Tobie Windham: The Disney Channel Star Talks Theatre, Improv, and the Importance of Family On and Off Screen

Any parent can attest to the classic remote control struggle — it’s not easy to find television shows that appeal to both kids and adults. But when my son discovered the series Just Roll With It on Disney Channel, I was quickly pulled in by this truly family comedy — it’s something the entire family can enjoy together.

The show’s unique premise, which combines scripted scenes and improvisational comedy, is brought to life by a remarkably talented cast of actors who make the unbelievable seem effortless. As I’ve familiarized myself with the hit show, I quickly noticed the hilarious performance of Tobie Windham, who stars in Just Roll With It as the father of the funny family.

Tobie Windham. Photo by Caleb Shane.

Follow him on social media and you’ll see that Tobie Windham is as much of a loving dad and down-to-earth family man as his character Byron is. I recently had the chance to chat with Tobie about his role on the hit Disney Channel series, his accomplished acting background, and how he’s spending his time now that Hollywood production is on hold.  

Windham was born and raised in Alabama where he became intrigued with acting early on. “I’ve been acting most of my life,” he told me. “Theatre is my foundation.”

He attended a fine arts high school in Alabama where he was able to expand his interest in acting. But he was faced with a dilemma when he wanted to play basketball as well. By Junior year, Windham switched to a county high school so he could incorporate sports into his curriculum. He wasn’t ready, though, for the higher basketball standards of his new school. “I was in the 11th grade and they put me on the JV team,” he recalled, laughing.

The school’s gym was located across the hall from the theatre, allowing Windham to enjoy both his passions in what sounds like a real-life High School Musical storyline. It wasn’t long before Tobie’s acting skills stood out. “A musical theatre guy came to see one of my shows, and he encouraged me to apply for a college theatre scholarship,” Windham recalled. He took his advice and received a scholarship to the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

While earning his B.A. in Theatre from UAB, Windham logged in plenty of hours of stage experience, including a lead role in the acclaimed production of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson.

Windham decided to continue his education after graduation. When the time came to select a graduate school, he came up with a foolproof formula to conduct his research — he looked up where Denzel Washington went to grad school. Soon after, Windham was following in Washington’s footsteps as a student at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

During his time at A.C.T., Windham spent a month in Italy studying Chekhov at the Prima del Teatro. “It was the best month of my life,” he shared. He does not speak Italian and was working with actors from Italy and Spain who did not speak English. But their mutual love for the theatre enabled them to use body language to communicate. “We were able to work together through body language and create art,” he recalled.

Windham described his time in Italy with excitement in his voice.  “There was a festival, and people were doing puppetry, using marionettes, skills I didn’t even know about,” he remembered. “I said, ‘I want to be here!” and immersed himself in the cultural and artistic experiences around him.

Back in California, Windham’s experience at A.C.T. continued to be fruitful. He received the San Francisco Bay Area Critics circle nomination for best actor for his performance in The Brothers Size, one of The Brothers/Sisters Plays, written by Tyrell Alvin McCreeney, who wrote the screenplay behind the Oscar-winning film Moonlight.

“I had the privilege of being in two of the Brothers/Sisters plays within two years that really unlocked me to the Bay Area,” Windham shared. He has worked with all the Bay area theatres except Berkeley Repertory, which he still considers a goal. “I’d really like to work with Berkeley Rep,” he shared.

When A.C.T. held a showcase for students to connect with agents, Windham was a success. “I had a really nice turnout,” he remembered. “A lot of people called me back.”  But typically dedicated to his craft, Windham didn’t jump at the first opportunity that came his way, and instead wanted to do more “research,” as he said, about where his true passions lied.

Windham’s passions led him to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a repertory theatre where he performed tirelessly. “That’s when I really honed in on my skills as an actor,” he explained. Windham and his fellow thespians put on close to 300 performances within a year, providing him with an even stronger theatrical foundation.

When I asked Windham what he considers his first big break, he responded, “I still think I’m moving toward my big breaks.” And perhaps it’s that humility and passion for his art form that fuels his ambition.

On his first television audition, Windham booked a lead as Will in Walk the Prank, a series that premiered on Disney XD in 2016. After the show wrapped, its creators Adam Small and Trevor Moore began work on a new show called Just Roll With It. They had Windham in mind for a lead role, but apologetically told him he’d still have to audition. His humble commitment to perfecting his craft made him unfazed and eager to audition. “I’m still at the point where I want to win everything,” he explained.

Tobie Windham stars as Byron Blatt in Just Roll With It. Photo courtesy of Disney Channel.

Just Roll With It centers around the blended Bennett-Blatt family who encounter hilarious experiences each week through a combination of scripted and improvised segments. During the course of each episode, producers sound a foghorn three times at moments unbeknownst to the cast — and the scene abruptly stops so the studio audience can vote on what happens to the characters in the next scene. And the actors have to, well, just roll with it!

The cast of Just Roll With It. L-R: Suzi Barrett, Ramon Reed, Tobie Windham, Kaylin Hayman. Photo courtesy of Disney Channel.

In addition to a truly unique format and great writing, the show has relatable family experiences and a lot of heart. Windham’s comedic partner is Suzi Barrett, who plays his wife Rachel. Their children, Owen (played by Ramon Reed) and Blair (played by Kaylin Hayman) are new step-siblings who have grown to love each other despite their polar opposite personalities. At just 14 and 11 years old respectively, Windham’s young co-stars are new to Hollywood and show remarkable maturity and talent.

