You may not immediately recognize the name Michael Hitchcock, but there’s a good chance you’d know his face. The very funny character actor is best known for his work in the Christopher Guest mockumentaries (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind), but he’s recently found himself getting his fair share of TV exposure. I spoke to Hitchcock about his new role on Showtime’s United States of Tara, as well as his work on Men of a Certain Age, Glee, and just about everything else.
TV.com: You’ve been doing a ton of TV work recently—Glee, Men of a Certain Age, and now United States of Tara. Do you have any downtime?
Michael Hitchcock: Well, I have downtime at the moment, but when we were shooting United States of Tara, there were days when I would literally go from the Tara set over to Men of a Certain Age on the same day. There was one time when Glee was shooting then, too, so it was a little weird to go from very different characters. But it’s kind of like the best problem an actor can have—it’s a wealth of riches. Three different shows that were incredibly well written. Each of the writing staffs and the producing staffs on the shows are just top-notch. You can’t get much better, with United States of Tara, having Diablo Cody write your dialogue. And not just her—Jill Soloway has an amazing career from Six Feet Under and other shows. Much of the writing staff came from Six Feet Under, so they are just pedigree writers. And the same with Men of a Certain Age—you have a lot of the Everybody Loves Raymond people, and they are just amazing writers. And Glee, those guys are just—I don’t know how they do it. They’re phenoms. Three people write every episode of that show: Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan. An hour shoot that three people write is highly unusual.
Your character on United States of Tara just appeared at the beginning of the second season. What can you tell us about him?
My character’s name is Ted Mayo. He is Tara’s next-door neighbor. He is gay, and his partner is a 28-year-old Egyptian, so we definitely have a little May-December romance going on. Which is really fun to play. We’re kind of like the neighborhood curiosities, as is Tara, because of Tara’s thing. So we kind of bond because we all know that the neighbors talk about us. And without giving too much away, I talk a lot about a therapist I used to have back in New York, which figures into the plot a little bit later on.
Tara’s son Marshall is a young gay teenager. Does Ted fulfill a sort of role model position for him?
That’s sort of partly why he’s created. The show itself is extremely gay-friendly and extremely gay-sensitive. Marshall is a gay character. Later on in the season, I will be a little bit of a father figure to him. That will figure into the second half of the season. And we were sort of there as role models to go, you can end up with a partner, you can end up having a life, it isn’t just about high school. That being said, what’s so brilliant about the way they write the show is that every relationship is very complicated. Every character has things that are happening, so that’s what I love about the writing. My character is very grounded. He’s in a good space. And then things will happen later, just like in real life—bad things happen and you have to learn how to deal with it. It’s not just happening with the main core family members, but with almost every single character on the show.
This year, Marshall, which is kind of politically incorrect, which I actually really like, he’s experimenting a little bit with a girl, and trying to figure out what that’s all about. The girl, who’s played by Zosia Mamet, is this fantastic girl who kind of bullies him into going out with her. And it’s really an interesting dynamic that happens a lot. And then you also have another new gay character, played by Michael Willett, who’s kind of the loudmouth of the whole high school, out and proud and doesn’t give a shit what anybody thinks. And he’s leading Marshall in different directions, too. So there’s a lot of tugging going on. Meanwhile, one of Tara’s alters, Buck, who is a man, is having a relationship with a woman, played by Joey Lauren Adams. So it’s gay in the sense that it’s Tara, but it’s really her alter. There’s a lot of interesting gray areas and fluidity with people’s sexuality.
Your character has a good relationship with Tara, but what about your interaction with her alters? How do they figure into the mix?
I do see them and I’m aware of them. But I think what’s so interesting with Tara and her alters is—obviously, it’s about what it’s about, multiple personalities. But on a grander scheme, it’s about accepting so many different parts of yourself and how hard that is. I think we all need to accept not only each other, but also the various parts within us. She literally does compartmentalize different aspects of life, and she’s trying not to do that anymore. ‘Cause almost everyone she meets on the show, there’s something going on, and you have to accept them or not accept them. The whole show is so much about accepting what life hands you and accepting others as they are.
I wanted to talk a little about Party Down, which is another show you’ll be appearing on. It’s very funny and critically acclaimed, but it kind of gets lost in the shuffle.
I think it’s going to get more and more not lost in the shuffle as time goes on. That is such a funny show. I’m going to be playing the head of the catering company in a couple of the later episodes of this season. He kind of failed to the top, and he’s really fun to play. He’s just so stupid and kind of full of himself but having a good time. So he’s a clueless guy and really, really fun to play. And those guys are a relaxed, easy, fun set, with great actors and great improvisers.
Party Down is pretty much a straight comedy, but the other shows we’ve been discussing—United States of Tara, Men of a Certain Age, even Glee—have definite dramatic elements. What appeals to you about that blend of comedy and drama?
It’s more real. With Men of a Certain Age, there are so many gentle moments within the show. It’s not huge problems, per se, but it’s everyday problems for everybody. What I like about that show is, my character’s a bit of a boob who doesn’t know it. And then later, they write in more depth about this guy, who’s a successful guy but he really wants Scott Bakula’s life. Scott Bakula’s a guy who can barely scrape two nickels together, but I idealize him, because he’s a bachelor who I think is leading this fantastic life, but he really isn’t. People always want what they can’t have. You always think the grass is greener, and I think they do that extremely well on that show.
On Glee, it can be the silliest thing ever and then, me personally, I can be watching that show and laughing my butt off and then start crying. I remember on the pilot of Glee, watching it, and Lea Michele’s character is walking down the hallway, and you get to know her a bit, she’s kind of the diva of the school. And then she gets a slushie thrown in her face. I think most people laughed. I started to cry, because I felt so sorry for her. What I loved that they wrote for my character, who is the choir director for the school of the deaf, he really wants the best for his kids and he’s very passionate about getting the best for his kids, and he’s a complete underdog. Obviously, you find out later, he’s willing to cheat to get them to where they’re going to go, but he really believes in them and in their talent and in what they do. And I think that’s what Glee does so well.
And Tara is just exploring so many issues. Diablo has done such a great job of packing so much into a half-hour. It can be extremely funny and then extremely heartfelt, with the depth that Toni Collette brings to her character. It’s amazing. Watching her is like going to acting school every day, the best acting school ever. The whole cast is incredible. Keir Gilchrist, who plays Marshall, you forget sometimes he’s 16-years-old, because he’s so good. And John Corbett’s just hilarious and funny. And Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays Charmaine, Tara’s sister, is another one who is so focused and so good at playing the put-upon sister.
You do play a lot of these supporting roles. Would a starring role appeal to you, or is there something you like about being a bit on the side?
Certainly a starring role would appeal to me, but I love to play what I’ve gotten to play. I’ve been lucky, with Christopher Guest and that whole ensemble. It’s just one of life’s honors to get to do that. And then with these other things, I love coming in and doing what I do, and contributing to the overall mix. I read a lot of sitcoms or whatever, and I don’t want to play the boring dad with dumb problems. Sometimes it’s a lot more fun to play the neighbor or the person down the street.
To be honest, I’m almost always more drawn to the supporting characters. They’re often the most interesting.
As long as they give them something to do. But I’ve been very lucky with all three of those shows this past year, because the writers are so good that every supporting character has something to do besides walk in and deliver exposition. With all those roles, there’s a quirkiness to them, there’s a bit of sadness to them, which I like a lot. And each one of them exemplifies part of the human struggle, which I’m really drawn to. That’s the type of movie or TV show I like. It’s been a real pleasure to show up at these places and get to do what I do.