For the past seven seasons, Charlie McDermott of West Chester, Pennsylvania can be found on television as Axl Heck on The Middle, which airs at 8 p.m. on ABC. For those unfamiliar, the focus of The Middle is on the Heck family of Orson, Indiana – with Frankie (Patricia Heaton), Mike (Neil Flynn) and their children, Axl (Charlie), Sue (Eden Sher) and Brick (Atticus Shaffer).
This Christmas, McDermott finally let the public see a project he co-wrote, directed and starred called ImagiGARY, which has been released through the official movie website – imagigary.com.
Q: How does one want to move across the country and become an actor?
A: I don’t know, pretty much just that. I just kind of wanted to do it for as long as I could remember. It kind of seemed like the right time to give it a shot. I went for it…and yeah, so far so good, I guess.
Q: Do you remember your very first acting role?
A: The first thing I did was a movie called The Village, which they shot in my home town. It’s a M.Night Shyamalan movie, I was lucky enough to get to lines in that. They had an open casting call in my home town and yeah, it worked. It was really cool…still one of the biggest things I worked on, project wise.
Q: When you auditioned for The Middle, was there something appealing about the project or were you just thinking it was simply another audition?
A: I mean, yeah, a little bit of both. I had not really worked that much at that point, so every audition was appealing. I was kind of into anything. I auditioned for it once before…before it even got picked up.
I auditioned for it once and did the pilot and it didn’t go anywhere. I liked it a lot the first time and when I got to audition for it again…I was really excited. Patricia Heaton was attached the second time, so the second time around I was really pumped to try and get it. Luckily, I got it that time.
Q: Did The Middle change a lot from the first pilot from the second?
A: No, everything was exactly the same except my character’s name, in the first one was name Elvis. But it was changed the name to Axl.
Q: It was a very minor change.
A: Yeah, I think it was a better name…I didn’t have very many lines in the pilot and still had most of my lines memorized from the first time I auditioned. It was a completely different cast [of actors] and I think Atticus was in the first one and he got cast again for the second one. The first one, when it came back, I was like I remember this and saw that Patricia Heaton was attached and thought ‘Ohh…I really want to do this because I was a huge Raymond fan.’
Q: Was the audition process long?
A: Mine took a couple months. I think I auditioned four or five times over two and half months. First round and then another round and then meet the studio and then the network separately…so I think four or five auditions. I booked it right before Thanksgiving was when I got it. It was a nice little Thanksgiving. I was very happy. It was kind of nice…the last two auditions I went to, I was the only one reading there, which never happens. I felt good about it…but at the same time kind of strange, they never have just one person reading.
Q: Nice. Charlie, did you ever imagine The Middle would last (seven) seasons? Or anybody?
A: I mean yeah, I did. I think it was being young and naïve…it’s more like the longer I’ve been on it, the more blown away I am that it’s gone as long as it has.
Q: Any idea to the secret to the show’s success? It kind of flies under the radar compared to other shows.
A: I think that might be why it kind of works. It’s a small fun little family show. I think it’s one of the only shows, kind of like it right now on tv. It’s a mid-west family, who are kind of not too real well-off. Most shows, everyone’s house looks really nice, everyone’s doing well. Our show, our house is trashed and there are money problems. It’s pretty relatable…it’s just a nice little thing to see. It’s funny…I guess that’s part of it. I don’t know, there’s been a lot of funny shows that haven’t made it. I don’t know, I’m guess I’m just glad it’s working for whatever reason it is.
Q: I’ve heard a lot of stories about acting like you could be working eight o’clock in the morning and sometimes well past midnight, kind of thing. What’s the process on an average episode you shoot?
A: It’s kind of changed throughout the years. When we first started we were all in the house together, now [I am in college]. So that kind of changed it up a little bit. There are some episodes now that I’m at school the whole time, which is nice for me which means I get days off now.
Basically the way it runs they start shooting like…the crew gets there around 5:30…six in the morning and when finish working at seven or eight at night…depending on the kind of scenes we do. Yeah, basically depending on the scenes I have…some days I’m there a whole lot and some days I’m there for half a day. Yeah, we do Monday to Friday, generally 12 to 13 hour days…
Q You mentioned days off, what do you do with those days?
A: Sometimes I go to set and eat the free food, other days I just hang out. I like to write…I’ve been trying to get a whole behind-the-scenes aspect of it, been using days off now to try and focus on that. Generally, I read or sleep-in.
Q: You brought up writing, I understand you wrote and directed a movie called ImagiGARY?
A: It’s about an imaginary friend named Gary. The imaginary friend from childhood returns when the main character is in school, the friend is all bitter and mad about being forgotten for 10 years and then they hang out in college for week. It’s a fun little comedy. Eden has a part in it…her character is named Drunk Girl. Neil and Chris Kattan play campus security officer as cameos.
