As the pater familias in Modern Family, by all accounts one of the most successful and influential sitcoms currently on air, Ty Burrell has spent the last nine years guilelessly but undeniably stepping into the role of national dad. Depending on your politics, you might argue that he shared the gig with Barack Obama for a while. But now it’s just him and his alter ego Phil Dunphy, a flawed but lovable guy trying his best to keep his kids and his double-takingly beautiful wife happy and sane. And, yes, Dunphy is a sitcom archetype, but he works because Burrell owns it. The performance, which doesn’t even feel like a performance anymore, is preposterous, lived-in, and deeply genuine. Ty Burrell isn’t Phil Dunphy, but they are both real.
“The thing I get the most is, ‘You’re not going to believe me, but people tell me I’m like Phil!'” says Burrell, whose voice is cracking from screaming his way through a day filming a jet pack scene at Lake Tahoe. He gets that. He’s willing to have that same conversation a lot of times because he’s been there. “I have experienced so many failures at home on just one day as a parent,” he laughs. “It’s impossible to pretend everything’s going great when somebody’s throwing potatoes at your face.”
However, and this warrants attention, Burrell is actually very cool. He is, among other things, a movie star. He also owns two bars and a restaurant in Utah, where he and his family live. “It’s all very Big Love,” he says, which is a polite deflection. It’s more Entourage, but actually cool and not obnoxious. Bar X, a restored cocktail lounge from 1933, and Beer Bar, a beer bar, are in Salt Lake while a diner, the Eating Establishment, is in Park City. These are cool places to go–in so much as that’s a thing in Utah. And Burrell has side hustles on the side of his side hustles. Inspired by his own father, a social worker who worked with foster children, Burrell is carrying on his legacy with KITS, a non-profit program which empowers foster children through film making. So, yeah, Burell is who you want him to be even if he isn’t Dunphy.
Burrell took the Fatherly Questionnaire on set.
What is your name?
Actor. Idiot. I prefer ‘Professional Idiot.’
How old are your children?
7 and 5.
What are their names?
Frances is 7; Greta is 5.
Are they named after anyone in particular?
No. It is a Danish name and my wife has Danish heritage.
Do you have any cute nicknames for your children?
Frances’s nickname is Frankie. Greta’s middle name is Germa ,which is my wife’s maiden name so she gets called GG a lot. They’re pretty cool nicknames. It was an accident but we still pat ourselves on the back.
What do they call you?
They call me Daddy. They occasionally call me Ty, which cracks me up. They call me “Phil Dunphy” when they want to get a laugh out of me. If they want something, I can tell if they’re being manipulative because they called me Papa, like I’m in a Russian novel. I will never tell them how obvious they are being.
How often do you see them?
I’m lucky. I get to see them everyday. I don’t often get to see them in the morning because I go to work really early, usually about 6 am. We have dinner together every night. We’re very traditional in that way. My wife and I were both raised in households where you sat down at dinner every night. It is a wonderful rhythm of the day thing.
Describe yourself as a father in three words.
Well intended dope.
Describe your father in three words.
Well intended dope. No, I’m kidding. Kind, sensitive, and hilarious.
What are your weaknesses as a father? Relatedly, what is your biggest regret as a father?
Oh my gosh. My biggest weakness as a father is allowing my daughters to have tantrums. When I grew up, tantrums weren’t allowed and I sometimes feel like I need to let them get it out of their system. On the other hand, I have a lot of German in me. Sometimes I can be like, “We don’t shout. No shouting.” There’s probably a happy medium but I’ve never found it.
What’s your favorite activity to do with your children that is your special father kid thing?
Fly-fishing. We’ve been a few times since there’s great fishing in Utah. I expected I would be selling my daughters on it but, my God, they flip out over it. To be honest, we usually catch and release but the girls are excited about eating the fish too. They’re just like “I want to kill it.” “No, I want to kill it.”
What has been the moment you have been most proud of as a parent and why?
I”m really proud of the time we take every nigh to cook together. Our youngest daughter, in particular, participates. It does take a little bit of effort and does feel incredibly satisfying to sit around the table and talk about the day over food that we all made.
What heirloom did your father give to you, if any?
The most important things my father left to me, and to all of his kids, were his paintings. He was a very talented artist who turned down a full scholarship to UCLA in the fine arts for family reasons up in Oregon. He never really scratched that itch professionally so his painting at home on his days off were very important to him. Now they’re important to us.
What heirloom do you want to leave for your children, if anything?
I can’t really think of anything physical that I’d single out to leave my girls. The memory of laughter are my best memories of my dad so, hopefully, they’ll have lots of those. Many of them at my expense, I’m sure.
Describe the “Dad Special” for dinner?
Dad special is whole chicken on the grill. Its pretty boring but the girls dig into the legs like they’ve been on a desert island for years.
Are you religious and are you raising your children in that tradition?
I’m not religious but I have a great deal of respect for religion. My father’s family was a very non-literal Christian Science clan and it was a lovely positive experience without the fundamentalism that can accompany any religion. We attend a Unitarian church very occasionally but, honestly, I wish we went more. I always find it to be meaningful and valuable. Hopefully the girls will have enough experience with religion to make up their own minds.
What’s is a mistake you made growing up that you want to ensure your child does not repeat?
I’d like for my kids to understand that their instincts are who they are and who they are is enough. It’s something I didn’t understand until adulthood and still forget occasionally.…
Aside from saying it, how do you make sure you kid knows you love him or her?
Hopefully just be being present and compassionate. We’ll see how I did based on my kid’s memoirs in 30 years.