In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people the same 11 interesting questions.
Since the beginning of our 11 Questions feature, we’ve endeavored to ask some of the biggest and most beloved names in entertainment some of the biggest and/or most banal questions in journalism. Is there life after death? And if they could create a candle, what would it smell like? But while we’ve pitched these types of questions to everyone from Steve Guttenberg to Werner Herzog, it’s almost always a one-on-one affair.
That’s not the case this time around, and for good reason: Tony Hale and Kristen Schaal are good friends, comedy legends, and co-stars of the new Disney+ whodunit The Mysterious Benedict Society. On the kid-centric adaptation, Hale plays two characters—the narcoleptic Mr. Benedict and the mentally pervasive Mr. Curtain—while Schaal portrays Benedict’s right-hand, the intense and badass Number Two. It’s not the first time the two have appeared in a project together—they both voiced characters in the charming Toy Story 4—though it’s probably the first time they’ve acted together in the same room.
Though the pair weren’t able to be in the same room for this interview, either, it was clear from talking to Schaal and Hale that are both deeply nice people who care deeply for others and, as it turned out, cared deeply about the answers to our silly questions as well.
Tony Hale: I do have an issue that I don’t remember sixth grade down. It’s kind of a blur. So, I don’t know if we want to get into childhood trauma or how deep we’re going, but I genuinely don’t have an answer to this.
Kristen Schaal: I have one!
My family is visiting, and they’re leaving in a couple of hours. They were here for five days—my mom, dad, brother, and nephew—and it was so great. It’s the first time I haven’t been like, “No, go!” But my brother reminded me of how my uncle lived in a suburb of Chicago called Downers Grove, and a couple of times he had my brother and myself out to see him and spend a few days with him. It was such an adventure to be on an airplane and to be away from my mom and dad. We just thought it was Chicago, even though we never went into the city.
[My uncle] is and was a super cool artist, and I remember in junior high, I went by myself. It was at a time when I was getting picked on pretty bad, and I got to go to Downers Grove, Illinois, and it was a different world. I could be in a different environment with people who had no idea I was getting picked on.
I remember I bought an outfit with my Aunt Karen at Marshall Field’s, and it was like gold tights and floral shorts. It was very scary and I loved every bit of it. And then, of course, I wore it to school and everyone made fun of me. But I remember being on the plane and crying, because it just meant so much to me to have that trip away.
The A.V. Club: That’s really sweet. There’s that feeling of thinking, “If I just leave this town, then everyone will think I’m the coolest person that has ever lived. I know it. People at my grandma’s house don’t know my backstory.”
KS: Totally. It’s also that we didn’t really travel a ton as a family, like our vacations were camping in the mountains because I lived in Colorado. So it was really nice to also be in a place that reminded you that the world is bigger than your junior high. It’s like, “Don’t worry, girl. There are other worlds out there.”
2. What’s something that’s considered a basic part of your current career that you struggled to learn?
TH: There’s a couple of things. Not to be a downer, and I think after doing it for 25 years I’ve gotten a lot more used to it, but in school you don’t really learn how much rejection there is and how it is very much a part of the career it is. There’s only one person for the role and there are hundreds or thousands of people who are auditioning for it. It is an obvious part of the career that you have to kind of adjust to. It’s such a part of the business that you gain… I don’t know if thick-skinned is the right way of putting it, but you very much accept that part of the business. When I was younger, starting off, it was a real adjustment trying not to take it personally and trying to see the bigger picture involved beyond the rejection and all that kind of stuff.
The second thing would be, especially in TV and film—I love TV and film, but it’s very disjointed. You get used to shooting the last thing first and then another part of the show the next day. You have to remember where you are in the story, whereas in theater you go from beginning to end on stage.
KS: Those are really good answers.
TH: Kristen, thank you. Thank you.
Kristen and I like to affirm each other. You see, there’s so much rejection that we like to affirm each other whenever we can.
