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: Toby Huss has had a bit of a strange run in Hollywood, and that seems to be how he likes it. Going from playing Lower East Side bars in the early ’90s to starring as one kid’s personal superhero on a Nickelodeon show will do that to you, maybe. He’s popped up in everything from Carnivàle to The Spoils Of Babylon, and has voiced beloved and crotchety animated characters on shows like King Of The Hill, Beavis And Butt-Head, and Adventure Time. Recently, he’s been lighting up the small screen as John Bosworth on AMC’s excellent and criminally unwatched Halt And Catch Fire, which ended its second season last night.
The A.V. Club: How do you see Bosworth in the big scheme of things on Halt And Catch Fire? He’s not one of the show’s four core characters, but he’s important.
Toby Huss: I think it he sort of exists in two different places. The show, to me, is almost two different shows. There’s the first season, which almost stands alone from the second season, because it’s so different. I think Bosworth, in the first season, was just this tool to set the tone of that established Texas American capitalist patriarchy that they had to enter into and get caught up in. And he was, but I think they kind of liked my character, so they decided to keep me around.
AVC: You were in jail, but you got out.
TH: They had to do something. They had to throw his lame ass in jail. That has to happen when there’s a coup d’état like that. So Bosworth had to go, but they brought me back in a really nice character arc, being this paternal figure for Cameron. I think he went from representing this bigger, broader, capitalist patriarchy to becoming a really warm, human, paternal presence to Cameron. Both iterations of Bosworth are pretty great, but I like the second better.
AVC: In the second season, viewers are also introduced to his actual son, so you get to see the differences in his relationships there.
TH: In a way, there’s less baggage and there’s less pain and there’s less guilt and shame about how he’s treated Cameron. There is none. He has baggage and he has shame about how he neglected his own family and his own son, who needed him and he wasn’t there. So in a way, it’s a bit of a cheat to care about Cameron like he does, but it’s not—because it did open the door in himself to be able to care for his son and to try to bring him back into his life and heal some of the mistakes he made raising his own kid.
AVC: It’s also slightly comical to watch him be this old guy at Mutiny. Well, not an old guy, but…
TH: How dare you! How dare you. [Laughs.]
AVC: Compared to the rest of the staff, it’s slightly comical.
TH: Yeah. And they won’t let me do a spit take either. They won’t let me fall over the computer and go, “Why you… internet.” Nothing. They won’t let me shake my fist at the computer, at the internet. None of that stuff.
I think Bosworth had to really open himself to the smartness of these kids and the brilliance of what they were doing. And if he did that, he couldn’t then go back and find them anything less. Once you open yourself up to that, you lose that comic world of him going, “Why, what do you call those? You call those shoes? Back in my day we had real boots. We wore boots, I tells ya.” I didn’t want to portray Bosworth like that, because there’s nothing curmudgeon-y about him. If anything, he’s done this weirdly heroic thing that guys my age don’t often do and that’s kind of reinvent themselves and really embrace what’s happening with current social stuff and people in current society and lots of people in technology and thinking and all manner of sticky humanity.
AVC: Critics are loving the new season of Halt And Catch Fire, but no one knows if you’re getting a third season. Do you?
TH: No, we don’t know actually. It’s pretty awful. The ratings have been really lousy this year, which is tragic because we all really like the show and we all really believe in it. And we have some staunch supporters that we appreciate, but I don’t know. There’s not many people watching this thing, which is a drag. It’s sad, because it’s a good thing.
To answer your other question, they haven’t let me be the jokey comedy relief, but I think they’ve been more aware of it this year. Last year was a pretty humorless year, and this year I think they’ve been letting me have a little fun and some other characters have some fun and there’s actual substance. There are a couple laughs in there. For my taste, it’s still not as funny as I want it to be. If there’s a third season, I’m going to really work on them then.
AVC: Speaking of funny stuff, your Facebook page says that you’re in the new Ghostbusters. Is that true? And you play a cop?
