Best known for his role as Steve Urkel on the long-running sitcom Family Matters, which premiered in 1989, the young actor went on to attend UCLA’s School of Film and Television. He was also the star and producer of the series Grown-Ups.
After graduating, he work as a WGA writer for such notable companies as Imagine Entertainment and Disney Channel Television.
He is now gaining a new batch of fans in the movie Judy Moody and the NOT So Bummer Summer, based on Megan McDonald’s bestselling book series. In it he portrays Mr Todd, thought of by Judy and her fellow students as the greatest teacher in the world.
The teacher you’re playing has a really positive influence on these kids. Was there someone you were thinking of from your past?
Man, not at all! (he laughs) My teachers were too busy sending me to detention.
I had the illustrations from the book and I knew I was in for a bad haircut from that. But beyond that I really had to start from scratch and from what I could ascertain I felt like Mr Todd was a former performer, perhaps in a band, or perhaps some form of stage performer, in his younger years.
He fell into teaching and now sees the classroom as his stage. The second I determined that he’s a performer dressed as a teacher, it made my decisions as an actor very easy, how I come in a room, how I interact with the kids, the gestures I use.
Are you a banjo player in real life?
(No), the toughest thing for me was playing the banjo. That’s me playing the banjo, and I’d never played one before. When they booked me for the job they told me, ‘Hey, we’re going to put you through some banjo lessons.’
John (Schultz, the director) was pretty passionate about me learning how to play it, with the camera five inches away from my fingers, and John standing there going, ‘Do you want another shot at it?’
What was it like working with a group of rowdy kids?
I have to give these kids’ credit. Nine out of ten of them were as well behaved as adult performers on set. And they were very deliberate about their choices on set. Kids these days are very aware. They have Facebook pages, and e mail addresses, business cards, publicists and managers, and the kids knew their lines very well. They know your lines.
They let you know when you’ve dropped a verse out of the song. But the cool thing about it is, because they’re kids, they’re willing to do it all day. The energy in that room I owe all to the kids, those kids were terrific, being patient with me many times.
Since you’ve been where these kids are now, does that give you a different sensitivity to how they are being treated and what the experience is like for them. I would imagine the length of time you spent as a child actor, you had good and bad experiences.
Oh yeah, definitely. I definitely have insight to things they are going to go through. Right now they are all still so innocent, given the age group. They were crying on the last day of shooting, because they were going to miss each other.
The adults were looking around like, ‘See you at the next gig.’ I could empathize with where they were emotionally.
All in all, the whole [being a kid performer] thing boils down to something that I hope to be able to move past talking about it, to be quite honest. If they’ve got a good family they’ll be fine. It’s that simple. There are so many people that grow up and they are wonderful, well-adjusted individuals and they have kick-ass parents.
Was that the secret for you, do you think?
I definitely have several more chapters left in my career, for all of the people that play the ‘where is he now’ game with me. It’s kind of tough to swallow sometimes, only because I know how young I was throughout that period, and how [young] I still am.
You just have to take it with a grain of salt, and be like, ‘The chapters will happen when they happen.’ But at least for a man in Hollywood I’m still very, very young. I have a lot more fun in my future than people will probably be really expecting.
Do you ever feel the weight of the Steve Urkel character?
It’s not a resentment for the ‘where are we now’ thing, it’s just a fact that the media has changed and expanded in ways that, like anybody in their career, I’m adjusting to it. You have fragmented audiences out there.
Other than 3 to 4 shows on TV, or maybe a couple of movies like The Hangover, there aren’t too many singular properties that everybody’s into anymore.
I’m part of a generation that was appointment TV. We raced home at 8 o’clock to watch Cosby. Nobody’s doing that anymore, even a small kid would say, ‘I’ll watch it when I want to watch it on my IPad or my Playstation.’ That changes the way people appreciate the work that you’re doing in the long run.
In television I was pulling ratings of 19 to 20. That’s absurd now, only the Super Bowl is above it.
When you put that into perspective, it’s harder to get everybody’s attention now for a good reason. For a negative reason it can happen like this (he snaps his fingers) but not for a good reason.
I had one girl come up to me and say, ‘Wow, what have you been doing for the last ten years?’ I was like, ‘Well, I did an episode of Psych last year, I did Boston Legal.’
It’s like, ‘Babe, I understand, there are a lot of distractions out there!’