ABC’s newest family sitcom “The Kids Are Alright” is already making waves as one of fall’s best new series. Set in suburban Los Angeles during the early ’70s, the story follows the Clearys, a dysfunctional, testosterone-filled Irish-Catholic household navigating a politically divisive era amid sibling rivalries and working-class struggles.
Though the show dedicates most of its time to lonesome middle child Timmy (Jack Gore, “Billions”), “The Kids Are Alright” deftly fleshes out distinctive personalities within the rest of the Cleary family, including the endearingly goofy Eddie, played by University alum Caleb Foote.
As an acting major at the University, Foote performed in several student theater productions, including “Henry IV, Part 1.” In the summer of 2015, he participated in the Educational Theater Company, an on-campus group that incorporates performance through an interactive, educational lens in an effort to enlighten incoming freshmen about the many social, academic and personal issues they might encounter during college.
After receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2016, Foote continued to perform onstage in a variety of plays, including “Zoot Suit” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and “Hansel and Gretel Blue Grass.” In 2017, he was given the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Craig Noel Award for Outstanding Male Performance for his lead role in “Hand to God.” From there, Foote made his way onto television, guest starring in FX’s “American Horror Story: Cult” and “American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace.”
In a recent phone interview with The Daily, Foote discussed his positive undergraduate experience at the University, the perks of being a regular player on a network show and the differences between acting onscreen and acting onstage.
The Michigan Daily: How did your education at Michigan shape your understanding of acting and performing for the camera?
Caleb Foote: It greatly shaped it. I can take back all my professional successes to my education and degree at the University of Michigan. In 2016, the year I graduated, we had a senior showcase and it was the first school-produced senior showcase. You do two scenes, typically contrasting scenes, and you do them in New York and Los Angeles and Chicago for industry professionals and a bunch of people we cold-called — agents and managers and casting directors, trying to get them to show up with the hopes that they would sign us. I was fortunate enough to get some really cool bites in Los Angeles. I got my agent and manager from my showcase, and they’re the agent and manager I have now. Every single professional gig from a non-union play, which led to a union play, which led to a small part on a TV show, which led to an important part on a TV show, which led to a series regular on the ABC network… I can directly trace it from the University of Michigan, the showcase and the class I took for the showcase.
To get into the acting school, there’s a lot of natural talent that you have to have. You have to be good enough to be accepted by the faculty. From the early stages of the program, you get out of your old high school acting habits and the things that got you there. From there, you expand on what makes you unique. That’s what being an upperclassman is like; you take what you’re really good at, you mold it and you challenge yourself with the things you aren’t so good at. The acting school is just this great platform for development and risk-taking. If you go in there and do something totally stupid, it’s not like your peer that’s watching you is a casting director that will never want to see you again. That is where you take those risks, as cheesy as that sounds.
TMD: In addition to TV, you’ve performed on stage both during your time at Michigan and after graduating. What have you found to be different between acting for the screen versus acting on stage?
CF: The payday (laughs). The pay is way different for the camera because once it’s on camera, it’s kind of immortalized forever in the history books of television. For theater, you spend a month and a half, two months if you’re super lucky, but you have this extended period of time to memorize, to rehearse, to get everything set in stone. It’s this really great creative process and by the end of it, you have all of this time to prep and be show-ready, which is brilliant. But the difference between theater and film and television is that with film and television, the turnaround is so fast. You’re shooting an episode a week. You’re doing an episode in five work days. You have a weekend to memorize and when you walk on set, you have to be totally off-book. You basically read it with the director and then you kind of walk it through, map out whatever idea you have or the director has. Theater would be like the actor’s medium, and television is like the writer’s medium. It’s more of like what you bring in your impulses, and then the director makes his or her adjustments and there’s not so much of a long process of deciding on what should I do and mapping out specific blocking.
With theater, you have so long to rehearse and to get into your character and to stay in it for the two-and-a-half hours you’re doing the show. For television, it’s everything that’s in that box of the camera and you’re just doing the writers justice and it’s really just you at home memorizing and trying to understand the joke, so that when you walk in on set, you’re ready to just do it because you gotta knock that out and then you have to do two more scenes after that.
TMD: “The Kids Are Alright” centers a lot around dysfunctional family dynamics. What was your experience like working with such a large ensemble of actors of all different ages?
