Fans of Joss Whedon’s work need no introduction to Alan Tudyk, the toy-dinosaur-collecting, endlessly loveable pilot of Firefly’s spaceship Serenity, and the terrifying rogue Alpha on Dollhouse. Non-Whedon fans may still know him as Dodgeball’s Steve The Pirate; or the naked, tripping mourner in Frank Oz’s Death At A Funeral; or John Turturro’s gun-toting, computer-hacking, flamboyantly gay assistant in the third Transformers movie; or Katherine Heigl’s boss in Knocked Up, who insinuatingly urges her to “tighten” post-pregnancy. Unusually perceptive viewers may also recognize the face beneath the CGI skin of I, Robot’s deceptive robot Sonny. As the YouTube collections of his funniest moments testify, Tudyk has made a big impression in a lot of small parts, although it’s unclear whether fans always connect the dots.
Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil might change that. As half of the titular pair, Tudyk plays second fiddle for once, rather than third or fourth. Essentially The Texas Chain Saw Massacre shot from the point of a view of a misunderstood Leatherface, Eli Craig’s Tucker & Dale is a knowing twist on the killer-redneck genre. Tudyk and Tyler Labine’s guileless yahoos are the victims, mistaken by a group of anxious college-kid campers for murderous mountain men. As the kids’ attempts at counterattack end in bloody miscalculation, the stakes and the body count continue to rise; it’s a slasher movie in which the villains have clumsy feet and excruciatingly poor timing. While gearing up for his role on the new series Suburgatory, Tudyk talked to The A.V. Club about underplaying Tucker & Dale’s gonzo comedy, the difference between working with Joss Whedon and Michael Bay, and why he’d like a do-over on Knocked Up.
The A.V. Club: You’re shooting right now?
Alan Tudyk: Yeah, I’m shooting Suburgatory. Today, I didn’t work; I just went in for a spray tan. I’m overly spray-tanned for this role. Which is a little new, having a ginger aura. Usually, it’s more of the pale thing happening, and now I’m this—I don’t even know the color to call it. It’s like the color of an old moccasin or a fried wonton if you fried it in chorizo grease.
AVC: Mentally flipping through clips of your performances, I don’t recall a lot of pigment. Do you tan?
AT: I can tan. I get tannish. It’s not really tan, it’s tannish. That kind of color. I was at the beach for a long time, and for a while, I was really into paddle tennis. For a while, I was going out for like four hours, three times a week, and I got tan then. My hair turned blonde and I got tan. I have to really devote myself.
AVC: Paddle tennis is a surprisingly punishing sport.
AT: Yeah, my God. I miss it. I live on a beach in Beachwood Canyon.
AVC: You grew up in Plano, Texas?
AVC: And the screenwriters are from Southern California. Did you push your Tucker & Dale character toward a more informed view of the South?
AT: When Tyler and I first got together and started working on the role, one of the first nights when I got to Calgary, we started talking about accents, and he was like, “Look, guys, I’m from Canada, I don’t know this accent.” Tucker & Dale are from West Virginia. We looked on YouTube, and there are a lot of examples of people with accents from that part of the world. It’s similar to a Texas accent, but there are differences. We started working, and I said, “You know what, man? I can already tell you what’s going to happen, because I did this with Doc Potter in 3:10 To Yuma, from Virginia also. I start off with the Virginia accent, and then really quickly it just turns Texan. I’m a professional, and I know it’s going to happen. I’m just going to be Texan, so let’s just do it!” [Laughs.] So he followed me, and every once in a while, he’d be like, “How do I say this word? And how do I say this word?” and I’d give it to him. It’s just a Texan accent. It’s how I talk when I’m back home with certain cousins.
AVC: The accent really comes back when you spend time at home.
AT: Yeah, it’s amazing, man. I had to say, for Suburgatory, the other day [Texan accent] “propane.” I had a hell of a time saying propane without a Texan accent. Like “pro-paiiiin.”
AVC: [Quoting a frequent King Of The Hill refrain.] “Propane and propane accessories.”
AT: Exactly, and that didn’t help, you know? Like really. Get driven home by Dale.
AVC: It’s a pretty high-concept film, but compared to some of the character parts you’ve done, it’s surprisingly underplayed. It’s not real over-the-top redneck.
AT: That was from the very beginning. I told Eli I wanted it to be done as real as possible. The stakes are high, in a real way. That way, it can be really funny. The realer it is, the funnier it will be. After the guy attacks Tyler and falls on his spear and the guy jumps in the wood-chipper and then we come inside, we have that scene and Tyler’s like, “What happened to you?” It’s like [Texan accent], “Well, let me tell you what I just saw! I’ll tell you what happened! Oh my God!” You’re trying to hold onto reality, like, “What the fuck just happened?” And then it becomes very serious, like they’re going to go to jail for a long time, and the thought was, “If we can keep it there, then when the cop does show up, then it’s funny.”
