Interview with Tony HaleBlog — By Susan Isaacs on November 5, 2007 at 12:00 am
BWC writer Susan Isaacs and actor Tony Hale met in New York and started King Baby Sketch comedy with Jeannie Noth-Gaffigan and Todd Wilkerson. Tony and Susan also did a short film, Devotion, which caught the attention of Arrested Development‘s creator, Mitch Hurwitz. For one, Tony was so good; and two, Mitch dated Susan in high school. Susan and Tony recently caught up in LA.
Susan Isaacs: Jordan and Don are huge fans of Arrested Development.They were so excited when they found out I knew you.
Tony Hale: Wow, that’s so nice.
SI: They almost flew down for this interview. They talked about renting a cabin to watch the whole series on DVD, and have you act out your scenes.
Tony laughs. Until he notices Susan is not.
SI: I’m kidding! They said you could read off a script.
TH: (looking around, nervously) Susan, do I need to worry? Like, should I get a restraining order?
SI: No. They’re far away, in Portland. Here’s the first Don/Jordan question: The success of Arrested Development as a comedy hinged so heavily on the uniqueness of each of the characters and the actor’s skills in pulling off their idiosyncrasies. How much of the character of Buster Bluth was your invention?
SI: Singing Billy?
Tony laughs. (Singing Billy was a King Baby sketch written by Chad Darbyshire. Math geek Billy helps a cheerleader do her calculus, but keeps breaking into song.)
TH: Yeah, Buster had some Singing Billy, and some of Ed from You Can’t Take It With You. Buster started off innocent and fearful, and then he got more tweaked. But as Mitch described, all Buster wants in life is safety: he’s afraid to leave his mom, he’s afraid to get a job, afraid to go into the army. Then Buster made sense. So I just took it to the extreme.
SI: Kind of autistic?
TH: Yeah, he got severely autistic.
SI: I also noticed Buster used some of Singing Billy’s mannerisms.
TH: Like the arms circling around? I enjoyed making Buster’s vulnerability physical. So Buster didn’t just “look” hurt, his hands would fly back. When they told me my hand was being cut off, it was, ugh, hard. I loved using my hands. Then I got The Hook.
SI: Wasn’t the same.
TH: But still fun.
A wistful silence, remembering Buster’s hand.
SI: Here’s another Don/Jordan question. Arrested fans felt frustrated that Fox didn’t fully commit to the show. Did the cast feel that same frustration?
TH: Not at all. The ratings were never what they needed to be for the show to break even. There are plenty of shows that have gone six episodes and then dropped. Fox didn’t have to keep us on past six episodes, but they gave us two and a half years. The cast was mostly frustrated more over not knowing our fate. At the end of every season we were left hanging: is this our last show? Are we going to cable? When it finally was our last show, we knew we needed to treasure it, because it could have been gone. In Hollywood you’re never promised anything. The experience helped me develop a skin of, “you can love what you’re doing, but other people may not catch on. So enjoy it while you got it because it might never come around again.”
SI: Was there anything that could have been different in order for people to catch on?
TH: I don’t know, I loved doing it. Mitch worked so hard, each line had depth; each word had a story behind it. I can’t imagine doing it differently. Even If Showtime had picked it up, they still would have used the bleeps (over the profanity). The bleeps were part of the show.
SI: You’ve done a couple films, and now a new show. Tell us about Andy Barker PI.
TH: Andy Richter is an accountant who stumbles into doing detective work. My character, Simon, runs a video store in the same strip mall and helps Andy solve crimes. Simon was probably a film student who never got to make films, so solving crimes is his adventure; he’s living out all the films he ever watched in his life.
SI: So that’s a lot different from the autistic Buster?
TH: Susan, a lot of people reading this article may have autistic friends.
SI: Autistic people don’t have friends; they don’t interact. Actually, I have an autistic friend. He’s got Aspergers. He’s brilliant and funny and he barely talks to me. But I should get back to the real interview, the part we really said.
