Months before Max Burkholder even did the first table read for the new television series Ted— based on the Seth MacFarlane films about a teddy bear who talks dirty—he was sent a replica of the eponymous stuffed animal. His instructions were to communicate with his very own Ted, and get used to physically interacting with the toy like he would have to do on camera.
So even though Burkholder was not yet allowed to tell people he’d been cast as the younger version of Mark Wahlberg's character from the Ted film series, he decided to bring Ted for a night out in New York. It went over surprisingly well.
"I knew it was a popular franchise, but I didn't know just how popular until I brought him out," Burkholder remembers. "Because everybody was recognizing him." If anyone asked what he was doing with Ted—who, to be clear, was inanimate, and could not speak with the voice of Seth MacFarlane—Burkholder explains, "I just looked at them like they were crazy, and said he was my best friend."
Ted’s recognizability was a sign of things to come. When the series premiered last month, became Peacock's biggest original series debut to date. For Burkholder, the experience has been “surreal.”
Burkholder is probably best known for his work on NBC's Parenthood and in the first Purge film, but he's been in the MacFarlane universe for quite some time—he began voicing various child characters (e.g., “Drunk Kid #2”) for Family Guy when he was around 6 years old.
Even so, Burkholder didn't expect to land the role of John, who in the Ted series is a pothead teenager overreliant on his friendship with this vocal stuffie. "At the time, I was 24 auditioning to play a 16-year-old," he says. "I'm like, ‘I'm too old—this isn't going to be believable anymore.’" Still, MacFarlane cast Burkholder off of his first audition tape, in which he used a version of John's Boston accent that he would develop later with a dialect coach.
Despite having grown up on television and movie sets, Burkholder wasn't always sure he wanted to pursue acting. He started attending Harvard University thinking he might want to double down on his interests in math and science.
"Then I got to college and met the actual math-science people who are going to go out and change the world," he says. "Honestly, I had such a feeling of relief. I was like, 'Oh thank god—they've got it covered. I don't have to do that. I can just do the thing that is my favorite thing in the world to do.'"
He took a leave of absence right before the start of COVID, which turned into a move to New York to try his hand in theater. But his time in Massachusetts proved useful for understanding the Massholes of the Ted universe. His most significant encounter with the Boston way of life came when he interned at a Havard Medical Center neuroscience lab in high school.
"I was 16 years old,” he recalls. “I probably looked like I was about 12, and there's a woman passing by me, we make eye contact, I give her a little smile, and say, 'Hi, how's your day going?' And she flips me off and says, 'Hey, go fuck yourself, buddy.' That was my intro to the city. I was like, ‘Oh, all right, it's different here.’"
When shooting scenes opposite John's fuzzy companion, Burkholder didn't have his fake Ted to rely on. Instead, he had to act opposite empty space. Yes, there were some bears on set for different VFX purposes and MacFarlane was doing the Ted lines, but Burkholder had to get used to playing off of air. "You get over it pretty quickly, you're able to really imagine where he is in space," he says.
Although Burkholder still considers himself "second lead to the bear" in Ted, it’s his most prominent role to date, a confidence booster as he awaits news of a potential season 2. And yet, even with all the positive comments he's gotten about Ted, he still gets messages about The Purge, in which he played the kid who endangers his family by shutting down their home security system to help an injured man during the titular crime-and-violence free-for-all.
"I would say the ratio is like 50 to one in terms of nice Ted comments to admittedly very funny, hateful Purge comments," he says. He does have a sense of humor about the completely absurd nastiness, and recently posted a selection of some of the Purge content he's received.
"I do go and look for the Purge ones," he says. "Like, I actively go into the hidden message requests, and I'm like, Let's see what these little fuckers came up with today."
Originally Appeared on GQ