AVC: The early scene where the college kids stop at the convenience store is pure Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The guy behind the counter really fits that kind of creepy Deliverance template. There’s just enough that you can see how the kids might get the wrong idea.
AT: Yeah, that guy was funny. He actually introduced himself with that Deliverance thing going on to Tyler and me that day. Like, “Hi, nice to meet you.” [Slowly.] “Hi, how are you?” He had that slow speech. Like, “Wow, this guy—they really found a master of drawls. He’s okay.” He was an odd guy.
AVC: The character of Dutch in Transformers: Dark Of The Moon seems like a case where you were given the outline, but there was a lot of room for you to fill in the details. Is that right?
AT: Definitely, with that role. Michael Bay encourages improv and does a lot of rewriting in the moment. When you show up on set, he’s like, “This doesn’t make sense. What are we saying here? We need to do this, this, and this. How are we going to say it?” He can rewrite the scene right there. I think the reason I got the role was the audition scene. It’s right at the beginning, where Agent Simmons, [John] Turturro, says, “What’ve you got for me today?” and I say [in accent], “Well, you have a lunch this afternoon with Hugo Chávez, you’re doing Larry King later, you’re doing this and that, and a book signing.” And I did that scene, it’s very short. A couple of lines. He’s like, “Okay, now improv it.”
So you just fill the whole fucking thing in, because it’s just a list, and you can say anything whatsoever. “You have lunch with Hugo Chávez, but he’s insisting on Applebee’s. I told him about your history with this, and he doesn’t care. I have half the restaurant, and that waiter won’t be there, they’ve assured me. Also, you are seeing Larry King later, which I think is interesting because I think he’s dead, I’m fairly sure. Last time, I saw a very melted candle. Very hot day at the wax museum.” You just keep going and going: “I think Hugo Chávez looks like Javier Bardem, but just as if his eyes were pinched as he was a child, like he was a bad boy and they’d pinch him in the face: ‘Stop talking, you bad boy!’ and then they crossed just like that. You know, Javier Bardem looks like a sexy Easter Island statue.” Just bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. And then they went “Great! You’ve got the role.”
Then when you go on set, the bullshit begins again, and you just come up with lines and stuff. The more you have to offer—at least in that situation, every movie is different—but in that situation, the more you have to offer, the more you’re going to be in the movie. If you don’t have anything to offer, you got nothing to say. There’s plenty of other stuff to put in the movie, as you can tell, they’re long, these movies, and you just get cut out. If you’ve got something to play with, he encourages it.
AVC: There was a similar process to getting cast in Knocked Up, right? Where it was a matter of improvising that character.
AT: Yeah, I’d like to do that one over again, though.
AVC: You would? It’s a pretty popular scene.
AT: I was tired. I was just home from England. I didn’t know anything about Kristen Wiig, except when we were in the scene, I was like, “Oh my God, she is amazing.” I’m experiencing what a lot of people who love Kristen Wiig have experienced in the past if they’ve done it by watching Saturday Night Live. I’m in the room with her going, “Who is this woman? She’s fucking awesome!” I showed up, and they’re like, “Do what you did in the audition.” I was like, “I don’t remember it.” I honestly had no recollection of it, because I went to the audition at like 9 a.m., left the audition, went to the airport, got on a plane, shot Death At A Funeral, then came home and the next day shot that [scene]. I was bad, anyway. This is my way of saying I want to play with Kristen Wiig another time.
AVC: We will pass on that message.
AT: But not in a sexual way, so if she has a boyfriend, that would be rude.
AVC: How different is it working with Joss Whedon? He’s such a precise writer, it seems like there would be a lot less leeway.
AT: It’s not the same working with Joss. He has a very specific vision, and there’s no improv-ing on his stuff. Which is funny. When I did Dollhouse—his last TV show, and I think probably the last TV thing he’ll ever do. Why work for Fox? He doesn’t have to do that anymore. He can just take it straight to the Internet, like he did with Dr. Horrible[’s Sing-Along Blog]. He had agreed to do the TV show before he did Dr. Horrible, and Dr. Horrible was this great experience which changed how he saw a product could be brought to market. He could do it his way, he could do it with the people he wanted, it didn’t have to have people telling him what to do. Then he did the TV show. When I was on Dollhouse, I got to improv a line. I did it just in rehearsal of the scene, the scene ended, and I said one line, and I forget what it was. The guy, we were about to get into a fight and he calls me something, I don’t even remember what. “Did you just call me a blah-blah-blah?” Whatever it was. And he said, “Oh, let’s put that in.” And I said, “Whoa, no way! Are you serious? I cannot believe I’m getting my own line in a Joss Whedon thing.” Joss was there, and he goes, “Really? Oh. I’ve relaxed.” And he meant it like he was surprised to hear me say that. “Really? I don’t feel the same way about that anymore.” He’s into that, I guess, now. When we did Firefly, when we did Serenity, there wasn’t a lot of improv-ing. When Tim Minear directed, he was the executive producer, with him, there was improv-ing. When Tim wrote a script, he encouraged it. Joss has a very specific view. He’s a very specific writer.
