Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Tony Hale on a bald chicken, his big roles, and living in the present

Photo by Jennifer Pearl

In Pop Shop, we support the dying art of physical shopping by visiting independent record and bookstores with some of our favorite actors, writers, directors, and musicians. This week, we met Tony Hale at Atomic Records in Burbank, L.A.

The shopper: With Buster Bluth and his Emmy winning portrayal of Gary Walsh—the perpetually loyal and put-upon aide of Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Veep—Tony Hale has a lock on the anxiety-riddled oddball. In these two characters, trapped in arrested development and surrounded by jaded cynics, shines an innocence and inherent benevolence that exudes through the real Tony Hale. It makes perfect sense that Hale has translated this uniquely unsullied worldview into a children’s book. Archibald’s Next Big Thing (released Aug 15, available through official website and Amazon) is the richly illustrated tale of a bald chicken named Archibald on an adventure of self-discovery. The underlying message, and one that plays a big part in Hale’s daily life, is staying in the moment, and never losing sight of the gifts right in front of us.


On the day after Robin Williams’ death, Hale took some time to shop with us, and with a second Emmy nomination for Veep and his upcoming release, he’s also taking time to savor the moment.

Tony Hale: Last night I was thinking about what happened with Robin Williams. I did that movie with him in 2006: RV. It was a very small part and we only had like two scenes together, but he was just the sweetest man. What people have seen, that kind of chaotic energy—I feel like I saw just the opposite. He was calm and just really engaging and sincere. Some of my favorite stuff that he’s done is not always the wacky stuff. It’s the stuff like Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, Awakenings—but even Patch Adams and Mrs. Doubtfire. He had a real skill of having such empathy on-screen toward people. For instance, Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting; he had this real compassion. I just worked with him for two days so I didn’t really have a friendship with him, but typically when you’re able to show that on-screen, you’ve been through a lot of challenges in your life where you know how to be empathetic. You know how to have compassion for others. I just think of those times when he really connected with people on-screen, and it was incredibly authentic. That comes through a lot of challenges in life.


The A.V. Club: What were you doing when you heard the news yesterday?

TH: I was with my daughter and I went upstairs and saw it on the news. It was one of those things where—obviously we all have our time and everyone has someone who has passed away, but he’s such a part of my childhood. Mork & Mindy and his films—he’s such a personality. It was a really strong feeling of, “This doesn’t seem real, that he’s gone.” He’s such a presence in everybody’s life, and had such an energy.


AVC: It was a real gut punch.

TH: It was a real gut punch. That’s a good way of putting it.

City Lights

AVC: Speaking of another legendary presence: Charlie Chaplin and City Lights.

TH: That is definitely one of my favorites. It’s another example of someone like Charlie Chaplin, who had all the wacky stuff—but in City Lights, when he did the opening thing with the statues and he’s sliding all over the place—the physical comedy and the comedic choreography in the film is so seamless and so fluid. It takes a lot of rehearsal before you do that kind of a take. There’s one time where he’s backing up and this elevator below him on the floor is matching his steps—it was so on point. Then in the very end he meets this blind girl and he’s playing this bum-like character. She doesn’t know who he is, and he ends up paying her rent, and in the end, there’s this really sweet moment when she recognizes who he is just from feeling his arm. It’s this incredibly tender moment between him and this girl, and I thought about someone like Robin Williams who has the chaos and the physical comedy but then has these really tender moments on-screen with people. Chaplin had that as well. City Lights is a silent film, but it had that ending where you’re just pulled into his relationship with this girl, amid having those moments of falling down stairs. There was a real parallel between those two.


AVC: It really comes through in their eyes. Their eyes spoke so much.

TH: Yeah! He’s just looking at the girl, and he’s so happy. What I also loved about that movie is that it was really silent. They just gave certain lines. You saw their mouth moving and you just saw one line. They didn’t give you all they were saying. It took your imagination of where they were going in their conversation. But it totally pulled you in. It’s by far one of the most engaging movies.


AVC: I remember I saw it in high school film class. It was one of those unique experiences like 2001: A Space Odyssey, where I hadn’t experienced a film in that way.

TH: I know. Then there’s the scene with the drunk guy who always befriends him, then when he wakes up sober he leaves him. When he’s drunk he invites him out, and they have this big night on the town and there’s this party where the floor is really slippery. Chaplin had those oversized shoes, and he’s just slipping all over the place and my thinking was, “Was it actually slippery, or was that just his brilliance of physical comedy?” It seemed so believable that he’s all over the place, and his physical comedy was just crazy good.


