Josh McDermitt burst on to the scene on the radar of fans around the globe when her joined a very elite club — the cast of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” Introduced during season five , he quickly became a fan favorite as Eugene Porter – a man with an incredible mullet and immense intellect. However, this multifaceted young actor is far from an overnight sensation as he cut his teeth in the world’s of both comedy radio and standup comedy. McDermitt’s passion for performing drew him to acting. Before he knew it, he was hooked.
His creative progression lead him from comedic roles to more dramatic work and a memorable recurring role as George Payton on AMC’s award-winning series “Mad Men.” His amazing range and dynamic performances have began to turn the heads of both critics and fans alike. His hard work and determination have been paying off in spades. Earlier this year, he made his big screen debut in “Life In Color.” In the Katharine Emmer helmed film, McDermitt stars as Homer, a clown-magician who tries to find his purpose in life through entertaining. The movie is a grounded romantic dramedy about two-strangers [Homer and Mary] who meet while getting stuck house-sitting together. The critically acclaimed independent feature quickly became a 2015 SXSW favorite.
When he isn’t making a splash in the indie film world or fighting off bloodt-thirsty zombies hordes on television, writing and working on developing several projects, this star on the rise is giving back. Most importantly, McDermitt puts his star power to good use by lending his support to several organizations, including the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, and various foundations that support pancreatic cancer research.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Josh McDermitt to discuss his journey in the entertainment industry, his iconic role on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” his upcoming projects, work with several deserving charities and much more!
You have become a familiar face through your role on “The Walking Dead.” Going back to the beginning, how did you get your start in the entertainment industry?
Gosh, I feel like there were several markers along the way that led me down this road. My mom was always a goofball and a big entertainer. She didn’t do it professionally or anything but she was always putting on a show or singing Broadway show tunes when she would wake us up in the morning. I got a heavy dose of performance early in my life. When I was 14, I started prank calling a radio show that I ended up working on for about 14 years. Within that time, I started doing standup comedy because I had become a little bored working in corporate radio and needed a different outlet. After I had done stand-up for a while, I realized I would rather be acting. It was a series of little steps along the way that brought me to where I ended up and never a self-fulling thing of wanting to be an actor from the time I was a kid. It was something burning within me but I didn’t quite know what it was until I was much older.
Who were some of the people who had a big impact on you as an artist earlier in your life?
My brother and I would get comedy cassette tapes. We had bunk beds and, when we were supposed to be sleeping, we would sit there and listen to all the classics from Roseanne Barr to Bill Cosby to George Wallace. I also remember my parents going to see comedians at the comedy club. My mom would come home and tell me all about it, so I got a healthy dose of these unknown comics who were coming through my town. I knew a lot of their jokes because my mom would repeat them back to me. That was always so cool. I always felt the response that people got from people being funny. I was always a bit of a ham, so I think that just helped reinforce it. My parents definitely influenced me, along with my mom’s whole side of the family is very whacky. We just grew up trying to make each other laugh. That is really what it was and it grew from there.
Your early work was definitely influenced by your comedic roots. Was there a conscious effort to switch gears and head into more dramatic work?
Yeah, it was definitely by choice. I was on a sitcom called “Retired at 35” for two seasons. While I was on that show, I started to get with the acting coach I had studied with in the past and started to work on the dramatic side the entire time I was on that show. By doing that, I wasn’t just ignoring one half of my acting career. When I felt confident enough to do drama on this level, I said to my agent, “Why don’t you just start submitting me for auditions on the drama side?” He said, “Alright!” “The Walking Dead” was literally the first thing I auditioned for, so it happened very quickly. Now, I find myself having to go back and remind people that I am a comedian! [laughs] I was just up for a movie and I didn’t get the part because they said they wanted a comedian! I get it. I mean, I am known for being on a dramatic series but it was funny that they wanted to go with a comedian. I had to say, “Well, alright. It’s your movie!” [laughs]
“The Walking Dead” is a dramatic series, as you said, but do you find your comedic background plays into the character or Eugene at all?
I never really play it as a comedic part. Eugene isn’t necessarily a warrior like Daryl or Michonne, so seeing him in these situations is going to be funny to begin with. I think that is where a lot of the comedy comes from. They definitely don’t write it that way and I don’t play it that way, yet it still is funny. I think that is really the sweet spot.
How has the role changed from the point when you auditioned to this point? Have you brought any of your own touches to the character?
