Modern Family has ruled television for a decade now. Nolan Gould went through puberty, growth and change in front of the entire nation and yet, there’s still so much to learn about him.
At age thirteen, Nolan Gould went on the Ellen show to let the world know that he is a genius. The 19-year-old, who plays Luke Dunphy on the beloved show Modern Family, is a member of Mensa; which people often find unsettling because the character he plays, well, isn’t.
“Seven years ago I went on the Ellen DeGeneres show and I made an announcement that I was technically considered a genius and a member of Mensa,” Gould explains. “At the time, I was tired of people assuming I was just like my character in that Luke is, for all intents and purposes, stupid. I wanted to set the record straight, I’m the opposite. That caught on so much that now everybody just knows that I’m a genius, so we’re having the complete opposite effect where now people are trying to come up to me and talk to me about math formulas. I literally have paparazzi come up and asking me math equations to prove I’m smart. Not going to lie, I kind of regret that decision. Especially because I’m smart but not super smart, I’m on the low end of the spectrum. Whenever I want to go out in public on a date or something, I have to be embarrassed by people coming up and saying ‘you’re a genius, right?’ I don’t know how to respond to that--how am I supposed to respond? Just say ‘indubitably?’”
Hidden inside the brick studios and old warehouses that cover LA’s artist district sits a ray of sunshine, The Happy Place. The museum is as close to a real ray of sunshine as most of us will see. The outside of the building is misleadingly small. Upon entering, visitors are greeted by room after room of color, cheer and quirkiness. Gould seems at home amongst the variety of different aesthetics, ever the chameleon that he is. He smolders in the sultry XOXO room and ruminates among the yellow sunflowers that fill another. In between shots, the actor perches atop a wooden bench, his coiffed hair bounces slightly while he smiles. Somebody suggests he try to look ‘disenfranchised,’ and without hesitation, Gould replies, “what, look like I don’t have the right to vote?” His tone isn’t haughty, and his eyes show pride in his joke, not judgement, at the use of the word. When meeting Gould, what strikes most isn’t that he can rattle off definitions or tell anecdotes about being a famous actor, it’s his desire to throw himself fully into fun.
Gould steps hesitantly into the next room before ecstatically realizing it is filled with color. The floor is striped with a rainbow rounded out by blue and pink walls. On the ceiling, a bed complete with stuffed animals and a bedside dresser defies gravity and Gould follows. The center of the room features a small, circular lighting set up and quickly, it quickly becomes Gould’s playground. A sense of freedom and enthusiasm pours out of him with every move of the arm or attempt at balancing on one foot. Eventually, he kicks it up a notch. The circular lighting becomes a hurdle and, just like the many hurdles he faced to become an actor, he jumps over it with ease. But that’s not enough for this next-gen star, soon he’s jumping over while twisting his body, he faces a new direction every time. He covers every pose from the ‘end of the movie montage’ jump to a ‘layman’s pirouette.’
For someone who had to publicly declare his intelligence before he could even drive, it’s amazing that, even now, it seems like we've pegged him incorrectly. “I think people would be surprised to find out I’m actually a total dork in real life. I spent three hundred hours last year playing this one video game. I’m a hardcore nerd. I read comic books, go to Comic Con, I geek out. In my mind, that would be the most surprising thing if people find out I’m a nerd,” he pauses and lets out a hearty laugh, “but I think they already know it."
The actor has been playing the role of Luke Dunphy, youngest of three, for a decade now, having taken on the role at age eleven. But for a while he didn’t think he would get a role, let alone a starring role in a 22-time Emmy award winning show.
“I almost quit acting when I was younger. We moved out from a small town in Georgia, we moved all the way across the country to pursue this dream of acting. I got out here and I worked a little bit, but it was mainly 5 years of mostly rejection and failure. That was especially stressful as a young kid,” he says. “I asked my family to come all the way out here, put their lives on hold, completely change everything up so I could follow this dream... and then it wasn’t really working out. I thought about quitting acting but then I got on Modern Family.”
