Online Originals

Forging a Career

From shining a light on politics in Murphy Brown to playing with vampires on What We Do in the Shadows, Jake McDorman loves it all

Melissa Byers
  • Storm Santos
  • What We Do in the Shadows

    FX
  • Murphy Brown

    CBS
  • Murphy Brown

    CBS

Jake McDorman has been a working actor for almost half his life.

Growing up in Dallas, Texas, he was a huge fan of movies and television.

He says, "I would ingest movies, TV shows. That's what I was a fan of. That's what I would see a lot of. I realized that there was a way to do that and get that kind of rush that you get from being on stage and make it a little bit more internal and learn how to do it on camera.

"There were a couple of acting classes in and around where I grew up that I started going to, once I figured out what it was, what it was called and it was something you could get better at called acting.

"I started doing extracurricular classes. I wasn't even in the theater program of my high school. In fact, I went to classes after school and on the weekends and definitely during the summer that were really specifically engineered to teach you how to act on screen.

[They] teach you also about the editing process. So it was very film centric, familiarizing yourself not just with the acting side of things, but the technical side of things so you'd be more comfortable on the set. There's a lot of things going on and if you have absolutely no idea how any of it works it can really disorienting.

"I went to a few really good classes there and in those classes I met people who had been going back and forth from Dallas to LA for pilot season or busy times out here for years and years and years, so pretty quickly I realized, okay, that's what I want to do."

And once he figured that out, he put it into action quickly. "I was originally going to finish high school and try to get into a college somewhere in Los Angeles or Southern California. If I couldn't get in directly maybe go to a college in Texas for a first year and transfer, just to move myself out there. I have a half sister that grew up out here so I felt like I had some kind of semblance of a home base in LA.

"But as I got an agent in Dallas and as I met more people through these acting classes that had actually made the trip to LA earlier than even graduating high school, that started to take shape. I had really supportive parents that were just, I think, really excited that I had found something that really got me going.

"By the time I was 13 or 14 I had Adobe Premiere and was editing my own movies and eating, breathing and sleeping film and television and acting and all that. I think that was enough to give them at least the confidence to take at least the first leap of faith and have me start homeschooling and try six months out here.

"I got an agent and a manager in LA when I was 16 and then I saved up for about a six month trial run in 2003, I guess it was, and tested for a few pilots. Ended up getting a recurring on a pilot that got picked up and I think that was enough to say, 'hey, all right, let's do this' and kind of been working steadily ever since."

If 16 seems young to start a career in a strange city far from home, McDorman didn't always see it that way. He says, "When I first moved out here I was 16, which in hindsight now, I'm like, god that's young. That's so young.

"I remember when I was 16 I was like, god, I missed it. I should have been out here when I was 10, when you meet these people who have been doing it forever. I'm very glad now that that wasn't the case.

"As I've grown up and I'm now in my 30s so many of those people that I got off the bus with originally, so many of them don't do this anymore and I think a large part of that was because some of them, they did it so young they didn't know if it was even what they wanted to do or even worse, it might have been their parent' idea.

"'Let's get you in acting' and kind of stage parents type thing. That was never the case with my family. This was always my thing and they were so supportive, but then when it came to auditions and making it happen they were very hands off. They would let me forge my own way.

"I'm really grateful. I couldn't have done it without two really, really supportive parents and a supportive family overall, my sister, both my sisters. That was it. Yeah. Still here."

Recently, McDorman has acquired a new family in his role as Avery Brown in the re-boot of the iconic series Murphy Brown. Avery's birth in 1992 made quite a splash in American culture, even drawing the ire of then vice president Dan Quayle. The new series picks up with Avery a grown man working as an investigative journalist like his mother, but on a rival network, Wolf, loosely based on a current real-life network.

It might have seemed a difficult transition coming into a close-knit cast, but not so. McDorman says "I've told this to a few people, like close friends, but honestly, I've gotten a second family out of that show. It's like adopting five more moms and all of them need help with email.

"They're my extended family now. It's been really great. One of the things that really got me excited to do Murphy Brown, aside from working with those people, was the way that they wrote Avery and Murphy's relationship. Really to me, as far as the sit-coms that I grew up watching, it felt different.

"The original series of Murphy Brown had so many moments like this, too, where it transcended the sit-com for laughs and had real emotional moments.

"Friends and Cheers, all of them do, but Murphy would have it with real topical issues that were going on, and the mother-son relationship between Murphy and Avery got to land, like in the #MeToo episode, there was that scene on the couch that wasn't funny.

"It was really an intimate conversation and it felt, I don't know, really important and I felt really, really grateful to step into these, I guess baby shoes 'cause the last time you saw Avery he was about five years old and Haley Joel Osment, I think.

"It was really fantastic.

"Then on the top of that, these people are hilarious. They couldn't have been more welcoming. That's to their credit. There was never any hierarchy of 'well, we're the original cast. We are a group and then you're the newcomers.' It was such a loving relationship right off the bat. I had a great time."

Up until the last few years, McDorman, like most young actors, had been just moving from job to job, but he came to a point where he was starting to think more in terms of a long career. He says, "It was a weird time for me where I was like what do I want to put out? You don't really get to ask yourself that question.