Q: What was it like making your own movie, had you made one before?
A: I made a bunch of short films. I’ve never actually made a feature film. It’s really fun and incredibly stressful and kind of terrifying at times, but really fun and really funny experience too. It was shot between season three and four, so been doing post production on it for [a couple seasons}. It’s been cool, really fun experience.
Q: Was the directing aspect what you expected it to be for a feature-length movie?
A: Yeah, definitely, there’s a lot of things that I figured out at I went. I think I wasn’t ready for how stressful it would be. I thought it would be a little less stressful. Generally, it was fun…really cool. Stuff I did before like shadowing directors and get a sense of what it was kind of like, but it was eye opening to do it myself.
Q: How long was the shooting period?
A: We shot for three weeks in Pennsylvania in May 2012 and one week in Los Angeles at the beginning in June
Q: Was the story idea yours?
A: I co-wrote it with good friend of mine name Nate Hartley. He was Drillbit Taylor and been on the Disney channel and been recurring on The Goldbergs. It was based off something he wrote as a teenager, called Benson Fishbowl. It was a play on an imaginary friend and I thought it would be funny to put a imaginary friend in a college atmosphere, so we kind of played with that idea. He played the imaginary friend…I played the college kid. It was nice having both of us working on it. He’s a really good writer and great in the movie too. He really did a good job.
Q: Would you ever consider directing an episode of The Middle?
A: Yeah….that would be cool. I wouldn’t be opposed to it, if they ever let me do that. It would be pretty cool…I’ll finish the movie first and maybe see if I could weasel myself in.
Q: I assume movie and tv production have differences?
A: As far as I can tell, it’s a little different. I guess there’s overlapping in some way. It nice on a tv show, it’s been running so well for so long, it’s not hard to figure out how to make something work or not. Eileen [Heisler] and DeAnn [Heline], the creators…they know what they want and works out pretty well.
Q: In terms of writing, have you contributed anything on The Middle.
A: No, not really…maybe an alternate way of delivering a line or something…the plan is so far in advance, the writing mapped out for what they wanted. It’s nice to know they have it figured out, I can show up and say funny lines.
Q: You’ve grown as actor, is a good way to put how things are?
A: I think so, definitely. It’s been boot camp these past six years. I’ve never done this much before…with 24 episodes in a year, it’s a lot of practice. It’s beginning of August and end of March. It’s a fair of amount of work.
Q: However long The Middle lasts, what will you remember the most about it?
A: Probably The environment on set…everyone’s grown pretty close…which is really nice. It’s like being in school with all your best friends…but not school it’s actually fun. Eden and I become really good friends, yeah I’ll miss that whole environment there because it kind of feels like a second home.
Q: Did you go to school for acting?
A: No no…I left high school at 16 to try the acting thing. It took me awhile to get use to [California]. I like it a lot. I’m pretty comfortable here now. There’s a lot going on…it’s pretty busy. It takes some getting used to. I had like cows in my backyard, [West Chester] wasn’t like a really small town but compared to Los Angeles, it’s very tiny.
Q: The Middle is on soundstage [not Orson, Indiana]?
A: Yeah, sunny Calfornia. I am really impressed on how they are able to make it not look like 83 degrees in the winter. They do a really good job of faking Indiana, it looks real good.
Warner Brothers has used the sets for 50 or 60 years. The house we shoot it in is down the street from National Lampoon’s Griswold house…neighbour house is from I Dream Of Jeannie…that’s next door. That’s the Donohue house. All these houses have been used many many times. They kind of change them a little bit that it’s not the same house. American Beauty was shot down the street from us. I think the Glossners house, on the show…is the same as the Griswold house, they just make it dirty looking.
The Heck house – you know the show Friends? The fountain from the intro it in the backyard, they hide it with a bush every time they shoot back there. Project X that party movie that came out…that was the Heck house, the house that blows up in Lethal Weapon…that’s our house. They use them a lot. Cassidy’s house [Axl’s ex-girlfriend] same house, so it Devin Levin [Ax’s girlfriend from college] house and Axl’s frathouse, it’s the same. It’s crazy how much they use the same stuff over and over again. It’s pretty wild. The football episode where Axl drops the football…that was also the Heck house backyard, they shot it at a weird angle so you couldn’t tell.
The art department and everyone is incredible the way they can move everything around and make it look like a different place. Blown away by it…hard work is done before I get there, basically say crazy stuff and then they tear it down and build another one. It’s pretty cool. We got a good group of people, we are fortunate.
It’s hard not to learn.