Ten years later and the nominations and awards keep piling on; not that Gould predicted that. “At the time, I didn’t think Modern Family was going to be what it has become today -- which is kind of the show of its generation, being on for ten seasons and tying the record for most Emmys for comedy series with Frasier.” Then again, to predict the kind of success he and Modern Family have seen would require an oracle (or narcissism). Gould had neither, but he did have drive.
The show isn’t just a resume builder for the New York born, California raised actor. The show really has become his own modern family. Bonded through on set shenanigans, stress and support, Gould talks of his fellow cast members with admiration and adoration.
“Two or three years ago, a lot of the storylines Luke was going through, they were actually happening in my real life to the point where (and this is completely true) there’s an episode where Luke is texting two girls at the same time and he’s going to his sisters for advice on how to manage it. In between takes they would cut and then we would go onto my phone and they would help me. I was trying to write to a girl at the time and we didn’t realize, everyone was pointing it out,the juxtaposition of us shooting a show about them trying to help Luke write these text messages to a girl, then going back to writing text messages to a girl as myself. We should have just kept it rolling and recorded what was actually going on. I got friend zoned both times,” he snickers before slyly adding, “I think we learned not to listen to your TV sisters.”
However, in the increasingly invasive days of the internet, Gould finds himself navigating how to thrive in an industry that can, at times, bleed one dry. With his 1.4 million social media followers, he’s working out what to post and what should remain a mystery. “This is something that I’m still trying to figure out. The only way to keep yourself from going insane in this industry is to have part of yourself be kept private. You have your public space and you have your private space. Sometimes I cross back and forth and sometimes I don’t. I don’t really put myself in the public space because it opens you up to scrutiny. A lot of good things came out of the internet, but there’s also bad things.”
One such good thing to come from the internet is also a way that Gould passes time occasionally; “I never respond to people on the internet when they’re writing to me in a negative way but sometimes, when I’m feeling really down, I just go and have online arguments with people about whether or not climate change exists.”
It’s an argument you are best off not getting into with Gould; not only because of his extensive knowledge and vocabulary, but because, quite simply, he cares A LOT. “I get super defensive about the environment.The one thing that’s constantly remained in my life is a close connection with nature. I’ve always loved the environment and if I weren’t acting right now, I’d probably be somewhere in the middle of Oregon taking dirt samples. You’d stumble upon me building a trail in the middle of Yosemite.”
And while the image of the famous and dapper Nolan Gould taking dirt samples in the middle of nowhere seems strange, Gould’s voice becomes excited and wishful as he discusses the various nature jobs he would’ve taken had acting not panned out. Regardless of whether it’s acting or trail guide, Gould doesn’t plan on wasting anything he’s been given. The actor is wholeheartedly devoted to raising awareness.
“Every actor or public figure or musician should be working to make the world a better place and if they’re not, they’re just wasting their platforms.” Gould knows this and, despite his ambivalence towards social media -- boiling down a situational context into one post makes him uneasy -- he lives up to it. He shares personal stories, draws attention to areas in peril and demands that people care--with just the occasional shirtless gym selfie for good measure.
“When it comes to activism, it was always kind of a no brainer for me. I’m really lucky to have been given a platform where I can reach out to society and hopefully influence a change on it.”
His use of his celebrity for good extended into his role in Logic’s music video for the song ‘1-800-273-8255’ Gould plays a gay man opposite Coy Stewart in a story that emphasizes hope and hanging on. Through a combination of live performances, the music video and more, the National Suicide Hotline’s daily calls went through the roof.
“For us, that’s the highest honor we can receive over nominations or press, just the actual purpose of the song to have people call in and raise awareness”, he says
Gould would love to be on Modern Family for many decades to come, but he recognizes that, at some point, everything must come to an end. Yet, at age 19, he already displays the kind of introspection that breeds great actors.
“I’m a combination of emotion and logic, but only through experience. Naturally I’m a really logical, rational person -- even about my own feelings. I’m very self-aware. But because of being an actor and having to live the lives of other people, it teaches you to think a different way and feel super empathetic.”
Photography by Jonny Marlow
Lighting Tech by Alexander Fenyves
Styling by FRANZY STAEDTER
Grooming by Chechen Joson
Creative Direction Heather Seidler & Katie McGehee
Written by Malorie McCall