TH: Yeah. That was good stuff. That was all Paul Feig calling up, saying “Hey, would you mind coming in for a day?” “Sure thing.” So, that was great. And I think we’re going back. I have one more day at the end of August.
Those are the funniest—it’s funny, because they’re not even the funniest ladies in the movies that I’ve met. They’re the funniest humans making movies right now, those girls. They’re great. And they’re really smart and they’re all very silly and they’re very different in their silliness. They’re just fun, man.
AVC: What’s your role in the movie? What kind of cop are you?
TH: I’m a cop who doesn’t like these ladies’ explanations about ghosts. Why I can’t believe they’re giving me the runaround again, these girls. There’ll be a couple laughs in it.
AVC: Where did the character of Artie, The Strongest Man In The World come from?
TH: That was a character I wrote when I was at the University Of Iowa. I performed it there for the first time. It was the guy that existed in a mental institution who had a caretaker who used to keep him at bay with a big pushbroom. And this guy would just pull up his long underwear and he’d call himself the strongest man in the world and play the piano. Then he’d freak out again and call himself the strongest man in the world and they’d have to hose him down and stick him back in his room.
AVC: It sounds like a real kid-friendly character.
TH: It was pretty dark initially, but Will [McRobb] saw it and said, “Hey. Come do it on a little Nickelodeon show.”
AVC: It’s still a very weird character for a kid’s show, to put some guy there wearing adult long-johns.
TH: It’s a pretty weird little character, but Will and Chris [Viscardi] wrote that in such a way that there was room for this sort of character in the environment they created. It’s a real testament to their writing more than how good my character was that the rest of the show didn’t seem wacky and weird or stilted or odd. It was a good, honest, heartfelt show, but they wrote it in such a way that they made room for some real weirdness that didn’t seem out of place or forced.
AVC: The way your Artie left the show in the “Farewell, My Little Viking” episodes is a good example of that. That was heart-wrenching.
TH: Yeah, it was a weird thing. I mean, Artie is just a weird element to have in the show and then to keep up the conceit of that and make it a real thing and make it not a real thing and they were able sort of walk a line… Does he exist only in Pete’s imagination, or was he really there? I don’t know, it’s pretty magical stuff to be able to keep that weirdo illusion up and to make it believable.
AVC: Did Artie leave Wellsville because you wanted to leave the show? That’s the story, right?
TH: Yeah. I was thinking about that the other day. Maybe that was a bad decision. It was pretty fun to do. But at the time, what could I do? I needed to go.
AVC: Were you moving to L.A., or did you just want off?
TH: No, it was really fun, but I wanted to do stuff besides a kid’s show where I wore pajamas and danced around. It was really fun, but I thought I needed to do other stuff. I probably didn’t.
AVC: Well, you’re probably working with a degree of hindsight there. You didn’t know then that the show would be so beloved now.
TH: No, we didn’t know it was going to be at the time. We knew we all liked it. We thought it was sweet. Maybe if I was in another a season, it would have ruined it, you never know. It could have been an awful show. It all worked out perfectly, how I got the role, how the character came about, how the show played out. Just great. It was all wonderful. Still is.
AVC: You’ve also done voices on Sanjay And Craig, which is another show that Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi are involved in. How did that come about? Did they ask you to do it?
TH: Of course. They just said, “Hey, let’s get Toby to come and do stupid stuff.” So I just came in and did things. It was like old friends, and it was nice to still have that connection. We go out to eat now and then and hang out. Good to see the guys. They’re really good fellows. They’re smart writers, too, and it’s always a pleasure to work with people who are smart, and the rest of the guys on Sanjay And Craig are really smart folk and they make some funny stuff.
AVC: You were in 150 episodes of the 250-some King Of The Hills shot. How did you differentiate your characters in your mind, other than the fact that they were very different?
TH: Right. Kahn was the Asian guy, remember?
AVC: Yeah, I got that part.
TH: Okay. [Laughs.]
You know, both of them yelled a lot, I think. So, one was a yell-y old man and the other guy was a yell-y Asian guy.