Punch-Drunk Love

AVC: Punch-Drunk Love is another bizarre relationship.

TH: Like everybody else, I’m a massive Paul Thomas Anderson fan, but there was something specifically about this movie with Adam Sandler that—I can only speak for myself—I felt his massive anxiety throughout the beginning of the film. Those sisters—and I don’t know if you noticed, but “seven” is a big thing throughout the film. He had seven sisters, and they met at 7 o’ clock. Then I started thinking about seven deadly sins, and these seven sisters that are very oppressive to him. They’re constantly calling and annoying him, getting on his case, and just really oppressive. You can feel his weight of anxiety with life. Then when Emily Watson comes in, who is such a symbol of light and love, purity and innocence, you see his life get stronger because of her. Then because of the phone-sex scandal he gets in, they send four thugs to beat him up. Initially when they beat him up he’s devastated and running through the streets in chaos, but when she comes into his life and they hit the two of them in the car and it starts spinning, he looks over and he sees her with blood coming from her eye, and you can see the strength come over him. He gets out of the car and just pummels every single one of those guys and it is by far one of the most gratifying moments. Having walked through and seen that anxiety build up, and then seeing him being empowered, it is one of the most gratifying experiences, I think, on film.


In the end, when he ends up facing off with Philip Seymour Hoffman he says, pretty much, “Don’t fuck with me because I have a love in my life that’s greater than you will ever know.” It’s a very spiritual film because this girl comes in who really represents a higher love. You can just see how he has a new life. It’s so good! Then there’s stuff that I don’t even get. If I could ever sit down with Sir Anderson—if you notice throughout the film and in the opening sequence there’s rays of light and they’re all full of color. At certain points throughout the film you see flashes of beams of light and I’m wondering if that’s a time when the strength begins to come and—hey man, the symbolism in his movies is sick to me. When the frogs came out of the sky in Magnolia—his mind is just so good.

AVC: He’s still so young.

TH: He’s still so young, and with Hard Eight—that was years ago, he was super young, and that’s so ballsy. Young people do experiment with stuff, but there’s also the temptation to go with a formula and make sure that people get it, and make sure it fits into a mold. He really took risks and said, “I’m going to try this.” He trusted that we all got it and we did.


AVC: Do you have that kind of role in you? Something like Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind or Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love?

TH: I love that stuff. I did this film with Josh Radnor called Happythankyoumoreplease. That’s not typically what I do. That was really fun because—this sounds weird—but to have a normal conversation on-screen and not be paralyzed with anxiety, which is typically what Gary and Buster do—was a change. Robin Williams did all the wacky stuff, but a lot of people who do comedy—it comes from places that you’ve had to laugh off in your life. You begin to learn the skill at a younger age of looking on the brighter side or finding the joke out of it or spinning it. When you’re given the opportunity to do something that’s a little—for lack of a better word—dramatic or authentic, you’ve got a lot to pull from.


The Goonies

TH: I just watched it again with my daughter. She’s almost 9, and the reason I picked Goonies is for me and my experience growing up, it was like a kid version of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. When you look at Raiders as a kid, it’s such a fun escape but you know it’s not going to happen. You’d have to get older and become a detective or a scientist. Goonies was right in my wheelhouse. It was like, “Wait, there could be a possibility that I’d find a map behind a picture frame and it would look exactly like a treasure map.” He hit everything, from finding the ship that everybody dreams about. What he did that’s so smart is—everybody wants to find a pirate ship. For a kid, it’s like, “Wait, it could be behind that mountain. It could be in that cave that comes from a slide of water.” It took you to that place of, maybe it’s in that cave or below this house that nobody knows about. It hit every one of those fantasies. Even down to what he did when the bully douchebags that were mean to Josh Brolin’s character when he was on his bike—they show up when they’re under the wishing well and they pull up the sweater. They hit on that moment of them owning it. We’re not going to go back to that. The bullies are defeated and he hit every one of those victory childhood dreams. Getting a map, finding a pirate ship, pissing off the bullies—everything.


AVC: Mikey has that great monologue, “It’s their time up there. Down here it’s our time.”

TH: Exactly. Every kid takes piano. I took piano, and every kid wonders, “Could I understand those notes? Could I push those skeletal bones if my life was dependent on it?” Then it was like, “Maybe I should practice piano more in case I come across a bone piano.” Every kid did that. It was idyllic for a kid.


