From a little boy to the middle man
Is it fair that one of Hollywood’s most successful and richest young actors didn’t set out to be a performer -- in fact, never took an acting class -- when there are thousands of others like him, sweating auditions, posing for head shots, tweeting their every move?
To underscore the point: Angus T. Jones, the “half” in the No. 1 comedy on TV, “Two and a Half Men,” doesn’t even know if he wants to continue to hone the skill that’s made him a millionaire when the 7-year-old CBS sitcom goes off the air. He’s a 16-year-old high school sophomore who wants to go to college, and that’s as far as his plans go.
“I don’t know what I’m going to take or where I’m going to go,” he said. “I’m not really sure. I don’t really know if I want to do acting as a career. I really don’t know what I want to do yet.”
But what does he say to those legions of young actors who study, worry and undoubtedly envy him?
“I’m sorry?” Jones replied sweetly, his shoulders shrugging as his eyes melted into his signature broad grin. “It’s always come naturally to me, but I don’t know if I want to do this as a career.”
He was 9 when he landed the part of the underachieving, dimwitted boy whose father (Jon Cryer) moves in with his womanizing, alcohol-loving brother (Charlie Sheen) after a divorce. Taken by his performance as Dennis Quaid’s son on “The Rookie,” co-creator Chuck Lorre asked Jones to audition for the often-racy sitcom and never tested another boy.
“He’s just a very intuitive and instinctive actor,” Lorre said. “Even as a little boy, he was at ease and at peace with himself so he could find the moments with a little bit of direction.
“You never see Angus acting. He really embodies the moment.’”
Born in Austin, Texas, Angus and his working-class parents moved to Los Angeles when he was 4 because of his father’s job.
Although he never expressed interest in performing, his mother noticed the way people gravitated toward her little boy and decided to take him to commercial auditions, figuring that with any luck, he would at least earn money for college tuition. It wasn’t long before Angus was taping Oscar Mayer Weiner ads and an agent signed him. By the time he was 6, he was hired for his first film, “See Spot Run.”
When casting called on behalf of Lorre, Jones had no idea what a sitcom was, let alone what show he was specifically trying out for. That might explain his laid-back delivery, which has always made Jake come across as a real boy instead of the precocious, cutesy child found on most sitcoms. Seven years later, earning a reported $1.2 million per season -- a salary that doesn’t include what he makes from “Men” also being the No. 1 show in syndication -- Angus could probably afford to send his entire class to college.
“It was like, ‘Oh, we have an audition for ‘Two Men and a Half’ or something,” said Jones after shooting a scene for the Nov. 23 episode that was taped without the audience on the Warner Bros. soundstage. “I knew that it had to do with being funny. But I was really bad at keeping a straight face back then. I laughed at everything. So I had to be trained a little bit for that.”
Angus’ laughter on set is always endearing, said Sheen, who hit it off with the boy when they auditioned in front of CBS executives together and Angus kept laughing when Sheen delivered his punch lines. CBS worried then that Angus wouldn’t be able to control himself during tapings, but for Lorre and co-creator Lee Aronsohn, it was a sign that Angus was relaxed and enjoying himself.
“Early on, he would smile a lot at the end of the joke so they’d always have to cut around that,” Sheen said. “Which was funny to me because he was so young. Did he really understand the joke he was telling or the joke that’s being spoken around him? Because there’s a lot of adult humor. But you can still see it in the old episodes -- him starting to smile and they cut away.”
Shy, introspective and polite, Jones has never asked his producers and cast mates to explain the show’s suggestive innuendo or dirty jokes -- a point of contention with some critics who believe that a show with a child as the third lead shouldn’t go as far as it goes. Charlie Harper is a carefree bachelor with a healthy libido and a lengthy black book (though now he’s engaged). Alan Harper isn’t as lucky with the ladies, but it’s not for a lack of trying.
“Angus has never expressed curiosity to me about the many jokes we’ve made that are clearly off color,” Cryer said. “Originally, we’d look at his mom and go, ‘Eek! Sorry!’ And she would say, ‘Don’t worry about it!’ At one point I asked him if he wanted to know and he said no. He doesn’t bring it up with me. He’s not like a lot of boys.”
Or a lot of child actors. Angus avoids the limelight, preferring his family’s Texas ranch to Hollywood glitz. When the show is on hiatus (one week out of the month and two months in the summer), he attends a regular high school and spends most of his free time studying, playing the guitar, and taking care of his 2-year-old brother and new puppy.
Unlike his on-screen alter ego, Angus takes his school work seriously.
“He’s a real worker amongst workers,” Lorre said. “There’s no show biz kid stuff going on. He’s so much more evolved than that. One of the great joys of being on this show for me has been the ability to watch this young boy grow up. He’s becoming a young man now, and he’s doing it with such grace and dignity.”
Until last season, Angus buzzed about Stage 26 on the Warner Bros. lot on his Razor skateboard. Now he’s 5 feet 7, his voice has deepened, and he’s driving. But one thing hasn’t changed as he’s matured:
“We pretend to fight in hyper-violent methods,” Cryer said. “When he was 9, he wouldn’t mind sticking his fingers into my nostrils and grabbing my brain and pulling it out through my nose. And we still do that. We also came up with a whole new martial art -- crotch fu. Every single blow has to be to the other person’s crotch. And we’ve been doing the show long enough to perfect it.”
But Cryer does more than faux battle with Jones, who says he can’t remember the time in his life when he woke up in the morning and just went to school.
“He and I talk because I want to prepare him for the world of adult acting, which I’ve told him will be shocking because he’ll go audition for something now and there will be six or eight other people you’re auditioning against,” Cryer said. “As an adult, there will be 200, and eight or nine of them will be guys who you’ve looked up to your whole life. So it’s a very different feeling, and the hardest part is feeling like you’re no longer special. I try to give him this wisdom, and that may be what turned him off to continuing.”
Jones isn’t going anywhere -- yet. CBS has renewed “Men” for two more seasons, coinciding with the young star’s high school graduation. Lorre has long said the show would likely end when Jake goes to college. But fans of the show know well that it’s highly unlikely Jake (poor Jake!) will seek higher education.
“If Jake goes to college, it’s going to be community college, and he’s going to be living at home,” Aronsohn half-joked.
What then? Does the show become “Three Men?”
“No, it’s always going to be called ‘Two and a Half Men,’ ” Aronsohn said. “But the character who is the half man may change.”