kept his advertising work to a minimum since landing on the hit show.
Adweek: How did this come about? Were you looking to host something?
Eric Stonestreet: The opposite of looking to host something. I get asked to host things all the time, and I never see the upside of hosting anything.
Did you have a bad experience once?
No. I always feel like if you kill it as a host of something, the reward is, “Oh, he was really great,” and that’s about it. And if you’re terrible at it, it’s a PR nightmare. So I never really wanted to host anything. I think Modern Family is at a level where whatever I choose to do in addition to Modern Family needs to meet that same criteria.
So what changed your mind?
It was the hook of getting to work with the kids, the idea that the kids are going to be these judges and then in addition to that meeting these inventors. My personality is much dryer and darker than the character that I get to play on TV, so I thought it was going to be a fun opportunity to have awkward moments with adults and then rely on my ability to interact with kids from my days of wanting to be a clown. And I love toys. I consider myself a big kid, so the notion that I was going to get to be around toys and kids and have awkward moments with adults, I was like, “This all sounds great!”
You’re acting with kids every week on Modern Family, but were you worried whether that rapport would translate to this environment?
I never really considered it, because I’ve always been able to engage with kids. I was performing at kids’ birthday parties when I was 11 myself, so I’ve just always had a good rapport with kids. I think it is because I don’t treat them like kids. I talk to them just like they get every ounce of my sense of humor, and that’s how it was with the kids on the show. I won’t say that I internally don’t lose my patience just like everyone, but it really comes down to knowing that they’re learning to be there just for themselves, too, so you have to meet them on their ground a little bit.
This show is a bit like Shark Tank, but Shark Tank doesn’t have a host. How did you determine what your role in the show would be?
That was all in the discussion in the beginning, because I am a fan of Shark Tank and was like, “OK, where do I fit into this?” because you also have the mentors, the three adults who are looking at the toys before they come into the Toy Box. I’m like, “Am I just going to seem like just gratuitous good looks? Are you guys just casting me for the ladies so they tune in to see a hunk?” (laughs) No. I did have those questions, and they walked me through what the process was.
You talked about being particular about your extracurricular activities while on Modern Family. Has that always been the case, or did your thinking evolve over these eight seasons?
It’s been that from the beginning. Ed O’Neill [who plays Jay Pritchett, Cam’s father-in-law] had a lot to do with that. We got lucky in that Ed is an experienced veteran and he told us, “You’ve got a really good job now, and you’re going to learn that your time is valuable. You’re going to enjoy your time off, so make sure you choose things that you’re passionate about, that you want to do and/or are better than your day job.” So I have tried to choose things that I’m passionate about. I always tell people, “If you see me someplace and doing something, it’s because I want to be there.” That’s the beauty of having such a gift of a job on Modern Family is that I don’t really have to go do anything that I don’t want to do. So if I’m there, I’m excited to be there, and I’m passionate about being there, which was true on this show. I’ve been asked to do things for commercials, and I have a firm belief that people get tired of people pretty quickly, and I don’t want people to get tired of me.
Is that why you haven’t done too many ads during Modern Family?
I did a campaign for AT&T, and the reason I did that was because I got to play a character, a football coach. I put on a mustache and a hat, and then I get to do something different.
Do you want to do more ads?
It’s got to be the right thing and obviously the right product. The other thing is, I did 100-and-something commercials from ’95 to Modern Family. The last thing I really did before Modern Family was a UPS campaign where I played a newscaster, which was fun. I worked with [legendary commercial director] Joe Pytka almost 50 times. Joe Pytka’s probably the single biggest person responsible for me getting Modern Family in the sense that he kept hiring me, which made me be able to go to auditions and have a a “not care” mentality, because he had hired me so many times. So as far as going to do a commercial it’s like well I’ve done those, so now, is it the product? Is it the director? Is it the other actors? Is it meaningful? When it’s the right thing, I want to do it for sure. If I could work with Joe on something right now, I would say yes in a second.
Your contracts are up on Modern Family after this season. What are you thinking at this point? The industry has changed so much since your show began that it feels like Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory could be broadcast’s last big hit sitcoms. So how has that impact your thinking as a cast?
I think you’re right. The television climate has changed hugely. I have thought about that, and I think ABC and 20th [Century Fox Television, which produces the show] know that as well that we could be one of the last traditional, big network sitcoms. Our numbers, when you look at overall ratings, we’re still right there. Television has declined, so we have changed relative to how television has declined. But I think everyone—the cast, the creators, the network and the studio—all want the show to do as many years as it feels like it should. And I think our show deserves that sort of monumental number, whether that’s nine or 10. I don’t think the show’s over yet. We’re finishing up Season 8, and we’ll see what happens. But I don’t think there’s any question that we all want to hit a nice, round number, hopefully of 10 years.
Whenever the show does end, is there anything else you’d like to try in the industry?
I got to check another thing off my list this last year, well the last two and a half years, by doing a voice in a major animated movie, The Secret Life of Pets. I’d always wanted to lend my abilities to that. That was a blast. And now we’ve started to record Secret Life of Pets 2. And if at the end of Modern Family I could do animated feature films for the next 10 years, I think I’d be OK with that. It’s a great job. It’s really creatively rewarding, because you just feel free.
How about live action?
I never wanted to be the comedic actor that said, “Well, now I want to do drama,” except that before Modern Family, I was always on procedural dramas. I was always the killer or whatever. So as Modern Family is in its twilight, I think it would be really fun now for me to just go away, do something peaceful and quiet for a while, and then come back like Bryan Cranston has done and re-engage an audience in a different way. I’ve gotten to make people laugh for the last eight years, and it’d be fun to move onto something and make an audience feel a different way about me as an actor.