TH: We never had this discussion about autistics?
SI: No. I needed to find a through-line for this interview: threads, callbacks to previous jokes. It’s like Reality TV: only a small part of it is real.
TH: Wow. I’m so glad I’m going to proofread this.
SI: So, how is Simon different from Buster?
TH: Where Buster craved safety, Simon craves adventure. Simon’s more sane. But I’m still the quirky sidekick. If there were a show, you and I would be the married, quirky sidekicks.
SI: No. Female sidekicks still need big boobs and to look good a thong…that’s a callback to another article.
TH: I’m afraid to ask.
SI: So did you give Simon physical mannerisms?
TH: Not really. Arrested was my first show. I was so green that I drew on the past: characters ands stuff I had done before. Whereas now I’m more comfortable letting myself find it.
SI: “Whereas?” You would never say whereas.
TH: That’s you rewriting me.
SI: I had to. You were talking stream of consciousness. I had to go back and piece the fragments into complete sentences.
TH: You’re making me sound like I can’t speak.
SI: Like an autis–
TH: –Don’t say it.
SI: –Never did. …So here’s a question from me: When you first moved to New York, did you know what your ultimate goal was?
TH: Sitcoms maybe. Growing up I always loved The Carol Burnett Show, All In The Family, The Jeffersons. But when I first came to New York, I just did whatever was in front of me. The City gives you this weird, hyper energy; I just rode the waves. I lived in seven places my first six months. I cater-waitered, I read Backstage. My first show was Taming of the Shrew for Shakespeare In The Parking Lot. We were down in the East Village, garbage trucks driving by as we’re trying to perform. It was nuts. Looking back I wonder, ‘How could I even think about doing that now?’ Never!
SI: Here’s another Don/Jordan question: Aaron Sorkin’s show Studio 60 features an openly Christian character and her struggles with Hollywood being hostile to her beliefs. Have you ever felt tension from being an actor and a follower of Christ?
TH: Not really. It’s all in how you communicate your faith. If you come off superior, like you have the answers for everybody’s problems, then people perceive you that way. But we have to listen to other people. I want to have good conversations, so I approach it as: Let’s share what we’ve learned and what inspires us. Behind my back people might question what I believe in; but as long as I share in a kind, nonjudgmental way, that’s all I can do.
SI: When I was in film school, guys from a Christian group came to crew on my classmates’ film projects. One guy pried every conversation toward the four spiritual laws. “Handling a camera is like…the Lord.” My classmates got hostile; so the Christian thought he was doing his job.
TH: I don’t know where that idea came from: that if you’re not hated or ostracized by non-Christians, you’re not living out your faith. Jesus shared with compassion and love. Yeah, he got hostility, from the Pharisees. And Jesus got angry at them. The people I have the biggest problem with are the Christians who are high and mighty, who don’t look outside themselves or listen to people who aren’t part of their culture.
SI: Did you start off in Hollywood fearing that hostility?
TH: Yes. It’s very easy to put on a “Christian shell” purely out of insecurity. I found myself doing that. I’d want people to know I was a Christian so they wouldn’t…
SI: You warned them before they made the jokes?
TH: Right. But then I thought, “They’re just jokes. Why am I so afraid of that?” It’s because of our insecurity. We worry, “Oh no, I might be asked a question, and I might not know the answer. Then I might come to doubt my faith!” So we put up the Christian label to barricade ourselves against their questions.
SI: If you think of faith as a math problem, then if one step is off, the whole thing is wrong. But faith isn’t math. It’s a story, and we might not have all the answers yet.
TH: I don’t have to know all the answers in order for my faith to be real. In fact, there are people of different faiths who can actually teach me something.
SI: I’ve learned a lot about sitting still just from doing yoga. Don’t worry: I don’t chant “Om.” I don’t want to call Khali, Goddess of destruction, down on my ass. But I realized yoga people are just searching for God. Maybe if I listen to their story, they might ask me about mine. Maybe they’ll see not all Christians are like the stereotype.
