The Three Stooges, Homer Simpson and Axl Heck from “The Middle” all have one thing in common: they are not the sharpest knives in the drawer. They may say and do stupid things, but that’s why we love watching them. Their foolish ways make us laugh. Twenty-one year old, Charlie McDermott is the actor behind the dimwitted, Axl, who has become a greatly admired character in primetime television. He has been cracking up audiences for three seasons now.
Charlie co-stars with Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn on ABC’s “The Middle,” which follows the day-to-day lives of The Hecks, a middle-class family in the fictional town of Orson, Indiana. Each Wednesday, Charlie struts around as Axl in just a pair of boxer shorts, doing the least amount of schoolwork possible. But portraying a lazy teen is not all Charlie can do. He initially started acting in hopes of one day becoming a filmmaker. While directing and writing may be his true passion, Charlie is going strong on the actor’s path for now. At the age of sixteen, he starred in the film drama, “Disappearances,” playing Kris Kristofferson’s son. In 2008, he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actor in “Frozen River” with Melissa Leo (“The Fighter”). Since then, Charlie has been seen in numerous films and TV shows such as, “Hot Tub Time Machine,” “The Office,” “Private Practice” and “Medium.” With “The Middle” still rated as one of the top series, Charlie and Axl don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. I had the chance to catch up with the TV star to talk about his hot show and his movie making…
PP: There are hundreds of YouTube videos dedicated to your character, Axl. He seems to have quite the fan base. Why do you think people like him so much? Is it the boxers?
CM: I think Axl represents what everyone would like to be but can’t be in a way. He just gets away with everything. He’s a slob and he doesn’t really follow many of the rules. He doesn’t seem to get very many consequences for what he does most of the time, so I think that’s why people like him. He can just kind of be the most basic form of himself and get away with it.
PP: Do you relate to him at all?
CM: I mean, there’s always kind of a small part, I guess with everything, where you’re always playing a version of yourself. But not in the craziness, loudness and the nakedness of him!
PP: He’s a little bit of a dimwit.
CM: Yeah, he’s definitely a bit of a dimwit.
PP: So, how did you actually get the role?
CM: Just auditions. During my first pilot season I auditioned for the very first version of “The Middle.” I got two auditions in, but I didn’t go any further so I was like, “Damn, I wanted that.” It didn’t get picked up and then and about two years later I saw another audition for the same thing, but this time Patricia Heaton was attached to it and I was like “Oh wow, it’s going again.” It was the same part except it was originally titled Elvis and now it was titled Axl. I thought that was pretty funny.
PP: How is it working with Patricia Heaton and the rest of The Middle cast? Are there a lot of laughs?
CM: Yeah, everyone’s close. Everyone gets closer every single year. It gets more and more family-like. Especially between me and Atticus. Our relationship is very sibling like.
PP: Do you guys ever pull pranks on each other on set?
CM: Not really. A lot of times, for some reason, they would put traffic cones in our parking spots and they think we’re off that day. And then we come in and have to move the cone. Yeah, it’s not that crazy.
PP: Now that you’re into the third season, does it all come easy to you or do you face challenges?
CM: I don’t know; it’s not like it’s easy, but at the same time, I’ve been doing the same character for so long now it’s definitely more practiced. I can just kind of slip into it now. Before, especially during season one, I would have to figure out what’s working and what’s not working. And also in the first season we filmed five episodes before any of them aired so I would think, “I hope this works,” and then you watch it and then you’re like “No, I didn’t like that.” But then there’s a delay of about a month before anything that you learned can actually take effect, so during season 1 and season 2, I spent a lot of time watching it and trying to figure out what works and what didn’t. So, yeah, three years later it’s definitely a lot easier. I kind of go with it now.
PP: What do you think about the reaction? Were you surprised by how popular it became?
CM: I don’t know, I mean, kind of, but at the same time, it doesn’t really feel like that at all. It’s like anything else I’ve done; you just kind of show up and you do it and then people see it. Getting picked up was the biggest moment. The rest of it was just, “I have a job!”
