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Nelson Franklin Is Thankful He’s Not “the Uglier George Santos”

Photo: Gregg DeGuire/WireImage

When Representative George Santos became a fixture of public scrutiny thanks to December 19, 2022, New York Times report uncovering the many lies in his public biography — from claims that he was Jewish to claims that his mother had died in the 9/11 attacks — a number of people took to Twitter to point out a resemblance between Santos and the actor Nelson Franklin. The most viral of these tweets featured pictures of Santos and Franklin’s character Will from HBO’s Veep with the caption “folks, I’ve figured out why he looks so familiar.” The replies quickly spiraled into an impromptu referendum on which of his notable past roles the unnamed Franklin was best known for: Robbie from New Girl, Connor from Black-ish, Nick, (the IT Guy) from The Office, or the aforementioned Will. Later, Gawker wrote a blog about this with the headline “That One Guy We All Love Should Play George Santos.”

On January 19, Franklin fulfilled this prophecy on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, joining a roster of Santos impersonators on late-night television that includes Jon Lovitz, Harvey Guillén, and Bowen Yang. Franklin appeared in a sketch where he attempted to escape Kimmel’s questioning by scurrying around a hallway, stealing personal items from passersby, and making increasingly outlandish claims, such as “I was the first openly gay, Jewish, republican Latino to walk on the moon.” Santos eventually responded to Franklin and his slate of other late-night impersonators on Twitter with a dismissive call for them to “step their game up.”

That the internet was so quick to identify Franklin as Santos’s doppelgänger speaks to the reputation he has built over nearly 15 years of making unassuming appearances in beloved projects like Arrested Development, Party Down, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Hacks, and so many others. Viewers may not know him by name, but they know they’ve seen him pop up in a minor role somewhere, fitting in seamlessly as a wry, bookish, straight-faced character in a TV show or movie they love. Or maybe they’ve seen him in leading roles on the sitcoms The Millers, Traffic Light, and Abby’s during their very short runs. In a recent conversation, Franklin spoke about playing Santos, being a utility player in television comedy, nepotism in Hollywood, and more.

How did you first learn that people on Twitter were casting you to play George Santos in his theoretical biopic?
My old college roommate Craig sent me the tweet first. Then it became this crazy Twilight Zone thing where every day for a week, two or three other people would be like, “Check out this thing I just found.” I’d be like, “Yeah, yeah. I know. I’ve been hearing about this for a week.” The best part was they would always send me a different tweet, and each tweet said, “I finally figured out who this guy looks like.”

How closely were you following the Santos story before this?
I was reading all about it and just sort of rolling my eyes. But the way I’m handling all my political news post-Trump is I’ll read about it somewhere and then shut it out. No more 24-hour news cycle. When the Kimmel show reached out to me, that was the first time I actually saw the guy talk. I realized right away that, yes, there are very crucial parts of our faces that are almost exactly the same. If he were way better looking than me, I would have been screwed because then it would have been like, “Oh, you’re like the uglier George Santos.” That would have been the end of the world.

How much preparation went into shooting that Kimmel sketch?
I’d never worked on Kimmel before, I’d never met those writers, and I’d never met Jimmy. In fact, I’d never been on any late-night show. So I was blown away that they gave me that much material. It was a ton of stuff, and it was very complicated. We were in the building where the writers are, next door to where Jimmy films the show, and since it was live, I had to do the whole thing with an earpiece in. I could hear Jimmy in the studio talking to me, but I couldn’t see him and there was a slight delay. We rehearsed it twice, then we shot it, and that was it.

What was your reaction to Santos’s tweet about how the people impersonating him need to “step their game up”?
I think that’s a classic humblebrag right there, to use a term coined by Harris Wittels. Santos even said, “I’ve been enshrined in late night.” You will hardly ever find a person who’s on three late-night shows at the same time. That’s a big deal. But instead of bragging about it, he’s got to shit on it a little bit and say, “Everyone’s bad. This is terrible.” It’s like, “Check me out on TV. But it sucks.”

The replies to the tweet I saw quickly devolved into people naming the various things they know you from. It seems you have a lot of facial recognition, but not as many people know you by name. Does that jibe with your experience?
Oh yeah, 100 percent. I’ve been a utility guy for many years, and I’ve had a wonderful time on all the shows I’ve been on. A lot of those shows, like Veep and New Girl, I booked one or two episodes and they turned into longer jobs because I got along with the people there. The thing that happens to me all the time, almost every time somebody recognizes me, is that they’ll come up to me and be like, “Wait a second, were you at Julie’s party last week? Are you Tim’s brother?” They know I’m somebody they’ve seen, but they can’t quite place it. Most of the time, I just let it peter out because my only other option is to be like, “Actually, I’m an actor.” I don’t want to be that guy.

