Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Although he picked up a few small parts on such impressively high-profile series as Dawson’s Creek, The Sopranos, and Sex And The City in 2001, Tony Hale was first noticed by most audiences when he got the plum role of Buster Bluth on Fox’s Arrested Development. Since the series’ demise, Hale has continued to turn up in films and television series, and he’s currently serving as part of the ensemble of HBO’s new sitcom, Veep.
Tony Hale: The great thing about Gary is… Okay, first off, I play the personal aide to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character, Selina, who’s the vice president, and I pretty much worship the ground she walks on. [Laughs.] I mean, my identity is so enmeshed in hers that… Gary just has a lot of cats at home, and leaving my job would be leaving my identity, so whatever direction she goes in her opinion, that’s my direction. I’m pretty much by her side constantly. I’m obsessed with her.
I’m always thankful when a gig comes around, but I loved the aspect of the show that… Well, you know, especially in an election year, where we’re hearing so many great soundbites, and there’s so much posturing and so many planned speeches, I loved the fact that it took us behind the scenes and really put an eye to the fact that these people have freak-outs, they get insecure, they lose their minds. You know, you can’t be a container for that much pressure and that much criticism and not have an explosion behind closed doors. I love that Gary witnesses all of that, and he’s pretty much the sounding board to her rants. That just seems like comic opportunity out the wazoo. [Laughs.] When I saw that… And I’m also such a massive fan of Julia’s, and have been for so long, and also of [series creator] Armando Iannucci’s, so to work within that… it’s just such a gift.
AVC: Your “explosion behind closed doors” comment instantly brings to mind the moment from the pilot where Gary fearlessly storms into Selina’s office, after which they both emerge and Selina literally contorts with anger as she screams, “What the fuck…?”
TH: [Laughs.] Okay, I’ve seen the pilot probably five times, and my wife and I both laugh out loud so hard at that moment every time, because it’s just such an explosion on her part. It’s just an absolute joyride to watch. Seriously. Five times, and I get the same kick out of it every time.
The Informant! (2009)—“James Epstein”
TH: Ooooooo! Yeah, that one… okay, I remember getting the call, because I’d auditioned for the movie probably a month and a half to two months before I got cast. It was one of those things where I kind of went in and then forgot about it, so I remember getting the call saying, “You got the part.” And it was just this, like, “What? I’m going to be working with Steven Soderbergh?” I was so stoked, because I’d also been a fan of his for so long. And working on that movie… the fact is, everybody has huge respect for him, he knows exactly what he wants, and he is so chill. And that’s such a great combination. So I had such a great time on that movie. Also, it was nice to kind of step out and play a guy who’s not mentally ill, like Buster. [Laughs.] Or anxiety-ridden. He was a little anxious, but not on the level of some of the typical stuff I do.
The whole thing was a gift, but especially being able to be directed by Soderbergh, because there’s a tremendous amount of ego in this business, and ego can cause people to just be kind of crazy, and you got the sense with Soderbergh that he was just so… He knew exactly what he wanted, and he was relaxed, he was fantastic with the actors, and it encouraged the creative environment. A lot of times, you feel like you’re walking on eggshells in a creative environment, because everyone’s having to watch out for egos so much of the time. But with Soderbergh, it was just a free creative environment. Which, actually, is very much like Veep. Veep is the same way.
The Least Of These (1995)—“Stewart”
TH: Oh God. [Laughs.] I don’t even remember that. That was… oh, God, wow, I think that was in grad school. Maybe. I genuinely cannot tell you one thing about that, except for the fact that I must have had a lot of hair. That’s really about it.
Chuck (2008-2010)—“Emmett Milbarge”
TH: Oh, man, Emmett Milbarge was so fun, because they brought me in, and I’m playing kind of a store manager, but I remember walking into the set of Chuck and literally thinking it seemed like they had implanted a Best Buy store onto the Warner Brothers lot. The detail of this store was so overwhelming that many times, you’d walk out and you’d have forgotten. You’d be, like, “Oh, right, it’s a set.” And Emmett was… [Starts to laugh.] Oh, Emmett was just a disaster. And it was fun, y’know, because the characters I play typically are kind of innocent and vulnerable, and Emmett just had an evil streak. A real mean streak. And that was really fun to play.
AVC: How was stepping into a show that was already relatively well established at that point?
TH: Fun. Because I had known Zach [Levi], the lead, at least for a little while, so he and I were friends, and that made it really easy. And the rest of the cast was great, too, so it was actually really easy.