TH: Yes. The majority of my conversations are about breaking down stereotypes. Unfortunately there’s been a lot of abuse of Christianity. But I’m excited to help break down those stereotypes. Even if it’s just to say, “I understand. Most of the Christians with the microphones are the wrong people to have the microphones. But if we’re going to talk about Christianity, let’s talk about Jesus: who he was and what he taught. Because that’s who I follow.”
SI: Not the Christian culture.
TH: Right. Christian culture is not my role model, and in some ways, neither is the church.
SI: The American Church has the same problems as the whole culture does: we’re capitalist, consumerists. Look at The Purpose Driven Life. Rick Warren wrote a great book. But then it got packaged into programs, banners, calendars, wrist bands…hey I like your nose ring. What does it say?
TH: “WWJD.” The readers will know you added the part about the nose ring.
SI: They’ll have to watch Andy Barker P.I. to see if your nose is pierced.
TH: Why am I regretting doing this interview?
SI: If it goes bad, you can always turn it around. Look at Lindsay Lohan.
TH: Let’s get back to the part of the conversation that really happened.
SI: Consumerism in the church.
TH: Yes. Consumerism comes from our fear. We’re afraid that we’re going to have to have questions or make sacrifices for Christ. Weird and ironic as this is: it’s in the challenges and the things I fear the most, where my faith is most strengthened. Faith doesn’t come in a Hallmark package. On the other hand, when we try to create Utopia, like many cultures do — Christian cultures included — when we try to create Pleasantville, that’s when we’re going to hit a brick wall. And it’s not going to be pretty.
SI: That’s like Whole Foods. Those people are trying to create a Utopia with organic food and spiritual enlightenment. But it’s still self-centered and full of entitlement.
TH: You say that like you don’t shop there.
SI: I do. I’m in the store but not of the store. So, when you first came to New York, did you have that freedom? To ask questions and face difficult issues?
TH: My motives were mixed. Yes, I wanted to make a difference. But I also wanted to prove to my friends back home that I could make it. When I didn’t get what I wanted for eight years, it humbled me. I had to take a look at my real motives. I finally got to a place of genuine peace. I was learning contentment. I was doing the Haven, I was about to get married, I was doing commercials, I had great friends.
SI: And, Bob’s Your Uncle, that’s when you got Arrested Development.
TH: Who’s Bob?
SI: “Bob’s your Uncle” is a British expression. It’s like “there ya go.” Never mind. So, you got your big break, you moved from New York to LA. Tell us about that change.
TH: In New York I was surrounded with people who shared my faith. I didn’t have the freedom to question much, which I regret. Out here in LA, I’m surrounded with people of different faiths, ideas, upbringing, and culture. That’s been a huge blessing. It’s allowed me to ask, “Why do I believe what I believe?”
SI: Did you get your faith all figured out? She asked, ironically. Many of us were told we had to get our faith to the place where every piece fit, before God could send us out into Life.
TH: Absolutely not. Every piece doesn’t fit; still doesn’t fit. But the great thing about my faith is the hope. I live on hope. I know there’s a reason I’m going through this, someone is taking care of me. There are pieces that don’t make any sense, but no one can keep me from having that hope. You mentioned a sense of entitlement. Entitlement is the biggest poison. Not in just in Hollywood – it’s really strong in the Christian community too. “I’m a Christian, God is on my side, I deserve to get this.” But we are all in the same boat. Good and bad happens to everyone.
SI: I definitely had the entitlement thing going. Then God torched my life. The beauty part was, I stopped focusing on success and started focusing on what mattered to me. I learned to do things “for fun and for free.”
TH: You’re getting paid to do this interview, aren’t you?
SI: For fun and for free. Thanks for your time, Tony. Jordan and Don will be so excited.
TH: My pleasure! (quietly) So I don’t need to worry about a restraining order?
SI: Of course not. I didn’t give them your full home address…just the street.
As Tony’s face whitens with worry…