PP: I read that you take your preparation for roles very seriously. When you played Kris Kristofferson’s son in “Disappearances” you chopped wood and blind folded yourself in the woods. Tell me about that.
CM: Yeah, that’s all true. Well, there’s a tree in my backyard that was felled. So it had to be cut up basically. I think I only cut up part of the tree, because it was a big tree. I wasn’t like a lumberjack, out there, taking down a whole tree. Then the worst thing was kind of my parents doing, but also kind of mine. I was running with my dad one day and we were talking about the movie. There was one scene that I kept having trouble with because I was close to being killed, and I’m stranded in the woods by myself. I just didn’t know how to do that. My Dad and I were talking about how I just needed to go into the woods and get lost and be scared. I decided to do that, and then about a week later, we were going to get ice cream, and I thought “sweet,” so I got into the car, and then I got blindfolded and I thought “Okay, it’s on now.”
PP: Do you prepare for all of your roles that way? I mean, obviously not going into the woods, but--
CM: Yeah. I would like to. That was kind of the most intense role I’ve done. I mean, to prepare for Axl I’m just…lazy? I love doing all of that stuff, but the part kind of has to call for it.
PP: What was it like working with Kris Kristofferson?
CM: It was awesome. I haven’t talked to him in a while now but we kept in touch for a good amount of time after the movie. He was just a really great guy and really kind of took me under his wing and was very helpful with a lot of things on and offset. The movie was the fifth thing that I had ever done, so it was a crazy experience, and still to this day the biggest role I think I’ve had in anything.
PP: So you did that, and then you did “Frozen River” a couple of years later with another big time actor—Melissa Leo.
CM: That movie, ironically, I actually got because of “Disappearances” because the woman who played my mom in “Disappearances” produced “Frozen River.” It says on IMDB that movie was made for one million dollars but it was made for about $300,000 at the most. They had no money at all, so they didn’t really cast. I got a call three weeks before the first day of shooting, and they asked me if I wanted to shoot the movie and have the script sent, and I said “Yeah, awesome.” I read it and I loved it. I ended up flying back and forth for pilot season while shooting the movie and we shot it over the course of two or three weeks. It was bare bones. Guerilla filmmaking.
PP: Do you like doing independents?
CM: I do, yeah. I prefer that. I mean, doing big budget stuff is very, very cool too, but there’s something about the feel of an indie where it’s almost like you’re on a team, rather than being separate from everyone. When you’re doing a movie for $300,000 and no one’s getting paid, everyone’s doing it because they want to do that movie. And it also reminds me of how I used to make movies when I was a kid at home.
PP: Were you like the “Super 8” kids when you were little? Is that how you got into acting?
CM: I saw Star Wars when I was five years old and all I did from then until my first job was make movies with my friends in my neighborhood and I had this thing which was like a Super 8 camera. It was called digital blue. You could only film for five minutes at a time, so you had to upload it on your computer. So I would film in five minute increments and then I had to run back to my house and upload it, and then run back and film more. We made about 60 movies.
PP: What kind of movies were you making?
CM: We did everything. We did remakes. Spider-man was one of our best ones. We did this alien one which was cool because this super 8 thing also came with this program and you could drop in pre-created special effects and put explosions and aliens walking.
PP: So you’re really also interested in behind the scenes.
CM: Yeah. I mean I really got into acting but I kind of wanted to direct. It was kind of very half and half; because there was a point where I wanted to act, but I thought it was impossible. Then I found out about M. Night Shyamalan.
PP: Was he one of the people who inspired you as a filmmaker?
