By Colin Stutz; photos by Liesa Cole on April 9, 2014
That first year of Arrested Development was a rough one for Tony Hale. Today, the actor who hilariously filled man-child Byron “Buster” Bluth’s mother-loving Buster Brown shoes in a generation’s favorite sitcom says that big break initially greeted him as a let down. Beyond his disappointment, he was so overwhelmed he hardly remembers the year at all.
“It couldn’t match all the weight that I’d put on it,” says Hale, who recently won an Emmy for his role in the second season of HBO’s political satire Veep. “And then when it came, the whole time I felt like I should be feeling something different.”
Hale’s in a comfortable place career-wise now, with a steady gig as the vice president’s lapdog of a bagman, Gary Walsh, opposite Julia Louis-Dreyfus; voiceover work on the Nickelodeon cartoon Sanjay and Craig as the cranky neighbor Mr. Noodman; and reading independent film scripts with good potential and goodwill across the board. He’s trying his hardest to be more present in the moment, because he’s missing memories like that inaugural Buster year for many things passed. Sitting outside a coffee shop in the Silver Lake neighborhood not far from where he lives, he sips water from a clear plastic cup between sentences. He’s dressed in a black sweater and black Adidas beanie with sunglasses and a five o’clock shadow—casual and anonymous, far from the typical dress of his most popular characters, neither White House suit nor Brooks Brothers prep.
Hale is a creature of habit. He loves taking his daughter to school and picking her up, going to Trader Joe’s, getting coffee, having friends over and editing home movies at the library that he’ll later give out as Christmas presents. He is quick to point out the irony that his business is full of surprises and scheduling complexities that disrupt such comforts with location shoots; he has spent four months of the past two years in Baltimore filming Veep. This year, that job is taking him around the world, as Louis-Dreyfus’s Vice President Selina Meyer heads out on the campaign trail for the show’s third season. They just shot an episode in London: “She’s really getting her name on the ticket out there,” says Hale.
It took eight years of struggling in New York for Hale to land his first recurring role, on Arrested Development. He had moved to the city with only a master’s degree in acting from Regent University in Virginia, and had no friends or business contacts. It was a ballsy move for as nervous a kid as he’d been, but after returning to his parents’ home with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he was waiting tables and directionless. He figured he might as well try pursuing a career doing something he had loved in his youth. In all, it was a very un-Buster scenario.
“I was really scared,” says Hale. “I look back at the time and I don’t know what made that decision. I looked to God or something that just kind of motivated me to go there.” He could always do something else or move home, he told himself, “but I’m just gonna try this.”
In his first seven months as a New Yorker, he moved six times between couches and sublet apartments. He worked “every odd job in the city” and slowly carved out a living in commercials, best remembered for dancing to Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” in a 1999 Volkswagen ad. Still, his progress was slow, as it took six years to get a TV and film agent, pigeonholed as a commercial actor.
“My whole time in New York, every pilot season, I was like, ‘I’m gonna get that sitcom, it’s coming,’” says Hale. “And that took me away from the present. I was never practicing contentment. And if you’re not practicing contentment where you are, you’re not going to be content when you get what you want. It’s a flat fact.
“I think that eight-year process in New York was a refining experience,” he continues. “I had stars in my eyes. I wanted to be famous. I wanted to go back to high school and tell those bullies, ‘Look what you made fun of’—those kind of false motivations.”
The sense of disappointment he found when he landed his role on Arrested—what was supposed to be a lifetime’s peak—is something Hale still considers often, more than a decade later. It is a relatable feeling: When you achieve a hard-reached point of success, only to find “it doesn’t have the same glow as it did when you were starting out,” as Hale puts it, it can be deflating and confusing. But rather than leaving it simply as one of life’s truisms, Hale has found a lesson of virtue. Now, when he volunteers his time speaking to acting classes, this story is a keystone of his lectures. It’s the crux of his success. And not the star roles, recognized fandom or major awards that have come with it, but his own sense of achievement from doing something he loves and knowing why he does it.
