Andi Mack has a special guest — and he’s in the director’s chair! Jerry O’Connell is making his directorial debut on Disney Channel — his first time ever guest-directing a kids’ show — with the upcoming Andi Mack episode “Dad Influence.” (The actor has previously directed episodes of Sliders and Mistresses.) The episode is a big one; it features Andi (Peyton Elizabeth Lee) spending time with her dad, Bowie (Trent Garrett), for the first time since learning his identity.
We caught up with O’Connell to find out how his past as a child actor helped him in directing the Disney Channel hit, and also how the Stand by Me alum just went from child star to rock star in his own kids’ eyes.
How did you get involved with Andi Mack?
Yeah, I got to direct Andi Mack! It was so cute. I mean, first of all, it’s such an honor working for Terri Minsky, who people will remember from Lizzie McGuire. And you know, it’s just a superclassy show. It’s almost like the West Wing of the Disney Channel. And while it’s age-appropriate, it just deals with some complicated issues. I think — and this is a spoiler alert for those who haven’t started it — Bex [Lilan Bowden], who you think is Andi Mack’s older sister, actually turns out to be her mom. And it’s really funny, when I first saw the pilot it really hooked me good. It’s just one of those shows that really pulls you in. It was just a real honor to work there. And also I was a child actor — I wouldn’t say I was a child star, but I was a child actor — so it was just so fun for me to get to work with all these kids who were immensely more talented than I was. These kids are triple-quadruple threats. Sofia Wylie and Peyton Elizabeth Lee, who are the stars, are such good dancers as well as actors, and they’re singers. I was not even a triple threat … I was a lowercase T. It’s like they’re so immensely talented and they make it so fun. It was a really wonderful experience. I really enjoyed working with the young actors.
What can you tell us about the episode, “Dad Influence”?
Every episode is about Andi’s self-expression, how her friendships help her out, how she has to believe in herself. You know these are pretty common Disney themes, but it’s done in sort of a Terri Minsky way. It’s just a unique way of Disney storytelling. The acting is so elevated and it’s just a really highfalutin project. Trent Garrett plays Andi’s dad and it was just revealed that he’s there and he wants to take her out of school for the day and take her around, and it’s sort of like their adventure and getting to know each other. It’s a really cute episode.
Is this your first time directing a kids’ series?
It is! And I was amazed at how being in Stand by Me really prepped me for this. It’s funny, I just remember how cool Rob Reiner was with all of us. You know, it’s not like you’re their boss. It’s not like Rob Reiner was our boss. It’s like you’re one of the other kids that’s in the show. I really feel like an uncle more than I feel like a boss. Kids are so eager, kids are just so much more fun. They’re just there for all the right reasons. There’s not one complaint ever. They taught me how to whip and Nae-Nae. It was just such a cute experience. It really was. And also, when I was in Stand by Me, that was more than just a job, that was more than just being on set and saying lines. Rob Reiner really created a lifelong happy childhood experience, and it’s kind of what I want to do for kids as well. You can’t really do it for adults. I mean, we’re all jaded, we all know how rough it is out there. … It’s really mostly about ensuring that these young adults have a terrific experience for the rest of their lives. It’s not just about acting for me. It’s also about trying to influence these youngsters positively, you know.
Do your twin daughters watch the show, and if so, what do they think of you working on it?
They do and they love it. My kids love it. I told you all the actors are great, but because I have daughters they really identify with Peyton Elizabeth Lee, with the star. She’s just supercute, she’s such an adorable actress. She’s able to take monologues, lines, just even reactions and just make them so natural and cute and my kids just eat it up with a spoon. My kids, they’re only 8 and weren’t alive when Lizzie McGuire came out, but all the reruns live on forever, so my kids were really fans of Lizzie McGuire before Andi Mack and now they just rolled into Andi Mack. I could have worked with the late, great Jonathan Demme himself, and the fact that I’m working with Terri Minsky, the woman who created Lizzie McGuire, was way more important to them. I could have worked with a Nobel laureate and it wouldn’t have compared. The fact that I was working with Terri Minsky was an extremely big deal for them. It’s also fun too, because when I’m gone and I’m working so much, they know what I’m working on. It gives them sort of a point of reference. … And I should also say the adult actors in Andi Mack are great as well. Specifically, Lilan [Bowden], who’s the female starlet of the show. She’s just a joy to work with and comes from an improv background so she adds sort of a new, funky take on everything.
The Andi Mack episode “Dad Influence” premieres Friday, May 12 at 8:30 p.m. on Disney Channel.