‘Modern Family’s’ Eric Stonestreet put a lot of heart into the voice of a slobbery mongrel for ‘Pets’

Eric Stonestreet, best known for his work on "Modern Family," voices an unruly mutt named Max in the animated feature "The Secret Life of Pets."
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Eric Stonestreet has won two Emmys for his portrayal of Cameron Tucker, the flamboyant half of TV’s most famous gay couple, on the ABC sitcom “Modern Family.”

But the Kansas native, 44, seems determined to defy expectations. In April, he starred in HBO’s “Confirmation” as former Reagan chief of staff Ken Duberstein, and he can be seen — make that heard — in the animated film “The Secret Life of Pets,” as the voice of Duke, a slobbery mongrel whose adoption upends the life of Max, a spoiled terrier (Louis C.K.). The film opens Friday.

The conventional wisdom is that animated movies are a relatively easy gig for an actor. But do they come with any particular challenges?


I probably became an actor because of my vivid imagination and doing voice-over really sort of takes me back to that. When it says, “Duke is falling out of a tube” or “Duke is running behind this,” it’s just words on a paper, so I have to hear the noises and try to put a performance in there that matches the visual. That aspect of it is challenging. Not hard, but challenging and freeing.

Are you a pet owner?

I grew up with pigs, cows, dogs, cats and goats. We had a menagerie growing up in Kansas City, [Kan.], and then I had a dog for 15 years who just passed away in April. He was beagle- Jack Russell terrier mix named Coleman — Coleman the patrolman. He was with me through everything. My goal was just to get him a big yard that he could patrol.

Is it true that you wanted to work in a prison when you were younger?

Right outside of Kansas City is Leavenworth and there are like five prisons there. It was kind of the tapestry of my childhood. I was always fascinated. I wanted to know what was behind those walls.


[In college] I took a sociology class and I got an A in it. Then I found out you could get an emphasis in criminal justice. I wanted to be an administrator. Then my high school girlfriend and I had split up and I was rolling in my sadness. I got dared to audition for a play by my best friend, Paul. He got cast in “Hamlet” and I got cast in “Prelude to a Kiss,” and that changed everything.

Unlike Cam, you’re single. Still looking?

Oh, yeah. Always looking. I was always insecure about being an actor and also being in a relationship. I never knew for 12 years for sure what I was doing or if I was going to have any money. I’m always open to meeting people, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that my trust issues have changed because of “Modern Family.” I need people in my life that wanted to be with me on Saturday night 10 years ago, not three years ago.

The show has been so successful. Are there any moments that stand out in your memory?

I always get emotional when I think about the show getting picked up for the back nine [episodes]. After 12 years of not having a job for anything longer than 8 days, it was that moment that I realized I have sustained employment on a great freaking TV show. [Tears up.] Sorry, when I start thinking about that stuff it really gets to me, because I know what that struggle’s like for so many actors. You’re just discounted. I freaking hated it when I would tell somebody I was an actor and they would say, “Oh, what restaurant do you work at?”

After 12 years of not having a job for anything longer than 8 days, it was that moment that I realized I have sustained employment on a great freaking TV show.

— Eric Stonestreet

Did you ever feel your size limited you at all? Hollywood can be a pretty brutal place.

It still is for heavyset people. It’s the one group of people you can still just kind of make fun of. I would say for sure I’ve gotten fewer parts because I was heavyset.

The show is heading into its eighth season. How long do you plan to stick around?

I don’t think anyone has any intentions of doing anything else. Jesse [Tyler Ferguson] wouldn’t be on a one-man show [“Fully Committed”] on Broadway necessarily without “Modern Family.” Sofia [Vergara] wouldn’t be the face of 3,000 products without “Modern Family.” I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you without “Modern Family,” so we’re all so appreciative of that.

What kind of influence do you think the show has had, particularly in its portrayal of a gay couple?

It’s not we like invented gay characters on TV. Nobody has ever claimed that. But [it’s been] seven years, and I still get tweets and fan letters and Instagram messages from people saying thank you for portraying the closest character that I’ve ever seen to myself on television.

Some people say, “Oh my God, Cam’s too much….” It bums me out when I hear that, because it really discounts people that relate to him. I don’t look at a guy that’s toting a gun with a big wad of tobacco in his mouth and a Confederate flag and driving a 4x4 as the single representation of straight people.

Twitter: @MeredithBlake