Tony Hale’s Next Big Thing

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Photo Source: Emily Assiran

“The shoes are a lot,” says Tony Hale of his own outfit. “The shoes need to calm down.”

It’s a full day of press for the actor, and a bittersweet one; he and the cast of HBO’s award-winning political satire “Veep” are launching the show’s final season and bidding it farewell. (The searing—and well-received—series finale aired this past Sunday, May 12.) Hale is looking nifty in a gray suit, bright yellow watch, and shoes that do indeed pop—the results, he confesses, of working with a stylist for the first time.

“Maybe they didn’t want me to look like a bad Gap ad promoting this. So I said, ‘All right, I guess I’ll take the cue.’ Do you live around here?”

As evidenced by the onscreen characters he’s known for—Gary Walsh on “Veep,” the submissive assistant to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina Meyer, and the meek yet deranged Buster Bluth on “Arrested Development”—Hale is a master of comedic timing. He’s also as generous as he is funny. It’s in the way he transitions, whiplash-fast, from giving heartfelt life advice to offering his interviewer some of his salad. Sharing a scene with Hale must be more than just fun; he’s the kind of performer who can listen closely to what’s given to him, then give back tenfold.

Speaking with Backstage over coffee in New York’s Chinatown, Hale is bestowing pearls of wisdom, the kind of advice he wishes he’d gotten when he moved to the city in 1995 and was pounding the pavement. “Backstage was the Bible, the actor’s Bible,” he remembers. “I have such fond memories of sitting in my apartment and circling the auditions. ‘Can I play a football coach?’ ” He squints. “However, ‘quirky sidekick’—ah, circle that five times!”

Considering “quirky sidekick” has paid Hale’s bills (not to mention won him two Emmy Awards for supporting actor in a comedy), he says he’ll happily continue taking on those roles in his next, post-“Veep” phase. He’ll soon be heard as a neurotic spork in “Toy Story 4,” and then will produce a Netflix animated series, “Archibald’s Next Big Thing,” based on the children’s book he co-wrote. Its protagonist, Archibald the chicken, turns out to be a lovely representation of what Hale is all about: living in the present, resisting the temptation to look ahead, and seeing the very best in others.

Tell us about your early acting days in New York.

New York is incredibly accessible, especially for actors. I remember I did a lot of commercials when I was in New York, and I would hit three or four auditions a day just because the subway was so great, you [could] just go from casting to casting. L.A. is different. It’s very spread out; it’s not as accessible; it is difficult to find community there. Any time I talk to actors or anybody who wants to do the business, I always say, before you dive into your career, take time to invest in your community. Because there’s a shitload of rejection, and you have to have people around you to support you when you get that beating. [Instead of] diving into your career right away, really take time to meet people, find a support system. I would not have survived without my support system.

Before you moved to New York, you studied journalism at Samford University in Alabama. How did that affect your career?

Interestingly enough, I’m not a good reader. But I liked the advertising angle of marketing and that kind of stuff, the mass communication side of journalism. So I took a lot of journalism classes at college, and right now, [as] I’m producing this cartoon, when I read scripts and edit them I use a lot of my journalism skills. Because it’s all about trimming the fat away; you’ve got to cut off the fat to get to the real thing of what you want to say. So my journalism helped me. Like, “This doesn’t matter,” “We’ve said this twice,” that kind of thing.

Is that true of the acting process too?

Hm, maybe. I would say even on “Veep,” we’d be doing something—or we did something, as I start crying—and you’d get this feeling we’re repeating ourselves. Or we’re just being repetitive. So Julia or someone would sense that we need to cut some of this out, or it’s feeling too scripted, false, not real. Maybe that’s the part of me that’s about being genuine.

Would you argue it’s important for artists to develop skills in another field like journalism or communication?

If somebody is leaving college and wants to try acting, I guess my advice is always, in terms of a second career or whatever, give yourself a timeline. And surround yourself with a few people who can speak truth into your life. Because you do need to have a time where you can step back and be like, OK, I’ve been doing this for a certain time and I want someone—in a loving way, which is key—to speak truth. In acting, we don’t really have—especially as freelancers—a boss giving us a progress report. There’s no structure. So, have a friend who can lovingly give you a progress report, that sense of “Hey, you’re super talented, but have you tried this direction? Is it more behind the scenes or producing?” Or even “This was a great season of your life where you took a risk, maybe let’s start feeling something else out.” That’s what I tell people. There are a lot of mistakes I’ve made, a lot of lessons I’ve learned, which I love to talk about.

We love hearing about the mistakes...tell us more!

[Laughs] I’ll get into all the emotional stuff. My big dream when I was in New York and doing all these commercials—I really love doing commercials, I love doing community theater, I was off Broadway, miles off Broadway—but I always had a big dream of doing a sitcom. And it took me seven or eight years to find an agent to send me out for TV and film. They just saw me as a commercial actor. And then these kind managers had grace on me and I started working with them and that led to something else and the audition for “Arrested Development” came about.

And when I booked “Arrested Development,” it didn’t satisfy me the way I thought it was going to satisfy me! It scared me, because I’d given that big thing too much weight, the big dream of finding a sitcom. I made it such a big thing in my mind, getting that dream, that nothing could match it. If you’re not practicing contentment where you are, you’re not going to be content when you get what you want. I was always living in the future—and by the way, I talk about this so much because I suck at it—but I was never very present in my life. So when my daughter was born after “Arrested Development,” one thing children do is they force you to be present because you have to keep them alive. And you realize, Holy shit, I have not been present. It started this whole journey for me of waking myself up. You just have to practice. Practice. It’s not a natural skill.

