TONY HALE AT THE PARAMOUNT LOT IN LOS ANGELES, AUGUST 2015. PHOTOS: CARA ROBBINS.
Say the words “Buster Bluth” to an Arrested Development fan and several very vivid images come to mind. There is Buster on a “blender bender,” giving into his weakness for the sweet stuff—artificially flavored juice. Buster romancing his older neighbor (Liza Minelli), who just happens to share the same name as his overbearing mother. Or Buster slashing into a pillow with his claw (a replacement for the hand he lost in a freak seal attack) while screaming, “I’m a monster.”
When Tony Hale, the New York-born, Florida-raised actor behind Buster’s man-child persona, signed on to Arrested Development in 2003, his life changed rapidly. The show was picked up only 10 days before Hale married Emmy award-winning makeup artist Martel Thompson, and immediately after they tied the knot, they left New York and moved out west to Los Angeles.
Arrested was abruptly cancelled in 2006, but in 2013 Netflix brought back the dysfunctional television family for another season. During that time, Hale made a home within another talented comedic ensemble as Gary Walsh on HBO’s Veep. Gary is the body man to now-President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and calling him a stage-five clinger when it comes to his boss wouldn’t be a stretch. Hale inhabits the anxious, engagingly awkward role seamlessly; he’s at once believable and absurd, sincerely running off lines like, “You are Beyoncé, he is backup booty,” while protectively carrying a bag that contains anything Selina could possibly need—a magnifying glass, tampons, and Dutch eye drops included.
Hale has kept busy while off the set of Veep. In the spring, he wrapped filming on Brave New Jersey, an indie comedy set in 1938 on the eve of Orson Welles’ famed War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Chaos ensues when the inhabitants of a small town, having missed the announcement that the broadcast was fiction, believe that aliens are invading Earth. In the action comedy American Ultra, which stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart and comes out tomorrow, he’s CIA agent Petey Douglas.
For the third consecutive year, and after winning the award in 2013, Hale is nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for his portrayal of Gary. He was with his wife and daughter when he learned of his nomination. “It’s very exciting,” Hale told us. “It’s so exciting that my daughter came in and said, ‘Are you guys going to take me to camp, or are we just going to do this all day?'”
Hale called us from Los Angeles in the midst of rehearsals for Season Five of Veep.
HALEY WEISS: While there’s certainly a lot of art in Florida, it’s a fairly sports-centric state. How and when did you get involved in acting? Was it difficult to find your niche?
TONY HALE: Yeah, it was. My dad was in the army and we moved I think eight times before I was in the seventh grade. We landed in Tallahassee when my dad retired from the army and started working for the state. I was a creative kid; I wasn’t really into sports, and sports in the South are a pretty big deal. It’s like a religion down there. It was tough to find my footing, but thankfully, my parents discovered, through a neighbor, this theater called Young Actors Theater and signed me up for the summer program. From then on, I was in. From middle school through high school, I just loved it. It really was a gift. Even if a kid doesn’t go into acting or the arts like I did, some kids need that environment to find themselves and find what they love to do. I’m so thankful for that theater; it was a big gift to me.
WEISS: Did you immediately fall into comedy, or did you do drama as well?
HALE: I remember doing a lot of comedy. I always loved that feeling when you do something on stage and you can feel the vibe of the audience turn, and [they] start laughing. It’s how you know something’s not right, and how to fix it, or how to make the moment stronger or funnier. I also loved watching Bob Newhart and Tim Conway growing up… I had a real love for comedy. I think I did maybe one drama my entire time in the theater. It was all goofy, silly comedy and musicals.
WEISS: You went to college for journalism rather than acting. What led to that decision?
HALE: I think I was not really confident that I could make a living off of acting; I wanted something to fall back on. To be honest, I say journalism, but I chose mass communications. It was a very broad field… I thought, “That looks good, I like people!” That kind of veered off though. I remember I interned at an advertising agency, and I was thinking, “Maybe I can do that.” It was after school that I realized, “I don’t know if this is it.” That’s when I started dipping my toe back into acting. I didn’t act at all in college.
WEISS: So you were in New York when you landed the role of Buster. What did you think of him when you first read the script for Arrested?
HALE: I had moved to New York in 1995, and I was there for a good eight years before the audition for Arrested Development came. I had mainly been doing commercials; thankfully doing some fun ones for theaters and stuff like that. I did every job just to make ends meet. Then this audition came, and I remember reading it, and I was—and still am—a big Christopher Guest fan. It had that smart tone to it and Ron Howard was producing it; it had a lot of great people involved. I hadn’t had many TV auditions, so the fact that I even got an audition was pretty exciting… I went [into the audition] thinking I’m going to have fun with this and then try to just let it go. When they called me back, my mind was blown. Buster was sweet and made me laugh. The fact that he had panic attacks all the time and loved to massage people—that was just a great combination. [both laugh]
WEISS: I read that after landing Arrested in 2003 you weren’t as satisfied as you’d anticipated you would be. Even though you were on a big sitcom, and the role was great, you weren’t content. How did you get past that?
