Keller Wortham is not only a recognizable actor with a reoccurring role on the hit series “Jane the Virgin,” he’s also a working doctor who has mastered the art of juggling auditions and on-set commitments while seeing patients as a general practitioner from his office in Glendale, California. He’s also a dreamy telenovela star, has one of the best outlooks in the business, and rocks a refreshing sense of humor as seamlessly as he does a stethoscope.
He’s basically the guy at the party you’d feel insecure introducing your significant other to.
We recently sat down with Wortham to discuss how he makes two full-time careers work, finding value in early role choices, and discovering the proper wiggle techniques of a giant sperm. (Yes, you read that right!)
TrunkSpace: We’re probably starting off with the same question people always ask you, but we feel it would be a mistake not to. You’re managing two successful careers, both of which are full time jobs for most people. How do you pull it off?
Wortham: Yes, sometimes it’s difficult. I have to say, I was really lucky to find a practice out here that was willing to work with my schedule and work with me on a part-time basis. I moved here from residency in Pittsburgh about 13 or 14 years ago and I have been working at this practice for really about 12 of them consistently, so it feels very much like my practice, although the fact that I’m not the owner gives me a lot of flexibility. Often times I’m at the practice, and I’ll have to take a little bit of a longer lunch. I’ll run down and change in my car, drive to an audition, put on my acting hat, come back, have relaxed from the anxiety that always happens during auditions, and then walk right into a room with a patient and act like everything’s normal. “I’ve been here all day.”
TrunkSpace: For somebody who is an entertainer and comfortable in front of people, does it make you a better doctor in terms of how you interact with patients?
Wortham: Yeah, and even beyond that, there’s a lot of intimacy in acting because you’re dealing with strangers, and you’re dealing with intimate scenarios, and you have to jump right into it and be very present. They’re skills that you learn acting or just inherent qualities of someone who goes into that. And then when you go into a room with a patient, you’re also very present. You often are in an intimate situation. I cry with patients all of the time. I know a lot of doctors don’t do that, either because they’re protecting themselves or they’re not as emotional of a person, but I think that humanity creates a really strong bond in that relationship, and I think it’s one of the aspects I bring to medicine – that availability and personability.
TrunkSpace: You work as general practitioner. From what we read, not a lot of doctors are focusing on that these days, which puts the future of family medicine in kind of a tight spot. Being on the inside and seeing it firsthand, is that something that you see as a problem?
Wortham: I do. You know, it doesn’t pay very well and it’s paying less and less the way things with insurance evolve. You’re coming out of med school with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. Luckily, interests rates have been low, but you know, it doesn’t incentivize people to go into family practice. It’s a lot of work and you have to know a lot – you have to have a broad base of knowledge and you don’t really get paid so well for it. You become the public defender version of your career and not the private lawyer, and there’s a big discrepancy in what those people get paid.
TrunkSpace: So the chicken or the egg question: What came first for you, was it a desire to be a doctor or a desire to be an actor?
Wortham: No, it was an actor for sure. I was an actor. I was that four-year-old who was putting on shows in the living room and singing and getting my friends to dress up in crazy costumes and making our parents watch it. If there was a fault it was them – it was my parents humoring that kind of behavior. (Laughter) It eventually led me into this, but I’ll tell you what, I acted growing up, not professionally in a sense, but I was doing school plays and summer camps and some community theater. But, I never viewed it as a career option, I think, just because my example was my father who is a physician and I knew I wanted something stable and something that people admired and I’m kind of risk averse, really.
So, it took me getting an MD and getting a residency to then be talking with my parents, my mother, one day and her asking me, “Well, what are you gonna do next year once residency’s over?” And me saying, “Well, I think I’m actually gonna move to LA and be an actor!” Then there was just this silence on the other side of the phone for a second and then, I swear to God, the next words out of her mouth were, “I think that’s a wonderful idea!” I don’t know if she was suppressing some other comments or just trying to be supportive, but they knew I was an entertainer and an artist all along who had just chosen a route of more stability. And I gotta say, were it not for that, I wouldn’t be acting today.
TrunkSpace: So having stability placed you in a position to put yourself out there as an actor?
Wortham: Absolutely. It’s allowed me financially to provide for myself. No knock on people who need to be bartenders and waiters and other things that often actors do – those are very viable options, but I couldn’t have done it. There were plenty of years where I would not have been able to provide for myself as an actor, so I would’ve undoubtedly ended up in one of those jobs that allows you the flexibility but is not really mentally stimulating. So, not only financially having bought myself the time that you need to do the training and do the auditions and slowly, slowly climb out of the marsh that is the millions of people in LA trying to act, but also the confidence to walk into a room and say, “I don’t need this, I’m doing this because I want to and I enjoy it. I have something else that I can do that brings me personal value and fulfillment so I’m going to play and I’m going to do it because it’s really something I love and not something I need.”
TrunkSpace: Does that allow you to go out for roles that you have genuine interest in, as opposed to the idea of following the work?
