Alan Tudyk is giving a bravura performance for an audience of one, recounting the typical exchange that occurs when he's recognized on the street.
"Man, weren't you in 28 Days? What happened, what have you done since?"
"Did you see A Knight's Tale?"
"Who were you in that?"
"Oh, dude! I can't believe that! What else, what else?"
"I don't know, did you see Dodgeball?"
"I love that movie! Who were you?"
"The, uh, pirate."
"Dude! No way!"
The uninitiated can be forgiven for not distinguishing Tudyk right away. After all, in less than a decade of making movies, the actor has amassed a rather eclectic résumé, including a 14th century squire, a carnival con man, a space cowboy, a coke-addicted German stripper, a mental patient, a robot, and, yes, a man who thinks he's a pirate. "I guess people don't pick up on me because I change a lot in roles," he says with an unassuming shrug. "A lot of people recognize me from [the short-lived cult TV series] Firefly because it's the one I don't have an accent in; it's my own voice. Also, those fans are very...enthusiastic is the word I would use." The actor can expect his profile to be raised considerably in the coming months. First, there's his role in Into the West, the Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries that debuts on TNT June 10. That will be followed by the fall release of Serenity, the big-screen adaptation of Firefly, in which the actor will reprise his role as wisecracking space pilot Wash.
It's strange to think that Tudyk wouldn't be instantly spotted from role to role, for a couple of reasons. His look is definitely distinctive: With his sleepy eyes and shock of reddish-blonde hair, he tends to stand out from the crowd. And his characters are unforgettable, often walking away with the best lines in the film -- even if it's only a simple "Garrr...." Credit should also be paid to his agent, Bonnie Bernstein from the red-hot Endeavor Agency in N.Y. and manager Geordie Frey at the L.A.-based GEF Entertainment. Still, it's a testament to Tudyk's chameleonic skills that he is so absorbed by his roles, a trait he shares in common with greats such as Paul Giamatti and Sam Rockwell, two of his favorite actors. It's a niche he's more than happy to fill. "I'm definitely not looking for a leading-man role," he says. "Sam Rockwell is a character actor, but he can play a lead, like in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; he was a lead man with a character role. I'll do something like that one day, whatever's right for me. The idea is to hone your skill and one day, those scripts that are out there will find me. It's all about the script and being right for it." He also knows it can take time for the right role to come along; and even then, he might have to fight for it. "At this point, I'm competing with these guys [such as Rockwell and Giamatti] for projects, and that's tough competition," he notes. "So there's a lot of stuff that needs to happen: Sam needs to be busy -- luckily, he is a lot -- Paul Giamatti has to say no.... Thank God Philip Seymour Hoffman seems to be doing theatre a lot more."
In a time when it seems every actor wants to be taken seriously and every supporting player wants to be a star, it's refreshing to hear Tudyk exalt the joys of his profession. "I'm so fortunate I'm a character actor and that I can do many things, and I think it will help me stay employed in life," he says. "There are a lot of different roles I can play, a lot of different projects I can fill in for here and there. And the older you get, the weirder you look, and you'll still stay employed. [If] I put on 50 pounds? Fine! Lose my hair? No problem!"
Tudyk is also living proof that the offbeat roles frequently outshine the leading men. Take his work in 28 Days, the feel-good rehab comedy starring Sandra Bullock. In his breakthrough film role, he played Gerhardt, a fellow inmate in the clinic with a fey German accent and a curious obsession with his "package." The film originally ended with Bullock reunited with love interest Viggo Mortensen in a ballpark, until test audiences demanded to know what happened to Gerhardt. "It was very cool," he admits. "We shot it in a few hours, and there wasn't really a script for it. I was doing a play on Broadway at the time, and I flew out to the Universal lot and we shot it on their New York set." The scene was mostly improvised, and director Betty Thomas even had the actor pick what sort of pet Gerhardt should own. "I instantly said a bulldog, because bulldogs are the funniest dogs in the world," he explains. "I had just stayed with some people who have one, and I was laughing the entire time. It would run up this long staircase and run out of breath, and look back down, but decide it was too far to go. So it would stand in the middle, looking back and forth, trying to figure out which way to go." Thomas suggested Gerhardt own a pet pig, which Tudyk thought was "too much," but they agreed to shoot it both ways. In the end, the bulldog won.