HALE: Here I was on the show, with fantastic writing and a fantastic cast, and I remember having this feeling of, “Why am I not feeling something greater?” It was because—and a lot of us do this and I did this—when I was in New York I put a lot of pressure on getting that big thing. For me, it was the sitcom. It’s that whole lesson of, “If you’re not practicing contentment where you are, you’re not going to be content when you get what you want.” I wasn’t very present my whole time in New York; I was just looking for that big thing and then I got it. But nothing can match that expectation. I loved being on Arrested Development and I continue to love being on it, but that was one of the big lessons I learned—teaching myself to wake myself up to where I am and be present with it, because that’s all you’ve got.
That’s where the children’s book that I did, [Archibald’s Next Big Thing], came from. It’s about this little chicken who is always looking for his next big thing, and this little bee travels around with him and says, “Yo, just be man. You’ve got to just be.” In this business, when someone comes up to you, they say, “What are you doing next? What’s going on next for you?” You hear that question a lot, so you get trained to look beyond where you are. I’ve really had to wake myself up to where I am, and it’s a challenge. I wrote a book about it, and I talk about it a lot, and I suck at it. It’s a discipline that I’m really trying to get better at.
WEISS: There’s talk of more Arrested coming to Netflix in the near future. Would you like the opportunity to go on one more “blender bender” as Buster?
HALE: Totally! Are you kidding? Any time I get the opportunity. First of all, when you get a job as an actor and the job ends, you go through this mourning process of, “Man, that was fun, but onto the next thing.” To be able to come back and do a character you did is so fun and great. I don’t take that opportunity lightly. When Netflix brought us back the second time, it was so exciting. The fact is I want to see where the story goes because, poor Buster, it ended with some situation with Lucille 2, where there’s some kind of murder happening. So I’m very curious to see where the story ends, but also, any time that any of us can do Mitch Hurwitz’s writing, it’s a good day. I can never predict what’s going on with his story line. I’ll come up with ideas, and I remember when we were shooting the first time around, I would say, “Oh, wouldn’t it be funny if this happened.” And then he’d say, “Yeah, but I’m thinking about his hand coming off.” [both laugh] And you’re like, “Okay. You’re so much funnier than me.” I am so interested in what he’s doing and what’s going on in his mind.
WEISS: Buster and Gary are similar in that they both have some mommy issues; Buster in his tenuous, co-dependent relationship with Lucille—and that’s to say nothing of Lucille 2—and Gary has his unconditional love for Selina. They’re both quite anxious, too. Was it easier to get into Gary’s mindset having played Buster?
HALE: Buster was a little bit of a cartoon character; he was in a consistent state of paralysis. He had a hard time with day-to-day functioning and anything would spin him out. He was such a blast to play, but I don’t know where he was on the spectrum in life. Whereas Gary, he worships Selina—and he definitely needs a good run of therapy—but he does show up. He wants to protect Selina, and be with Selina, and do what he needs to please Selina. I don’t know if Buster would do that for Lucille. There’s definitely a through line of anxiety and co-dependency with the mommy, but they were very different [to play]. I love stepping into both of them, but that’s a hard question. I don’t know if it was easier.
WEISS: Season four of Veep was pretty rough for Gary.
HALE: Yes, it was!
WEISS: He’s had to work a lot harder for Selina’s attention since she became President. In the first episode [of Season Four], it was so sad when the Secret Service told him, “She only needs the bag,” and took it away from him. Even though he found the Dutch eye drops she likes!
HALE: It was awful. And I think, honestly, Selina has been pretty verbally abusive to Gary. He’s kind of put a deaf ear to it. I don’t think he hears it, because he so idolizes her, but she’s been really awful to him. But he would rather her verbally abuse him than distance herself from him. That was death for Gary. She’s also made him do such demeaning things, like break up with her boyfriends for her and dig through her trash. But there is one thing she said to him in the second episode that really woke him up. When she said, “You’re a middle aged man who sanitizes my tweezers,” that’s when he realized, “Oh, this is not the picture I painted. This is not what I thought was going on.” That’s when he snaps.
WEISS: Did that scene surprise you when you read it in the script?
HALE: Well, it excited me. As an actor, when you’re that emasculated in a character and beaten down and always playing the lap dog, the opportunity to fight back is always a nice relief.
WEISS: It seemed cathartic. It must be great to work with such a strong ensemble. Is it difficult not to break character when you’re shooting?
HALE: Oh, I’m the worst. I really have a problem with it. It’s now become Pavlovian, where Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] will say something to me and I start smiling or laughing. It’s gotten to the point of embarrassment; I turn into the audience member. It’s like, “Well, Tony, are you working or are you just watching? Are you doing your job, or are you just watching this like a TV show?” I’ve got to get my act together. I can’t stop laughing sometimes.
AMERICAN ULTRA COMES OUT TOMORROW, AUGUST 21.