Tony Hale and I started off our phone interview last month with a minor misunderstanding that would have ballooned into delightful comic complications if it had happened on one of the TV farces that have made him a familiar face if not a household name, “Arrested Development” and “Veep,” on both of which he played virtuosic versions of a simpering, sycophantic, neurotic man-child (Buster and Gary, respectively). Here’s what happened: I started out by asking him about his stage résumé, and he gamely began to answer me. Then, after a minute, he paused to confess he thought he had been speaking to his entertainment lawyer, whose name is apparently Robbie. Oops!
Luckily he clocked this before I inadvertently sabotaged his career, which is going full steam with a variety of film projects; a Netflix animated series he created, “Archibald’s Next Big Thing”; and a return to the stage with the Will Eno play Wakey, Wakey at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (Jan. 23-Feb. 16).
Hale and I spoke about his approach to his craft and career, whether he minds typecasting, and how his faith—and a dose of therapy—have helped to center him.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: I was trying to look up stage credits for you—I’d read that you did theatre in New York early on, but I couldn’t find them.
TONY HALE: Oh yeah, you won’t find them.
So they were small, Off-Off-Broadway sorts of things?
Oh yeah. I would say extended way Off-Off-Broadway—like to the eternity off. I haven’t done theatre in, like, 17 years. I’m excited to do it again, but it’s definitely a muscle I haven’t exercised in a while.
What were some of those early stage credits?
I remember the first theatre thing I did after I came to New York, and this defines the Off-Off-Broadway, was Shakespeare in the Parking Lot in the East Village. We did Taming of the Shrew. I was Grumio. And then I just started doing commercials. I went to this place called Actors Connection, where you pay money to meet agents, and I met this agent named Linda MacIntosh. She started sending me out. My type was the quirky guy who wasn’t all there. Later I started doing some sketch comedy with this group called King Baby, and I did a play with Keen Company, Museum by Tina Howe. Back then Backstage was the bible, so we all looked at that to see what the auditions were.
You started acting in your native Florida. How did you catch the bug?
I was a kid in the South who wasn’t into any sports, so that kind of stood out. Then my parents found Young Actors Theatre in Tallahassee, and I just loved it. This lady, Tina Williams, started it. That was a huge gift to me. I just think arts education, even if you don’t go into it as a career—certain personalities need it to thrive, and I was definitely one of those.
What kinds of roles did you play?
We mainly did a lot of typical high school stuff, musicals—Ali Hakim in Oklahoma! And I was a part of a thing called Studio Singers, where we traveled around and performed an Americana-themed show. I remember in middle school, I wanted the role of the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, but I was too obnoxious. So I played the Mayor of Oz instead.
What do you mean you were obnoxious? You had a big personality?
I wouldn’t say a big personality. There was just a tremendous amount of energy—that’s probably the nicest way to say it.
You’ve talked in recent interviews about dealing with anxiety, and about learning to be present. That is a big part of what Wakey, Wakey is all about—gratitude for our short time on Earth. Is that what attracted you to the play?
It did. Tim Simons, who played Jonah on “Veep,” had seen the play in New York and he’s friends with Will Eno, and he was telling me how great it was. Then I read the play and it really, as you said, resonated with what I just love to talk about in general. So I thought, what the hell, let’s do it. And then of course, right after I said yes, all the “what if”s started attacking my mind.
It’s not quite a solo play, but it has a lot of direct address. Is that part of what’s daunting to you?
Well, one thing I love to do is talk to students, to young actors, not so much about the craft of acting but about dealing with rejection, and kind of existential questions dealing with anxiety in the business. So this is a form of that, because it’s a very communal piece of theatre. I’m just asking the audience questions and involving them in kind of an exercise of gratitude.
I know you have an active religious practice, and Will’s play is so much about existential questions. Is that another key into the play for you?
It is. I’m kind of the guy at Hollywood parties who’s like, ‘You know, we’re all gonna die. This is completely fleeting, so let’s just try to like have a normal conversation.” I love, hopefully not in a dark way—that obviously sounded very dark—just to kind of stir thought. I love conversations that bring the bigger picture in. You know, we’re spinning on a planet, and we don’t talk about that. We get very used to a normal which, if you look at the bigger picture, is actually very abnormal. You know?
Another thing you’ve said in interviews is that your default is to sort of check out and go into a fantasy world. But isn’t that what fuels your acting—your imagination?
Yeah, of course. That’s the good side of it, when you can kind of imagine the life of the character and where it can go. That’s the healthy side. I think my way of checking out was to detach, to just disassociate whenever something hard or even something good was happening, rather than try to feel it or be in the moment.
When I booked “Arrested Development,” that was my ultimate, that was my dream. And then I got it and it didn’t satisfy me, and that really scared me. I think it’s because I had given this dream so much weight and nothing could match that weight. I was always like, “That’s coming, that’s coming,” and I was never where I was. I talk about this so much because I suck at it, but it’s a daily exercise for me to be like: You know what, I’m right here. We’re having this conversation. Even just touching my jacket, touching the door, to kind of ground myself where I am, because that is not at all my default. This exercise really helps with acting, because on TV, there are like 40 people standing and watching you and you’re supposed to be alone in the scene. So you have to practice these exercises to ground yourself and be present in the moment somewhat.