If Tudyk got an ego boost from stealing scenes from Aragorn, he's been on the receiving end of more than his share of script cuts. Take Into the West, the Western saga being aired over the course of six weeks (a "maxi-series," as he puts it). Tudyk stars alongside Matthew Settle and Skeet Ulrich as Nathan Wheeler, the "oldest and least good-looking" of the Wheeler brothers, a family of Virginians in the 19th century American West. "My character was huge when I got the role," says Tudyk. "And then before we started filming, it was very nice of them to call me and say, 'Look, everything that your character was doing? He's not doing anymore. You can turn it down if you want to.'" He stayed on the project, partly because of Spielberg's involvement and also because the Texas-born actor had always longed to appear in a Western. "It's good that they cut it before we shot it, because it would have been worse to put in all that work and have them say they couldn't use it and have me wondering what I did wrong," he says. "Originally my character was supposed to get in a fight with his brother and leave for Texas, and that's where his story really begins. Now, Nathan Wheeler goes to Texas and is never heard from again." Still, he is proud of his association with the show, which also follows the journey of a tribe of Lakota Indians. "The Native Americans aren't regulated to being an enemy or savages. It shows the families and people in a historical backdrop," he notes. "I think, for some people, it's going to be educational. Because the winners write the history book, and to see a story told in more of a factual basis should be interesting."
Tudyk began his acting career at the prestigious arts school Juilliard, a name he draws out and pronounces with a stuffy English accent. "Because I went to Juilliard, I learned to speak in this ridiculous way," he says, noting that, like many Juilliard-trained actors [such as Kevin Kline and Robin Williams], he never graduated. "I, um..." he struggles to locate the right word, "hated it there. While I was very passionate about disliking it while I was there, it's also something I've benefited from so much." In his second year, there was a playwright's training program that involved authors such as Christopher Durang, Marsha Norman, and David Auburn, who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Proof. "David asked me to read from [Proof] to help show some potential producers," says Tudyk. "I ended up getting hired off of helping him to do a thing that ended up going Off-Broadway, the first play I ever did." That "thing" was Bunny, Bunny, a bittersweet comedy by former Saturday Night Live writer Alan Zwiebel about his lengthy friendship with Gilda Radner. Primarily a story between Alan and Gilda (played by Bruno Kirby and Paula Cale), Tudyk was hired to fill in a series of small roles that required him to do an assortment of voices. The role helped get his foot in the door with a voiceover agency and gave him enough of a start to leave Juilliard.
Tudyk's career plan can be summed up simply: "I thought I would go to New York, do theatre, gradually get film auditions, and start to do small roles that led to bigger roles," he explains. "And that's exactly what has happened." He made his Broadway debut under the direction of Jerry Zaks in 1999 in Epic Proportions, an experience that helped convince him to pursue a film career. The play was well-received by most critics, but not Ben Brantley of The New York Times, the only one who mattered. "It's so upsetting, because you workshop a thing, you take it out of town, you find your theatre -- everything is like a victory," recalls Tudyk. "You put a year of your life into it, audiences are rolling in the aisles, and the Times review came out, and the laughter stopped. And you say, 'But this is the exact same show we were doing yesterday where everybody was dying laughing.' That's why I left New York. It was upsetting, because reviewers can close shows. But they can't close movies."