AVC: You were a big explorer as a kid?

TH: I was a big explorer, and one of my favorite scenes was when Chunk is in the freezer with the dead guy. Watching it again—it was so funny because he’s screaming but he can’t be heard because he has this raspy voice. The body’s falling on top of him and he’s just wheezing. That’s such a funny moment.


AVC: Then when they’re interrogating Chunk.

TH: He just keeps talking. “And then I did this and then I did this.” That one guy next to him is like, “Oh man, that’s tough.” This is one of the big reasons why I loved it. I was an asthmatic as a kid. I still have asthma but I had it really bad as a kid. The fact that the lead character carried around his inhaler, I was just like, “Oh my God!” It was my flick. I carried around like five inhalers. I was like, “Yes.” Mikey is my hero.


Waiting For Guffman

TH: 1996 was right when I moved to New York. Even though I loved movies as a kid, I was really involved in community theater. I was in this group called Young Actors Theater and we’d always do these musicals, and all the drama and all the personalities that came with it. So when I moved to New York in 1995, my very first job was The Taming Of The Shrew, and it was Shakespeare in the parking lot. We did it in a parking lot in the East Village. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I had so many jobs just to make ends meet. I was doing little off-off-off Broadway things because I wanted to act. When [Waiting For Guffman] came out, it was that kind of thing where it was very much like Veep, where that was a farce of D.C. and this was a farce of community theater, but it was like somebody said, “This is your world.” I was never into Spinal Tap. For some reason it just never really crossed my path. I’ve seen it since but when it came out I never came across it, so Waiting For Guffman was the first mockumentary experience that I had. You’re seeing this camera follow them around but they’re in character having a talking head about their experience. It feels behind-the-scenes but it’s not. It was obviously shot documentary style, which I had not seen much of, so it just played on all these things that were so fresh at the time. Now it’s so overused, but I can say that it was the first time that I had really laughed out loud at a movie, looking at it and going, “Yes, yes, that is it!”


AVC: It’s one of those movies that’s so rewarding upon repeat viewings.

TH: Corky’s thing of his little figurines, and Michael Hitchcock’s mad love for him. “Corky!” He’s just like, “This man is an amazing artist.”


AVC: “God I wish I could have been in the play!”

TH: [Laughs.] “I compare him to Barbra Streisand.” You’re looking at it going, “What is this guy thinking?” But he’s so committed. Because they had been working together, Catherine O’Hara and Parker Posey, they all had such chemistry. I remember when Best In Show came out, and I was through the moon. It was years later, and I was so excited. I had such love for Waiting For Guffman.


Lars And The Real Girl

AVC: This is kind of a nice bookend to everything, Lars And The Real Girl. Another unique love story.


TH: I am crazy about this movie. I picked Lars And The Real Girl because when you heard the tagline of a guy falling in love with a blow-up doll, you immediately go, “Well, that sounds kind of perverted and crazy.” But the way that Craig Gillespie did it—he actually directed me in a Citibank commercial back in New York years ago. He’s from Australia and he was the nicest, coolest guy. When I heard the tagline I thought, “That’s an interesting thing,” and I thought it might be this broad, ridiculous comedy. I’ve talked about this movie more and more because it is such a powerful message of “we do not survive in isolation.” We are meant to be in a community, and we are meant to be in a relationship. It was the most beautiful way to depict that. Here was a guy who was literally so lonely, so detached, and so isolated in the beginning that even though he made the choice to be isolated, his body was like, “No, no, no. I need connection.” That’s how strong it is that we need connection. People will go to addictions because they want to connect with something. You have to connect with something whether it’s false or not.

He gets a blow-up doll because he’s so desperate for connection. The town originally thinks it’s crazy, but it’s such a powerful picture of compassion when that town says, “Hey, we’re going to develop a relationship with this doll too and begin to love it.” You begin to see it as a real person. Then the reality of the situation comes to the surface and he begins to feel the love of the community, and what real love is. He begins to put together the death of the doll, and most people would be like, “Yeah dude, put the doll down. That’s ridiculous.” That community grieved with him. They had such compassion that they decided that was something they were going to walk through with him. There’s a scene when he’s beginning to put death to the doll and the town is gathered in the living room and all the women are knitting. It’s another picture of when someone is mourning and in the mourning process, and they’re not giving him answers or telling him it’s going to be okay. All they’re doing is just being with him. They’re just sitting with him and being in his presence. It’s showing that you’re not supposed to do life alone. Whatever life is, whether it’s mourning or happiness, you do it with others. We don’t have to say anything. We’re just going to be with you. I’ve never seen that message relayed more than in this movie.