Your character in Wakey, Wakey is simply called Guy. Who is Guy to you? Is he a version of you?
Yeah, that’s kind of the key in anything for me. Even with Buster or Gary, I find those things in the character that are in me. You look at someone like Gary, and he’s very much a people pleaser and he’s very much anxious. Thankfully I’ve had a lot more therapy than Gary’s had, but I can definitely draw on those things. When you find it in yourself, that’s when you can hopefully give the most organic performance rather than just trying to play an idea of something. With Guy—and I love that his name is Guy, because it’s very much like he’s an Everyman—the stuff he’s talking about, like, “Hey, take a private moment to think about someone you care about,” I love being told to do that. It’s like just saying things out loud that we all need to exercise a little more.
I think Gary and Buster would benefit from seeing this play.
I know. I feel like Buster could use Gary in his life, and Gary could use a big hug.
I was wondering if one reason working on “Arrested Development” didn’t satisfy you is that it was a single-camera show, and there was no audience to play to.
I’ve really only done single-camera shows, where the only audience you have is these people that are way off who stand behind the video monitor to watch the scene. And it’s crazy how we actors are so keen for any response that, even though they’re far away, we can hear a chuckle, or hear the crew kind of giggle. It’s like we’re just looking for some kind of affirmation as to whether it’s working. With theatre, I mean, it’s such immediate gratification as to whether this something is working and, and to enter into the story with the audience—I’m excited about that.
With “Arrested,” I want to re-emphasize that my dissatisfaction had nothing to do with the show or the cast or the writing—everything was so wonderful about that show. It was all me and my false expectations.
You sound more balanced now. Do you have outside interests that keep you going?
One thing I’m loving right now is, I did a children’s book years ago called Archibald’s Next Big Thing, and it became a show now on Netflix, and I just love it. I love acting, but I really enjoy producing and working with writers and designers and editors and just seeing the animation process. It is a long, detailed process, and these artists give everything they have. I love being in that world.
How about interests outside of show business?
I’m pretty boring. I love hanging out with my family; my daughter’s 13 now, so she’s fully embarrassed by everything I do, which only fuels the fire for me to embarrass her more. Both my wife and I are from the South, so we like to go down there for the holidays. This business can be a bit of a hustle and chaotic, as freelancers always kind of looking for that next gig, so it’s nice to be with family and just kinda settle. Having friends around the fire pit, just having a glass of wine—I’ll take that over a massive trip to Italy any day.
You couldn’t say that Will Eno plays necessarily attract religious people, but it seems like an interesting convergence.
Well, it’s just kind of thinking maybe beyond where we are—existential thinking outside of what has become our norm.
You said you like to give advice to young people entering the business. What’s some advice you like to give?
I love that question. I always tell anybody who wants to get into the business or move to a certain place to kind of start their career, to invest in your community before you invest in your career. This is a very tough business. There’s a tremendous amount of rejection, but when you have people around you who are seeing you beyond how the business is seeing you, that’s what’s going to give you longevity. That was key for me. That’s definitely what kept me on it.
That was the thinking behind the Haven, right?
Yeah, that was the artists’ fellowship I started in New York with my friend Kathy Grabowski. My family didn’t live in New York when I first moved there to become an actor, and so finding friends you can just be incredibly honest with, who are not going to judge, they’re going to keep you encouraged to press on. I just think that is mandatory.
You’ve mentioned having a type. Do you ever feel confined by that and itch to do something different?
No, I don’t, really. I love to do different stuff. I just did this movie called Nine Days with this director named Edson Oda. It was really fun to play a completely different character. But the key for me is that I just love comedy in general. And with Buster and Gary, the writing was so good, and when you’re working with comedic talents like those casts, how can you complain about any of that? It’s not only so fun, but I’m just so incredibly grateful.
Both shows were distinguished by not just the verbal comedy but obviously the physical comedy. But in Wakey, Wakey, you’re confined to a wheelchair. Are you going to work up some business?
It’s funny, ’cause on “Veep” all I could do was live in the nonverbal, because he couldn’t speak very much—Gary was even called a “bitchy mime,” which I love. On the other hand, with animation, everything in the body is taken out and it’s just your voice. That was very intimidating at first, but then I learned to do the same performance for the microphone. So that’s the kind of thing I see here: just living the truth of the part. This guy’s in a wheelchair, so I’ll come with up with something else.
Speaking of your voice, I have to say that in real life you sound much more grounded than your characters.
That’s post a lot of therapy. I just dip into all that emasculation when I do Gary and Buster. What’s fun is, last night I was doing Jimmy Fallon. He was playing Trump and he wanted Gary to come out and hand him stuff in the bag. I was so excited just to get back into that role, because I miss him—I miss those rhythms. I missed being him and how needy he was. It’s something that I myself am working on, but being a character who is so oblivious to anything is actually very fun.