Stranger Than Fiction (2006)—“Dave”
TH: Oh, yes. Good ol’ Dave. I love that Dave’s goal in life was to go to Space Camp. [Laughs.] My wife had worked on Saturday Night Live for eight years—she was a makeup artist, and she was with the whole Will Ferrell/Molly Shannon/Ana Gasteyer crowd—and I had heard so many fantastic things about Will, so going in, I knew it was going to be a great experience. And he was just such a nice guy, and made it really fun. Marc Forster, another Soderbergh-like, relaxed, focused director, another gift to work with. And I also really loved the creativity of that script, that he heard that voice that narrated his life. It was just really cool to be a part of that.
Unaccompanied Minors (2006)—“Alan Davies”
AVC: Looking at your film work on IMDB, you’re going to have to work pretty hard to top your output from 2006, at least in terms of volume.
TH: [Laughs.] I know, I’m trying to remember everything I did that year.
AVC: Well, there’s Unaccompanied Minors, for a start.
TH: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah! That was a really tiny part. I was a guy at the very end of that, and—oh, good Lord, I don’t even remember—I think he was talking about a basketball to Santa. Paul Feig directed that movie, and he directed a lot of Arrested Development episodes, so when he asked me to come and do it, I was just so excited. I was, like, “I would love to!” He’s another one of those directors. He’s just so funny, and allows the actors to have that freedom. Also, there were a lot of fun people on that movie. Rob Corddry was on that movie, and Lewis Black. Oh, yeah, and Rob Riggle was there, too. It was just a really fun set. I think I was only there for, like, a day and a half, but it was shot in Utah, and I’d never been to Utah, so I was kind of excited to go.
Andy Barker, P.I. (2007)—“Simon”
TH: Oh yeah, Simon! Simon was… well, right after Arrested finished, Andy Barker got started with NBC, and I was a huge fan of Andy Richter’s, so I was really stoked. And I loved the whole idea that these two idiots—absolute idiots—were solving crimes. [Laughs.] And kind of unintentionally. They didn’t really want to, but they would just fall into these nuts scenarios. That was a real blast to do. Also, just to work with Andy… I had met him, because he’d done a few episodes of Arrested, but he was just such a cool guy. And I was playing this kind of dark video-store owner, and… That was just really fun.
AVC: How was Harve Presnell to work with?
TH: Oh, my gosh, that’s right, Harve Presnell. Who has passed, which is so heartbreaking. But I will say that Harve Presnell… [Laughs.] He was one of those guys who, when you’re standing in a room with him… he’s such an older masculine force that I remember thinking, “Wow, his voice makes me sound like Pee-Wee Herman.” He just had this really booming, resonant voice, and I probably did a mantra to myself of, like, “I am a man, I am a husband and a father, I do have a good voice…” [Laughs.] Because I remember being blown away just by the masculinity of his voice.
The Sopranos (2001)—“RN/OCN Collins”
Sex And The City (2001)—“Tiger”
TH: I was doing commercials in New York at that time, and I remember getting those parts, because at the time, Sex And The City and The Sopranos were the shows to get in New York. And I was getting very small parts, but I was so excited and so nervous. I think Sopranos was the first, and I remember being in the room they gave me to kind of wait, and at first, I was just like, “Omigod, omigod, this is my first dressing room, this is my first dressing room…” [Laughs.] But then I’m remembering that all of these Sopranos guys were out there, they’re playing crazy Mafia types, and I was, like, “I am going to be eaten alive,” ’cause I was playing an oncology nurse. So I was really overwhelmed, but I was really stoked. And then for Sex And The City, my scene was… I was a photographer’s assistant when Kim Cattrall’s character was having nude photos taken, and I think I actually apologized to her, because I felt bad that I kind of had to objectify her all day. And then after that, I think she thought I was an idiot. [Laughs.] She just kind of looked at me, like, “Why are you saying that?” And then I probably just ate my foot.
Law & Order (2010)—“Phillip Shoemaker”
TH: Oh yeah. That was a heavy one, I will say. I remember when I booked that, I went to New York for two weeks to shoot, and I was playing a father whose daughter had been kidnapped. And I myself have a 6-year-old daughter, and I remember thinking, “Oh, it’s gonna be fun, I’m gonna go to New York for two weeks and be able to see friends and go out for drinks and just have a good time.” But then when I got there, the scenes were… knowing that the next day I was going to have to break down on trial about my daughter, and I was going to have to have these heavy emotional scenes, I just stayed in my hotel and probably just stared at the wall. [Laughs.] I mean, it was just so… You’re in this really heavy place, and I remember I didn’t want to go out at all. I just knew it was so heavy. But it was nice to be able to take advantage of that opportunity.