"You don't really have that kind of agency as an actor all the time, where you get to choose the kind of conversations you want to have that are important to you personally, politically.

"When [Murphy Brown] came along and I sat down with Diane [English, creator and executive producer] for the first time, we spent an hour or more talking about what's been happening and how I was just coming online for the first time after all that and starting to forge more solid political stances and beliefs and get really passionate about what was going on.

"She was this well of knowledge. She's been that way and an activist since all the way back in the 70s before the show even.

"It was a really important relationship, meeting Diane. We hit it off right away and to be able to stretch my legs and have those conversations and have episodes that tackled issues about this presidency and administration as well as #MeToo and immigration and things like that that I have in my own circles been talking about and learning about and accumulating knowledge about day in, day out almost obsessively, which I think was the reaction to a lot of people after 2016.

"To then have an outlet that was also creative, but along those lines is a really, really special period."

But, as is the way for actors, McDorman also has another project in the works that could not be more different from Murphy Brown, FX's What We Do in the Shadows. Created by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, the horror-comedy series is based on the 2014 film of the same name.

It is a mockumentary-style look at four vampires living together in New York. The two projects came up at the same time, creating something of an embarrassment of riches for McDorman.

"I was actually going in to audition for a different Scott Rudin show on FX and I had been auditioning for this other show maybe three or four times and on the fourth time they were like 'Hey, it's okay if you don't want to do this 'cause we know you haven't gotten a chance to look at the material, but can you cold read this. It's for What We Do in the Shadows?'

"I was like, 'What? Who's involved? Is it the American version or is it like it's the same people. It was like oh, it's the same people. And I was like, give me the sides. I'm doing this.' It was a cold read. Just read it once and I want to say the next day they were like, 'you got it.'

"So I shot What We Do in the Shadows first and then went to Murphy Brown. I'm such a huge fan of everyone involved with What We Do in the Shadows, from Taika [Waititi] and Jemaine [Clement, executive producers]  to Matt Berry [playing Laszlo] and the cast. I was very, very humbled to be a part of it from the get go. Huge fan of the movie. Saw the movie more than once in theaters. Had shown many of my friends What We Do in the Shadows.

"I've been a fan of Taika's work and seen Hunt for the Wilderpeople and obviously Thor: Ragnorak had come out and that was awesome. It was cool to get to play with them."

McDorman had to go to work immediately on the show. He says, "And they were like 'and you work tomorrow all night long.' It's a vampire show so it's all night.

"It was all in the span of 72 hours from reading it and getting it then being on the Paramount lot in LA shooting my first couple of scenes with Natasia [Demetriou, playing Nadja].

"It was awesome. So then I go do Murphy. What We Do in the Shadows obviously gets picked up. I want to say, maybe around the 11th or 12th, the last episodes of Murphy 'cause Jemaine had been saying 'hey, we're going to bring you back. We're going to do a few more of these. And I was like oh god, that'd be awesome.'"

The character could not be farther from the grounded, very human Avery Brown. McDorman explains, "My character you find out in the pilot has a really bizarre origin, but he's this reincarnated old ottoman warrior from the past that's had this torrid love affair with Natasha, oh, pardon me, Nadja, Natasha's character.

"But he doesn't remember. He keeps getting reincarnated. Thousands and thousands of past lives and has no recollection of it. He's, in this current form, kind of a loser that bumps around and is a security guard. Has no friends. Very lonely guy. She's obsessed with him 'cause she sees this reincarnated hero that she used to have crazy vampire sex with way back, eons and eons and eons ago.

"My character's just excited as hell that somebody as interesting and beautiful and bizarre as this Nadja person has come in and shown any interest in me. That's kind of what that is.

"It couldn't be more different from the sit-com. A sit-com you rehearse all week long. You get one episode and Diane does very minimal rewrites. She comes from a theater background and she's a playwright. She actually told me, other sit-coms I've done, on show night they'll come in with alts and be like 'okay, that joke was pretty funny, but here. We're going to do an alt joke and try that.'

"With her, a script is locked pretty much by the time you get to Thursday. Definitely by the time you do the show Friday. So you rehearse as it is Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and perform it Friday.

"Where What We Do in the Shadows is mockumentary film style so you're shooting from the hip. Jermaine, Taika are calling out ideas and improvisations and urging you to go off book and be as crazy as you want to be. It's the funnest improv class that I've ever been in. It was a lot of fun. Especially volleying back.

"All my scenes are with Natasha and I'm in a couple with Matt Berry eventually and they're master class improvisationists, so to get to play around with that and bounce off them and try not to laugh at them was so much fun. I had a blast. It was great. I can't wait to see it."

McDorman hopes to continue on the path he's been creating for himself. He says, "We've been on this trajectory now to really go after some things that are a little bit more competitive and stretch my legs a little bit more. I've been really glad to go and do that work with some really great people.

"I found that that's really, at least a lot of it's up to you. You get to a point where if you're lucky enough you can maybe work and get jobs and be a working actor, but to really forge a career and make choices and say no to some things that you feel like you've done before and there's nothing left to learn in that arena.

"To hold out, keep yourself sane and have a little bit more downtime to go after things that are a little bit more ambitious can be risky. It can make you crazy, but the rewards have been fantastic. I'm very happy with how well that's been going."