Since starting Collider over a decade ago, I’ve been extremely fortunate to talk with countless actors, producers, directors and behind-the-scenes people whose work I’ve enjoyed. And while I’ve interviewed a lot of people multiple times over the years, every once in a while I get to speak with someone whose work I’ve watched most of my life for the first time. That happened at the Finding Dory junket when I got to sit down with Ed O’Neill for an exclusive interview.
As someone that grew up watching him on Married with Children playing Al Bundy, it’s was a bit surreal sitting across from him asking questions. These days, I watch Modern Family and I think his work as Jay Pritchett is fantastic (as is the rest of the cast).
During the interview O’Neill talked about how he got into acting, what was the last thing he had to audition for, how his early work on Miami Vice got him prepared for Finding Dory, when he realized Hank was such a big part of the sequel, story changes, how this upcoming season of Modern Family is the last one they’re contracted for but he thinks it could go for ten years, and a lot more. Check out what he had to say below.
As most of you know, the sequel finds Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) setting out on an adventure to discover answers about her past. Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (newcomer Hayden Rolence) are back along with Bob Peterson as Mr. Ray and Stanton himself as Crush the super-chill sea turtle. New additions include Dory’s fish parents, Charlie and Jenny (voiced by Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton); a beluga whale named Bailey (Ty Burrell); a whale shark called Destiny (Kaitlin Olson); and the curmudgeonly octopus, Hank (Ed O’Neill).
Collider: I gotta say, I think I’ve been a fan of yours for most of my life, and I’ve interviewed a lot of people in town and it’s really cool to you know, sort of do a check box of people you grew up with.
O’NEILL: Oh, that’s very nice. Thank you.
So let’s talk about the most important thing. How did that episode of Miami Vice get you prepared for doing Dory?
O’NEILL: [laughs] Well it was by the ocean.
O’NEILL: It was Miami. And that’s all I needed.
O’NEILL: Saw it there and I’m an octopus.
Well jumping back in time to the beginning, when did you first know you wanted to be an actor?
O’NEILL: I think it snuck up on me. I did it, as we all do, in grade school. I was a shepherd or something. And then in high school I did a couple of plays because I was in a speech class where a nun kind of recruited me for her plays. Because she needed a certain type. So I did a couple plays and I kinda liked them. And I liked doing it, but I didn’t think, you know. I tried a sporting career and then when that ended, but I always went and saw a lot of movies as a boy. I loved the movie theater so I always saw a lot of movies. And then there was a play, I saw in the local paper, they were having auditions for a play of a book I had read. Which was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. So I said, “oh, I’ve read this, so I’m perfect for the part of the lead.” His name is escaping me.
Anyway. I went out there and auditioned for the part of the lead. Which I didn’t know had already been cast. They’re bound by law to put it in the paper, but they have an ensemble and they plan their season around their ensemble. It wouldn’t have mattered though – my audition was so bad. Murphy was the part. Randle McMurphy. And I was probably kind of right for the role but I was just so horrible. And then there was another one, Rainmaker, and I had seen the movie with Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn. So I thought “well, certainly I can get this part.” So I auditioned again. And this one I think I tried to imitate Burt Lancaster which was a disaster and so nothing in that. And finally I got a call from this guy who said, “you know, you’re terrible, but there’s something about you I like and I’m doing a play on the small stage, not the main stage. We’re doing the Greek tragedy Antigone.” And so I thought well, I’ll be a Greek tragique. And he said, “no, you’ll be a Greek but you’re going to be a soldier, you’re actually holding a spear, a guard. You have three lines.”
So I did that. And I just started from there. Then I think I went to the University and I talked my way into the advanced acting class because I said I had been working. Didn’t tell them I was just holding a spear. But I was soon found out. You had to give monologues, and I think the first one I picked was Jamie in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which is not easy to do anyway. I was horrible. And then I started to think I wanted to do this. And I just started reading. And I got pretty good quick because I became fanatical about it.
I have to ask. What was the last thing you auditioned for?
O’NEILL: In my career here as it is now? Oh, god it’s been a while. I’ll tell you what it was. Remember the movie they did about the actor that played Superman on television?
Oh, Hollywoodland with Ben Affleck.
O’NEILL: Yes! I went in, the guy who was directing was the guy who had done some of The Sopranos.
I can’t remember his name but I know who you’re talking about.