KS: Can I add something too? Something that I only realized after I got out of college was that not only is it like an ocean of rejection, it’s also just that the journey is uncertainty. You don’t know. People I know were trying to organize preschool this fall and caretaking and “should we share,” and I was just like, “Oh guys…” [Shakes head.] You don’t know what your year’s going to be or when your next job is. It’s one of the hardest things for me to learn to roll with it, and it’s something that’s hard to explain to people, like, “You can have this job and you might be successful, but you can have a dry spell of unemployment, but then you get a call and three days later, you’ve got to be in Atlanta. You just don’t know. You can have a whole year ahead of you that you just can’t plan, and that is fun, but you have to get used to it being nerve-wracking as well.
TH: It’s tricky. There’s a lot of time explaining that to family. My family has obviously been on this journey with me for a long time, but each time they plan something—I don’t know if you have to do this, Kristen—but it’s always like, “Yeah, we would love to do that. I just have no idea what it’s going to look like in six months.”
KS: Right! And some years it’s going to look great because you’re just not going to work.
TH: Exactly. “I’m wide open during that time.”
AVC: There must be something appealing then about doing a sitcom or something where you know where you’ll be for the next three or nine months. You might not know the hours and you might not know if you have to work on Sunday, but you kind of know what’s going to happen for that amount of time.
TH: I don’t know if you feel this way, Kristen, but it really is like this relief or luxury feeling when you do have an idea of what the next three or four months looks like. You appreciate it so much more. You don’t get used to it. It’s like, “Wow, I’m so used to not knowing.” It’s nice to have that timeline a little bit.
KS: Yes. There’s a piece of my brain that I can physically feel relaxing. The hustle part of me just takes a nap. And you’re right. You can enjoy it so much more.
AVC: I know that you’re a mom like me, Kristen, so I know your answer here might not be as wide-ranging as those without kids and with a little more free time.
KS: Yeah, I learned how to do a bedtime routine [for my daughter]. If you could see where I’m sitting there are three sort of self-help books about toddlers called stuff like The Happy Sleeper. I just tried to figure out, “How do I get her to sleep and do a bedtime routine that’s fun for me too?”, because I’m so tired at the end of the day. We were just running into some issues, but I finally kind of cracked it. I want to knock on wood, though, because last night she was walking around with a Gatorade in the middle of the night. It was like, “Where did you get that? How long have you been walking around?” But I feel very proud of myself because it did take a lot of work, and at least for the next couple weeks before she changes again, I figured that out.
TH: We were in Vancouver for about five months shooting, and we got back in January, but right before we left this wonderful woman who worked on the show named Shauna gave us each a rope bowl that she made. And I kind of became obsessed with it and fascinated, and so I went on a YouTube hunt about how to make them, and I bought a sewing machine and a leather embosser. I can’t stop making them, like I’m making all these rope bowls and I give them to friends even if they don’t want them. Kristen’s going to be getting one next, and she’s going to have to like it. I just love it. I can’t stop.
AVC: It’ll be your thing, like Seth Rogen and pottery. You can talk about it on the late shows.
KS: Yeah, you should bring one when you’re a guest. It’ll go over like gangbusters.
TH: That’s a good idea. Those talk shows can be stressful.
TH: I always go to the Great American Cookie Company when I’m on the East Coast. They don’t have them on the West Coast. When I grew up, nobody really got birthday cakes, but they got these big cookie cakes, and there’s just something nostalgic about it. They do a double doozy where you get two cookies, and there’s icing in the middle. It’s in every mall in the south, and I just love it.
KS: Mine is classier but not as endearing. I love Keens Steakhouse in New York City. It’s on 36th or something. It’s one of the oldest restaurants in the United States, and it’s got all these great pipes on the ceiling that, like, Ulysses S. Grant smoked when he would ride into town. It’s like when you walk through those doors, you’re walking back in time. We used to go there a lot. We went there so much that my husband Rich [Blomquist] and I signed a clay pipe and put it on the wall.