AVC: How did you bring Archibald’s Next Big Thing to life?

TH: It came from a lesson I’ve learned from being in the business. When I booked Arrested Development in 2003, which was my dream job—I always wanted to be on a sitcom like that. It was very similar to that Waiting For Guffman tone. I was so excited to get the job, but when I got the job I still found myself looking for the next thing. I still found myself going, “What’s next?” I found myself losing sight of where I was. It was compulsive, and I think we all do it, but in the business it’s just a common thing of, “What are you working on? What’s your next project?” I was losing sight of where I was, and it really woke me up to realize I had to start focusing on where I am. My friend always says you have to wake yourself up a hundred times a day to where you are. So this chicken named Archibald gets a card in the mail that says your next big thing is here and he’s like, “Where?” Then he goes on all these crazy adventures and every time he’s on a great adventure he’s like, “I’ve got to get to my next big thing.” In the end he realizes that the card is right, that your big thing is here, and this little bee travels around with him and says, “Hey man, you got to just be.” It’s just something that I want my daughter to know about—and I’m not saying ambition or dreaming is wrong, but I think it’s a real fine balance of saying “yes,” but not forgetting about what’s around us. This is all we’ve got right here.


AVC: That’s the great thing about smart kids books or movies: The creator shines through.

TH: I’m not good at it. [Laughs.] This is not something that I’m great at. It’s a great reminder that I need to wake myself up to this. I have to be here rather than somewhere else.


AVC: Congrats on your second Emmy nomination.

TH: Yeah, isn’t that nuts?

AVC: With Arrested Development and Veep, you’ve been given the opportunity to inhabit two singular, very strange men. How did you approach Gary Walsh? Was he always written as a pretty odd guy?


TH: Yeah, he was. Well, I don’t know about odd, because I think I probably brought the odd. I think he definitely does not have an identity outside of Selina Meyer. He’s probably a guy that his whole life had a very dominating mother or parents, and just never really found himself. When he had the opportunity to work with important, strong people, he connected to them and they became his identity. He’s been with her for 15 to 20 years, and just worships the ground she walks on. She verbally abuses him like no one’s business. He should not be in that job. He has an amazingly dysfunctional bounce-back quality. He just puts these magical earmuffs on and is like, “Nope, didn’t hear it,” and just keeps on walking. Most people that do his job are in their 20s and move on to other stuff. He’s in his 40s and sticking around. He doesn’t want to go anywhere else. Even with all that dysfunction, in the midst of Washington where people are positioning, posturing, and typically backstabbing, he’s very glass half-full. When a new person comes in the office, he’s like, “Hey, what’s your name? Let me help you out.” He really tries to see positively and just ignores the massive occupational abuse that’s happening to him.

AVC: Most actors spend a lifetime searching for that one special show, and you’ve found two. Not to always be searching for your next big thing, but where do you want to go from here?


TH: I think there is that balance. I will say I don’t know why I’ve been given the gift to be on two great shows. Many times you do jobs that you’re not crazy about, but it’s a job. Many years later—and to this day—I’m still so thankful, because for so long it was, “Please, give me a job!” So to have two jobs that I believe in is like, “Oh my gosh, what a gift.” I’m so thankful for that. In terms of what’s next, I think I still come from the standing of that I’m so grateful to be working. If I can continue working and doing something that I love and believe in—that sounds like a really cheesy answer—but this book thing was really fun because it was very different. It was something I hadn’t done before, so I’m kind of interested to see where that goes. I’ve never really been—to be completely honest—a five-year-goal kind of person. My personality has never really worked well with that. I do find myself, out of anxiety, looking to what’s next. I have to keep the gigs going, but not in the sense that I want to be so-and-so in the next five years. Because of this book, I’ve been so into trying to be present with it. I think the answer to the question, for me, is that it is so easy with my anxiety to go, “Where am I going to be? What’s going to happen?” What’s more challenging for me is to say, “This is where I am.” I’m here right now, and I have no idea what the crap is going to happen in years to come. I’d like to continue working, but right now is where I’m going to be.

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