‘The Real O’Neals’ Jay Ferguson Talks New Comedy & Embracing Gay TV Son

The cast of 'The Real O'Neals.' (l-r, Bebe Wood, Matt Shively, Noah Galvin, Jay R Ferguson and Martha Plimpton) (ABC)

There aren’t a lot of shows that can milk a good laugh out of a family shaken at its core but that’s exactly what ABC’s new sitcom, The Real O’Neals,” is doing and doing it well.

The series follows a devout Irish-Catholic family as they shatter the picture of perfection painted by Eileen O’Neal (Martha Plimpton) by revealing impending divorce, an eating disorder, a thieving teen and the middle son, Kenny (Noah Galvin) who comes out of the closet.

While Eileen has the hardest time with Kenny being gay, the rest of the family accepts the news pretty well. In fact, in the tag at the end of the pilot, Kenny’s siblings (Matt Shively and Bebe Wood) actually  help him figure out which of his shirts make him look more gay. The series was developed by David Windsor and Casey Johnson and loosely based on the young life of LGBT activist Dan Savage, who is an executive producer on the show.

Then there’s dear old dad, Pat O’Neal, played with warmth and understanding by Jay R. Ferguson (“Mad Men”). Having Eileen as a wife and mother to his children, Pat has had it pretty easy as she is the driving force in the family but one of his challenges in this new chapter for the O’Neals is Pat having to step up more than a little bit. However, one thing’s for sure, Pat accepts his gay son whole heartedly, which sends a strong message to parents out there who are, perhaps, dealing with a similar situation with an LGBT child. (Check out the videos of Plimpton and Galvin talking about their characters.)

I talked to Ferguson last week about the role and his own experience with LGBT people when he was growing up.

The show is a lot more than just the fact that Kenny is gay but I feel if they’d tried to do this show 10 or 15 years ago it might not have gone through because people would be really afraid of that content.

Jay Ferguson: Well, one of the things that I am most encouraged by in our society are the overwhelming majority of millennials, regardless of political affiliation is an overwhelming amount of support for equal rights, equal protection, gay rights specifically, and now the issue that is no longer an issue, gay marriage.

I find it really encouraging that that next generation is really going to be the generation that takes this country and perhaps the world into a new chapter of the evolution of our society, that the old way of thinking will be a thing of the past, kids will be raised without ever knowing what it was like to have these issues be issues, and I think that’s such a great thing and probably the primary reason that a show like this is so appealing to so many different people from different parts of society.

Though his kids are teens, Pat (Ferguson, r), will have to step up to parenting for the first time. (ABC)

Tell me a little bit about Pat’s journey in these first 13 episodes.

JF: I think in the beginning the character comes across as a bit vanilla and maybe even a little too calm at times. In the pilot, he spearheaded this movement for his family to have their coming out party and start expelling all of the things that they’ve been hiding and I think it kind of backfires on them. He’s probably not prepared. He thinks it’s going to be this wonderful experience and it ends up being something a little more different than he’d anticipated and therefore is kind of caught off guard in how to respond to and deal with all of these new revelations.

And going forward, we see a bunch of different parts of Pat coming to grips with the fact that he let Eileen take care of all of the parenting stuff for a long time and he's just kind of been the dad; goes to work, comes home, puts food on the table, loves his kids but hasn't really been directly involved in their social lives or day to day things. We see him start to experiment with that and the awkwardness of it.

One of the wonderful things about Pat or how they made him to be the antithesis to what we're used to seeing in terms of a dad who responds to their child telling him that he or she is gay and actually seeing a dad now that embraces it and accepts it and doesn't try to change the person. And it's just really refreshing to be a character like that and then even more so on a level of importance, it's an honor to play a character like that because it is so important.

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Do we ever see Pat get in Eileen’s face a little bit about how she handles it because she definitely does not take Kenny being gay as well as he does?

JF: I don’t know if it’s ever to the point of ‘in your face’ but certainly they had different parenting styles and they do have a little bit of an unspoken tug of war going on in terms of whose style is better and whose way is better. And the funny thing and the contrast between those two characters is that they’re both on opposite ends of the spectrum. While Eileen maybe plans a little too much for things in life, Pat doesn’t plan enough and it’s kind of like that the whole time. While she’s a little bit more strict in discipline with the kids, Pat’s a little bit more of a hands-off approach and each has their benefits and each had their way of not working out the way they expected.

So I think going forward that you get to see some moments where they challenge each other and also complement one another when deserved. So it's a nice little back and forth and that certainly is one of the interesting relationships of two parents that are still cohabitating but not technically married any more and trying to equally parent their children to the best of their ability while not trying to kill one another.

I saw on your bio online that you’re from Texas. Do you remember your first exposure to a gay person?

JF: I certainly remember people in school. Looking back on it now, knowing what you know as an adult and being a person that believes that it’s not a choice in one’s life, that it is just that’s the way that God made them. Certainly I can pinpoint times where I may not have known it at the time but calling back on that memory and saying, ‘oh, that might have been the case there.’ I think, really, in small children is the best way to back up that whole way of thinking in terms of everything being natural. As children, we as people are in our most pure form of ourselves when we’re children. And so you can’t point a finger at a child and say they’re making that choice. So I love to use that as my argument.

“The Real O’Neals” airs Tuesdays at 8:30pm on ABC.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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