Wortham: Yes, absolutely. I have rarely turned down opportunities. I have, but I’ve rarely turned down opportunities because I think there’s something to learn in many, many different opportunities that at first don’t seem to be your top choice. I’ll tell you something mildly salacious… my first film ever, and I was a horrible actor back then and it’s embarrassing more for that than the fact that I’m naked in it for 80 percent of it, but I did a film when I’d been here a year. A French director who really wanted to talk about sexuality and violence in American society was basically like, “Are you okay with being nude and being erect in this movie?” And I think a combo of the naiveté of being fresh off the boat in LA and having a science background, thinking, “Aw geez, I see naked bodies all the time it’s not the biggest deal to me” propelled me into that scenario, which, in retrospect, might not have been the most advisable choice. (Laughter) It was one of those films that fell short of achieving what it wanted to achieve so then you just look like a guy who’s naked on camera a lot.
TrunkSpace: (Laughter) But even in that you must have been able to pull something from the experience that you could then apply to your career moving forward?
Wortham: Yes, yes. You know, it’s funny – I had mentioned just moments ago that I’m rather risk averse, but I have taken some big risks – calculated risks. Within my acting career, that certainly was a risk. Going into it, I knew I was gonna be naked all over the place and it was really gonna be the first images anyone would ever see of my career.
TrunkSpace: So when you’re working on something like “Jane the Virgin,” which is such a buzzy, acclaimed series, does it feel like, as far as your acting career is concerned, that it’s a turning point in terms of the types of roles that will open up to you moving forward?
Wortham: I hope so. I can say it that way. I’ve been with them for the first three seasons and I have quite a bit more material in this fourth season, which is great. This character was just a one-episode guest star when I came in. It was like a nothing thing and I guess it resonated with them, and they liked me, and I was brash enough to pitch them ideas. (Laughter) I was sitting there at lunch with one of the writers going like, “Oo! Oo! What if you brought him back and blah blah blah?” And he was like, “Oh! That’s kind of fun idea, sure!”
So, I hope that I continue to get to work more in the, let’s call it the English market, because I have quite a strong footing in the Hispanic market. I’ve just come off filming another show with Telemundo and got an offer to do a Christmas special with them, so I’m going back next week to film that, and I had an offer to be a character in a new series, but it conflicted with the dates. They love “Jane the Virgin” and there’s a lot of crossover audiences, obviously, so that’s worked quite well in my favor to work more in Spanish and as the Spanish market matures in the US, you get more and more interesting content, which is great.
But obviously, yes, I would love to have this catapult me into a pilot season where there’s some good opportunities for great American, English speaking characters in the mainstream market.
TrunkSpace: You mentioned that Esteban was supposed to be a one-off. From a performance standpoint, when you found out he was coming back, did it make you look back at those early choices you made for the character and dissect them?
Wortham: Yes, and I think more than anything, when we filmed my first episode, the show hadn’t started airing yet, so you had no idea what they were doing with it. You just had to read the script and trust the director. In TV the director changes every time, so you’re working with a director who’s coming in for her first episode as well and you’re all trying to find the tone in this show that’s not quite defined yet. By the time I had gotten the offer for the next episode, because they’d offer me a couple episodes in a row, I had been able to see the show and saw that really, we had more fun with it. It was a little bit goofier. As a one hour drama, you’re not quite sure what tone they’re gonna strike. So, it was looking at my performance, but I say even more-so, looking at the show as a whole and being like, “Oh! We can push this more! We can have more fun!”
And the writing lends itself to that. I think in season 2 and 3, I got to be bolder and a little bit more obnoxious and a little bit more arrogant. And, now, in season 4, thanks to the storyline, there’s the ability for this character to be more human now that he’s falling in love and wants to be a father. So, he’s still the arrogant telenovela star that he was, but the situation allows to see a little more human side of him, which is fun as an actor.
TrunkSpace: We have to ask… what goes through your mind when you emerge from wardrobe dressed like a sperm, because, frankly, that’s not something we get to ask very often?
Wortham: (Laughter) Yeah, I’m sure this is the third time you’ve asked it today, right? (Laughter)
The crafting of the sperm costume took many days, so there was a wardrobe fitting and a subsequent fitting and then another one, and then the design people coming in because we had to figure out not only how to make it look like a sperm, but how to be able to lie on the ground in it and wiggle in it with my head and face still viewable. And then, be able to unzip it enough to walk in it. So, they had their work cut out for them, but the funniest parts were literally going in and, first, I’m in this totally white spandex onesie, which was just funny in itself so that was bizarre, but then, we would just do these “auditions,” if you will, of the costume by having me lie down on the dressing room floor and wiggle. (Laughter) “How’s the tail wiggling? Is the tail long enough? Does it need to be shorter? Is the head too big and you can’t lift your face up so that the camera can see you? Or turn to the side?” So it was really funny just to be wiggling on the floor of the dressing room in what felt kind of like a mermaid of some sort.
The writers are so brilliant. They really are fun. The director within the show would say, “Less like Superman! More like sperm!” It would go from the Superman-esque style to like just gyrating side-to-side, which was really fun.
“Jane the Virgin” airs Fridays on The CW.