Tudyk began landing roles in films almost immediately, including a small role in Wonder Boys, a performance the actor says he wishes he could redo. "It's one of those movies I see and say, 'God, I'd love to be in that movie!' You were. 'But I'd like to do it again,'" he says. When pressed to answer why, Tudyk will only say, "I was very new, and I was just a little nervous, and I think it shows." He followed that by playing the aforementioned "angry redheaded guy" in the underrated A Knight's Tale, which created another strange experience with a critic. Inspired by The Canterbury Tales and even featuring Geoffrey Chaucer as a character, the movie was an ensemble piece that mixed jousting, action, comedy, and modern music. Columbia Pictures opted to promote the film as a starring vehicle for Heath Ledger, placing his face prominently on posters and even creating a fictitious critic named "David Manning," who was quoted in print ads praising Ledger as a new star. "That was odd," Tudyk says. "It was so shortsighted; did they not think someone would find out? But that was the marketing: They decided to put the movie on his shoulders as opposed to letting the piece just be what it is. The last thing Heath Ledger wanted was his face on the poster without the rest of us."
Luckily, the quirky film found a new life after its theatrical release, in which the anachronisms and Tudyk's hilarious performance as the always-seething squire Wat could be appreciated. "I loved it; we had a blast making it," he says fondly. "From the first time I read the script and saw, '1370, The Middle Ages.... Queen's We Will Rock You begins to play,' I was hooked. There are some people I meet who are, like, 'What the hell was going on with that music? It was so stupid!' There are people who get it and people who don't, and I was definitely in the 'get it' category."
After a brief detour to television for the woefully underrated and quickly cancelled Firefly, Tudyk earned the distinct honor of appearing in two of 2004's biggest summer movies. But the roles couldn't have been more different: a pirate and a robot. However lighthearted Dodgeball and I, Robot may have seemed on the surface, that didn't stop him from treating both parts with surprising seriousness.
The story of landing the role of Steve the Pirate in Dodgeball is almost as funny as the film itself, as Tudyk found himself walking into the audition with a bunch of actors in full costume. "It was very intimidating," he recalls. "We're talking full-on dark eyeliner, earrings.... One guy had a gold tooth. I had a colorful shirt and cowboy boots. I decided that was enough of a suggestion, which is how I was taught to audition -- you suggest something, but nobody wants to see you coming in dressed like that. But everybody was. But I got the role, so I guess I wasn't wrong. It sort of suggests a certain kind of desperation, I think. If you can do the character without all that crazy makeup on, once you put it on, you're in good shape." For research, he even attended an actual pirate convention in Ojai, complete with dancing girls, parrots, and craftsmen selling knives. "I learned so much from the people there," he says, praising the kindness of the attendees. "They were all great. When you're a pirate, you drink a lot of rum, so everybody was really chill."
Once cast, Tudyk also had to resist the temptation to constantly mug and make faces. "Who doesn't want to do that in a big, broad comedy?" he says. "I wanted to ground him in a reality. My reality was that he had worked the Pirates of the Caribbean ride [at Disneyland] and gotten a head injury. One day the swelling went down or something, but he made a conscious choice not to go back because he enjoyed it too much. He has to come to terms eventually with the fact he's not living his life in an honest way. It's a great theme, like the Pirandello play about the guy who thinks he's Henry IV. Everyone around him says, 'You can't go around pretending to be Henry IV.' But he says, 'It's my reality, I'm happy, I'm not hurting anybody, so why not?'" Asked if he ever shared any of this intricate backstory with writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber, Tudyk just laughs. "I may have mentioned it," he notes. "And he probably said, 'Yeah, that's great, Alan. Let's throw some balls at your face.' He seemed far more interested in doing that." As for the deeper question as to why a guy who thinks he's a pirate spends all his time hanging out at a gym, the actor can only say, "Hey, swashbuckling takes a lot of work!"