CF: It’s my first time that I’m not the youngest person on set. It’s great. We’re working with these vets Michael Cudlitz and Mary McCormack, these people that have been in the game for so long. You learn that there are so many different approaches to the game. Like, their process of learning the material and then bringing it forward to the director and crew, it totally varies. And these kid actors we’re working with are brilliant. There’s so many of them. The only downfall to working with these kid actors is that they have to go to school because you just want to hang out with them all the time. Being one of the older boys of the show, myself and my older bro, we get to tackle the young adult topics. Meanwhile, the kids get to tackle all the mischief, ruffian, getting-into-the-neighbors-yard-and-stealing-a-dog business, and the mom and dad can handle the housekeeping and then later, bigger family mom-and-dad issues.
TMD: Your character Eddie is the second-oldest of seven kids. How do you think he stands out among his siblings?
CF: That’s funny you say that. The show was written as a pilot and it was based on (“The Kids Are Alright” creator and narrator) Tim Doyle’s life. A bunch of it is pretty close to home and realistic to what happened in his childhood. The pilot is so fast, and it’s a little bit overwhelming and it’s kind of hard to distinguish characters. But as the show progresses, because there are 10 characters, in every single scene there are 10 opportunities to make a joke and (our writing team) does such a brilliant job of distinguishing each character. Eddie specifically is so fun to play because he’s this impulsive, big-hearted… total goofball. When (the eldest brother) Lawrence goes to the seminary, (Eddie) kind of takes the role of the oldest brother, so you’ll see him carrying the baby and stuff. But he’s just this light-hearted guy who has a girlfriend, and it’s the first time anyone in the Cleary household has brought a girl home. Growing up in a household of all boys, they’re kind of unfamiliar with how to act around a girl and everyone has their input on how to be a boyfriend and how to be in a relationship and that results in some pretty great comedy.
TMD: Do you have any brothers or siblings?
CF: Yeah! I grew up in a Roman-Catholic home, basically Irish-Catholic. I have three brothers.
TMD: Did your upbringing inspire your performance at all?
CF: Even though I didn’t grow up in the ’70s, I can still relate to the Catholic upbringing with all the boys and the chaos and Mom trying to get everyone ready before Sunday mass and the big breakfasts and the “you’re on your own, take care of yourself because if you don’t do it yourself, someone else is gonna eat that drumstick.” I’m the second-youngest, third-oldest boy in my real family. It kind of takes me back to being a younger guy, which is brilliant because who doesn’t want to be young?
TMD: How do you get into character and immerse yourself in your role?
CF: This is my first time reporting to a job in film and television like it’s a day job, like clocking in and out every single day for an extended period of time. Something with that is like, you want to go in every single day being like, “I’m gonna do my best work.” But you can’t control what’s happening to you that day and especially because this is going on for a long period of time, every single scene can’t be an Emmy-award-winning scene. Such a big part of doing a series regular job and shooting four scenes a day and then the next day shooting five scenes and the next day shooting one scene is that you can’t have that much weight on you. And after you do a scene, even if it wasn’t your greatest performance, you kind of just gotta let it go and look forward and look ahead to your next one. You can’t beat yourself up over the things you can’t control. Some days, you’re gonna totally knock it out the park, and the writers are gonna give you this brilliant joke and you get to be on this great location with a trash can. And then on another day, you’re gonna be a wallflower and you’re gonna have one line and you’re gonna feel weird about that line but you can’t let that bring you down because that’s the beauty of being on an ensemble project. There are so many people to rely on. It’s like a team sport. I believe it’s a winning team.
TMD: This wasn’t your first rodeo on TV. Your other credits include FX’s “American Horror Story” and “American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” both of which were created by Ryan Murphy. How different was your experience working on a cable drama from working on a network comedy?
CF: I can’t get killed off at this show (laughs). In all the other ones, I was always at risk. Every single day is the best day of work. That’s why we do it. But with that, you’ll get a new script every Friday and when you get that new script working on the cable shows, you sift through the script to see if you have any lines, to see where your character comes up. It’s so much fun, but there’s always that chance that your character gets killed off. That happened to me in “American Horror Story.” I was three episodes deep, and I was sifting through (the script) and I was like, “Heck yes! So fun, so fun.” And I made all these friends. And then my character, boom, my character gets gunned down, four gunshots to the chest. All my buds got to keep going on and I was like, “Why? Why me?!” This is my first job where they can’t kill me.
TMD: As the season continues, what can viewers expect to see from your character and the rest of the Cleary household?
CF: A lot of heart from the whole family. Our writing room is pretty insane and our creative team has a really great track record. It’s not like this is their big break. They’ve been making TV for a while and really good TV, so we’re in really good hands. Right now, we won’t be relying on principal office visits because we have such a big cast that as the episodes progress, our writing team has been able to distinguish and expand on the characters and make them bigger and more specific. I have just so much love for our writing team. You’re gonna see a lot more Eddie, I’ll tell you that.
You can catch Caleb Foote on “The Kids Are Alright” every Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.