AVC: The Alpha reveal on Dollhouse was stunningly effective. You played such a nice, goofy character on Firefly, and were introduced on Dollhouse as this paranoid nerd, and then all of a sudden the sleeves come off, and you’ve got these intimidating biceps we’ve never seen. It’s like Whedon took advantage of the fact that fans would know you from another project, and deliberately played against that.
AT: Yeah, it was great. He didn’t let on that he wanted me to do that. He said he got the idea for me to play it after, because he does these Shakespeare readings at his house, where you go over to his house and do a reading of Cleopatra. I got to see Morena Baccarin play Cleopatra, she was wonderful. I don’t know what I did. Oh, I was in Cleopatra.
AVC: He said you did Caesar.
AT: Yeah, that’s right, I did Caesar. And he said after that, he was like, “Yep.” Really? [Laughs.] Wow. He told me about it at a party. We’re at Nathan Fillion’s house, we’re playing Pictionary, and on the break from playing, we were in the kitchen, and I was like, “Hey, tell me about the show. What’s going on?” And then he told me about the role. And I was like, “That sounds awesome! Who’s playing that?” Truly, I wouldn’t have even thought that he would have picked me. It wasn’t, “So who’s playing that? Would you ever consider…” It was really a hoot. And he asked me to do it. It was really great.
AVC: That’s in a way why it was so effective, the fact that you didn’t even think of yourself for that character.
AT: Right! Exactly. [Laughs.] “Alan Tudyk’s playing Alpha.” I’m Alan Tudyk! What the fuck?
AVC: At school, you did Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, but most of what you’ve done professionally has had a comic element, or been outright comedy. Alpha might be the most dramatic, certainly the scariest thing you’ve done.
AT: Yeah, that was great.
AVC: Do you want to do more of that? Are you happier doing comedy?
AT: I don’t know. I learned from doing Alpha that I like doing comedy. Not because I hated playing the menacing guy, but because I relished playing Stephen Kepler, who was the guy Alpha introduces himself as before he turns. When I was Stephen Kepler, the agoraphobic architect who made the Dollhouse, who gets kidnapped by the former FBI agents. While I was doing that, I had endless ideas: “Why don’t we do this? Oh, can I do this? What about this? What about this? What about this?” I just naturally leaned toward that, and I was having a blast on set and joking with people—fun times. Then when I was doing Alpha the killer, I was quiet, I was sitting by myself, I had to concentrate to make sure I knew what I was—it was a whole different focus. I just enjoy the hell out of myself when I’m playing an idiot. [Laughs.] I have a lot of those tendencies. I’d love to play another bad guy, but Alpha was such an awesome bad guy, it would have to be really cool.
AVC: In terms of not having that looseness, what was the I, Robot experience like for you? There’s a huge technical component to performance-capture that’s omnipresent.
AT: I wish I had that performance on film.
AVC: Do you mean the original performance, before they turned you into a robot?
AT: Yes, before they did the digitalization. I was there for six months, and I saw it when we were looping it and doing all the ADR, and then they rendered it frame by frame onto all of my facial muscles. I don’t envy those who did it. It was such a great role to get to play. It’s like Pinocchio, the wooden boy who wants to be real; it’s the robot who has feelings, and is like, “What happens when I die? What does it mean?” He starts by having to kill his father, now he’s lying; he’s done all these things he wasn’t supposed to do, and has to be killed. It was this great, tragic, beautiful, big-hearted character. I loved it. I loved playing that role.
AVC: Is it hard to do that when you’re wearing a green leotard?
AT: Yeah, wearing a green suit all day long. That wasn’t my favorite. There was a silver one that I liked a lot, but I didn’t get to wear that one as often. It looked very cool. But I was very green most of the time. It’s an odd process. It’s like you paint a painting, and I go, “Great! I’m going to do a painting of that painting.” And then I show the painting of your painting to the world. And that’s how everybody knows your painting. The people who painted my painting are very good painters, but still, there is something lost in the translation. That’s why, only for my personal reasons, I would love to see it again, because it was a while ago now, and I really loved it.