For the record, Tudyk's already heard just about every pirate joke on the planet at this point and still manages to have a sense of humor about the sublime absurdity of the character. In the original script, Steve the Pirate was set to stumble upon the pirate-themed Las Vegas casino Treasure Island and have a big action sequence in which he took over the stage show, complete with ripping sails and swinging on ropes. The chaos causes him to be arrested, which is why the character misses the climactic dodgeball finals. "That was another script cut where they said, 'You got the job! Here's your new script!' And I was, like, 'What happened?'" Still, he enjoyed "garr-ing" his way through the hit film, and, even without his big action moment, he manages to steal scenes from a cast of scene-stealers.
The same can be said of his work in I, Robot, even though Tudyk never technically appeared onscreen. As the possibly murderous android Sonny, he spent months on a soundstage doing motion-capture work and provided the eerily calm voice for the title character. "The voice played a huge part in the performance, and when you think of the acting, that's what you hear," he notes. "The voice that I used came from just thinking about a robot. Like when I talk, I stop; I stammer. But a robot would have that words are individual things, like a program." It was also a case in which his schooling came in handy. "Because I went to Juilliard, they taught us to speak in this ridiculous way," he says. "When I first went there, people said, 'Don't go there. They take original actors and they make them all the same thing, and they teach you how to walk and talk, and they make you into a robot.' So I just kind of did that voice. Words. That. Every. One. Has. It's. Place. They all exist separately."
As Sonny, Tudyk achieves a poetic performance of a machine yearning to exist. Ironically it's the robot that gives the noisy blockbuster its heart. To play Sonny, the actor studied with theatre director Stephen Hill, who was brought on by director Alex Proyas to work exclusively with Tudyk. "Alex kept saying, 'We're getting you a choreographer,' and I said I didn't need one. Choreographer means dance to me, and I wasn't dancing. I wanted someone who was a movement specialist," Tudyk says, adding he was initially resistant. "I was going to meet him one day, and I brought some books along that I had been reading in preparation. So he sits down and he asked what I was thinking, and I pulled out a book on mime -- a book on the Alexander Technique...and he pulled out almost the exact same books. It was immediate. We had a great time. The first month, I was in the studio with him doing mask work and physical work and meditation. We watched tapes of Noh Theatre and studied expressions and hand movements. It was so much like theatre school or a play, but it was on this huge movie budget, and I was in heaven."
Tudyk was also on Cloud Nine when he returned to his Firefly role to make Serenity, elated that "they built my spaceship again." He acknowledges the movie came about from the intense fan support for the show. "We were a cancelled TV show, and the fact they let us make a movie is so ridiculous," he says. "If it wasn't for the fans, the movie wouldn't have been made, and we understand that." Partly to show his appreciation, he recently attended the first Firefly convention in London, an eye-opening experience for the actor, who usually flies under the radar. "I wasn't prepared for that. I feel like I got a glimpse of what it must be like for people who are really famous," he says. "You're taking pictures with people, and they're shaking because they're standing next to you. It knocks you a bit off-guard." If the film does well, there are plans for two more in the works.
In the meantime, it's just been announced that Tudyk is headed back to Broadway to join the cast of the hit musical Spamalot, filling in for six months in roles originated onstage by Hank Azaria, who is taking a leave of absence to film Season Two of his Showtime series Huff. Tudyk doesn't have to worry about critics closing this particular show -- the raves have been universal and the show has been sold out for months. And, although he enjoys the relaxed L.A. life, he's happy to return to the East Coast. "I go back to New York and every corner I turn, I'm surprised," he notes. "Here the biggest surprise is, 'Oh my God, traffic isn't backed up on the 405.'"
He is also grateful for having reached a point in his career in which he has job security. "I'm very fortunate, I have to say. Even my class at Juilliard, the people who were at the school when I was there, were so talented. You look at them and think, 'He's going to hit it, she's going to do it.' That was 10 years ago since I left there, and I wonder what happened to some of them. They're out there, but they haven't had the fortune that I've had," he says. "The people that I got associated with right from the beginning were the people that helped me the most in my career, who led to other people that helped me. I just always work really hard and do my best. That's all I do, and the rest is just luck and fortune and nice people." BSW