‘Modern Family’ mom: TV and child advocacy

Actress Julie Bowen juggles a hit TV sitcom and three boys of her own, one of whom has a life-threatening allergic reaction to peanuts and bee stings.
John Shearer/Invision/AP
Actress Julie Bowen juggles a hit TV sitcom and three boys of her own, one of whom has a life-threatening allergic reaction to peanuts and bee stings.

Julie Bowen plays TV’s wacky and loving mom Claire Dunphy on the ABC sitcom “Modern Family” and she recently won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy. A native of Baltimore, she got much of her education in New England, at the private St. George’s School in Middletown, R.I., and then at Brown University, where she majored in the very un-Claire like Italian Renaissance Studies. On ABC, Bowen is the mother of two teenage girls and one boy, but at home it’s three young boys for her and her software-engineer husband. Because her oldest son has a life-threatening allergic reaction (what’s called anaphylaxis), Bowen, when she’s not acting, is advocating for better treatment and more awareness. Food allergies in children have risen by almost 20 percent in the last decade, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and today they impact 5 percent of all children. On Thursday, as part of Bowen’s campaign, students at Boston Latin will brainstorm ways to help the school community be more aware of life-threatening allergic reactions and judges will choose 15 winners, each of whom will be awarded a $2,000 college scholarship. We talked with Bowen for a few minutes on Monday.

Q. Congratulations on your second Emmy. I read that your first one broke, what happened?

A. Oh, my oldest son, Oliver, golfed the ball out of the Emmy statue lady’s hand with a plastic club. He never made a good shot in the past. The statue is in my office holding her giant globe over one arm now. The second one is next to her and it looks sad and [the other one] is so perfect.


Q. You acted when you were at Brown. Is that when you first knew you were funny?

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A. I still wonder all the time if I’m funny. My family was always like a competitive laugh fest. I never thought of myself as being terribly funny.

Q. Do you remember the audition for “Modern Family”?

A. There were many auditions and I was very very pregnant with twins so I never thought I would get a shot. They hired a big giant pregnant lady, and I was pregnant with them in the pilot.

Q. Did you know the show would be such a hit?


A. I did know it was going to be good, but you never can tell. I just had the twins and I couldn’t imagine myself in the loop as far as popular culture. I was a sleep-deprived monster. When it started doing well I was going, huh? I was proud but didn’t feel hugely connected because I was focused on the kids.

Q. Do you ever crack up on the set?

A. Yes, a lot, but I’ve been pretty good because if you start to crack up you ruin the tape and they can’t use it, and you want people to see it. We were doing an interview on the couch and Ty [Ty Burrell who plays her husband Phil Dunphy] was talking about [using] mneumonic devices to remember names and he said ‘minnieeumonic,’ and it wasn’t scripted. We laughed for half an hour.

Q. Do you have a favorite episode?

A. Valentine’s Day of the first year when I got caught in the escalator. That made me laugh a lot. I loved the magic one this year.


Q. One of my favorites is when you and Phil were late for Haley’s graduation speech, had to hitch a ride, and then...

A. We rolled down the hill. They had stunt people there and we said, ‘Please let us roll ourselves. The funny thing is gonna be us popping up!’ On the last take, they said, ‘OK you can have one [take], and if you get hurt we’re gonna hurt you more.’ We both got banged up, just bruises, and that’s the take they used.

Q. Is your mothering style similar to Claire’s?

A. Claire is a parent of older kids and has experience with older kids. I’m just starting to have conversations [with my kids]. We talk to our kids like they’re people.

Q. When your oldest son, Oliver, now 5, was a toddler you found out that he has life-threatening allergies to peanuts and bee stings. That must have been scary.

A. It was and it wasn’t. One of the reasons I wanted to do this [The Get Schooled in Anaphylaxis] campaign was that I always thought allergies were a manifestation of nervous parents. So when Oliver had a severe and sudden reaction to eating peanut butter and getting stung by bee at the same time, in a way, it was lucky, because it was clearly bad. His face was misshapen and he had trouble breathing. I couldn’t say ‘oh it’s no big deal.’ This is very serious. If you know the signs and have a plan of treatment, there’s no reason to be panicked or a helicopter parent. It’s up to adults to get educated. We should all know what this is. And he is his own best advocate. He doesn’t think he’s weird or special.

Q. “Modern Family” covers many important subjects, is there a future episode about this?

A. I stand in such reverence and awe of our writers and we talk all the time on the set about our families and kids and experiences. They’ve heard horror stories about when my children tried to fire the housekeeper. Some [things] work their way into the script and some don’t. If this worked its way in, I wouldn’t attribute it to me.

June Wulff can be reached at