CM: Yeah, definitely. I mean the main reason I really got into him, initially, was because I realized being an actor was a difficult thing to pursue in West Chester. Then my mom took me to see “Signs” and during the movie, she said “That’s the director, you know that. That’s the director!” And I said, “What?” Before that point, it had never crossed my mind that, even though I had technically done it in all my shorts, the fact that a director could put himself in the movie. I was like, “Oh, you could just do that.” So then I was on the directing, writing path ever since then. When eighth grade came around, they had open casting calls for “The Village” in my hometown and then I went and there were about four thousand other people there. I was number thirty two in line. They took my picture and then I left. I was just hoping he would be there so I could meet him, but he wasn’t. Then I ended up getting the call to be an extra. That was my first part.
PP: You mentioned school. Are you going to college?
CM: I was homeschooled. I left high school in October of my Junior year and moved out here. I’m not in college right now. I’m not really planning on it. I just kind of found my way into different writer’s offices. I learned a lot just working under them and they helped me out. So I’ve been kind of getting hands on what I want to do anyways. I’m just in the actual environment. I mean, if I had to switch career paths and become something that needs a college degree or something, then I’d obviously go. But for now, I’m doing what I want to do.
PP: Have you ever had an encounter with a crazy fan?
CM: In person, no. I read lots of weird things on the internet though. There are some weird people out there.
PP: Besides “The Middle,” what else are you working on?
CM: Currently, I’ve been working on this film which I wrote with a friend of mine. It’s basically the idea that this kid’s imaginary friend is coming back to him when he goes to college, because he’s kind of stranded and lonely. The kid kind of re-imagines his imaginary friend and they take on school together. We’re in pre-production right now.
PP: Are you going to be in it?
CM: Yeah, I’m playing the kid, and the other writer is the imaginary friend, and I’m directing it also. It’s cool.
PP: So what do you want to do with this film? Do you want to sell it or do you actually want to market it yourself at festivals?
CM: Well, right now we want to take it around to festivals and sell it there. We would definitely want to sell it. But, I really just want people to see it, more than anything else. I mean, if no one buys it, I’ll just put it on the internet. I just want people to watch it, so hopefully somehow more than me, my friends, and my family see it.
PP: So you want to continue acting and directing at the same time?
CM: Yeah. But I’ve always been more interested and involved in the writing and directing aspect. Acting gets a little too intense sometimes, just because it gets to a point where I can’t take much more of myself. Especially after seven and a half month shoots. I do love acting and I’d love to keep doing it, but it’s just one of those things where I don’t want to keep doing it just to do it now that I’m fortunate enough to be in a place where I can kind of, not necessarily pick and choose, but I don’t need to get a job right now. I can kind of—I’d love to just do projects I really care about.
PP: So you’re 21 years-old now. What’s your favorite thing to do?
CM: I think 21 is weird because I don’t look 21. Once, I went to a friend’s birthday party and I tried to buy Mike’s Hard Lemonade since she loves it. But I went to buy it and I got grilled at the check-out. The guy got to the point where he told me that my ID was fake and that it wasn’t me in the photo. It’s just frustrating. And when I go home to Pennsylvania I try to go to bars, but everyone thinks it’s fake because it’s a California ID. It just gets to the point where I get so nervous. I’ve never had a fake in my life, but every time I go to buy alcohol or something, I feel like I’m on edge because everyone thinks it’s a fake. That aside, there’s a place I now go to because they know me and they don’t think I’m faking every time I go in. But it’s mostly because they have pool tables and it’s not in the best neighborhood in the world. It’s called Fantasia. It’s like a sports/billiards bar. My friends and I play pool there all the time. That’s as crazy as I get though.
It was great getting to know the guy behind the dopey Axl. As we walked around during his photoshoot at Platinum Motor Sport, I found Charlie to be your typical 21 year-old dude. He likes cars, baseball (preferably the Phillies), skateboarding and hanging with his friends playing billiards. What separates him from the rest is his drive to get what he wants. At a young age, he knew he had to work in front and behind the camera. Charlie is well on his way to making all of his dreams a reality.
By: Pamela Price
Photo Location Courtesy of Platinum Motor Sport