AVC: Have you always done voices?
TH: Yeah, I’d always goof on voices and try to impersonate teachers and friends. That was just sort of the thing. Then I think you sort of develop your ear for that.
AVC: Did you like doing Cotton or Kahn more?
TH: Well, they both have their strengths, don’t they?
Cotton is really fun because he’s a righteous guy. He was a very limited man, but he was a really heartfelt dude, too. And we liked him. And then Kahn was fun because he was such an asshole. He could be. He had some sweetness to him too, but he was a real problematical asshole most of the time. [Laughs.] It’s fun to do that guy.
AVC: Cotton gets to say stuff that only old men get to say.
TH: That was nice to have that leverage, and I think they were really smart about it. He would get awful and he’d say awful things, but, again, this goes back to how the writing was so strong on that show and even though they were crazy characters, I don’t think Cotton ever got awful or ever got maudlin. They found a way to make him kind of a believable fellow. And the same thing with Kahn. Even though he was awful at times, he was a believable strange little man there in this weird Texas world.
AVC: This isn’t a role you’ve done, necessarily, but you were a writer on 63 episodes of The Martin Short Show. What did you learn from doing that?
TH: I learned at The Martin Short Show that when they fire you, and they offer you the 50-cent-on-the-dollar buyout of your contract, don’t take it. Stay there and wait for the dollar-on-the-dollar. It’ll happen.
AVC: Did you get fired before everybody else?
TH: No, me and Kevin McDonald got fired on the same day and, wisely or not, McDonald took the 50-cent-on-the-dollar buyout. I chose to stay. And then they paid me what they owed me later, which was nice.
AVC: Who else was writing on that show?
TH: Maria Bamford was on it, and Jerry Minor and John Matta. Really great, smart folk. Really great.
AVC: Sometimes you can have all these amazing people working on something and it just doesn’t get there.
TH: What are you going to do? I mean, I did a TV show called The Army Show back in the late ’90s. Maryanne Melloan Woods and Brian Posehn were on that. And that didn’t go. Ivana Milicevic was on it, too. Some really good actors on it. It was lowest ranked show on television for awhile. I mean, the bottom. The bottom. It was the last-place show for a couple weeks there in ’98 or something. You never know what they think.
AVC: Carnivàle was another show that people really loved, but that maybe never really got its due.
TH: I think if that show had started a couple of years ago, it would still be on. I think it really would have found its audience and it would have been stuck on Netflix and people would have discovered it and the show would go for five or six years if it started a couple years ago. The climate is so different. Not that thematically it was ahead of its time or anything, but I think the ways in which people consume television are so different now then when it was on HBO. If people didn’t watch it for a couple years, it would go away.
AVC: That’s sort of what’s happening with Halt And Catch Fire right now.
TH: In some dangerous goddamn territory right now, isn’t it? We don’t want it to go the way of Carnivàle. But it seems to be heading that way, too. Carnivàle had a bunch of critical praise, but for whatever reason it never caught on. I think they stuck with Deadwood, which had a lot of critical praise, too. But that one caught on and ours didn’t. And it wasn’t a better show or a worse show, it was just a show that people watched more. And for some reason, there doesn’t seem to be many people watching Halt And Catch Fire and it’s a mystery.
AVC: Maybe Deadwood was outwardly dirtier than Carnivàle? Carnivàle was pretty dirty, but people were more into hookers and the Old West.
TH: Who knows? I don’t know what rubric you can use to figure this stuff out.
We don’t have any zombies in Halt And Catch Fire. I’ve been pushing for zombies for two years and they shut me down. Come on, fuckers, it’s AMC. They love their zombies.
A zombie programmer would be pretty great. An ’80s zombie programmer who eats Cameron. That would be nice, right?
AVC: That sounds like a video you should make for Funny Or Die in an attempt to save Halt.
TH: “Now a very special Halt And Catch Fire. Cameron’s face gets eaten by zombies. Tonight at 9!”
AVC: Not Cameron’s pretty face!