What’s the key to turning a one- or two-episode guest arc on a series into a recurring role, as you did on Veep and New Girl?
I’d never call myself a comedian because I don’t tour and I don’t do live shows and there’s a million things comedians do that I don’t. But I am a comedic actor, and I think I’m pretty funny. And there are a couple of criteria that make a good recurring character on a show that are more behind-the-scenes things. If you’re doing a show like New Girl or Veep, even if you’re only working in one scene or two scenes that day, that’s a 14-hour day. If people enjoy hanging out with you and if you can contribute positively to the work atmosphere, they’ll definitely bring you back. When you audition for a job like this, people sort of get a vibe.

When a casting director calls you to read for a role, what are they typically looking for? How would you describe the Nelson Franklin type?
I feel like ever since I turned 20 I’ve sort of looked 35. I’m 37 now, so I’ve finally caught up to my appearance. That was sort of my type: a mid-to-late-30s mild-mannered guy. I’ve played a dad so many times, and I finally am a dad now. I’m like, Oh, I should have gotten this part now. I would have been so much better. It’s like a guy who can keep it straight in a comedic situation, somebody you don’t have to worry about. That’s how I would pitch myself: “You need me to do this? Of course. It’s not gonna be an issue.”

There was one day when you filmed Veep, New Girl, and Black-ish back-to-back. Did it hit you that you were working on three sitcoms beloved by millions of people on the same day?
I guess I’m having that realization now more than I did on the day. I was just so focused on the work. If you’re an actor living in L.A., you’ll find yourself going on so many auditions; for the first 15 years of my career, I would go on maybe three auditions in a day. That’s really tough to wrap your mind around. You’ve got to prepare three different pieces of text and compartmentalize those three roles. So doing that for years was good training for this because it wasn’t too different. But I never really thought about the shock wave of doing all those shows that everybody loves. I love them too! I’m just as much a fan as anybody else.

You played two roles on The Office: a guy at a job fair telling Pam about a graphic-design position and then later in a small arc as Nick the IT guy. How did that happen?
It was a special circumstance because the first time I was on The Office was my first acting job on TV. That was the first time I ever got paid as an actor. A couple of years later, when they were looking to fill this other role of Nick the IT guy, it was a role that screams me. But they were like, “Sorry, we can’t bring you in because you were already on the show.” After about a week, they called me and they were like, “All right, you can do it. No one’s gonna remember. Don’t tell anybody.” It’s a fun piece of trivia now.

The big joke about Nick the IT guy was that none of the other characters could remember his name. In casting you twice, it seems the producers were banking on that to be true. And this has become something of a theme in your career, too.
It’s all coming together.

I’ve heard you talk about auditioning for the role of Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation and for guest roles on Curb Your Enthusiasm. It seems like between the sitcoms you’ve appeared on and the ones you’ve auditioned for, you’ve really run the gamut. If I throw out the names of a few shows just to test this theory, can you tell me whether you auditioned for them or not?
Absolutely. Working gets you more work in this industry. Once the ball gets rolling, they’re just throwing you at everything. Did you have any in mind?

Silicon Valley? That seems like a show you would’ve been on.
Yeah, sure.

The Good Place?
I did audition for The Good Place.

Happy Endings?
No, I don’t think so. That was a little early in my career.

The Mindy Project?
Oh yeah, for sure.

Modern Family?

Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I tested for the Colton Dunn role, but he got it instead of me.

Five out of six is a pretty impressive sample. If Happy Endings had come out two years later, you likely would have been brought in for that one, too.
Right. Some of those shows you named I actually tested for the lead roles in them.

Your dad is the screenwriter and director Howard Franklin. There’s all this conversation right now about “nepo babies.” I was wondering if you have an opinion on this topic.
I’ve been talking about this for a long time. I didn’t have a catchphrase like nepo baby for it, but I’m from L.A. I grew up in L.A. going to private high school with the Olsen twins and John David Washington and the Fanning sisters and all these people. And it doesn’t just apply to actors, either — a lot of the kids I went to school with became studio people or executives or behind-the-scenes people. If they’re good, there’s nothing else you can say because it’s no longer about them not deserving the job. They’re doing a good job. I wouldn’t say that’s the case for everybody, but I’ll just say John David Washington is killing it.

Would you say you had certain advantages?
Absolutely. Part of my decision to become a professional actor and go to acting school was because I knew enough about the business already. I had a dad who was a writer for 40 years, and I knew my foot was in the door. I don’t think I would have made the same decision if I was just, like, a random person from Ohio who was like, I just want to do this, and I’m just gonna go to L.A. and try. I have so much respect for those people, and there’s a lot of people like that. I spent years being an assistant to different producers, writers, and actors. I did everything I could to be around the business all the time, so I had a very clear picture of what I needed to do. And I had relationships with people because I was working in L.A. below the line. In that regard, hell yeah, I’m a nepo baby. I guess there are varying degrees. I’m not in the newest Christopher Nolan movie, but I am working.

Nelson Franklin Is Glad He’s Not the ‘Uglier George Santos”