KS: I would love to fix climate change with technology. I think we’re already doing it a little bit, like we’re getting closer with the electric car and we’ve get solar panels, but obviously there can be and will be more. Every time I hear about something that’s helping the environment that’s good technology, it gets me rock hard.
TH: [Laughs for a long time.] Oh, that makes me laugh.
Mine’s not as compassionate. Well, maybe it is. This sounds cheesy, but I’m serious. You know those phones that are not smart phones, but they simplify your life? I don’t know how to say this, but I would like technology that takes away more of the attachment we have to technology. It would make us look outside ourselves, look around and not be so glued to technology.
I know they have non-smartphones or I think they even call them dumb phones, but they’re like just the basics. I’d like more of that.
KS: Do you have one of those, Tony? I’d like a dumb phone. Who’s making those?
TH: Well, it’s something like… there’s a name for them, but it’s just the basics on it, like calling or texting and not all the accoutrements that a smartphone has. It’s just the basics.
I know how reliant I have become on all that stuff, and I’d like more and more to get away from that. I can barely go to the pharmacy now without turning on Google Maps.
KS: I get mad every time I’m walking around the house with my phone in my hand, but as soon as I put it down, I’m like “Where’s my phone? I need to check something.”
I think, Tony, that you should be the face of dumb phones. You could definitely pull off that campaign.
TH: First of all, with this face, yes.
KS: I would love to get it with you. I would love to the face of dumb phones. Put this in the article! Tony and I would like to be the spokespeople for dumb phones.
TH: We’ve made a career out of giving blank, dead stares and looking like idiots in the camera, so please, bring it.
TH: Well, aside from K. Schaal, I would say Henry Winkler. I first met Henry on Arrested Development, and I grew up with Happy Days, so he’s obviously an icon. In all honesty, that was my first big job and I thought he broke the mold of how you can have that kind of a career and still be kind and gracious and giving and normal. To this day he’s been a real example of that for me.
KS: Everybody has been how I expected them to be, I think. Time and time again, everyone that I’ve met has been really nice. I haven’t really met any bad eggs. There have been a couple of people that are nice to me but not nice to the crew, and then I write them off immediately because that’s their true selves.
I think everyone’s met my expectations of being professional and kind and mostly I would say a little bit awkward. I find that everyone that I admire has a social awkwardness at their core, which is so great.
KS: There have been a couple, but I think one of the one that I struggled with the most was when I was a character at FAO Schwarz in New York. They had created this character to sell candy, and she was called Miss Peppermint Twist. It was a nightmare. I didn’t know how to do it. I had to stand in the candy shop and convince kids to get more candy. I was wearing a pink wig. I just remember that I didn’t really love her backstory or she didn’t have one, so I created one about how she fell in a vat of cotton candy and got disfigured and had to live and work in FAO Schwartz. The kids loved it.
I just couldn’t figure out how to be on as this character for like five hours. I remember I started drinking on the subway to get myself into gear, which I never do. I enjoy drinking, but I’ll never do it on the job. I was just so miserable.
AVC: How long did you end up working there?
KS: Probably for less than a year. I’m pretty sure they let me go. They realized the character actor program wasn’t really working for them. They had a lot. They had a toy soldier, they tried to do a bunch of [them], and they were also about to file for bankruptcy. So I don’t want to say it was my performance, but I definitely got let go.
Getting fired from a job or getting broken up with or dumped is the best thing that could happen for me because I’ll never quit anything.
TH: That is crazy, because I remember that job existing in New York, but for me it was always a little bit like I never could get to the point where they would hire me. Remember how they would hire actors to demonstrate toys at the big toy fair?
KS: Those were coveted. My friend got one of those jobs.
TH: Coveted! And I never could get that gig.
KS: And it paid really well, too.
TH: It paid really well!
