BWW Interviews - Catching Up With Kevin Chamberlin of Disney Channel's JESSIE
Broadway veteran and fan favorite Kevin Chamberlin is currently starring in the Disney Channel original comedy series JESSIE. In the sitcom, a small town girl embarks on the adventure of a lifetime when she accepts a job as a nanny and moves in with the wealthy Ross family of New York City. Guiding her moral compass is Chamberlin's 'Bertram', the family's cranky but secretly big-hearted Butler.
Chamberlin most recently appeared on Broadway in the role of 'Uncle Fester' in The Addams Family. The Tony-nominated actor's other Broadway credits include My Favorite Year, Chicago, Triumph of Love, Dirty Blonde, Seussical and The Ritz. He has also appeared in films such as "Die Hard with a Vengeance" and on TV in the NBC drama, "Heroes".
Whether taking pratfalls, being slathered in fruit salad or working with a cast of tween-aged kids, the busy actor tells BWW why he's loving every minute of being on the set of his Disney Channel program.
Can you tell us a little about your character 'Bertram.'
Bertram is one of those 'children-hating but really has a heart of gold' types who is a bit lazy. He's also sort of a cynic and the sarcastic wit of the show. He's a bit bumbling and as in most Disney Channel shows, you know, the adults usually get a lot of the physical gags put upon them. So I find myself each week either doing pratfalls or having some liquid poured on me. I've never done so many stunts before in my life! I've fallen from kitchen counters, I've been hit by paintballs, covered in fruit salad. You name it. It's a really fun show. The big difference between TV and theater is that you get to do a new play every week, so it's quite challenging but it keeps you fresh. There' s never any fear of getting stale in your performance.
'Bertram' follows a long line of sitcom butlers thoughout TV history. Did you base your character on any of them?
Yeah, I'm sort of Mr. French, Mr. Belvedere, Niles from The Nanny, a mixture of all three and then my only little spin. We actually have a catch phrase now for Bertram. He's so lazy he'll say, "I'd sign my name to that letter but the pen is so far away." He says things like that you know, he' s too lazy to get up and get a pen. Now all the kids, when they see me in the street or in the mall they'll go, "Bertram, oh it's too far!" (laughing) I use that line all the time and really the best part of this job is the kid fans. It's crazy how huge the show is. I didn't realize. Disney Channel was not on my radar before this. I don't have kids and now I see that it really is huge, it's worldwide. I was in Puerto Rico and got mobbed!
Speaking of kids, how is it working with such a young cast?
It has been just one of the most rewarding experiences. I also direct episodes and I've been helping them, teaching them about acting. And because they're too young to study, well let me back story this by saying that one of my big pet peeves is people who go, "Oh, well I can't do anything else so maybe I'll try acting." And it's really a slap in the face for someone who has a master's degree in acting. It's like, 'oh I'm going to try this now." It's a unique art form in that anyone can get up and be brilliant, whereas you can't sit down at a piano and play 'Rhapsody in Blue' without training, and I think theater really separates the men from the boys. And so I'm trying to instill in these kids the importance of learning the craft and learning how to direct yourself and learning the history of acting. Learning why are you doing what you're doing and who came before you. You know, a lot of these kids don't know the great television shows, 'Mary Tyler Moore' and 'All in the Family' and all those great shows and how the multi-camera sitcom format has grown over the years and what its origins are. We're next door to the original 'I Love Lucy' stage.
Can they even appreciate that?
Well a lot of them have never even seen an episode! So I think whatever art form you're in, whether TV, film or theater, you should know the history of who came before you and how the art form has changed or not changed and to learn from the greats. So when I'm directing, we have some short cut terms now for these kids who are 8, 9, 10 years old. We say, 'oh you gotta turn it from the "A" side of the joke" and they go, "oh yeah, now I gotta do the "B" side of the joke." The've come so far, so quick. And their sense of humor has grown so much, they've become really smart actors. And you can study as much as you want but in the end, the actual doing is what teaches you. We're now on episode 31 or 32 and they've come so far, just in the year and a half.
JESSIE is really unique in some ways for a Disney Channel show.