AVC: As an actor, you aren’t choosing takes, you aren’t editing it together, you aren’t really in control of how your performance comes out. But normally, at least they can’t put in things you didn’t do. That isn’t the case when they’re redrawing your entire face.
AT: Exactly. There was a learning process, there was a learning curve, for both of us. For myself and for the digital team. Early on, there was a moment when one of the guys pulled me aside and said “Can we have you for a couple of minutes?” Like, “Sure, what do you need?” “We just want to get some surprise faces, just a menu that we can work from, just to put in.” “Okay, cool. Like, surprise like I just won the lottery? Or surprise like my girlfriend’s pregnant and I just lost my job and I don’t know how I’m going to raise my kid? Because both of those are surprise.” “Well, I just meant surprise.” I said, “Yeah, I don’t think we need any just-surprise faces. Why don’t we stick to any faces I do in the scene? Those ones. If there’s surprise, that’s the one.” “Ah, I didn’t even think about that!” You wouldn’t, I guess. It was a learning process.
AVC: It depends on the people who are doing it, too. A lot of character animators think of themselves as actors. Certainly the great ones do.
AT: Yeah, it was interesting. We were watching a little of it together, and I would have to point out—it just becomes that they’re perceiving my performance and this is their version of it, and then it gets perceived again, so that it just becomes diluted. Diluted, but at the same time enhanced, because if you just had a dude running around in a green fucking Spandex suit, you’d be like, “I don’t think he’s a robot, I’m not buying this.” [Laughs.] It doesn’t seem that intimidating as a force. So it’s a trade-off.
AVC: You’re playing Stephen Douglas in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. How much debating is there in the movie?
AT: Not much. [Laughs.] Really, a third of it. They get around to some vampires at some point. There’s not much debating. It’s more a reason to hat-tip what ends up happening, because it’s more about other things ultimately, I guess. That’s what they told me. I was like, “What? I thought… I’m not sure about this.” I come in and out of the movie. I’m his political foil, as he was historically. Whenever Lincoln needs a political foil, I just show back up on the scene. In the beginning, he takes my fiancée [Mary Todd] from me, he steals her away, which is what happened. I’m always sort of this foil who’s lurking until I die. Which is in the book, so it’s not really a spoiler. It’s going to be really interesting. Timur [Bekmambetov] is an amazing director. I’m very interested to see it. I just went with it, whatever. I think if you saw Night Watch, he has so many things happening at once. Very innovative, creepy, bizarre, scary, hysterical stuff happening all at once. I’m more in the buffoonery part of it. I serve that function for Timur, wearing a silly wig. The wig and the clothes I wear, I just look like a buffoon.
AVC: Which is where you’re comfortable, as you said.
AT: [Laughs.] Which is where I’m comfortable—playing a jackass on the scene, rolling in with my pocket watch and my buffoon hairdo, with my shoes.
AVC: What can you say about the very tan person you’re playing right now on Suburbagatory?
AT: I’m kind of, again, another buffoon, another jackass. While I was doing Stephen Douglas, it’s like, “God, why am I considered to play a jackass? I’m getting into the jackass groove here.” He’s a guy who lives in suburbia who’s beckoned his friend, Jeremy Sisto, to move out there, and he brings his daughter. She moved out of the city because she needs better influences. He doesn’t like how she’s growing up in the city; she’s 16, he’s a single parent, he feels inadequate. I tell him he should come on out here. I’m his best friend, and I have embraced the suburbs. I love the country club, very into tanning. I have a brilliant, bright-red Speedo. I like golfing. I’m a cosmetic dentist, which is sort of perfect. I will make a decayed tooth look good. Whatever might be decaying is kind of the perfect analogy for suburbia, which I grew up in. I cover it up and make it shiny, and I’m that shiny surface.
AVC: You are the spray tan on the outside.
AT: Yes, I am the spray tan. It’s really funny, man, I have to say. Emily Kapnek, who created it, she’s got a great group of writers together, and they’ve got some really bizarre humor. Some really funny, odd shit that makes me laugh. Nothing my character says, but still very funny. It’s very repeatable, so hopefully that comes through, and people like it. It’s got a good slot right before Modern Family, which is my favorite show. So keep the TV on. We should be good. I’ll catch the end of Suburgatory in time for Modern Family, so I’ll get to see some of it.
AVC: There should be a crossover at some point.
AT: Come on! I would love it. I want to crossover to all the shows. I want to do Modern Family, I want to do a Castle. I’m pitching that already, because Nathan Fillion is a friend, and we’ve been trying to figure out what I’m going to do, but now that I’m on the same network, I need to get my character into the Castle world. He needs to come out of the city and into the suburbs, because we are in the suburbs of the city, so it’s going to be awesome. I’m beyond Nathan, I’m into the producers and pitching them stuff.