TH: Oooh, sure. The most delicious face in the cast.
AVC: You also played Jack, “The Wiz,” on Seinfeld. How did you get cast? Was that just an audition?
TH: Yeah, it was an audition. I just went in and I did a funny dance that I do when I walk away.
Jake Johannsen, who I know, is a comedian and he was auditioning for it too. A bunch of other guys were, too, and I got the role. It was the last season they were doing it and I saw Jake a few months later after we shot it and I said, “Hey, how’s it going, Jake?” We talked about stuff and without prompting he said, “Yeah, I didn’t get that Seinfeld role,” and before I could go, “Oh, actually…” he went, “Yeah, I don’t know. Some guy always comes in and does this stupid fucking dance and then they get it and I don’t get it.” And I go, “Yeah, that was me.” Hilarious.
AVC: He can’t fault you, though. You were all just trying to work.
TH: No, no, no, he wasn’t sore about it at all. It was just ironic that he was lamenting the fact that some dummy comes in and does a big dumb dance and they don’t cast Jake and I went, “Yeah, I’m the dummy doing the big dumb dance this time.”
AVC: When you go and audition, do you see the same guys over and over?
TH: It’s different because I do both comedy and drama stuff, so there are different crews of guys that I see. But I don’t go to a lot of auditions where I keep seeing the same guys. I think if you’re in the sitcom world and you go in for the two scene guy, you see the same guys. But I don’t go in for any of those roles. They usually ask me to come do something and then I say yeah, and I’ll go do it.
AVC: That’s a good spot to be in.
TH: Yeah, it’s okay.
Vegas Vacation (1997)—“Fake I.D. Salesman”
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2012)—“Frank Sinatra/Jeff Levitt”
Various MTV shorts (1996)—“Frank Sinatra Impersonator”
AVC: You’ve played a Frank Sinatra impersonator in a number of projects, including Vegas Vacation, CSI, and in old MTV shorts. How did that come about? Have you always done a Sinatra impersonation?
TH: It came a little later in my 20s and the MTV stuff was the first time I ever really did it. I was performing it on the Lower East Side. And now I do it as a character, this guy Rudy Casoni and I’m shopping it around as a half-hour single-camera show. I’m pitching that around now.
AVC: What’s that show like?
TH: It’s a comedy about a pathetic lounge singer making a comeback with one last stab at the big time and how he must leverage and compromise himself to get to this place.
AVC: How did the MTV shorts come about? Did they see you performing on the Lower East Side?
TH: No. It was one of the directors, Adam Bernstein, who directed Pete And Pete. He’s a really good director. I think MTV hired him initially to do some promos for them and then he directed me in Pete And Pete and said, “Hey, do you want to come and do some promos with me,” and I said yeah. So I did a bunch of promos with Adam. And the second set of promos, I made a deal with MTV to do the ones that I wanted to do and this guy Phil Morrison, another pretty brilliant director, did the second set.
AVC: MTV had such bizarre promos at the time. They had the ones you did and they had the cab driver ones with Donal Logue…
TH: They had a bunch of stuff. But it was a different time. That’s when MTV was the center of the universe. Mid-’90s, there was no internet. Any sort of young cultural movement just had to go through MTV at some point.
AVC: Is there one role you’re recognized more for than others? Do people shout you out on the streets?
TH: Usually it’s somebody asking me if I know Jennifer and those guys. Or Steve and Greg and those guys over there. Some guy asked me if I went to Cal Tech. “Did you go to Cal Tech?” No. Uh-huh. They recognize me from somewhere, but they don’t know where.
AVC: And you’re not going to say, “Actually…”
TH: Yeah, I’m not going to run down my fucking resume. “Do I know you from somewhere?” “Yeah, probably,” and you walk away.
I got recognized one time by a Dutch guy in Thailand for the Seinfeld episode that I did. That was pretty impressive. He was dressed as a lady.
AVC: That’s one of those global citizen moments.