Dawson’s Creek (2001)—“Dr. Bronin”
TH: Oh my God, you’re pulling them out. [Laughs.] Okay, here’s a story about that. I was playing a doctor against James Van Der Beek, and this was definitely my very first TV gig, because I hadn’t moved up to New York yet. This was when I was living in Virginia Beach, and I was so stoked to do it, because it was shot in Wilmington, North Carolina, so all the Virginia actors were excited to get those kinds of gigs. So I drove down and… you know, I was really young, it was my first gig, and I was working across from James Van Der Beek, and I was really nervous. And I remember he had a big coat on, and I said to him, “Dude, you look hot!” And he kind of looked at me, like, “What the hell are you talking about?” And he walked away, and before I could explain that it was the heat from his coat that I was talking about, it just all spiraled out. And once again, I was eating my foot. [Laughs.] I’m like, “Shut up, Tony. Just shut your mouth.”
Community (2010)—“Professor Holly”
TH: What was so fun about that was that Anthony and Joe Russo, who were the directors of the pilot for Arrested and had directed a lot of episodes, they were doing Community, and they asked me to do that pottery teacher. It was kind of this hippie pottery instructor who was really intense about his work, and it was such a blast to do. So fun. Joel [McHale] and Danny [Pudi] and Alison [Brie] and all those guys are just such, such great people. And I remember thinking I wanted to… they wanted to put me in something, and all I could think was, “No, I want to do one of those really hippie-looking tunics.” When you think about these people, all you really think about is, like, really healthy food stores that smell. [Laughs.] You just can’t get past the fact that they probably haven’t bathed in, y’know, two weeks. And they’re eating dirt. And he was just so serious, so intense about everything, and somebody who was just so existential. I love that guy.
Larry The Cable Guy: Health Inspector (2006)—“Jack Dabbs”
TH: Oh my gosh, yeah. That was 2006, too, wasn’t it? [Laughs.] Yeah, I was asked to do that… I think it was close after Arrested finished, and I believe I was in a wheelchair for most of the time in the movie. And I remember it was shot in Florida, in Orlando, and I was really excited about that, because I lived in Tallahassee for most of my growing up, so I was excited to be able to go back and forth. Also, y’know, Larry The Cable Guy is a great guy, and it was really fun to do. I have huge admiration for what he has created. I was raised in the South—I grew up in Tallahassee and went to school in Alabama—and I remember meeting him and being, like, “Wow, you have really created this Southern redneck persona… and you’re from the Midwest.” And he was such a cool guy, so… I dunno, it was just fascinating.
Justified (2010)—“David Mortimer”
TH: You’re really tapping into my memory here. [Laughs.] I was playing an art dealer. Here’s what I remember about that! One of the scenes was in a horse stall, and I have a horrible allergy to horses. And when I heard about it, I was like, “Oh, well, it’s probably just a bunch of horses walking around, we’ll be outside… I’ll be fine.” But when we got there, it was in the stall, there’s all these horses all around me, and I was, like, “Holy shit, this is really not gonna go well.” And I had a full-on asthma attack, and I couldn’t find my inhaler, and… Oh, it just got all dramatic, and they had to cut around me and shoot around me, and I felt so, so bad. We had to come back and shoot the scene in a different place, and I remember being on set when we were shooting the scene in this different place, and everyone around me was grumbling and going, like, “Why can’t we just go back to the horse stall?” They didn’t say anything, but I remember thinking, “Sorry! That’s me, ’cause I’m the asthmatic.”
Arrested Development (2003-2006)—“Byron ‘Buster’ Bluth”
TH: Ah, Buster Bluth. Bless his heart. [Laughs.] The fact that I got the job is just a gift. Another gift! You know, I’ve said in recent interviews that all Buster wanted was safety. That’s all he ever really wanted, so anytime that safety was threatened, he would just spiral into a mental breakdown. I remember Mitch Hurwitz telling me that, and it was just such a great source of inspiration for everything Buster did. Also, I just loved that Buster was… well, he was kind of his own container for just a lot of attacks from his mother, but then even he could not hold that in, and… I loved when Buster would just go on these massive rants, when he just couldn’t contain it anymore, and would just explode. But what I remember from that show is just… I was just a sponge to everything that was going on around me. I think I probably took it a little too seriously. I probably didn’t really relax until the third season, because I was kind of overwhelmed, it being my first big gig. But I just remember constantly absorbing the business—I’d never been on a lot before—and just really kind of being in awe the entire time.
AVC: How was working with Liza Minnelli?
TH: Oh, a gift. [Laughs.] You know, I didn’t really know much about her music growing up. I knew about her. And, y’know, it could’ve gone many different directions with her, because she’s such an icon, but she could not have been more gracious, more lovely, funny… And when she would tell stories, it wasn’t from a place of ego, it was just from a place of, “Listen to how wild my life has been.” And it was just so fun to listen to her stories. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will always treasure.
