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Jeremy Sisto.

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Jeremy Sisto on Suburgatory, and How a Complicated Childhood Affected His ‘Brooding’ Early Roles

Jeremy Sisto’s follow-up to the unhinged Billy on Six Feet Under and the pouty, brooding Detective Cyrus Lupo on Law & Order (plus many other rough-around-the-edges parts) is … a goofy sitcom dad on Suburgatory. Seems like an odd transition, but in a world where Bryan Cranston can go from Malcolm in the Middle to Breaking Bad, the opposite can also be true. And Suburgatory, one of the fall’s most promising comedies, could be the show that cements Sisto’s newfound place in the comedy arena. We called Sisto on his day off to discuss joining the sitcom world, father-daughter relationships, and his "brooding" twenties.

You have a history of playing really dark roles. Why suddenly shift to comedy?
[Navigation voice from Sisto’s car.]

Uh-oh. What’s happening?
[Laughs.] All of my answers will be done in the navigational voice, if that’s okay.

As long as you choose your route accordingly.
It’s going to be a very complicated interview, but we’ll do it. [Navigation voice again.] You’ll get used to it … Anyway, now I’m wondering why I didn’t want to do comedy more when I was younger. In reality, I think it was less up to me than I thought it was. I did kind of consciously make that decision [to do darker roles]; that said, if I was offered a great comedy, I wouldn’t have turned it down. I was in my twenties and I was a pretty brooding guy. In your twenties, if you have any amount of complexity in your childhood, or any trauma that you haven’t dealt with, it comes out. That’s why you have a lot of artists that don’t make it through. So, yeah, I had some dark years in there, and I was lucky that I was allowed to tap into that in my work. Now things are very different in my life; I’ve got a family. It’s much more important that I stay in a good mood and that I don’t go to that dark place. I’m really enjoying it, and now I’m thinking I should have been more focused on this all along. But, sure, there’s a side of me that’s craving something dark, and hopefully that will come along.

What was the nature of the “dark times” that you’re referencing?
I had a lot of chaos in my very early years before I was old enough to know what was going on, and then I just skated through the rest of my childhood without dealing with it. By the time I started working at a young age and doing movies and getting big opportunities that felt like chances for me to fail really big — I was afraid that I wasn’t prepared for any of it, and I wasn’t. It’s taken me a long time to work through what I’ve been through as a child, and [acting] was definitely a part of that journey. Part of that journey was playing roles like Billy Chenowith in Six Feet Under, and doing these characters where I got to sit outside of somebody that had to deal with some pretty dark demons. The specifics of what went on are probably not right for this specific conversation but, you know, it was stuff that happened when I was real young and before I was able to not take responsibility for it, and all that psychological shit. It’s something that people relate to — and I hope my kid doesn’t relate to — but there’s a level of believability in playing complex characters. You know, Christopher Walken has done some hilarious comedies, De Niro. There’s great room for complexity and darkness to do well in comedies.

What do you see as the complexities of your character in Suburgatory?
Well, he’s actually a very optimistic guy. He’s able to stay positive about things. He’s a cool character; he’s done really well at raising his kid on his own. When I’m playing it, I’m like, It's so cool. I have this daughter who’s 16, and she’s totally cool and smart and funny, and she kind of likes me. And I get to hang out with her. In a way, he’s kind of living in the fruit of his labor of raising this kid, because now he gets to hang out with her and she doesn’t hate him. About the complexity thing, just to hang somebody like me in there, who's had a history of playing characters that are really different than this, there’s something that makes it feel a little dangerous.

If your artistic choices have imitated your life, as you’re saying, then is there some parallel to your life that you find in Suburgatory? A city guy, venturing into the cushier, safer suburbs, raising a kid?
Really, the hard part of raising a kid besides the labor of it — this shit you have to do that you don’t really want to do — the complicated part of having a happy family is the marriage. It’s dealing with somebody who you love very much but is full of their own history — maintaining that, and keeping that alive and healthy, especially if you didn’t have a great role model in that aspect. This character doesn’t have to deal with any of that shit. In a way, it’s kind of like this fun little fantasy. And it might get to a place where I start having a relationship [on the show]. But it’s really nice to not have that. There’s a really unique relationship between a single parent and their child. Marriages so easily break up. There’s kind of this temporary deal about marriages. That’s one of the things that makes it stressful, and that’s something that’s nonexistent in a parent-child relationship. What I do relate to in the show is having a kid. I have a [2-year-old] daughter, and when I look at her, I think she’s so cool. I’m kind of obsessed with her.

Photo: Roger Kisby/Getty Images