Atticus Shaffer is having Lego flashbacks. "It was a Star Wars set," he says with a groan that makes him sound 70, not 12. "Something like 1,035 pieces. It took me three days to put together." Shaffer only had a few last bricks to click when... Crash! Meowww! "My cat jumped on it and destroyed everything." Shaffer scrunches up his shoulders, tosses up his hands. "So you just start rebuilding."
The adorable young star of The Middle is tenacious like that. At a Lego store near where the ABC sitcom shoots in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, Shaffer is recalling his most memorable projects: the tropical-island set ("900 pieces") and the Star Wars gunship ("I had to keep Wing" — the dastardly feline — "away from that baby.") But Shaffer has never seen anything like the 2,000-piece spectacle a Lego store employee just unveiled. It's a Lego sculpture of Shaffer himself. The kid is practically vibrating with excitement. "This is so, so, so awesome," he says. "Possibly the coolest thing since I talked to the guy who does the voice of Obi-Wan in the Star Wars cartoon." And that's coming from a boy who recently met Betty White, too.
Shaffer is a lot like Brick, the character he plays on The Middle. The youngest child of hassled parents Frankie (Patricia Heaton) and Mike Heck (Neil Flynn), Brick is a student of the geekier arts (Legos over football; books over girls) and has a thing for military history. "I'm not different from Brick at all, in my opinion," says Shaffer, whose own fascination with a World War I soldier led to the episode where Brick dresses up as his favorite Scottish military hero for Halloween. "I was like, 'Yeah! I get to be in a kilt,'" Shaffer says.
Tonight's gephyrophobia episode (that's fear of bridges — Brick's parents attempt to get him to cross a covered bridge) only has loose parallels to Shaffer. "I was afraid of tunnels as a little kid," he says. But other similarities are uncanny. When asked about the girl tap-dancing troupe that squealed "We love you!" during his stint as Grand Marshal of the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade in Washington, D.C., this spring, he slaps his forehead and just says, "Oh, gawwd."
The Middle is Shaffer's biggest role in a career not much older than the Obama administration. He was discovered by his former manager in 2006 and cast in the short-lived CBS sitcom The Class. Movie roles included a bus-stop scene opposite Will Smith in Hancock. "I was so nervous because I had to hit Will to get him awake," Shaffer says. "He was like, 'It's OK, kid. We're just acting.'"
Small for his age, Shaffer has a genetic bone disorder, sometimes called brittle bone disease. Though he's homeschooled and often works five days a week, nothing stops him from being a regular kid. He was a Boy Scout, is a Yu-Gi-Oh! collector, has a ton of pets ("five cats, two dogs, a rabbit, birds, chickens and fish") and nearly faints when the Lego store clerk tells him he can keep the Lego Atticus as a gift. "Forget what I said," Shaffer says with a huge grin. "This is way cooler than meeting Obi-Wan."
The Middle airs Wednesdays at 8/7c on ABC.