By all means, Arrested Development launched Hale’s career in its initial three short seasons. And in spite of its original network, Fox, canceling the show due to poor ratings, Arrested developed a devoted critical audience and changed the landscape for TV comedies forever. Many stars were born in the process, but perhaps none more pleasantly surprising than Hale, whose portrayal of Buster Bluth was a breathing definition of stunted, hapless growth. Even so, once the show was over, Hale was back to working job-to-job, no roles of which were as constant or impressive as what he’d shown before. There were six episodes of the short-lived Andy Barker, P.I. alongside Andy Richter; a few movies; guest roles on Chuck, Community, ER, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
“Here I was with a house and a new baby,” says Hale, “and I was like, ‘OK, LA’s not cheap, we got to make this work.’ So I did Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector. You just kind of find work as you can.
“But then that’s what I’ve been doing for almost 20 years,” he continues. “It’s gig-to-gig. And even with Arrested it was kind of gig-to-gig because we never knew if we were coming back each season. They would shorten the seasons and we got very much used to [the mentality of] ‘I don’t know if we’re going to be cancelled.’ And then we’d get a second season and it’d be like, ‘Great, let’s keep doing this.’”
Watching Veep’s Gary Walsh character, one can’t help but sense it was written specifically for Hale. He’d been waiting on a pilot with ABC when he heard about the show and says he loved “the reality of [Veep’s] political situation.” Like Buster, Gary is helplessly endearing in his naiveté, misplaced trust and positivity, so feeble and foolishly dedicated to an older woman who holds little to no regard for him. For Buster, that woman is his drunken mother, Lucille, who keeps him close for tasks of relative nonsense. For Gary, that woman is Vice President Meyer, who he shadows with an oversized bag of tricks he calls “Leviathan,” magically serving her every need—from lipstick to a metal stool to boost her height at a podium—all while delivering helpful tidbits of information at shallow political meet-and-greets. Hale’s two characters are pathetic, codependent kin in his repertoire—vulnerable, weak and often foolishly optimistic.
Yet despite their similarities, Buster and Gary are very different characters. For starters, Gary can actually function in society. He left his parents’ home and holds a job with great responsibility. “Even though he’s nervous, he steps up to the plate,” says Hale. “If something’s happening with Selina, Gary will fight for his woman. Buster will not fight for Lucille. He’ll cower. He’ll fight himself; he’ll constantly be destroying himself. But Gary will step up.”
The key to Hale’s method is simple: he approaches his characters with compassion. Rather than make clowns of them, he’ll let the writers do that on their own. His job, he says, “is to live their reality.”
With Buster, his reality was a fantasy. “He just lived somewhere else,” says Hale. “But it was reading what Mitch [Hurwitz, the show’s creator] had developed and then trying to find the truth in that. Buster was the sweetest man but terrified, and you have to have compassion for him. Rather than coming at it with a judgment from the outside looking in, if you really look inside you’re able to see the truth in his world, which is a very sad, terrified reality. I bet if we searched the world we could probably find a good 20 to 50 people who are exactly like Buster Bluth.” He pauses, smiling. “But I’ve got to give other people the same grace I give myself.”
Hale relates this mentality to a story of his interaction with an acting coach early in his career. He’d gone to her with complaints of a character he’d been assigned to play that was driving him crazy. He’d known jerks like this in his life and couldn’t stand them, and so he couldn’t stand to play them either. His coach listened and told him, simply, “Tony, you’ve got to realize that’s inside of you as well.”
“And she’s right. I’ve been very manipulative in my day, I’ve been a douchebag many times, I’ve not followed through with my words thousands of times. Then you look at life and you say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m you, and I’m you, and I’m you,” he says, pointing out several nonexistent bodies, “and then you’re able to give people a lot more of that same grace you give yourself.”
No matter the character he plays, Hale says fans will always find similarities to Buster Bluth. He accepts this. It will probably always be like this for him and his Arrested co-stars. You don’t just walk away from one of television’s greatest comedies unrecognized. He put a lot of himself in Buster, he says. He’s a vulnerable and sensitive guy, too. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be a psycho killer or douchebag boss as well. Rather than shake that link, Hale says, “I’ve got to try my best and embrace that, because that’s probably a part of me.”
He shrugs, with a bit of resignation, and says, “I’m thankful for the gig, man. I’ll never stop being thankful for the gigs." F
This article is from FILTER Issue 55