Yeah. Throughout the entire process, it was back and forth with Scott Gimple, our showrunner. They did a lot of the work for me as far as who the character is but the behaviors are all things I brought to the character. Just knowing some of the other actors who auditioned for the role and their bodies of work, I know that every one of us would have done a different Eugene. That just goes to show that even though the producers had given us so much with this character, each actor is really able to bring it to life and make it their own.
I am sure you always get asked about Eugene’s epic mullet. Is it in any way a tribute to comedian Bill Hicks? I can’t help but notice a resemblance.
[laughs] Yeah, I get compared to Bill Hicks a lot, which is really funny. I want to say he is from Houston and so is Eugene, so it goes even deeper than the mullet and the dry personality. Obviously, the show is based on a graphic novel and Eugene is one of the characters in the novel, where not every character on the show is. Eugene’s deal in the comics is that he has the mullet. I know they really wanted to bring that element to the show. When I was auditioning, they were trying to keep it a secret, so initially I think it was mentioned that he had a mohawk. I don’t know if that was a serious intention for the character but it certainly gave me a scare because I don’t look good with any part of my head shaved! [laughs]
Being on a series the caliber of “The Walking Dead” can be a real game changer career-wise. How has it impact you professionally and personally?
Speaking to the career side, it has opened some doors that previously there was little consideration to having opened. That is great and it is always fun to be a fan of someone’s work and then they come up to you and tell you they are a fan. That is neat to be able to connect with other people in the industry because of the show. In terms of being recognized on the street by fans or people, it is still a trip. [laughs] It is crazy because even if I try to disguise myself, they still figure it out because I have a mullet! It is fun! It really shows you that the fans love the show and it has become one of the biggest shows in the world. It is something I am still coming to grips with, the enormity of the show. Michael Cudlitz and I talk about it all the time. We say, “This is so crazy!” We think we understand the magnitude of it and then we really don’t! It is such a huge show and has such a huge fan base that is rabid and crazy! I love every one of them!
“The Walking Dead” boasts a terrific cast, writing team and hordes of talented folks behind the scenes. How does this show compare to the projects you have been involved with in the past?
Every show and set is different. It all starts with the lead actor and the tone they are going to set. Sometimes, you are lucky and you have a lead actor who is great, supportive, chill and not egotistical. Sometimes it is the opposite. I have a lot of friends tell me it can suck if you are on a set and the lead actor is kind of a diva. Luckily, I haven’t had to experience that. Then you have a show like “The Walking Dead” where Andrew Lincoln goes above and beyond as the star of the show in terms of how generous he is, the intensity of the role and to the entire set. He constantly has his hands in everything because he wants to make this the best show that he can. If there is ever a moment where you aren’t bringing it, he will let you know! That is something a lot of people wouldn’t do. He isn’t doing it from a mean spirited place. He is doing it to make the show the best it can be and doesn’t want you to phone it in.
What is the biggest challenge you faced with the project and the biggest lesson you learned along the way?
I think the biggest challenge is shooting in the summertime in Georgia. [laughs] It is certainly not the most ideal place to be during that time of year. The people down here are amazing and our crew is amazing! They are complete troopers. I don’t even want to call them troopers because it makes it seem like I am diminishing the work they do but they are amazing! They help carry us to the finish line all of the time. Something I have learned from working here is that despite how wretched the conditions can be, from hot and muggy to snakes crawling up your legs, no one complains. We complain a lot as humans and this is something I will definitely take to future projects — no matter how bad it is, it won’t be as nasty as working on the set of “The Walking Dead.”
You have a lot of irons in the fire outside of the world of television. One of those projects is a film called “Life In Color.” What can you tell us about the film and how you got involved?
Katharine Emmer is a friend of mine. She had asked me to be part of a short film she wrote and wanted to shoot. I said, “Sure! Let’s do it!” It came out really well. A few of the people involved had encouraged her to write a feature. When she started doing so, she asked me if I would be a part of that project. Again, I said, “Yeah!” She wrote it, directed it, edited it, starred in it and I want to say handled catering. She was pretty much a one-woman operation. The movie came out great and we got it into a few film festivals and it keeps on trucking! It was a really fun thing to do!
Another film you have on the way is called “Middle Man.” What can you tell us about the flick?
