Humor and heartbreak: Get to know ‘Milkwater’ star Michael Judson Berry
Michael Judson Berry is here to make you smile. The multi-talented entertainer started his career at the age of six and has gone on to work in a variety of different mediums. He has a BFA in Theatre Arts from Boston University and an MA in Classical Acting from the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and he toured the country as Patsy in the National Tour of Monty Python’s Spamalot.
More recently, Berry has turned his attention to the internet. His impersonation of the Schitt’s Creek character Moira Rose racked up millions of views on TikTok and has led to a recurring series on the platform. Berry has even had cameos from the Schitt’s Creek cast and received praise from the real Moira actress, Catherine O’Hara.
The momentum of Berry’s viral fame has dovetailed nicely into the release of his first feature film, Milkwater. The film has been received positively by critics, winning “Best Screenplay” at the Brooklyn Film Festival and “Best Narrative Feature” at the Indie Street Virtual Film Festival.
Film Daily was lucky enough to chat with Michael Judson Berry about his viral fame, his experience with casting agencies, and his acting process.
Can you tell us a bit about your history as an actor?
My first acting job was in a regional production of The King and I at the ripe old age of six. I went on to receive a BFA in Theatre Arts from Boston University and an MA in Classical Acting from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA).
Since then, I’ve worked primarily in theater, in various regional productions around the country as well as the Broadway National Tour of Monty Python’s Spamalot.
Your first ever acting role was at the age of six, what drew you to acting at such a young age?
As a little kid, I loved singing and dancing, along with doing funny voices and accents. I would imitate comedic actors I saw in movies; I especially loved Dick Van Dyke & Cary Grant. When I was in that production of The King and I, I had one small bit that always got a laugh, and I thought that was the greatest feeling in the world.
Even as a very small child, I had the power to make the whole audience laugh, and from that moment on I was hooked.
For a while you were working for casting agencies, how was your acting experience useful for that job?
Yes, I’ve been very fortunate to work with phenomenal casting directors like Melissa DeLizia, Gayle Keller, Allison Kirschner, and Susie Farris. I was always very sympathetic to all of the actors who came in to audition. My acting skills came in handy most when I read scenes with actors during their auditions. I always tried to be a good acting partner, while never distracting from their performance.
I will say, working in casting was also very informative for me as an actor when I was auditioning again. I learned so much about audition etiquette, how best to prepare, and most importantly, that the Casting Director is your biggest ally. The only person rooting for you as much as you, is the Casting Director. They want the wonderful problem of having too many fabulous choices to present to the rest of the creative team.
Your latest acting project is a film called Milkwater could you describe what it’s about for us?
Yes! Milkwater is a beautiful movie written and directed by Morgan Ingari. The film is about a young woman named Milo, played beautifully by Molly Bernard, who rashly agrees to be a surrogate for an older gay man she meets in a bar, played by Patrick Breen.
We follow Milo throughout this journey and see how the experience of the pregnancy changes her outlook on life and her relationships with those around her. I play Teddy, the sweet but slightly oblivious boyfriend of Milo’s best friend, who has an affinity for very short shorts. Everyone who worked on this film was really sweet and friendly; I just hope audiences enjoy watching it as much as we enjoyed making it!
When you first heard about Milkwater what excited you about it?
My audition process for Milkwater was a bit of a whirlwind. I got the audition around 9AM and had to have a self-taped audition sent to casting within a few hours.
I didn’t have time to read the script, I glanced through the audition scenes and assumed it was a comedy and the character I was reading for was a male version of Alexis from Schitt’s Creek (it always comes back to Schitt’s Creek). So, I basically did an Alexis impression, and by 5 p.m. that evening I’d booked the part.
I did eventually read the script and was thrilled to see it was a very heartfelt and interesting story about someone trying to figure out who they are and where they fit into this world, which I could very much relate to at the time. After I saw I would be acting opposite Molly Bernard, Patrick Breen, and Robin De Jesus, I was over the moon! I was already a fan of all three actors, and I had a fantastic time getting to know them.
Is there anything you think people should know about Milkwater before seeing it – or to think about while watching?
Many of the primary characters in the movie are queer, and the story explores the beauty but also the difficulty/uncharted waters of navigating children and family in queer relationships. So, even though the queerness of the characters is not the focal point of the story, it is an integral part of the film. Personally, I’m very proud to be a part of such a diverse film.
What’s your process for getting into a new character?
I’m very much an outside-in actor. When I start working on a new character, I begin by finding their voice. I figure out how they talk, the way they phrase things, and how that affects what they say and feel. Then, I move to the physicality, how the character stands, walks, or sits. Once I find the physical and vocal traits, I can then play with the text and explore the different emotional journeys within the scenes.
What’s your mission as an actor? Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your projects.
I want to give people an escape from their regular lives and let them take a moment to see life from someone else’s perspective. I think it’s so easy to see the world strictly from your own two eyes, and the wonderful thing about my job is I get to give people an opportunity to see the world through a different lens.
Sometimes it’s a fun, humorous perspective, and sometimes it’s very heartfelt and thought provoking. I hope what I do inspires people to be a little kinder and understanding, to everyone around them and to themselves.
You started making TikToks in quarantine, what inspired you to do that?
Many of my friends are sketch writers and comedians, and when we went into quarantine, they all started creating some really wonderful content. I had very little experience writing, but I figured this would be a great opportunity to try my hand at it as well. As I’ve become more involved in the TikTok community, I’ve become good friends with other creators from all around the world who consistently teach and inspire me.
I’m even part of a group now called the ‘BigFab’, which is a small collection of very funny TikTok creators. Actually, one TikToker named Aaron Goldenberg recently taught me how to properly use Twitter! Thank goodness for kind actors helping each other out.