O’NEILL: And it was in a bungalow. It took place in this Hollywood bungalow. I walked through a backyard, it was odd. And I got there and he said, “I’m really sorry to have you in to do this.” And I thought, “not that sorry.”
O’NEILL: And they wanted me originally to do the role of the press agent who was a real person who worked for Paramount I think and was called the fixer. When these actors would get in trouble, he would get them out of it. I said, “I’m really not right for this role.” Because I wasn’t. I didn’t look anything like the guy, which sometimes doesn’t matter, but I was just wrong for the role. And they said, “really? Well, what do you think you’re right for?” And I said, “I’m right for the producer.” And he was like half a thug from Jersey, half Irish-American. “Oh, well, that part’s taken.” So I said, “oh, well, there you go.” So I left. And a week later they called me back, that part had become available. So I went in, I started auditioning, it was a good scene, and he stops me and he says. “this is a powerful man, he’s got a lot of clout. Everything his own way.” I said, “yeah.” “Maybe if you said it slower? Could you do it slower?” And I said, “I can do it any fucking way you want me to do it. But here’s the thing. You’ve got the gig. I don’t. I don’t want to do this. You want to give me the part? I’ll do it anyway you want me to do it. I can do this part. But I don’t want to do this dance now.” And of course they went to Bob Hoskins. And Hoskins, I love Hoskins.
O’NEILL: But that was my last audition. Because I knew then I can’t audition anymore.
Well I was going to say it seems to me like you’re not a great auditioner. I’m making a joke.
O’NEILL: I used to be a wonderful auditioner. When I was living in New York, I’d audition every day. And I like to audition. But then it got to a point where I didn’t like it anymore. So once it got to there and I also knew more about the business and I thought, “I can’t do this anymore.”
Jumping into why I get to talk to you today, when people see Finding Dory, I think one of the things they’re going to take away is the love of Hank. I think all of the side characters in the film are all tremendous. When you were getting involved in the project, did you realize at the time, this could be a really beloved character in the Pixar universe?
O’NEILL: No. Because originally I thought it was a cameo. No one told me anything. I asked to see a script, there was no script. I asked to see sides, there were no sides to see. I said, “well, what is it?” They said, “it’s Pixar, we don’t know what it is. So I thought, well fine, it’s a cameo. Otherwise they’d tell me! For a cameo they don’t need to explain. And I just kept coming back. And then I thought, this must be more than a cameo because everything I do is with Ellen [Degeneres], with Dory.
O’NEILL: But no one ever said to me, “this is one of the starring roles.” I figured it out! So I didn’t think that way. Another session? And there were little tell-tale moments where I thought this is kind of sweet. This is where they’re becoming friends and they like each other. It’s kinda nice, it’s touching. I had those moments. For the most part I had a lot of “let’s get out of here!” It was that.
One of the things about Pixar is they keep on redoing the movie until they get it right.
So how dramatically did your story change through the recording process – was it a dramatic thing? Or was it similar?
O’NEILL: Do you know what it’s like with Pixar? It’s like a child getting larger. You don’t notice it. You know, your daughter is ten and all of a sudden she’s 14 and you go, “how did you get so big?” You didn’t see it. You don’t see it, it’s so gradual. Suddenly you think, “wait a minute, this is changed now. When did this happen? I don’t know.” They keep you pretty busy.
Sure. I don’t actually know, but I’ve heard.
O’NEILL: They keep you busy and they keep you hopping so you’re not really analyzing much. You’re too concerned with the, like they say, “just keep swimming.” It’s sort of like that when you’re making a movie for them.
I have to ask you for my last question, I’m a big fan of Modern Family, it’s one of those shows that’s consistently been funny every season.
O’NEILL: Thank you. I agree.
It’s just very well done. Two things: when you signed on, did you think it could go this long, and in all seriousness, how far do you think it can go?
O’NEILL: The first part of the question? Yes, I thought it was going to be a hit from the moment I read it. It’s a hit show. And that was before I knew anyone involved. Secondly, we’re starting our eighth year, it could go ten. It could go ten.
Yes, so with sitcoms, everyone signs for five or seven years. So now it starts getting in that interesting area of cost/benefit area.
O’NEILL: Exactly and renegotiation.
All that stuff.
O’NEILL: Which will happen if we go more than next year.
Ah, so this is the one everyone signed through.
O’NEILL: Yes, this is the one we’re signed through, so it could be a factor.
Sure. Well, I’m just going to say congratulations on this and pleasure to talk to you.
O’NEILL: Thank you.