Beverly Hills, Calif. -- On TV, actor Ty Burrell routinely kills, in the comedic sense, as Phil Dunphy, the benign, well-meaning, slightly goofy, insecure father figure on the sitcom Modern Family.
The role won an Emmy for the Oregon-born Burrell, deservedly. Modern Family's faux documentary style requires a certain subtlety from its cast -- OK, let's exclude Sofia Vergara -- in which the actors are required to tread turf exactly halfway between documentary realism and classic sitcom buffoonery. In its five seasons on the air, Burrell, 46, has proven to be a master of the form.
It is kind of a surprise, then, to see him in the cast of Muppets Most Wanted, the sequel to the 2011 reboot The Muppets, opening in theatres Friday. In the role of prickly French Interpol agent Jean-Pierre Napoleon, Burrell is about as subtle as Fozzie Bear. He assures that he has never played as broad a character as this, at least not on a TV or movie screen.
"If you're a theatre student, you will inevitably come across characters that are really broad, and I've always had a ton of fun doing characters like that," says Burrell, who, at this precise moment, is far removed from the realm of down-and-dirty theatre where he got his start, sitting on the balcony off a suite at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, with the Hollywood sign visible in the east.
If Jean-Pierre is practically a cartoon character, Burrell still invested his performance with a thoughtful nod to classic archetypes.
"There's this character called Il Capitano that's part of old Italian theatre tradition, Commedia dell'arte," says Burrell, who appeared in a Broadway production of Macbeth in 2000, as well as several off-Broadway works. "Jean-Pierre is essentially just that, a character who is super self-satisfied, pompous, but really flawed -- which gives him a higher perch to fall from."
Obviously, the character has a more recognizable foundation, he admits. "If you play a French inspector in a comedy and they give you a pencil-thin moustache, I think by law, you're required to rip off (Inspector) Clouseau, which I did," says Burrell of the beloved buffoon of the Pink Panther franchise.
It was useful having those foundations, given that Burrell found himself star-struck working opposite Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the other Muppets. The furry comedy collective created by Jim Henson pretty much defined Burrell's understanding of comedy when he was a kid.
"My dad was a very funny guy and I valued anything he thought was funny," Burrell says. "And the Muppets was one of those things that he and I could watch together. I remember my dad laughing at Statler and Waldorf and that really will inform you, as a kid. 'Oh, that's funny?' If my dad thinks it's funny, then you really tune in very heavily."
That experience weighed on him in the first scene he shot in the film, in which he conducts an interrogation of all the Muppets at a train station as they do their European tour.
"They're basically all there. So I'm literally looking at a wall of these characters that I grew up watching," he says. "And I was super-intimidated and super-nervous.
"Because, in a way, those are characters that don't change. In person, they don't look different. They look exactly the way they did on TV.
"I was so nervous, it took me several takes to get me relaxed," he says. "This can't be real."
Certainly, he came away from the experience impressed with Muppet performers,
"Those guys are doing six things at once. I'm not exaggerating," he says. "They're rolling along, they're working the mouth, they're looking at a monitor to make sure it's still framed, they're working the eyes and sometimes they're improvising," he says.
"You never feel more overrated as an actor when all you have to do is walk and talk."
Muppets Most Wanted opens Friday, March 21, at Grant Park, Kildonan Place, McGillivray, Polo Park, St. Vital, and Towne cinemas.