“They’re genius,” Windham states simply of his TV children. “We get scripts Monday and we rehearse Monday through Wednesday and then Friday is our show day,” he explained. “And by Friday they’ve learned all their lines, my lines, and Suzi’s lines.” He has great confidence in the experience the show is providing the young actors. “They can do anything after this.”

Windham and Barrett act like proud parents on and off screen. “Suzi and I have sat and watched Ramon and Kaylin, and they’ve become our kids,” he boasted. “There was a scene where they had to do a rap, and it was straight off the cuff, and Suzi and I were watching them, and we just started crying.”

The love between the cast is evident in the behind the scenes footage shown between takes. In clips that are especially fun for young fans, viewers get to see the actors in their dressing rooms, talking about the previous scene and speculating what might happen in the upcoming improv sketch. It’s obvious in these behind the scenes shots that Windham and Barrett provide a lot of nurturance to their two young co-stars, who clearly look up to their TV parents.

“We really are like a family,” Windham shared. And their chemistry is so strong that it’s convincing to some viewers. “When we first started the show, people would ask me if we actually were a family,” he told me. “People thought we were a real family doing a reality show!”

While Windham’s wealth of formal training includes improv, his current role on this highly unique show has certainly thrown him a curveball. “This is nothing I trained for,” he said laughing, adding that there are more stunts on the show than he’s used to. “I quickly realized during Season 1 that there’s no class that could prepare me for Just Roll With It!”

The cast of Just Roll With It interacts with the audience in each episode.

Windham still takes improv classes “just to keep the instrument sharp,” as he put it. The improv challenges his show presents certainly keep him on his toes. “You get to create different characters within the form of improv,” Windham explained. “But I’m Byron the entire time so I have to think about how would I handle this or answer these questions as him.”

The outrageous stunts and script changes that come with the imrov portions of the show are so unpredictable that even producers don’t know which of the three optional scenes the audience will select. It’s so spontaneous that they have different sets, props, and gags ready for all the possible selections. “To have something completely different thrown at you is an actor’s nightmare,” Windham explains. “It takes us and puts us in a situation where we have zero control.”

But Windham adds that the cast is always made to feel safe, and that he and his co-stars make sure to support each other in feeling safe as well. In a recent episode, producers played the ultimate prank on Ramon Reed when they showed him video of his personal furniture, clothes, and hats being destroyed at his real-life house. The real-life dad in Tobie clearly came out in his relationship with his young co-star.

“Ramon loves his hats,” he told me. Windham was given word as the segment filmed that the items were not actually Reed’s real possessions, and then shared the reassuring news with his aghast young co-star. “In that moment, I’m taking care of Ramon and Owen.”

The clever improv ideas seem to be getting better as the series continues. “Season 2 has some things that broke my brain,” Windham joked. One of his favorite surprises was a heartwarming one to watch — when he began a scene expecting to interact with a guest star and instead was greeted by his real-life mother behind a closed door.

“When I saw my mom, I can’t explain what a moment that was,” he said laughing. “In my head I’m thinking, ‘Mom, you’re not supposed to be here’ and this is also right after the scene where I had a snake wrapped around my neck!”

The young show has already had its fair share of impressive guest stars, including John Ratzenberger and Debra Wilson. And according to Windham, viewers can expect more fun appearances in upcoming episodes. “Jason Earles from Hannah Montana will be on, and he was really fun to work with,” he shared. “And in another episode we’ll be having an Olympic gold medalist on the show.”

Windham and his co-stars had filmed most, but not all, of Season 2 when production halted in March due to nationwide stay at home orders. “They shut down all production in Hollywood to keep everyone safe,” he explained.

While some branches of animation, writing, and editing continues remotely during quarantine, most of the entertainment industry has been put on hold. And filming shows like Just Roll With It in front of live studio audiences has come to a standstill.

The cast maintains their strong chemistry by regularly keeping in touch remotely. “We stay connected, Windham shared. “We just had family game night,” virtually, of course.

Like everything else, no one knows when it will be safe for television to return to production. For a show where the cast embraces the energy of a big crowd and high-fives the whole audience after the taping, it’s imperative that everyone’s safety is certain before production can resume. “Slowly we’ll all figure it out,” Windham said.

Until then, recent episodes can be seen on Disney Channel and the Disney Now app. And Windham informed me that the series will soon be coming to Disney+ as well.

As we all relate to shared experiences during quarantine, Tobie can be seen in one of Disney Channel’s PSA spots for kids, which features Disney stars sharing words of encouragement from their homes. Windham is focusing his time at home on his daughter and wife, and taking care of his physical and mental health through meditation and yoga. “I’m doing a lot of yoga,” he shared. “I used to hate it, but now I’m getting into it.”

He also shared with me how his priorities have become clear during this strange period.

“At first, I was asking myself ‘what am I going to pull out of this time’,” he said.” But Windham explained that the sobering reality of people getting sick has made him value what matters most. “I just want to come out on the other end of this with my family.” It’s a simple lesson learned in a complicated time. “My goals were huge, now they’re small,” he adds. “I just can’t wait to be outside again, to be with

Fans look forward to seeing what projects Windham has in store for the future. He shared that he will be doing some voiceover work and is excited to return to Just Roll With It.

After interviewing him I’m certain of one thing: Tobie Windham is a name to watch. He’s a true professional with a strong work ethic and a wealth of talent that will surely allow us to see more of him soon.  He’s also one of those good people putting good into the world — which is always a bonus when you learn the people your kids watch on TV are worth their admiration.

Most of all, Tobie Windham is clearly appreciative of his success. He’s happy to be doing what he loves, and just rolling with it as it comes. And we’re glad to be along for the ride.

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