It is in the fact that our entire writing staff, they've written for everything from "Married With Children" to "The Simpsons" to the "Nanny" and they wanted to do a more adult show. The audience grew up with Debby Ryan on "Suite Life" (of Zack and Cody) and so they wanted to continue that audience into their later teen years. So we have one of the largest adult audiences of any Disney Channel show and of course I have a lot of fans, and friends and family who are always twittering me and emailing me saying that it's a guilty pleasure. They've never watched a show on the Disney Channel before and it's very addictive.
But the writing is really smart and the writers always throw a lot of adult references in. We just did a Halloween episode that has like 10 different classic horror movie jokes in them from 'The Shining' to 'Psycho' and that's stuff that kids haven't seen at all. We also have some great old TV guest stars, like Jo Anne Worley was a guest, and the show takes place in New York so there's a lot Broadway references. Jessie is trying to find her way in the city and she tries acting and music. The Ross' are a very wealthy family and they make a lot of jokes about that. There's an episode where the family has to take the subway at one point and it's a big deal. They're like, "we never go down to the subway." So it's fun for the audience to be like,"Oh I wish I could be wealthy and live in a penthouse."
What was your motivation to take a break from live theater? Were you just looking for a change?
Well, I'm coming up on 50 and I've been able to balance the two and I thought, "if I can do a couple years of this, a couple years of that" just bounce back and forth, just keep doing that my whole life, I will not get bored. It's easy to get bored doing one thing. And I've never had job security in television. When I auditioned for Jessie, I knew that Disney Channel basically will do 100 episodes of a show if it's a hit, they'll stick with something. It's a great network to work with because they make a nice big commitment to a show. But you always miss what you don't have and one of things I do miss is the community, I miss the Broadway community a lot. And I have long hiatuses, four or five months hiatuses, so I go back to do readings and workshops, so I'm trying to straddle both coasts. But you do get tired after a while. I'm almost going to be 50 and the eight shows per week schedule can be brutal, especially for a whole year.
Do you have a preference for live theater or TV?
You know, like I said before, you always miss what you don't have. The wonderful thing about this sitcom is that we are performing in front of a live audience. So it's the best combination of both. You get that live studio audience laughter and you still have to learn how to ride a joke.
So how much rehearsal time do you have before you go in front of the live audience?
It's five days total for each episode, so we rehearse Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, we do pre-shoots on Thursday for stuff that we can't do in front of a live audience. And then Friday night we do a live show, in front of a bunch of screaming girls and boys (laughing) lots of Disney Channel fans - it's a real family audience. And then afterwards, we sign autographs and it's really fun. It's a big party. And by the way, the sound stage that we do JESSIE on is the original sound stage for The Addams Family television show.
Oh my gosh, what a coincidence.
Yes, I've come full circle!
This is probably a hard question to answer, but of all your Broadway roles, do you have a favorite?
Well, play-wise, Dirty Blonde because we created that from scratch. I'd never created something from the ground up like that before. And there was a lot of autobiographical stuff in that play about me that Claudia (Shear) used when she was writing and it was really organic, the whole thing.
And from a musical standpoint, probably Seussical, just because of the life it's had since then. I just went and saw a production at the Youth Academy of Dramatic Arts here in Los Angeles and was sobbing. It's always so emotional to see these young kids doing it - so much joy. And I constantly get kids coming up to me who have played Horton in their high school or community theater and say that that role either brought them out of their shell or gave them a love of theater, or made them want to continue in that art form and that is so meaningful. I just get choked up when someone talks to me about that. And the show had so much turmoil behind it, so to see the amount of joy that it has ultimately brought people - it's one of the most produced musicals in America. So out of something that was not so pleasant, came something that has lasted and will last a lifetime.
Absolutely. And there is really something so magical about the show - the music, the story.
Yes. And one of the biggest highlights of my entire performing career was when I got to sing "Alone in the Universe" at Carnegie Hall in April with an 88-piece orchestra. That was incredible. It was a great evening. But I'm really looking forward to coming back to Broadway very soon. I'm keeping my eyes open for a new play, that's what I want to do next - either on Broadway or off.
Well we will certainly welcome your return!
The second season premiere of JESSIE airs Friday, October 5 at 8:30pm/et on Disney Channel.
Photo credit: Randy Holmes, Disney Channel