Anyway, it’s a toss-up between when I had to pass out fliers at Bryant Park for this event, and people would just… it was like they wanted me dead. They would just give me this stare like, “I’m going to kill you with my eyes if you hand me that flyer.” It’s either that or after college when I started working as a waiter at a restaurant and, god, people would be so rude about food. If the cheese toast wasn’t on their salad, like if I forgot about that, it was like I killed their firstborn. I started feeling like, “People are just so angry in this world” that I left there and went to cater waitering, which I enjoyed a lot more. You didn’t have to be with the people. You could just pass out the food and then you got paid a flat rate. Did you ever do that in New York, Kristen?
KS: I did. I cater waitered, which was really fun. My tuxedo would always be covered in food and I would wipe it down a little bit with a washcloth and go to the next job. It was disgusting.
I also waited tables at Planet Hollywood and Blue Fin. It’s actually funny, because having my family [in town], I was taking their orders for ramen, and it was like, “Oh, yeah, I remember this feeling.” The thing I always liked about it was that it does teach you, working in hospitality, to be aware of your fellow humanity in a way you never have to. That was a good quality for me to learn.
But, yeah, I did not make enough money ever. It was a hard life. I could never stop working. Not only that, but if anyone ever ordered a bottle of champagne at the table, I was fucked. I would run into the back like, “Does anyone here know how to open champagne?”
TH: The first one that really comes in my head is the family from Eight Is Enough. I grew up with that show and I just remember thinking, “Wow.” I mean, obviously, it was a TV show, so it’s not really that, but I remember thinking “What a fun time! Every day in the house is a party, and something’s always going on.” I distinctly remember thinking, “Let’s hop in that one.”
KS: I don’t mean to do a plug, but I always wish that I was in the Belcher family for real on Bob’s Burgers. I love the relationship between them. I mean, obviously it’s fake, but sometimes I do get jealous. They just love each other so much. I suppose I wish that was my family. And I guess it is, but it’s not. It’s not real.
9. What’s the first piece of art or earliest piece of media that inspired you to go into your field?
TH: For me, immediately I think of The Carol Burnett Show. I remember watching Tim Conway on The Carol Burnett Show, and there is a certain sketch where he was the dentist and Harvey Korman was the patient and he was accidentally numbing himself instead of Harvey Korman. It was so effortless and his whole body would just go limp. He never winked at the audience, he never forced it, and it was just the funniest thing. All the characters he played... even on Mama’s Family, I would watch that and think “Ooh, I like that. I like what that guy’s doing.”
KS: I can’t really think of a specific thing. I worked at a video store in high school and because I never had cable growing up, I hadn’t really gotten stand up specials. But [at the store] we had all these VHS tapes [of specials] and I watched every one of them.
I remember watching Roseanne Barr and thinking, “She does stand up too?”, so I watched her special. Anything with a woman in it. Now it’s different, but then, there wasn’t a lot.
TH: I would have to say my wife.
KS: And I have to say my husband.
TH: My wife makes me laugh so hard. Sometimes she does the same joke, and we’ve been married 18 years and it still makes me laugh. If we’re walking somewhere and I see a mountain side or something, I’ll go “Oh, my God, that’s beautiful,” and she’ll always respond by saying, “thank you,” as if I’m saying she’s beautiful. It makes me laugh every time. It’s a great gag, and it never fails.
AVC: Kristen, does your husband have a running gag?
KS: We have so many things, but I don’t have something right now that I think... I get so mad, because we’re going to get off this call and I’m going to go downstairs and Rich is going to do something really funny and I’ll be like “There it is!”
TH: He is very funny. I got a chance to hang out with him and Kristen a lot in Vancouver, and he makes me laugh very hard. He’s also the sweetest man.
KS: You know what? Let’s not say what you would actually eat. Let’s do the essence of me. And I would say that would be sauerkraut, a warm chocolate chip cookie. Sweet and sour, between pretty nice buns.