TH: Maybe he was Belgian. I think he was Dutch, though. He was a big guy, wearing a coconut bra and he had shorts on and he had pubic hair coming out of the top of his shorts with this weave that he found. And he had lipstick and he had rouge and he had a wig on. He started pointing at me across this bar in Thailand saying, “You are the king, man, you are the king.” I went, “What the fuck?” And he walked over to me and said, “You are the king?” And I said, “The Wiz?” And he said “Yeah! The Wiz.”
He was at his bachelor party and where he’s from, it’s commonplace to dress the groom up on his bachelor party as a woman and parade him around and get him drunk and humiliate him, which they did, and it was pretty good.
AVC: How did you get on Reno 911?
TH: Tom [Lennon] and [Robert] Ben [Garant] sent me that thing. I know them from back in the MTV days and then they started Reno and called me up and they just said, “Hey, we’re thinking about a character.” Well, they called me up initially and they wanted me to come up with a character and I said okay. So I in my head, I came up with that guy that you see, crystal-meth-smoking, white-trash dude with a white tank top. And that’s exactly the same kind of character they were thinking of. So we got on the phone and I said, “Here’s what I’m thinking of,” and they said that’s what we were thinking of too. Great.
By the end of it, they didn’t ask me for any outline of the scene. They just told me to call the prop department and tell them what I wanted. Then they’d seen me there they day of and we started shooting, which is how they did it. It’s a really brilliant and trusting way for those guys to operate. It was pretty great to have that much freedom to work.
AVC: Did things work differently for the Reno 911! movie since they had a bigger budget?
TH: No, it was one of those rare things in show business that was just a perfect thing.
They said, “Look, we want you to play the desk clerk at a hotel. Call up wardrobe, tell them what you need and we’ll see you in two weeks in Miami.” And I went, “Okay!” So I called up wardrobe and I said, “I want lime green pants and a polyester shirt and a gentleman’s toupee and some shoes,” and they said, “Great.” And then Tom and Ben and the crew, the guys didn’t want to see me before the scene. I showed up at 10 all dressed up and sat there at the hotel in the lobby area. And I didn’t say hi to them when they showed up when they were hanging out. And then that was it. They showed up and we did the scene and it was pretty fantastic.
AVC: You’ve done small projects and you’ve done blockbuster size productions, like Cowboys & Aliens. How do the sets compare, or the expectations for the project?
TH: You know, it’s sometimes it’s different because it’s huge, but Cowboys & Aliens was Jon Favreau. It’s just him. He’s just hanging out with Harrison Ford and you say hey and you do your scene. And the same thing with 42. Brian Helgeland was like that. So it’s the people who are running the thing. If they want to make it a big giant money infused crazy shit fest, then it will be. But if they want to make it a small intimate thing where creative folk get together and work, then they do.
AVC: Your IMDB page says that you played Mr. Ernst on Hey Dude for two episodes. Is that true?
TH: I can’t confirm or deny this rumor. [Laughs.] You know, I could have played Mr. Ernst but I sure don’t remember it.
AVC: Was it before they cast the other guy?
TH: I don’t know. I was pretty fucked up back in the ’90s, so who knows.
AVC: You don’t remember spending any time on a fake ranch?
TH: Who knows? Who knows how these things all work out, huh?
AVC: Also via your IMDB page, it looks like you have a few forthcoming projects. One is called In A Valley Of Violence, and that’s billed as a revenge Western, and then there’s Equals, which is billed as a futuristic love story. What’s going on with those?
TH: In The Valley Of Violence is a great little picture, a great little Western by this guy Ti West, who’s a really smart, good director. He’s wonderful. And then Equals is some Kristen Stewart movie that I got fired off in Japan. Yeah. They saw some reason to fire my ass off that one.
AVC: Has that happened any other time?
TH: It hasn’t happened to me before, but there’s always a first. I’m still not sure what I did. Obviously something.
AVC: Well, then we’ll look forward to seeing you In A Valley Of Violence and not Equals.
TH: Yeah, that’s supposed to come out around Christmas, I hear.