Tony Hale made a name for himself on the short-lived but now celebrated cult comedy Arrested Development. Playing the beloved and oft-quoted Buster Bluth—his "hey brother" particularly situated itself into the pop lexicon—Hale managed to carve out a place in the pantheon of singular sitcom characters.
When Arrested Development went off the air in 2006, Hale stayed busy with parts on various network sitcoms (Chuck, Andy Barker, P.I.) and film projects (most notably Stranger than Fiction alongside Will Ferrell and Steven Soderbergh's underrated The Informant!).
Though Hale found himself back in his role as Buster earlier this year when Netflix revived Arrested Development for another season, it's his part on HBO's hit comedy Veep that has recently garnered him much acclaim. On Veep, he plays Gary, a personal assistant to the vice president of the United States, played by comic stalwart Julia Louis-Dreyfus. While there are shades of Buster in Gary, the chemistry with Louis-Dreyfus has Hale working in a more nuanced mode—one for which he's recently been awarded an Emmy for best supporting actor in a comedy series.
Hale describes himself as someone whose "faith is everything" as he navigates both career and family life. He recently spoke to CT about life after the Emmys, the importance of local theater, and Tim Conway.
CT: How's life post Emmy win? Any change in your day-to-day life?
TH: I now have the Emmy around my neck, and my wife's Emmy we put on the hood of the car. [Mr. Hale's wife, Martel Thompson, won an Emmy in 2003 for work she did as a make-up artist.]
No, when they called my name, it was such an out-of-body experience. Next to my daughter being born and the day of my wedding, it was definitely one of the most exciting moments of my life. It was just so crazy.
So now, I'm just getting back to normal, taking my daughter to school and stuff. We start shooting again on Sunday, so I go back to Baltimore.
The truth is I'm incredibly thankful to have a gig, to be working—to actually win an Emmy for it blows my mind. It's just something I never, ever could have imagined happening.
Was it some sort of validation?
I don't know if validation was the right word, because if you grow up wanting to be an actor, you have thought about that moment your entire life. You've thought about giving that speech. In my speech I was able to thank Young Actors Theater in Tallahassee, Florida, a theater I grew up in that made a big difference in my life. To be able to thank them publicly was on my bucket list. High school and middle school are tough years and they're filled with a lot of insecurity and craziness, and that theater was a real safe place for me. It allowed me to explore, to be ridiculous, to act on stage, kind of figure out what I love to do, with a group of people that allowed me to be who I am and not judge me.
You have a certain sort of comedic persona that plays a role in both Buster and Gary. How would you describe that persona, and is that a persona that you cultivated?
The scary part about Buster is how naturally it came. I don't know what that says about me. Buster could use a live-in therapist. When I was first doing Arrested Development, Mitch Hurwitz (who created the show) told me that all Buster wanted in life was safety. So that just became the through-line with Buster. He could barely go to the pharmacy and not have a panic attack. Everything was a threat to his safety, and obviously when his mother left him he would spin out of control. He was the extreme version of severe fear and brokenness.
[Buster and Gary] both had dominating, abusive relationships with women in their lives, but I feel like Gary would step up to the plate if something happened with Selina [Louis-Dreyfus's character on Veep]. If something ever happened, Gary would just lose his mind. Buster wouldn't necessarily do that. If something happened with Lucille, he would just kind of be rocking in a corner; he's so paralyzed. Gary is kind of a high-functioning version of Buster.
Can you talk about your comedic heroes? Do you study comedians, and does that play a role in shaping these characters?
I probably subconsciously studied them my whole life. My favorite show growing up was the Carol Burnett Show, and Tim Conway is a huge comic icon for me. With comedy, if you're given crazy circumstances, you don't have to push the joke. If you just play it as real as you can under those circumstances, then it's going to be funny—and that's something Tim Conway had mastered. He was always given these outlandish circumstances, and he would always do it very believably and immediately have the audience. He knew the circumstances he was in were crazy, and he just played it as real as possible.
So, when you're on set are you thinking, "What would Tim do?"
I wear a bracelet that says "WWTD!"
Buster lost his hand, dated Liza Minelli, and went to MotherBoy conventions with Lucille—those are pretty nutty circumstances. I would just try my hardest to live those circumstances and see what happened.
What advice would you give to young people who profess to be Christians who hope to break into the entertainment business?
I would give—to Christians and to people whose faith really isn't that important to them—the same advice.
First, examine your motivations for why you want to get into the business. It's only natural for those who want to get into entertainment to start off wanting to be famous or be recognized or be wealthy. But then, rather than judging yourself for having those thoughts, simply be aware of and honest about them. Hope that one day those motivations can morph into a more pure desire: loving to entertain and loving the art of acting. If you can start being honest about those things when you're young, and not shame yourself for having them but simply surrender them to God, then you open yourself up to have those false motivations burn off and make room for true motivation and passion. I didn't really examine that stuff until later in life—and I wish I started earlier.
Second, young actors need to (for lack of a better term) grow where they're planted. Don't look at New York and L.A. as the mecca for "making it." There's something about embracing where you're at—local theatre, local commercials—where you can just get comfortable and enjoy the process. Then, wherever you go with your career, you're coming with more of a foundation—rather than thinking, "I'm gonna make it in L.A.! I'm gonna make it in New York!" No, make the most of where you're at. If you don't, you won't find joy doing it in New York or L.A.
One last question. You are very close, intimately close in proximity to Julia Louis-Dreyfus, all the time on Veep. This is sort of a joke, but do you use breath mints or anything like that when you're that close to her? What's it like, being that close to someone so much of the time?
I don't just need breath mints. It's in her contract to provide me with breath mints. And I have to contractually chew them 50 times a day.
No, um, I probably need to actually ask her about it more. I'll see her on Sunday, and I'll ask. I'm going to say, "Am I killing you?"
Being that physically close to someone all the time—that's got to be strange, right?
Well, I will say, it's strange. But who better to be physically close with than such a talented comic actress like Julia? With comedy, when you enter that world, you want to trust that when you throw the ball, they're going to throw the ball back. And you want to trust that you're going to do that comic dance. Like, you'll ride that wave together. It's all in knowing that they've got the timing, they know when to hit that beat, and that's when it's fun. That's when you ride the wave together. If you don't have that, it's tough. So, who knows that more than Julia? She is hilarious.
It sounds like you two have a good working relationship.
That's the thing. Not only is she crazy funny and talented, and I learn a ton from her, but she's a normal, kind human being where family is first in her world. It's not just business. And that is all you can ask for. I mean, the older I get, I don't want to work with ego or entitlement. I want to work with normal people.
Bearden Coleman is assistant professor of English at The King's College, where he teaches writing and film. You can follow him on Twitter at @OZUsCamera.