A lot has changed in the eight years since ABC's The Middle introduced West Chester's Charlie McDermott as Axl, the sports-minded, often shirtless oldest son of Frankie (Patricia Heaton) and Mike Heck (Neil Flynn).
In Tuesday's ninth-season premiere, Axl returns from a postcollege summer in Europe with a man-bun, a smattering of Italian, and a new appreciation for the finer things in life. Not everything's changed: We still get an eyeful of McDermott's middle as Axl's supposedly European attitude toward public nudity — really, who needs boxers? — briefly takes even his parents by surprise.
"He's been affected by Europe. He's very much into fancy coffee, and scarves," McDermott said after an ABC news conference in August. Beyond that, he didn't know much of what to expect for the character in what's been announced as the show's final season.
Maybe, he suggested, Axl will end up "working at the quarry, which I wouldn't mind, because at least as an actor I'd just be able to work with Neil [Flynn] for a lot of the season."
Unlike Axl, McDermott sometimes worries about the future. "Every year, I really was scared it wasn't going to come back. I was 18 in the pilot. I'm 27 now. It doesn't feel like it was long," he said.
At the beginning, though, "I thought we were a shoo-in, … because Patty and Neil were in it, so I was pretty confident we would get picked up," he said, but "the longer the show's been on, the more I've realized how crazy it is that it's actually gone anywhere, because so many shows that are good get canceled."
After The Middle ends next spring, "I would like to keep acting. But acting is so spontaneous — like a job pops up and then you try to get it. If you get it, you're working on it. It's all within like a couple months. So it's hard" to plan, he said. "When I was younger, I really wanted to have like a specific trajectory, but now it just seems impossible to ever do that, so I just want to keep working, and, hopefully, enjoy what I'm getting to do."
Even after eight seasons, "Axl is an enigma to me for the most part," McDermott said. "I think generally he makes decisions that I disapprove of … but he's fun, too, in that aspect." He particularly enjoyed the episodes last season in which Axl was briefly married — the marriage was quickly annulled — because "we rarely do, like, connecting arcs."
"In the pilot, I think he was the least developed of all the characters," said The Middle cocreator Eileen Heisler. "I think that why that character worked was — Charlie himself is so unlike Axl. He has this sweetness, this essence of sweetness. Axl has that, as well. But I think if you didn't necessarily have that actor playing that role, you could have written him off as a jerky kid. But he always had this softness and this caring about him, and he just makes you love him."
McDermott made his screen debut at 13 with a small speaking part in M. Night Shyamalan's The Village and went on to a well-reviewed part in the 2008 film Frozen River, but "I'd been doing theater and stuff, making my own little movies, since I was 5 or 6," he said.
Besides cowriting, directing, and starring in a 2015 film, ImagiGARY, about a college freshman who reimagines the imaginary friend from his childhood, which he filmed in his hometown, he took on a new role on The Middle last season.
"He directed an episode for us last year. It's just funny to have seen these kids grow to this point. And he started as Axl, the guy in his underpants, who became an adult," Heisler said.
The Middle. 8 p.m. Tuesday, ABC.