Why is it important for actors, particularly early in their career, to stay present?

I love talking to actors, because I struggle with anxiety and not living in the moment. This business tells you that you’ll have value when this happens. And the fact is, your value does not change before and after success! You are not more valuable after success, or whatever you deem success. [You have to] realize the value you have right now is the most value you’re ever going to have.

I really thought in my head, I’m going to have value when I get that show. And it’s like, no, I have tremendous value where [I am now]. I almost wish someone had come up to me in New York and said, “You have tremendous value and you’re going to have the most value you ever have—right now.”

How did you feel after you booked “Arrested Development”?

I was very overwhelmed. It was my big break [and] I was very grateful for it. It wasn’t just the fact that I’d given it so much weight—here I was on my big break, still looking to the next thing. I’m going to turn 80 and be like, I just kept looking for the next thing! I was never in the thing. It’s not like you don’t dream, not like you don’t have ambition. But I found myself going, When I get this, when this happens, then I’ll be this. It’s absolute bullshit.

People talk a lot about the skill of acting, but not often about the emotional path that you walk. You don’t go to a dentist and say, “What’s next for you?” [Laughs] That dentist, I’m pretty sure, is going to be working on a molar or something. But actors, artists, we’re almost trained to look ahead. I need to train myself to be more here. I get on a little bit of a soapbox because it did freak me out. I got my dream and it scared me because the whole time I was like, I should be feeling something different. I kind of wish somebody had shared that stuff with me, you know? Because it’s a crazy-ass business.

How do you train yourself to not compare your path with others’ successes?

Looking at what someone else has and wanting that, there’s nothing wrong with that if it’s pushing you. But I always have to ask, What is it that I really want? Those are really hard questions to ask yourself. Or, What am I trying to fill that might already be full? Artists are really emotional beings. I’m an emotional disaster. I have emotions all over the place. I’ve kind of learned to use them in the work, but not let them identify me. Because for many years in the past, I thought I was a victim of my thoughts and feelings. Rather than, Oh, there’s that thought, there’s that feeling, and then I can use that in the work when that comes up.

Is that how you build characters, tapping into your thoughts and feelings in the role?

I’m far from a Daniel Day-Lewis, creating a character. I’ve been going to this coach in L.A., Diana Castle. She’s taught me a lot about taking a character and looking at the characteristics of that character in yourself, rather than playing your idea of what you think the character is. Because there are a thousand other people who can play that idea better than me. But if I think of the traits in the character and pull those out of me, no one else can do that.

Is that true for roles you’re trying to get? Or have already gotten?

Maybe both. Look at Gary on “Veep”: very anxious, a people pleaser, very sensitive. And the fact is, I have those traits. Even if you look at a really awful character, someone who’s jealous or bitter or something, I’m lying to myself if I say I’ve never had those feelings. You can pull those out of yourself, too. That makes it a little more you rather than an idea you’re playing. 

Timothy Simons said you came over and comforted him in the waiting room during your “Veep” auditions. What do you remember about that?

I get excited hearing that because I’m an anxious person and that was a gift, to me, to be able to do that for him. We talked about Harry Potter, I think. Just to get our minds off the audition. With my history, I just wish somebody had done that. That’s the gift of going through pain: You pick up on pain in others. And then you can resonate and help them out.

But knowing myself and knowing my anxiety, I was also probably talking about Harry Potter to get my own mind off the audition.

How did the rehearsal aspect of “Veep” feel to you initially?

It was very new to me. On “Arrested” there was no real rehearsal process, whereas on “Veep” we would rehearse for two weeks sometimes before we started shooting. That brought me back to my theater days. It also gave some ownership in the process. The cool thing is, [creator Armando Iannucci] never wanted us to come up with bits or jokes, [the process was] more just to see if stuff gelled. I really appreciated that. It’s scary, because I was around some master improvisers. Matt Walsh created [Upright Citizens Brigade]. So I was like, Oh, shit, this could really go bad. But when I kind of took away trying to be funny, just tried to find the honesty and see if moments were false, that really, really helped.

Julia and I were just saying, if we all didn’t like each other, it would be a very different show. When you have that bond, you have the freedom to play, the freedom to experiment, the freedom to try ideas, even bad ideas, it just makes the whole show better.

READ: How the Actors of ‘Veep’ Created TV’s Best Comedy

How does it feel ending “Veep”? You all filmed together for years!

My daughter was 5 when it started, and she’s 13 now. I just saw a picture of her at the Baltimore train station, because we shot the first four seasons there, and she’s so little. It’s sad! I’m in the most uncertain career possible, but I’m not into change. I really love these people a lot; it became its own family. We were all away from our families, so we became each other’s family. I’m in a mourning period. I should be wearing black. It’s very sad.

It’s very, very easy to get tunnel [vision] on the business when you’re doing the business, and not have a life outside the business. Because you’re selling yourself, constantly looking for work. The crazy thing about our business is, most people go on job interviews for two or three months and then they have a gig for two or three years. In this business, we’re in a job interview for two or three years and we’re lucky to get a gig for two or three months. It’s switched. It’s crazy. And we are all...insane! [Laughs]

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Photographed by Emily Assiran in NYC; Painting by Attasit Pokpong, curated by SFA Projects.

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Jack Smart
Jack Smart is the awards editor at Backstage, where he covers all things Emmy, SAG, Oscar, and Tony Awards. He also produces and hosts Backstage’s awards podcast “In the Envelope” and has interviewed some of the biggest stars of stage and screen.
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