There are two great leads in the movie. First, there is Andrew West. He played Garrett on “The Walking Dead,” the cannibal. Then there is Jim O’Hare, who played Gary on “Parks and Rec.” I had worked with both of them in the past. When the director cast both of them, Andy said, “You might want to think about Josh for this other role.” The director was a big fan of “The Walking Dead.” He was like, “The weird guy?” He didn’t really know who I was, he just knew Eugene. [laughs] Andrew said, “Yeah. He is not a weird guy at all! You should give him a shot.” He ran it by Jim and he said, “Yeah, I just worked with him and he was amazing.” Ultimately, we all got together and shot it. It is a really dark comedy about a guy who is putting it all on the line and pushing it to the limits to make his dreams come true. I get to play a guy with a really awesome head of hair. That is really my goal with each project now, to have a really awesome head of hair! [laughs]
Your career has certainly been very diverse. How have you most evolved as an actor along the way?
I still learn every day. I love watching actors, both new and old, because I learn from everybody. It is something I feel like I am never going to perfect, which is exciting. I don’t look at it as something that is discouraging. It is kind of like a golf game. If your handicap is 18 right now, if you keep working at it, you can get it down to 15. If you keep working it, then you get it down to 12. It is the same with acting, except if you keep working at it, maybe you are recognized by the industry or something. The more you do it, the better you get. The interesting thing is that even though I have been in the entertainment industry for a long time, I still feel like I am the new guy, at least in terms of acting at “The Walking Dead” level. It is probably only the last eight years that I have been doing this. It is fun and exciting to continually evolve, meet new people, learn from others and, hopefully, I have many more years of doing this ahead of me!
It seems like you are always doing something creative, be it bringing a character to life or, in the past, working on comedic material. Do you see yourself stepping out as a writer at some point in the future?
Yeah. I write a lot. My writing partner is a guy named H. Michael Croner. He is on the Comedy Central show “Review” with Forrest Macneil. He and I write a lot. There is a lot of stuff we won’t ever pitch, shoot or let anybody see but it is a nice creative outlet for us. Sometimes we get little gems from the things that we write that no one will ever see but we might put them into something else that somebody will see. It is a nice way to decompress from the other elements of this industry which can bog you down after a while. It is great to have that creative freedom where you are the one deciding what to do as opposed to someone else telling you what they want. That is always really cool!
Outside of your acting work, you are also involved with some great charity work. First off, how did you get involved with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation?
My nephew was diagnosed as a Type 1 diabetic. That was something that hit our family hard. He wasn’t doing well for a while but once we figured out what it was after some testing, it shifted the entire family with how we operate and do things. It has been cool to see this little boy who was 4 or 5 years old when he was diagnosed really blossom. He is now 8 and gives himself insulin shots and tests his blood sugar on his own. It is really cool to see him doing so well with it. Diabetes is something that affects a lot of children and they don’t know why it effects some kids and not others. Type 2 diabetes is preventable but Type 1 is not. That is how I got involved. You can learn more about the organization at www.jdrf.org.
You are also involved with Homeboy Industries, which does very inspiring work.
Yeah, Homeboy Industries is a charity in Los Angeles that helps gang members and reintroduces them into society. It really gives them a hand up with things like tattoo removal, anger management and so on. A lot of these gang members have tattoos on their faces, so by removing those it allows them to go in for a job interview and they won’t be judged by their tattoos or their past. It is a really transformative organization that helps a lot of people get back on their feet and make an impact on their communities by doing some good. There is an actor named Richard Cabral and he is nominated for an Emmy right now for his role on “American Crime.” He came out of Homeboy Industries. I became a fan of his through his work and it was later that he was a product of the good work Father Boyle and the other people in the organization do. It was cool to be able to follow his story and see what an impact Homeboy Industries has had on them.
You also support a lot of worthy causes when it comes to pancreatic cancer research. Is there anything we can help shine a light on there?
November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. My brother-in-law, my sister’s husband, passed away from pancreatic cancer a few years back. That was something that really impacted our family. Pancreatic cancer is one of those things that, by the time you find out you have it, it is usually very advanced and it’s not a good thing. I am trying to help spread the word to help researchers get more money for more research. The goal is to be able to detect pancreatic cancer before it is in Stage 4 and it becomes too late. It is something that claims too many lives because it is so silent. We try to do as much as we can to help raise awareness on the topic.
We will certainly help spread the word, my friend. Any final thoughts before I let you go?
I think we hit the nail on the head! I am really excited about Season 6 of “The Walking Dead.” People are going to go nuts! We have more walkers than ever and it is a show that certainly isn’t slowing down! I can’t wait for people to see it!
We will be tuning in for sure! Thanks for your time today, Josh! All the best and we will talk again soon!
Sounds good, Jason! Thanks for your time!
For all the latest info on Josh McDermitt, check out his official site at www.joshmcdermitt.com. Be sure to catch him in Season 6 of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” when it premieres on Sunday, Oct. 11 at 9/8c.