AVC: Is there any small, subtle thing about Buster’s personality that you’re particularly fond of?
TH: I’d say that I love that Buster, even though he was a complete disaster, liked to dress in color. He liked himself some color. You know, he wasn’t afraid to throw on, like, a pastel argyle sweater. [Laughs.] I think that says a lot about someone: Even though he’d had about a thousand psychic breaks in his lifetime, he still chooses to pull out some color from the closet. Because with that kind of a mental history, you’d think he’d be wearing black all the time.
AVC: Presumably your Veep promo commitments kept you from attending the big press conference with Mitch the other day.
TH: [Sighs.] I know, I know. I was so bummed that I couldn’t go. But it was fun to hear all that Mitch said. And it was also fun to see the backdrop of Arrested, and that everyone was kind of standing in their place. [Laughs.] Yeah, I was really bummed that I couldn’t go.
AVC: Is what you heard from Mitch’s remarks online the extent of what you know about the upcoming episodes?
TH: Uh, yeah, that’s pretty much right. [Laughs.] I get most of my information from the Internet, so unfortunately, I can’t offer you a scoop. But, you know, the thing I like so much about the show is the element of surprise. I was constantly surprised when I was on it, so I kind of don’t want to know a lot of information. I want to be surprised myself. I want to get on set or get there for the reading and be like, “Oh my God, what has happened in the last six years of Buster’s life?” [Laughs.] I’m really, really stoked to see what Mitch has come up with.
TH: Another one from 2006! [Laughs.] I mean, obviously, I was a massive, massive Robin Williams fan, so to be able to work across from him was… half of my body is, like, “Whoa, I can’t believe I’m here!” You know, I’ve really been fortunate to work with really kind and normal people, and as crazy of a career as Robin Williams has had, and he’s just so full of life, he’s really just a down-to-earth, normal guy when you’re talking to him. And that’s always a really fun surprise.
Boldly Going Nowhere (2009)—“Robot”
AVC: Although it never made it past the pilot stage, you were set to play a robot in a science-fiction sitcom a few years ago.
TH: Yes, I was. And, indeed, it boldly went nowhere. [Laughs.] This was with all the Sunny In Philadelphia guys, who I have huge admiration for, so I was really, really stoked. And I’ve gotta tell you, I had the best time on that pilot. I had an absolute blast. Also, someone I worked with on that was Lennon Parham, who’s now on Best Friends Forever on NBC, and she is just so hilarious. In addition to being just a great cast, I remember that the whole time, it was just so fun. I mean, here you are, you’re in a spaceship, and… it was like The Office in space. It was just great. And I’m playing an android who’s got a silver face, and… I don’t have hardly any hair on top, but I had to shave it back to a point, and then they darkened it. I just looked like a freak. [Laughs.] And then I had this relationship with a microwave… [Laughs.] The whole thing was just so crazy, but it was such a blast. Those guys from Philadelphia are just so much fun to be around.
ER (2008-2009)—“Norman Chapman”
TH: Right! They actually brought Norman back. I think Norman had two episodes. He was this guy who was kind of addicted to the rush of being a hero, and… y’know, here I am on ER, which is such an iconic show in TV history, but I, uh, don’t have the strongest stomach. So I remember lying on the table, and there was a bunch of blood somewhere, and I found myself just, like, “I know that’s makeup, but I… I need to step away. Because I’m getting a little queasy.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Are you comfortable switching up to dramatic roles? What’s your training?
TH: Well, I studied with a fantastic school called The Barrow Group, in New York, which I have huge admiration for, and here [in Los Angeles] with Diana Castle. And you know, whether it’s drama or comedy, the best work is based on truth. It’s just that, with comedy, the circumstances are just crazy-heightened, and you have these crazy things thrown at you. But you still have to do it truthfully, because that’s where the humor comes from. So it’s not that difficult to cross over. As long as I’m staying in truth, then I love it.
United States Of Tara (2009)—“Mr. Orel Gershenoff”
TH: I was really excited, because on United States Of Tara, the director was Craig Gillespie, and one of my favorite movies of all time was Lars And The Real Girl, which he directed, so I’m such a fan of his. But he’d also directed me in a Citibank commercial years before. So that was really, really fun to be on that set and to work with him again. And I’m a big Toni Collette fan. So that was a really great experience for me all around.
AVC: You’ve been working perpetually since the end of Arrested Development. How are you enjoying the life of a journeyman actor?
TH: Look, if I ever stop being grateful for gigs, I just need to stop. Because this business is… you know, it’s just so kind of job-to-job, and the fact that I’ve continued working… I’m just incredibly thankful for it. And I never, ever take it for granted.