A popular series on your TikTok is your Moira Rose impression, where did the idea for that first come from?
My roommate (who introduced me to Schitt’s Creek and does a spot-on David) and I did an “impersonation challenge” on Instagram as Moira and David, and it went very well. My roommate wasn’t interested in creating anything else, but he was kind enough to lend me a wig he had left over from a Halloween costume.
Moira often drinks tea on Schitt’s Creek, so that’s where I got the idea for ‘QuaranTeaTime’. I thought it would be fun if every episode we sit down with Moira Rose for a nice cup of tea while she gives her very specific perspective on life in quarantine. It has since gone on to include many “guests”, including parodies of other characters from Schitt’s Creek, celebrity impressions, and some original characters.
What was it like when you found out Catherine O’Hara not only knows about your impression, but likes it?
For the first time in my life, I was at a loss for words! I was a big fan of Catherine O’Hara’s even before Schitt’s Creek. I’ve seen most of her movies, and especially love her work in Christopher Guest’s films and of course SCTV.
To learn she had not only seen my impression of her beloved character, but that she also thought it was “really good” was absolutely incredible! I was over the moon…I think I’m still floating somewhere among the stars.
Are you able to tell us about any upcoming projects you have? What are they?
Other than Milkwater, which is currently in various film festivals and will hopefully be streaming soon, I have a few projects I’m developing. It’s still a little early to talk too much about them, but I’m very excited and having a great time flexing my writing muscles!
Who or what would you say your current acting influences are? (Besides the character Moira Rose.)
My favorite actor of all time is Maggie Smith, I think she’s a true genius when it comes to being able to play both comedy and drama equally well. I’m drawn to actors who work seamlessly in both theatre and film, like Mark Rylance and Ruth Wilson. I’m also very inspired by actors who have created their own projects like Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Dan Levy.
Honestly, the list of actors I respect and admire could go on for miles. I’d write them all out here, but before you know it this interview would be as long as a Tolstoyan disquisition. Oh! But I do have to give Paul Rudd, Jack Black, and Melissa McCarthy all very honorable mentions! Talk about brilliant clowns!
What part of acting do you geek out about the most?
I love when I finally get to have my first costume fitting! As I said, I very much work from the outside-in, so there’s something really thrilling about putting on my costume and seeing what my character will really look like for the first time.
What’s your favorite film of all time, and what did you learn from it?
This is a toss-up between Mary Poppins and Clue – I’ve loved both my whole life, but for different reasons. Mary Poppins exudes happiness, and as a child, it was a beautiful lesson in just how effervescent and joyful acting can be.
Seeing Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke in musical numbers like “Supercalifragilistic” (Which I proudly can say backwards) and Step In Time is still a reminder to never lose my childlike sense of wonder, enthusiasm, and joy.
Clue, on the other hand, is a masterclass in comedy. The timing of the dialogue is so sharp and precise, even when flying at a lightning pace. Every actor in that cast is brilliant, but in very different ways; and they all work so well as an ensemble, while still crafting these wonderfully wacky characters. I’ve seen Clue hundreds of times, and every time I watch it, I catch something new.
Are you involved in any acting communities?
I’m not part of a specific acting community at the moment, but I was very involved in improv comedy at The PIT before we went into quarantine. I really miss doing improv, and I can’t wait to get back into it as soon as this pandemic is over and it’s safe to gather again.
Would you ever be interested in working on an episodic series?
I would love to work on an episodic series! Much of my casting experience was on TV, and I really enjoyed working on those shows. I love how it’s fast-paced and the sense of community and comradery on set.
Not to mention, you get to develop a character over many episodes, and really explore them through different scripts and situations. As much as I love live theater, I think working in TV would be a lot of fun!
If you could have someone create a soundtrack for your life who would you choose to compose it?
I’d say Ben Thornewill. He’s the lead singer and piano player for ‘Jukebox The Ghost’, which is my favorite band! Ben has been doing these wonderful live performances on his Instagram every weekday at noon, and it’s fascinating watching him noodle at the piano and play around with different tunes. I think he’s so upbeat, positive, and downright brilliant. I’m sure he would make my life sound very exciting and harmonious.
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
This is going to be a long one, because I’ve been very fortunate to have a few mentors. When I was a kid, my Uncle, who was in the FDNY and actually took me to my first Broadway show, dated this wonderful person named Teri Seier. Teri was a professional actress and dancer in New York.
For years I would take the train down from Syracuse, and “Auntie Teri” would take me to dance lessons and shows and teach me all about the business. I thought she was the most exciting person I had ever met! Even though my Uncle has since passed, Teri is still a member of the family.
As an adult I’ve been very fortunate to have a few more mentors. One was a voice teacher named Daniel Faltus, who taught me all about classic cinema, theater and opera history, as well as how to craft the perfect cocktail. When I went to London for grad school, I was incredibly fortunate to be taken under the wings of two incredible teachers, Penny Cherns and Diana Scrivener Blair.
Penny was the head of the MA program and Diana taught historical dance. Both of them not only helped make me a better actor, but they really encouraged me to become a stronger and more confident person. All of my professors at LAMDA had an immense impact on my life, but especially Penny and Diana.
I’m not entirely sure how I would recommend finding a mentor, all of mine just sort of emerged into my life just as I needed them…not completely dissimilar to Mary Poppins for the Banks family. I would say be open to people, listen to what they have to say, and honestly acknowledge when their advice resonates with you.
You never know what brilliant pearls of wisdom will be given to you if you let your guard down and open your mind.
And finally, an easy one, cats or dogs?
Am I allowed to say both? I grew up with cats, Great Danes, and one very feisty Yorkie, and I loved them all equally. Pets in general are the best! Sadly, I don’t have any myself, but I obsess over my plants!