While Charlie McDermott maintains that the best actors are quiet, sensitive and shy, since 2009 the West Chester native and our Best Rising Star has played the anything-but-subdued Axl Heck on the ABC sitcom, The Middle. The role follows work on The Office and Private Practice, plus movie appearances in Disappearances, Frozen River and The Village, among others. MLT caught up with him in April, just a day before his 24th birthday and a week after finishing the fifth season of The Middle. This summer, he’ll spend a few weeks in Europe, guided only by concert dates and his sense of exploration. “I always wanted to do it, and it just seemed like the right time,” McDermott says of the trip, which he chose over two independent films and a play. “It’ll be me and my backpack, but I couldn’t do it if I didn’t have the security of the show.” Lucky for him, The Middle has been renewed for a sixth season.
MLT: How important is the stability The Middle has provided?
CM: It’s been a nice, good, steady gig. It’s been crazy to watch the rise of [the show]. When it took off, there were about 24 pilots [that debuted]. But now, only two or three of those shows have survived. I’m glad I didn’t know that then; I think I would’ve become stressed out.
MLT: Why has the show worked?
CM: We’re a single, relatable family. The content is almost too childish for adults, but too adult for children, so it somehow appeals to both adults and kids.
MLT: What’s it like playing Axl?
CM: He’s just a goofy, self-centered teenager. I don’t identify with Axl, but he’s been a lot of fun to play. He basically does what he wants and gets away with it. I show up and do what I’m told, which is very un-Axl-like. The goal is to make people laugh.
MLT: Are you afraid of getting typecast?
CM: No, because the show isn’t at the same level as, say, Jerry Seinfeld, where everyone knows the characters and knows you as the character. It’s helped that people have seen me in other things, but I’ve hit my wall of growing or looking much older for a while. When I go out, most people still think I’m in high school; I get carded.
MLT: Any parallels between your family and the Hecks?
CM: We rarely ever fight at all, so the Hecks are our polar opposite. I have two sisters, but neither is Sue (his fictional sister). Sue is one of a kind.
MLT: What has playing Axl taught you about yourself?
CM: It’s definitely made me more confident and more secure. Axl is overconfident and a little delusional, but I’m not confident most of the time. When I’m not, sometimes I try to think of what Axl would do.
MLT: How do you separate the two?
CM: You’re always playing someone else when you act, so it doesn’t get blurred in my mind. And once it’s over, it’s over. I cut it off, head home, and hang out with my sisters or something. I’m more laid-back.
MLT: Are you your own worst critic?
CM: This was really the first season that I haven’t watched myself. It makes me so self-conscious, and that ruins me. It makes me think too much.
MLT: Tell us about the movie you’re finishing up.
CM: It’s a [directing] project that consumed my hiatus from taping The Middle; only the soundtrack remains. ImagiGARY tells the story of a 19-year-old college freshman (McDermott) who unwittingly recreates his childhood imaginary friend (Nate Hartley) to survive his first week of college. Ninety-eight percent of the shooting was done at West Chester University or in the borough; my entire crew was from West Chester. I want to make another movie, but I have to get this one out first. Until then, it’s me and Axl.