Versatile performer Matt Wheeler currently stars on the hit series Punk’d hosted by Chance the Rapper, which streams on Quibi. The Kentucky native is also one of the stars of the popular online series Let Ron Ride where he plays Gunther Riggs. Matt’s other notable credits include Scijinks hosted by Johnny Galecki, Key and Peele, Hung, Funny or Die Presents, Sons of Tuscon, Grey’s Anatomy, Reno 911 and Without a Trace.
FilmInk caught up with Matt from his home in Los Angeles.
So, you started out in Ashland Kentucky?
Born and raised. Ashland is in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains about five miles from the West Virginia border; just south of Ohio, it’s a working-class town. My father was a steel worker. My mother did all sorts of odd jobs from cleaning hair salons to home hospice care. It was a wonderful place in which to grow up, I’m still close with a lot of the friends back there.
How was the transition from Kentucky to Los Angeles?
The first thing that comes to mind is my wardrobe sucked. I just kind of felt like a goof that was popped into this surreal world. I remember driving by Aaron Spelling’s house and past all of these awesome homes and seeing these celebrities and things like that; blew me away, so it was a big adjustment for me.
Punk’d looks like a challenging gig for an actor, it being mostly improv. How has that experience been for you?
To give you a little bit of background, Punk’d was my first TV show. I studied theatre and acting, largely Shakespeare at the University of Kentucky. Punk’d was my first job in television and that was back in 2005. It does get intense. I mean, I’ve definitely had people take a swing at me. I think it’s an incredibly difficult show in which to perform, in the sense that you’re doing a live performance, you’re doing basically a play, but the other actors that are in the play don’t realise that they’re actually in that play.
The people that run it – from Ashton Kutcher, Jason Goldberg and director Nick Kreiss – are still very much at the helm with Punk’d. They’re so good at what they do. They think of every possible scenario that could ultimately happen. Because you just don’t know how people are going to react. Certain people shut down and that’s no good for television.
It has that shock value reminiscent of the old Candid Camera series; your job is to create the shock, right?
Yeah, you have to poke and prod them and pull a reaction out of them. Some of them go from zero to 60 within the first few minutes of the bait. I’ve done plenty of other television stuff and I would say after my 22, 23 years acting, Punk’d is by far the most difficult show that I’ll likely ever do.
You Punk’d comedian Bernie Mac, who started getting serious when you asked him where he got his manicure done; how did that go down?
Bernie Mac the legendary comedian. Yeah, he was very bold; comedians in general always have their bullshit antennas up, if you will. So, you can’t stand up in front of them and do your routine because they’re going to know if you’re for real or if you’re full of shit; you have to play it very real. It was kind of a slow burn with Bernie because he’s such a vet. We wanted to just kind of drag that along and throw little zingers and see the real Bernie Mac.
Who else have you Punk’d recently?
Gosh, well this year, we did French Montana the hip-hop artist. There’s Adam Devine, who’s a big comedy star here in the U.S. Ty Dolla $ign, Sabrina Carpenter, I mean the list goes on. I think I’ve done roughly 35 celebrities during my tenure at Punk’d.
How has it been working on Punk’d with Ashton Kutcher and now Chance the Rapper?
Ashton is always nothing but kind to me. I remember the first time I auditioned for him, because the first few times, essentially, you’re with maybe the casting director and the Head of Talent at MTV. Once it starts to get serious, they bring Ashton in and he’s incredibly smart, always present. I never got the sense of, ‘hey, I’m a bigger celebrity than you are’. Same with the other creatives on Punk’d; they get comedy, and they’re really smart. They treat the PA exactly the same way that they treat the celebrities and the director.
Chance the Rapper, who’s the new host is the same way. He’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. I remember we shot a day or two before Thanksgiving and I watched him walk up to every single person on set and shake their hands. He was going back to Chicago, where he’s from, and wishing them a happy Thanksgiving. That was just really cool.
You’ve recently swapped agents to be represented by Rob Woodburn (RWA), who’s based in Australia. You’re in LA, how does that work for you?
I’ve known Rob for around 18 years now and I’ve always been impressed with his ability to connect with clients and that’s not always been the case with other agents or managers that I’ve had. He’s really accessible. If there’s a role that maybe you’re not intrinsically right for, he has a way of selling you on it, ‘hey, let’s give this a shot’. He’s a good guy, he gets film, and he really gets comedy. I couldn’t be more excited to be represented by him.
It’s a small world now with social media platforms and communication being instant, making it easier to have an agent in Australia?
Yeah. And especially with all that’s going on here in L.A. I mean COVID…
Indeed, how has that affected the industry over there?
We’ve been hit really, really hard out here. You have actors, writers and producers, people in the industry in general that are leaving L.A. and going to Australia, or maybe out to Palm Springs to work through this thing for the next year or so. The industry’s basically been shut down.
You’ve done a lot of serious roles in television and film including Grey’s Anatomy and Without a Trace; do you have a preference for comedy or drama?
I really enjoy comedy. I find it fascinating to observe a Peter Sellers or a Zack Galifianakis. Nothing to me is funnier than a guy that is incredibly inept but thinks that he’s the greatest at whatever he does. It goes back to Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Peter Sellers and Chevy Chase.
I also love drama. I sort of paid my dues doing Macbeth, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, often playing the bad guy, the intense guy.
I prefer comedy, but I love to explore both genres.
With comedy, I feel like if you really play it like you believe it, then it’s funny. Would you agree with that?
Yeah. I’ll tell you a funny thing. When I auditioned for Punk’d, it was my first TV show. I was called back seven times, which is fucked up. So, I had seven auditions to actually get that role and I auditioned against, I don’t know how many, hundreds of actors, some of whom were, I think probably funnier than I was. And they were probably better at improv than I was. But I think one of the things that I brought was that grounded sort of conviction of, ‘listen here, you need to take this seriously. This shit’s real’, so let’s get your attention. And I think that’s really where comedy comes from.
How do you see platforms like Quibi, Netflix, Amazon and Stan changing the landscape in the industry?
It’s a really exciting time in which to be an artist, actor, producer, writer, director or whatever the case may be because you have all of these platforms that you can pitch to. I imagine what it would have been like to be an actor in 1986, when there was essentially three networks, right? You had ABC, NBC, and CBS. And then of course later, a little later, Fox came, but now you have all of these things; first, they had the Cable shows on HBO then Showtime, but now with Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, Quibi, YouTube, Tik Tok, there’s just a lot more opportunities. I think it’s a very exciting time in which to be in the industry in general. It’s becoming more global. I mean, you can make a film on your telephone these days, you know what I mean? Put it on YouTube and become famous. So, I’m certainly positive about it.
How about Australia, would you like to come and work down here?
Of course! I remember the first time seeing the Aussie film Chopper, seeing Eric Bana’s performance, man, I mean, singular, unreal, true. I would love to have the opportunity to play a character like he played or like Edward Norton played when he played the skinhead American History X.
As much as I love comedy, I’m really interested in behaviour and these deeply troubled guys that for whatever reason resort to violence and all sorts of racism and, I mean overt, deep racism, things like that.
What’s next for Matt Wheeler?
Well, COVID currently has sort of a put a damper on things, but I expect to be filming another season of Punk’d. I usually grow my hair out, maybe gain 10 or 15 pounds, lose 10 or 15 pounds, darken the beard, things like that to disguise me. And then, we’ll see what Mr Woodburn can dig up for me!
Punk’d is currently streaming on Quibi